Material Shortages in Schools Hinder the Development of Values / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

Delivered school supplies to children in primary education. (Luz Escobar)
Delivered school supplies to children in primary education. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 1 September 2015 – Early Tuesday morning the bell rang for the first morning of the school year in more than 10,300 schools throughout the country. All eyes are now focused on the availability of teachers at the front of the classroom, the material conditions of the schools, and the epidemiological questions in those provinces affected by dengue fever and cholera. However, the most titanic task that faces the Ministry of Education is to meet the commitment to develop values in children and young people.

Ena Elsa Velázquez Cobiella, head of the branch, has made frequent calls in recent weeks for vocational training of students, working with families, and the transmission of ethical and moral values ​​within the school. The greatest difficulty on the path to this achievement is the limited training of many teachers and the lack of incentive provided by teachers’ salaries, say parents and teachers. continue reading

“My daughter has a Spanish and literature teacher who has never read Don Quixote,” says an astonished mother of a teenage daughter in the 9th grade at a basic secondary school in Old Havana. The family has tried to alleviate the poor training of the teacher by paying for hours of study with a tutor. “He worked in a high school and gave excellent classes, but can’t stand being in education any more,” the lady says about this particular teacher.

“In these times with the internet and technology we should have more support from these novelties in our classes,” says Mario

To cover the shortage of teachers in the capital, they have mobilized more than 3,000 teachers from other provinces. The measure doesn’t please many, nor does it resolve the situation. “It seems incredible that they have to bring people from other places, with what that costs, instead of raising the salaries of those here,” complains Roberto, a retired teacher who spent a good part of his working life in an elementary school in Central Havana.

The salary of a secondary school teacher does not exceed 600 Cuban pesos a month, less than 30 dollars. The union demands a salary increase, especially after the increase in salaries in the in Ministry of Public Health, but their demands are whispered and not published in the official press.

“The doctors care for the bodies of people, we feed their souls, so they should also increase our salaries,” explains Mario, a history teacher at Santa Clara High School, who has more than once cherished the idea of leaving the classroom. “I would leave my house to sell lollipops, which would certainly earn me more and I would have more peace of mind.”

The material situation of the schools of education also discourages professionals in the sector. “In these times with the internet and technology we should have more support from these novelties in our classes,” says Mario. “Can you imagine how I could teach my students about the scenes of historic battles through Google Earth,” he adds.

In schools across the whole the country, there is a total of 61,908 computers. There is no need to do complicated calculations to know that this means six computers for each campus throughout the Island. However, 64% of these are more than 12 years old, and so barely function with the most modern programs. And in most cases they only have access to a local intranet.

Many teaching assistants or recent graduates fill in for the absence of professionals with more teaching experience

Teachers also complain about the accumulation of extra-curricular tasks that have been added to their teaching activities. “Many meetings, too many lists and tables to prepare and reports to write. We have almost no time to prepare for classes,” says a teacher at José Miguel Pérez High School in the Plaza municipality.

The picture is not very different in higher education. This September 1st the university classrooms hosted more than 170,000 students throughout the country, 33,000 of them new entrants. Many teaching assistants or recent graduates fill in for the absence of professionals with more teaching experience.

Despite an investment of around 20 million pesos for university campus repairs, the situation of the furniture and the infrastructure still presents many shortcomings. In the worst situations there are student dorms with serious problems with the plumbing, windows and woodwork.

“Developing values is very difficult, because we have other emergencies,” concludes a teaching assistant at José Luis Arruñada elementary school. Behind her, a line of children in recently-ironed uniforms looks forward to entering the classroom. September has returned.

Fines Do Not Deter, They Accumulate / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

A policeman checks a street vendor’s papers and merchandise (Reinaldo Escobar / 14ymedio)
A policeman checks a street vendor’s papers and merchandise (Reinaldo Escobar / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 29 August 2015 – Outside the market at 17th and K in Havana informal vendors gather despite the police raids. Niurka is one of them and her “offering” is reduced to selling plastic bags which she offers at one Cuban peso (about 4¢ US) each. “The last time they charged me, they gave me a one thousand peso fine,” says the women about her most recent encounter. However, she says she wouldn’t think of paying it and will continue to offer her wares.

“People come here when they are planning to travel or to do some paperwork and they don’t want to have an unpaid fine,” says an employee of the Fine Payment Office of the Plaza of the Revolution municipality. In line for the payment counter, a young man named Diego carried in his hand a paper that shows the amounts for each offense. “I was sitting on a wall and a cop fined me for damage to a public ornament,” he says angrily. continue reading

“I was sitting on a wall and a cop fined me for damage to a public ornament,” he says angrily

When asked if from now on he would avoid sitting there, Diego made a defiant noise with his mouth that is popularly known as “frying an egg.” Several people in the line laughed with complicity. Those who have come there are only a part of those fined, the rest will wait until the last moment to pay their debt, or never pay it at all.

The amount of fines accumulated in the capital are not the only in the country that are high. According to the local press in Ciego de Avila, the debts to the public purse, as of the end of July, consisted of 21,600 fines totalling more than 4,473,000 pesos, still unpaid in this province. Some 90% of them are “in arrears,” that is doubled 30 days after their imposition.

The lack of collection managers to go to the homes of those in default is one of the reasons that slows down the whole process. “Before, many came and paid so that their neighbors wouldn’t see that they had been fined,” explains an employee Department of Penalties of the Provincial Department of Finance and Prices in Havana, who asked for anonymity.

The opinion of those fined is very different from the official version. Eduardo, a traveling sweets seller who works primarily in the Cerro municipality, near the corner of Infanta and Manglar, believes that “sometimes they issue fines just because they feel like it.” The self-employed man says, “They’ve penalized me for standing in one place for a few minutes while selling my products.”

Many collection managers have a system of paying for results. This means that the more fines they issue they more they earn.

Many collection managers have a system of paying for results. This means that the more fines they issue they more they earn. “At the end of the month you see them acting like crazy people trying to collect all the accumulated fines,” explains Samuel, a collective taxi driver who plies the route from Fraternity Park to Santiago de las Vegas.

The payment system is plagued with bureaucratic deficiencies and excesses, as 14ymedio was able to confirm. If a cop or an inspector imposes a fine in Havana on a citizen whose identity card shows their residence in another province, the violation will be settled in the municipality of origin. It will be a headache for this office to locate the offender and make them pay.

“I must have a fortune in fines in Sagua de Tanamo, so it’s been years since I visited my family,” confesses the illegal driver of an almendrón (a shared, fixed-route taxi). However, none of the respondents for this article have had their wages seized as a consequence of not paying their debt to the public purse, nor has any been brought before a court or held in detention.

Fines grow. They are doubled and some reach unpayable figures, but it doesn’t seem to deter many from committing an offense. “The problem is that here everything is forbidden, so people have lost respect for the law,” blurts out Niurka. And she adds defiantly, “This week I will hide myself better, so that inspectors can not see me.”

Isla De La Juventud Experiments With “Free” Sale Of Farm Supplies And Equipment / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

Among the goods that fall into and illegal market include parts for agricultural machinery
Among the goods that fall into the illegal market are parts for agricultural machinery

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 5 August 2015 – For an entire year the Ministry of the Agriculture has conducted an experiment on the Isla de la Juventud (Island of Youth) with the “free” sale of inputs, specialized services, and agricultural equipment. During this time, the authorities of the sector have measured and evaluated the pros and cons of a commercial policy based on supply and demand.

The principal beneficiaries of the program have been the more than 700 farmers in the territory who received land under the government’s usufruct leasing policy. Access to tools such as machetes and sharpening files has allowed them to keep down the bad weeds and the invasive marabou in the arable lands of the special municipality. However, a deficient and unstable distribution of certain products encourages the illegal sale of these products, to which the authorities have responded with new regulatory mechanisms.

There is an increase in the levels of production and encouraging results in products such as pork, beef, eggs, milk and grains continue reading

Ramon Mirabel, director of the Agricultural Logistics Company, told the official press that one year after implementation, “More than 54 millions pesos have come into state coffers as of the end of July,” and that the products in greatest demand are “animal feed and accessories like machetes, files, boots, packs, medicines and pesticides.”

Along with the profits obtained through sales and services rendered, there is an increase in the levels of production as well as encouraging results in products such as pork, beef, eggs, milk and grains, the latter of which is enough to satisfy the territorial demand.

The farmers in the area complain that the experiment doesn’t include the sale of irrigation systems, that there is a lack of veterinary medications, and that there is no reliable variety in feeds specific to the animal, and as a consequence chickens are given feed intended for pigs.

The experiment will have a second stage when the conclusions emerge, and its application for the rest of the country will be analyzed, gradually

Among the goods that “have fallen” into the illegal market networks are packs, PVC boots, files, and parts and pieces for farming equipment. Pig feed merits special mention, because its distribution was planned without considering that the Isla de la Juventud has many alternative pig breeders who, having no market where they can acquire food for their pigs, are making irresistible offers to those who were authorized to buy what they want under the experiment. One of the solutions applied was the elimination of the “alternative” pigsties.

The experiment will have a second stage when the conclusions emerge, and its application for the rest of the country will be analyzed, gradually. At the moment there is a study underway to determine the specific volumes of demand for each product on the Isla de la Juventud, which will allow a more precise plan to be developed, both with regards to the inputs required as well as the specialized technical services needed. The analysis will probably include a census of farm animals to determine the quantity and variety of feed needed in the territory.

Without Its Market Cuatro Caminos Seems Lost / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

Despite the “La Plaza”’s structural decline, its bustle and commotion where constants until it was closed in February 2014.
Despite the “La Plaza”’s structural decline, its bustle and commotion where constants until it was closed in February 2014.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 30 July 2015 — Every city has its nerve centers, and one of Havana’s is where Monte, Cristina, Arroyo, and Matadero Streets intersect, and where the “Mercado Único” (“The Only Market”), also known as “Cuatro Caminos” (“Four Roads”), is located. This nearly one hundred year-old colossus has been closed since February 2014, in the hope that a renovation project could help it regain some of its former splendor. Nevertheless, the slow pace threatens to weaken the economy of the surrounding community even more than it already is.

If the question was where to find sapodilla, eggfruit, or delicious soursop, the answer was – until a little more then a year and a half ago – “go to ‘La Plaza,’” or “The Square.” Every inhabitant of Havana knew that “going to ‘La Plaza’” meant going to the former “Mercado General de Abasto y Consumo” (“The General Dry Goods and Provisions Market”), opened to the pubic in 1920 by its original owner, businessman and politician Alfredo Hornedo Suárez. continue reading

Havana’s City Hall played favorites with Mr. Hornedo Suárez’s market by forbidding any similar establishment within a 1.5-mile radius, hence “Mercado Único,” or “The Only Market”. This advantage allowed Cuatro Caminos to reign supreme for almost half a century until 1959 when it was turned into a warehouse. During the Revolutionary Offensive of 1968, the top floor was closed, allegedly because it was too run-down.

In the middle of the 1980’s, during the “rectification of errors and negative tendencies” campaign, Cuatro Caminos ­– with a horn of plenty affixed to its façade – became a battlefield between peasants who did not work for the state and the government. Now the market displays the scars of the economic ups and downs the country has endured in the last fifty years, as well as the authorities’ hostility toward independent distributors and merchants.

Nonetheless, the importance of this yellow and red behemoth not only rested on the assortment of fruits and vegetables available there, which were far better than at any other Havana market. Cuatro Caminos was the epicenter for the sale of herbs, live animals, and other essential items for Santería rituals. From several living rooms in homes in the immediate area some people still try selling husks, necklaces, clothing for statues of the saints, flowers, candles, basil, hens, and pigeons. But it is just not the same.

On July 28th, 72-year-old Israel was looking for the clay pots he still needed for his niece’s Santería initiation ceremony the following weekend. “The list of what I want is very long. You used go to Cuatro Caminos and find everything you needed,” he explained. For the moment, customers have to visit several of Havana’s shopping areas to find all the articles required for Santería rituals. One of these locales is the market on Egido Street, but which is too small to accommodate all of Cuatro Caminos’ merchants.

Water from recent rainstorms seeps in through ceiling cracks at Cuatro Caminos.
Water from recent rainstorms seeps in through ceiling cracks at Cuatro Caminos.

Just by crossing Cuatro Camino’s entrance it is quite evident that the restoration work is not going anywhere. On July 27th, a couple of men were straightening a few steel rods, while pedestrians who passed by tried sidestepping the dirty water, dust, and urine that collects behind the columns. No one has an expected date or timetable for the renovation’s completion.

The upper floor has been closed for decades now. Sunlight pierces the holes in the roof, and is then filtered through skylights, some of which are missing glass. The only thing left of the basement is a crater-like hole where a few stray dogs have found refuge. All of the Cuatro Caminos’ 108,000 square feet seem to be screaming out for the restoration to be completed as quickly as possible, but the authorities are taking their time.

Now water from the rainstorms of the past few weeks has collected inside the market, having flowed downward to this low-lying area where Central Havana, Old Havana and Cerro Districts converge. Add to this cracked columns, a roof that is barely holding up, and a stench coming from stalls­ – where vendors once hawked tamarinds and oranges ­– that is akin to being punched in the face. The decline of this emblematic marketplace has also dragged down many adjacent businesses with it.

“The community depends on this market working right,” explained an elderly man selling disposables razors and small pictures of saints at one of the markets’ exterior walls. Fortunetellers, plumbers, pedicab drivers, sellers of peanuts in paper cones, people who offer to watch one’s car for a fee – who now are so bored they just fall asleep – and even prostitutes who offer their services to Cubans, are all counting the days until the reopening of “La Plaza,” their “Plaza.”

“I guess what we need is a decision from the top,” said Gretel, a thirty-something who used to rent out rooms in her house to truckers from other provinces who supplied merchandise to the Cuatro Caminos. “My business has collapsed,” she added. Area residents now rarely walk down those same streets that used to teem with handcarts, people carrying bags, and lots of yelling. Under the shade of the La Plaza de Cuatro Caminos a man hawked copies of the Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma, but there are no takers. Sitting against the wall, bored and weary, he fanned himself with a copy. The headline read: “The People’s Victory!”

Translated by José Badu´

Holguin Hospitals Throw Away Biological Wastes in the Cemetery / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma and Fernando Donate

Broken tombstones in the Mayabe cemetery, Holguin. (14ymedio)
Broken tombstones in the Mayabe cemetery, Holguin. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma and Fernando Donate, Holguin, 11 July 2015 – Broken tombstones, open graves, dilapidated tombs, and, here and there, scavengers that devour shallowly buried remains. This is no scene from a horror movie but images from a video that exposes the serious situation in the Mayabe Cemetery in Holguin.

Released by the Patriotic Union of Cuba (UNPACU) in 2014, the film was produced by journalists Nairovis Zaldivar, Yainiel Diamela Escofet and Rosaida Check, and has been distributed through the illegal “weekly packet” that circulates widely in the province without any official media picking up the story.

Almost a year later, the problem has not been solved; it was caused because the Vladimir Ilich Lenin University General Hospital, the Lucia Iniguez Landin Surgical Teaching Clinic and the Provincial Military Hospital bury their wastes in the place, since their crematoriums are not functioning. Criticism of the mismanagement of biological wastes has been heard at various levels but local authorities have not taken action in the matter.

In the investigative work the errors committed by the medical institutions depositing the remains from surgeries, abortions, amputations and tests, without proper precautions, are laid bare. For months, those who have visited the grave of a relative in the cemetery have been overwhelmed by carrion birds and other animals that helped themselves to the hospital wastes barely covered by a little dirt. continue reading

Gate to the Mayabe, Holguin, graveyard, one of the biggest on the island. (14ymedio)
Gate to the Mayabe, Holguin, graveyard, one of the biggest on the island. (14ymedio)

Located six kilometers from the city, the Holguin cemetery has some 500,000 square meters and is one of the biggest in the country. Although there are no homes nearby, at midday the bad odor is unbearable, especially in the area at the back of the site where the three medical centers dump their wastes.

On the Cuban Medicine Blog, Doctor Eloy A. Gonzalez calls attention to the fact that “the management of hospital wastes, above all biological materials, is a problem of the highest priority for health systems and the organizations and institutions charged with management and disposal of the same.”

The doctor points out that “you cannot walk around in cemeteries throwing away biological wastes, barely buried where soon stray dogs and carrion birds notice the anatomical parts that come from a hospital. Are there no incinerators in hospitals in Cuba?” he asks. His text circulates through the email of various health professional with accounts on the Infomed service.

Specialists consulted by this daily agree that a first step to solving the problem would be to diminish as much as possible the biological wastes that the hospitals generate. Once reduced, their collection, transport and disposal must be rigorously controlled. Failure to fulfill the measures associated with the treatment of these wastes can present a serious health risk.

With the scandal uncovered by the UNPACU video, now the wastes are buried more deeply, although still without regard to the measures required for their handling. The regular edition of the February 15, 1999, Official Gazette governs the responsibility of “the heads of the entities that are in charge of installations and release areas whose operations generate dangerous biological wastes.”

Here and there are seen exposed remains in the neglected niches of Mayabe. (14ymedio)
Here and there are seen exposed remains in the neglected niches of Mayabe. (14ymedio)

Under Cuban law, wastes that may contain “biological agents, organisms and fragments of agents or organisms with genetic information, that represent a real or potential danger for human health and the environment in general” must be removed in a way that “guarantees the protection of the environment and in particular the population and workers.”

On questioning about the topic at the Vladimir Ilich Lenin University General Hospital, the employees shy away from responding about the conditions in which the wastes from the health center end up at the Holguin graveyard. Only one employee from the laboratory area, who preferred anonymity, submits: “We have problems with resources, for example with the correct bags and containers for placing the samples that we process.”

When they will repair the crematorium is a question that finds no answer in the management of the health center and much less in its administration. Nevertheless, the epidemiological risk from the wastes is not the only cause for worry for those Holguin residents who visit the cemetery. The use of an area laden with funereal connotations as a biological dumping ground bothers many, too.

Lucia Iniguez Landin Surgical Hospital Clinic, one of those denounced for burying biological wastes in the Holguin cemetery. (14ymedio)
Lucia Iniguez Landin Surgical Hospital Clinic, one of those denounced for burying biological wastes in the Holguin cemetery. (14ymedio)

Lucia, 72 years of age, often visits the family mausoleum which is located a few meters from the place where the hospitals bury their wastes. “It is a lack of respect that they do this because this is a sacred place for the dead to rest in peace,” this lady complains, and although she has not seen the journalistic report, she asserts: “I realized that something was going on when I arrived and this was full of miserable buzzards.”

The main complaint, however, lies in the fact that such a sensitive matter that involves ethical and epidemiological issues has still not been dealt with by the province’s official media. “It seems that they are waiting for something grave to happen, for someone to get sick or to protest because of this disrespect, before they put it in the press,” says Lucia.

Translated by Mary Lou Keel

Cuban Customs Detected 29 Drug Cases So Far This Year / 14ymedio

Watching a report broadcast by the main news about the work against drugs at customs.
Watching a report broadcast by the main news about the work against drugs at customs.

14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 25 June 2015 — The General Customs of the Republic (AGR) has detected 29 drug cases since early this year, as published on Thursday in the newspaper Juventud Rebelde (Rebel Youth). In the past six months, according to official media, they have seized about 51 kilos combined of cocaine, marijuana, hashish and synthetic cannabinoids.

The most common practice for introducing substances into the country is hiding them inside flashlights, cars and spare parts, swivel chairs, TV screens, soap, screws, boxes of food, religious objects, shoes and other articles. continue reading

Among the cases detected, in at least 23 of them the narcotics was in supposed gift packages, according to the traffickers. However, Customs clarifies that saying that the article in which the drugs are hidden “belongs to a friend, or someone who paid them to deliver it to their family, does not exonerate the passenger from the responsibility enshrined in Cuban law, which is intransigent before the importing of drugs and psychotropic substances.”

Customs also has detected attempts to take large amounts of Cuban medications out of the country, as well as smuggling of cash and precious metals. Since January, they have uncovered 293 cases of taking out tobacco, raw materials and cigars. Also high are attempts to take protected wildlife species out of the island.

The drugs are often hidden inside flashlights, cars, religious objects. shoes or other items

At a press conference, José Luis Muñoz Toca, Customs Technical Director specified that as of May 31, there were 73 cases involving arms smuggling. In addition, “We also detected media and equipment hidden in suitcases intended to support subversion activities in the country,” the official explained, without giving details of the nature of goods confiscated.

More streamlined customs procedures

Cuban Customs’ most pressing objective is arm itself with international standards before the eventual avalanche of tourism expected from the normalization of relations with the United States.

Without referring directly to this issue, the head of the AGR, Pedro Miguel Perez Betancourt emphasized that among the key priorities is to satisfy all passengers and that the Customs service performed at the border is exercised “Within the frame and law conferred by law for any processing, operation or baggage screening.”

The official said that efficiency in the offices has improved and that, “The time spent in customs procedures at airports has decreased considerably, from 45 minutes in 2011 to 25 minutes in 2015.”

Among the difficulties faced by Customs is corruption, because employees are constantly submitted to the pressures of bribery. Concern about maintaining the integrity of the employees in the airport terminals is most intense in regards to drug trafficking cases.
The officials explained that they are trying to do a better job on three parallel tracks: improving technological capabilities, the professional development of the workers and a greater degree of rigor in the controls on the part of the leadership.

Implementation of clearance by weight to reduce the number of times luggage is opened and implementing a new automated clearance system is still being tested and could reduce the time per passenger.

Muñoz Toca, director of Technical Customs, said they have reduced procedural errors and stressed that, “Most of the complaints and disagreements arise from delays in clearance and inappropriate behavior of employees at that time.”

According to officials, most complaints stems from the delays that arise from delays in clearance and inappropriate behavior of employees

He added that the complaint system has been perfected. “Today international airports have offices for reception and processing of complaints with groups to investigate and clarify the complaints and a subsequent evaluation in the legal commissions,” he explained.

He also addressed the commitment of Customs to, “Simplify and streamline procedures starting with the introduction of new control techniques and information technology which should contribute to supporting the commercial management of the country.”

At the press conference, no reference was made to the repeated complaints of the harassment to which civil society activists and political opposition leaders are subjected to, in a selective way, usually being minutely searched and having equipment and documentation seized on their return to the island.

Vandalism Worsens the Deteriorated Traffic Signs of Cuban Streets / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

A traffic sign on the verge of disappearing. (14ymedio)
A traffic sign on the verge of disappearing. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 28 May 2015 – As a result of vandalism and slackness affecting the deficient signage of roads and streets, drivers traveling through Cuban streets must mix expertise with a guessing game.

The lack of these important roadway elements worsens with vandalism, as stated on Thursday by officials of the National Center of Traffic Engineering speaking to Juventud Rebelde (Rebel youth) newspaper. In the first four months of this year, there were 144 acts of vandalism against road signs, of which 60 occurred in urban areas.

The provinces most affected by predation are Cienfuegos, Villa Clara and Havana, with effects ranging from the most serious – causing accidents – to generating misinformation about the locations of sites or their distance. continue reading

The lack of explanatory signs especially affects those who have no experience on the road, such as tourists who rent a car or drivers who venture into an area for the first time.

Vandalism, however, has many faces, and though none of them is justifiable, some of them point to the material shortage that the population encounters. The absence of a market where iron or steel angles, screws and metal plates can be legally acquired, leads people needing these materials to ignore ethical considerations or civilized coexistence.

The absence of a market where some materials can be legally acquired can lead to predation

There are a lot of animal pens, garages for cars or even walls and informal housing ceilings built with “recovered materials” which were once traffic signs. That is without counting the most serious damage, which with similar purpose, has been wreaked on electrical transmission towers or even on railways.

The problem affecting traffic signs is not a minor issue. The absence of a legal advertising infrastructure with commercial purposes means ads for concerts, notices of housing swaps, car sales and many other private classifieds find their space on a Yield or a No Parking sign. On the other hand, there is an inadequate policy of installation, replacement, and maintenance of these important elements by the State.

Translated by Alberto

The Sugar Harvest Grows But Fails to Meet the Plan / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

A sugar cane field in Cuba. (Flickr / CC)
A sugar cane field in Cuba. (Flickr / CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 29 May 2015 – As has already become a tradition, Cubans will not know how many tons of sugar are ultimately produced at the end of the 2014-2015 harvest. A summary of the report prepared by the Azcuba Sugar Group, published by the newspaper Gramna, limits itself to saying that, although the “plan is 45% below expectations,” production “experienced an 18% growth relative to the prior year’s milling.”

According to the report, sugar production grew for the fifth consecutive year but has not reached its target for a series of reasons. Among them, the delay in making repairs, attributed to the late arrival of certain resources, due in turn to the lack of deliveries on the part of the importing countries. This detail alone had as a consequence that 11 sugar mills didn’t start on time, “or started without testing the machinery in advance, which increased the breakdowns during the milling.” continue reading

A report by Azcuba president Orlando Celso Garcia to the Workers Center of Cuba Plenary at the end of 2014, said that the mistakes of the past would not be made again and announced that 15 million dollars were invested in importing equipment for irrigation. He added that the reception capacity in the collection centers will be increased and more than 3,400 trailers will be added with a capacity of 20 tons each, along with 80 re-engined Kamaz trucks and another 287 trucks without trailers.

Despite these forecasts, the main problem was the low capacity utilization of the mills in the industry, which did not exceed 65%, caused by downtime, plus missing the quantities in the cutting and throwing of cane. On the other hand, performance improved as 100 tons of cane crushed yielded an average of 10.27 tons of sugar, 0.77 more than in the previous harvest. It is to this that the increase in total production is due.

The report mentions the most outstanding provinces and sugar mills and announced that, according to estimates, sugarcane mass will increase between 15% and 20% annually in the coming years. Maybe by the end of 2015, when speaking of the next harvest, we will get to know how many tons were produced in the harvest now ending.

The Cuban population is aging faster than expected / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

Two elderly women talking. (14YMEDIO)
Two elderly women talking. (14YMEDIO)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 28 April 2015 — In a park in Central Havana the Grandparents’ Circle meets every week for physical exercises that help to prolong a healthy life. A few yards away, the line to buy rationed bread is also filled with gray-haired people more than six decades old.

The aging of the population is moving at a more accelerated pace than foreseen by the plans developed to deal with the consequences. This issue will be addressed at the 7th International Longevity Seminar to be held at the Palace of Conventions in Havana from Monday until Thursday.

The Cuban speakers at this event will present their proposals for how the healthcare system can meet the challenges of offering high quality care to adults age 65 and older who represented 18.3% of the population in the 2013 census and could exceed 25% in 2025. The situation is aggravated if we consider that the active working population won’t exceed 60% in the same year, according to studies by the National Bureau of Statistics. continue reading

In an interview with the newspaper Granma, Dr. Alberto Fernández Seco, head of the Department of the Elderly, Social Assistance and Mental Health in the Ministry of Public Health, said it has increased both geriatric services in the country as well as the number of residents in this specialty. “That is a great strength. However, the greatest challenge that we all have, not only in the healthcare sector, is the issue of care.”

In this concept of care aimed at seniors, we need to concentrate material and human resources, and improve infrastructure. Seemingly minor details, like the size of the text in public notices, the streetlighting schedule to allow pedestrians to pass along the main streets, the presence of chairs in the waiting rooms of institutions, in addition to other more visible and urgent aspects such as the poor condition of sidewalks or lack of information on the issues that matter most to older people.

The training of caregivers for the elderly is a true specialty in the modern world. We must learn to communicate with this sector, which at times becomes very sensitive to the codes of respect and understanding evidenced by the younger generations. To the extent that the number of elderly people increases, there will be a greater use of wheelchairs, walkers, special beds and mattresses, as well as the consumption of vitamins, medications and other supplies.

The desire to live 120 years or more, which was proclaimed in Cuba with the intensity with which the political slogans are launched, is a noble goal that is only viable and sustainable if it is based on a solid economic base. Most experts agree that to ensure a better old age Cubans will have to provide incentives for births and increases in the productive population. At the same time, we must provide opportunities for young people so they will not seek a better life abroad.

In the next 35 years Cuba could become one of the most aged nations in the world, which would not be exclusively the consequence of increased life expectancy, but also of the fact that fewer children will be born and more young people will emigrate.

New requirements for language schools prioritize workers / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

Sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at the most popular language school in Havana. (14ymedio)
Sculpture of Abraham Lincoln at the most popular language school in Havana. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 29 April 2015 – The high demand for foreign language instruction in Cuba in recent years has forced the Ministry of Education to augment the requirements for access to language schools. Resolution Number 75 of 2015, recently published in the Official Gazette, regulates entry to these schools to people over 17, prioritizes workers, and limits students to studying one language at a time.

The regulation establishes that students who want access to this variety of adult education must have completed at least the ninth grade in high school. Only through special exceptions will the schools admit “housewives, retirees, other students in senior high schools or universities, or those not working for the social-economic interests of the locality and for the creation of an emerging workforce, requiring language school training.” continue reading

To the new restrictions is added, however, the flexibility to open language classrooms in workplaces. With previous authorization, there may also be specialized training courses for people who will be serving on missions of cooperation in foreign countries.

An official from the Ministry of Education who preferred to remain anonymous said that among the motives for making the entry requirements stricter is that a large percentage of the students “end up emigrating and taking with them the knowledge that has been given to them at a very low cost or, in most cases, for free.” He explained, “We need to bring language learning to people who are going to use it in the local economy.”

None of these measures directly affect private sector instruction in foreign languages, although they could benefit from a greater influx of students who no longer meet the requirements to enroll in state schools.

And where did that glass of milk go? / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

14ymedio bigger 14ymedio, Orlando Palmo, Havana, 25 March 2015 — The newspaper Granma published Wednesday a comprehensive report on milk production in the province of Camagüey. This scenario is grim and confirms the downward trend in terms of delivery of this precious food. Since 2012, Camagüey’s milk production and sales to the industry have declined, both in the cooperative and private sectors.

Although in the last five paragraphs it outlined with moderate optimism the possibilities of the sector recovery program, a reading of the article, signed by journalist Miguel Febles, reveals a problem that extends across many sectors of the economy, which can be summed up in the affirmation that the bureaucracy continues to be the heaviest weight dragging down food production in Cuba.

In short, the problem is that farmers must deliver the milk they produce to a pre-determined collection center. There samples are taken to assess the quality of each delivery, which is tied to the price of the product. However, instead of paying everyone according to the quality of food they bring to the center, the quality is averaged across all deliveries and the price paid to the farmer is derived from that average. The result is to demotivate improvements in quality.

Milk production in Cuba only covers 50% of domestic demand, so the country needs to import half of the milk consumed 

One of those interviewed, Alexis Gil Perez, director general of the Provincial Dairy Company, explains that the contracts are not with individual farmers but with “the productive base.” Gil Perez argues that this does not violate any procedure. “If there are opinions or dissatisfactions, we would have to revise the documents that govern the activity, and this decision can only be taken at the national level,” he adds. “Meanwhile, we must comply with the established provisions. It is not within my powers to vary the range of what we pay for milk.”

In a ceremony held in Camagüey on 26 July 2007 (commemorating the rebel attack on the Moncada Baracks), General Raul Castro said that every Cuban would be able to drink a glass of milk. Nearly eight years after that desire failed, the immediate proposal is not even to improve the distribution of what is collected, but to stop the decline in milk production observed in that province since 2012.

Milk production in Cuba only covers 50% of domestic demand, so the country needs to import half of the milk consumed. Its distribution is controlled by the government and private companies are forbidden from trading in milk products, even in the farmer’s markets.


The Annual Potato Ritual / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

A line to buy potatoes in Havana. (Luz Escobar / 14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger

14ymedio, ORLANDO PALMA, Havana, 9 March 2015 — Last weekend, the arrival of the potato in several farmers markets in Havana provoked fights that recalled the despair of the most difficult years of the Special Period. Hours after the squabbles ended, it was possible to buy potatoes in the same places, but from the hands of those clever enough to speculate in the product.

The Ministry of Agriculture authorities insist that the current crop of the tuber is notably larger than last year’s, however the lines and fights to buy them also seem to have multiplied.

In the current “potato campaign” 60,000 tons of the product are expected, but precedents raise fears that this estimate will not be reached. The 2014 harvest fell significantly short of the production plan, delivering 53,300 tons instead of the 65,700 tons projected. The difference was felt on the dinner tables of Cuban families and provoked desperation in neighborhoods and continue reading

villages, something that is easy to observe whenever you see a truck with the precious foodstuff.

In the case of the city of Havana, given its population density, the situation becomes more complex. The product is sold in at least 51 authorized markets in the neighborhoods of Playa, Plaza, Centro Habana, La Habana Vieja, Diez de Octubre, La Habana del Este, San Miguel, Boyeros, Arroyo Naranjo and Cerro. These places are battlegrounds where people wait for hours, shouting and shoving.

The panorama of long lines and fights is now repeated in the illegal market, where the prices for potatoes have also shot up. If at the official stalls a pound costs one Cuban peso (about 4¢ US), buying them under the table is going to cost you one convertible peso, twenty-five times the official price. And that despite the fact that sales are restricted to twenty pounds a person, a limitation the resellers seem to overcome with ease.

If at the official stalls a pound costs one Cuban peso (about 4¢ US), buying them under the table is going to cost you one convertible peso, twenty-five times the official price

Nancy Wilson Perich, Commercial Deputy Director of the Provincial Company of Agricultural Markets, looks to the future with optimism, however. According to what this functionary told the official media, the number of stalls selling potatoes will increase to 210 during March, and they are expected to sell 26,500 tons, of which 3,500 have already been sold.

Most of the potatoes arriving in the capital this season come from the provinces of Mayabeque, Artemisa, Matanzas, Cienfuegos and Ciego de Avila. Perich Wilson says that of the 60,000 tons expected from February to April, about 30,000 will go to into cold storage in Havana, Güira, Alquízar and Guines for later sale.

“Operation potato” not only involves the Provincial Company of Agricultural Markets, it also involves the Ministry of Domestic Trade, the Logistics Group of the Ministry of Agriculture and the National Revolutionary Police themselves, who are in charge of controlling lines and maintaining discipline among buyers. A long involved chain, which can neither produce nor distribute this staple efficiently.

Farmers point to the scarce supply of seed as responsible for the decrease in the presence of the potatoes in Cuba. Most seeds are imported from the Netherlands and Canada at a cost of over 10 million dollars. The national variety, known as Romano, can’t produce the yields of the foreign seeds, but it has the advantage of coming earlier in the year compared to the foreign supplies, which only begin to arrive in the country starting in the month of November.

Farmers complain of poor seed distribution, doled out to them in dribs and drabs, late and often in bad shape

Farmers complain of poor seed distribution, doled out to them in dribs and drabs, late and often in bad shape. To this is added the climate requirements for good growth of the tubers, which need a temperature between 60 and 70 degrees Fahrenheit for full development. The good news is that, at least in recent weeks, the cold fronts that have hit the western region have been favorable for potato cultivation.

The same has not been true for the supply of fertilizers, insecticides and the quality of the irrigation systems of the farmers engaged in this work. Problems are felt in towns such as Alquízar, Güira and Artemis, with a long tradition of potato farming, where farmers reported delays and gaps in the delivery of the “technology package.” The bad technical situation or absence of sprayers for pests is one of the obstacles most mentioned by the producers.

The potato problem, however, transcends potatoes. It is not just about the difficulties facing production. In 2000 there was a very positive peak of 348,500 tons, almost six times today’s production. The situation is closely related to the increase in prices and the lack of substitute products.

This is also the case with rice and meats, which in recent months have experienced cycles of shortages and rising imports. Given the high price of beans, the potato becomes a product that can salvage a meal. The desperation to buy potatoes does not represent a special fondness on the part of Cubans for its flavor, but an urgent need to alleviate the lack of food that has increased in recent months because of shortages.

The Malecon as Pier / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

Image of the Cayo Hueso-Havana ferry taken 1951 (History Miami Archives and Research Center)
Image of the Cayo Hueso-Havana ferry taken 1951 (History Miami Archives and Research Center)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 21 February 2015 — Jose Manuel is 70 years old and has spent more than half his life fishing from Havana’s Malecon. For this retiree with leathery skin and eyes that have seen almost everything, it is a dream to catch sight again of that ferry that used to go to Florida and that he so liked when he was a child. “We kids used to pretend to say goodbye, and although I could never travel on it, my grandmother did every now and then.” Now, while the evening falls, the septuagenarian hopes that some fish will take the bait, and before him a sea without boats extends to infinity.

Maritime transport between Havana and Cayo Hueso came to be very common in the first half of the 20th century until it was suspended in August of 1961 as a consequence of the restrictions from the American embargo of the Island. Now, the ghost of a ferry continue reading

that links the two shores has resurfaced as a result of talks between the governments of Cuba and the United States.

This week, the entrepreneur Brian Hall, who leads the company KonaCat with headquarters in Fort Lauderdale, made public his interest in operating ferry trips to Cuba from Marathon’s yachting marina on 11th Street. Hall told the daily digital KeysInfoNet that he was confident of getting available space for his 200-passenger capacity catamaran with which he plans to travel between the Florida Keys and Cuba twice daily.

The news has barely reached the Island, but since last December 17 when Raul Castro and Barack Obama announced the process for reestablishment of relations between the two countries, the return of the ferry has become a matter of importance for many nostalgic people. In addition to the economic concessions and the political détente that this reconciliation would bring between the two governments, connecting both countries with a maritime route would have, besides its practical effects, a strong symbolism, many assert.

All great human endeavors have something to do with madness, say the elders. The ferry service that connected Florida with the Cuban capital started with the efforts of a man. Henry M. Flagler, an oil magnate who in 1886 founded the Florida Faster East Coast Railway for railway construction and exploitation of Florida’s east coast. In spite of the great obstacles imposed by the geography of the keys and the constant danger of hurricanes, Flagler’s madness led him to trace the rail lines to Cayo Hueso, where the service was inaugurated in January 1912. That work would be considered by many as the eighth wonder of the world, besides being the boldest infrastructure built exclusively with private funds.

Once the railway was in Cayo Hueso, some way was needed to overcome the distance to Cuba. So was born “the train moving over the waters” as the ferry was also called and whose Havana-Cayo Hueso service was inaugurated January 5, 1915. The first shipment consisted of a batch of refrigerated cars, and the boat received the name of Henry M. Flagler, in homage to the visionary entrepreneur who had died two years earlier.

“We kids used to pretend to say goodbye, and although I could never travel on it, my grandmother did every now and then.”

The dispatch of products between both shores grew like wildfire after that moment. In 1957 it came to more than half a million tons of merchandise in both directions, to which was added the transport of passengers and cars. The sea connection between the two shores lasted 46 years, and some remember it as if it were yesterday that the last boat had sailed.

“My grandmother frequently travelled to Florida on the ferry,” explains Jose Manuel, who has had a bad day for fishing. “We were poor, but part of my family went there to work and sometimes would return the same day,” he says wistfully. Near the fishing pole, seated on the wall of the Malecon, a teenager listens to the conversation and smiles with incredulity. He is of the generation that cannot conceive that at some point the Malecon was not a barrier that separated Cuba from the world but a point of connection with the neighbor to the north.

The line tightens, and it seems that something has bit. Jose Manuel concentrates on recovering from the water what is going to be his supper tonight, but in spite of his concentration he manages to say, “The day that I see that ferry arriving here again I will be able to die in peace.”

Translated by MLK

Cyber-police and Firewalls to Control Cuban Internet / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

Central Computer Palace across from Fraternity Park in central Havana
Central Computer Palace across from Fraternity Park in central Havana

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, February 15 2015 – Only a few weeks after Barack Obama’s decision to allow American telecommunications companies to offer their services on the Island, Raúl Castro’s government is making it clear that the virtual world will not exist without limits. Lately, official spokespersons have taken on the task of explaining to the general public that low connectivity in the country is not due to a government decisions, and this seems to be the purpose of the First National Computerization and Cyber Security Workshop, which is scheduled to take place on the 18, 19, and 20 of February.

According to the official newspaper Granma, more than 11,000 Cuban computer scientists will participate in the event, “the majority connected through videoconferences.” The quote is directed to sketch out a countrywide regulatory cyber-police continue reading

in a moment in which pressures for full access to the web have gained force. Alternative phenomena, like the distribution of audiovisual material in the so-called “combos or packages” (flash memories containing foreign TV shows, etc.), have also been pushing authorities from the Ministry of Communication to make decisions in this respect.

On February 19 and 20, around “260 specialists will share their opinions in commissions centered on four fundamental topics,” noted the Communist Party’s official media. The agenda includes “the human and scientific resources available in the country, electronic governance, cyber security, and economy and legality.” Throughout the Island, 21 headquarters will be made available for users interested in taking part in the debate and accessing the discussions. By visiting the website, they will be able to share opinions and ask questions about the topics discussed, announced Ailyn Febles Estrada, Vice Dean of the University of Information Sciences of Cuba (UCI), on the web portal Cubadebate.

One of the most unique results of the event lies in the development of a new social organization that will group together the country’s ICTs (Information and Communications Technologies) professionals, into which recent graduates from diverse backgrounds like Information Technology, Computer Science, and Telecommunications could be incorporated. It is a clear attempt to centralize Cubans who have ICT knowledge, many of whom provide services in the private sector repairing computers and smartphones.

The implementation of a Chinese-style model, with a potent cyber police and extensive firewalls aimed at censuring content and filtering sites, is being outlined

The words cyber-security in the title of this article have also set off some alarms, since in recent years the government has augmented its ideological combat on the Internet. The implementation of a Chinese-style model, with a potent cyber-police and extensive firewalls aimed at censuring content and filtering sites, is being outlined as a priority for Cuban authorities.

The announcement of this workshop is added to the recent promise made by directives of Cuba’s Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) that 136 new “internet cafés” will be opened in the year’s first trimester. The majority of them will be found in the Joven Clubs de Computación (Youth Clubs for Computing), where users will pay for connection time in Cuban Pesos. On the close of 2014, 155 collective Internet cafés operated throughout the country, with a total of 573 available computers offering web access, a service that must be paid in Convertible Pesos.

According to the recently published report Freedom on the Net 2014, which analyzed 65 countries between May 2013 and May 2014, Cuba is the only country in Latin America designated “not free” in regards to Internet access. The study points out the limitations in accessing the world-wide-web as well as the censorship of certain webpages and the high prices for connecting from public places.

Translated by Fernando Fornis

Follow the Trail of Flour / 14ymedio, Orlando Palma

A piece of bread. (14ymedio)
A piece of bread. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Orlando Palma, Havana, 9 February 2014 – “The flour trail is easy to follow,” says a retired baker whose hands, for more than five years now, haven’t mixed ingredients nor added leavening to a dough. “I left it all behind, because the administrator of the bakery where I worked changed every six months and the last one ended up in jail,” explains this sixties-something man with long arms, wearing a white cap from his days in front of on oven.

The illegal market in flour has grown in recent years. With the revival of private businesses offering varied menus, demand for “the white powder” has multiplied. It’s estimated that three of every five pizzas sold in the private cafés and restaurants are made with flour acquired in the underground continue reading

networks and not from the hard currency stores as required by law.

A recent TV report has revealed that the diversion of the grain starts at the mills where the wheat is processed and packaged for distribution throughout the country. Cienfuegos Combined Cereals supplies the product to 11 of the country’s provinces, and a high percentage of its merchandise ends up in the informal networks. The trail this traffic leaves extends from the ships of the Cienfuegos company, passing through the railroad cars of at least three provinces and also involving entities such as the Business Base Unit (UEB) and Cargo Transport (Transcar).

The Interior Ministry has an ongoing investigation in response to multiple complaints of shortages of flour. The Controller of the Republic herself has intervened in the matter and at the end of 2014 presided over a tense meeting in Camaguey Province attended by all the entities involved in the embezzlement. That meeting turned into a battlefield where each party defended their own innocence and accused the others.

In November 2014, María Victoria Rabelo, director general of the Cuba Milling Company, had sent a long missive with a detailed sequence of the thefts committed against the merchandise marketed by her company, pointing an accusing finger at the railroad authorities. According to the millers’ version, the sacks of precious grain go astray during the journey to numerous destinations in the region.

In July of last year, the Department of National Railways reduced the number of staff in the Loading and Unloading Inspection Division. Added to the spending cuts is the illusion that the security of the loads relies more on automated methods and the verification of the locks of every boxcar with merchandise. The result of this measure has been a real catastrophe.

Three of every five pizzas sold in the private cafés and restaurants are made with flour acquired in the underground networks

In a Provincial Food Company inspection of 60 boxcars, it was determined that between September and October alone, over 100,000 pounds of the precious product disappeared. “If before they reduced the manpower of inspectors they were losing between two and three sacks per boxcar, today we’re talking about losing as much as 17 tons fromone of them,” confessed one Cuba Milling Company official on national television.

Ledy Guerrero Ramírez, head of packing and stowage for Cienfuegos Cereal company, said it was impossible that the product was stolen during loading. “No way,” she responded before the insinuation that the main diversion was happening in her entity. “Here we have a computer with two automatic scales and here we have another computer where the number of sacks loaded to a boxcar is programmed in,” she added. Guerrero Ramírez also said that, when the full number of sacks is loaded, the conveyor stops automatically.

During the police investigation it was found that, despite the implementation of an automatic scale in the filling of the cars, the shipments arrive at their destination with between eight and ten tons less flour. An even greater mystery, and one confusing to the experts, is that this happens without the security seals placed on the door of each car showing any signs of being violated.

The railroad operators defend themselves, bringing up Ministry of Economy and Planning Resolution No. 2 of 2008. According to its provisions, the supplier is obligated to place the product in the warehouses of the customers and guarantee its arrival in good condition and without losses. Following the exact letter of the provision, it is the responsibility of Cienfuegos Cereals to take control of and transport the flour to every distribution center.

Centralized State control, however, obliges the millers and the railroad operators to work together in a forced relationship. The spotlight of the accusations is falling on the work of the UEB railway in Cienfuegos. Its chief of operations, Antonio Subí Claro, referred to the television official who had recorded missing sacks over the whole year, which have been “significantly increased (…), adding up to some 4,800 missing sacks as of December.”

Nothing here … nothing there

Getting the sacks of flour out of the boxcars can only be carried with the complicity – or blindness – of the train crew. Several farmers in the central area say that there are sites located on the outskirts of towns and cities where the illegal off-loading occurs. A non-scheduled stop allows the product to be transferred to trucks, which wait on both sides of the rail line. The security seals on the boxcars were never closed, which requires several accomplices in the loading areas at the mills. Once they take out the merchandise, they proceed to seal the doors, leaving no signs that they had been forced.

Despite the implementation of an automatic scale in the filling of the cars, the shipments arrive at their destination with between eight and ten tons less flour

The web of conspirators is so extensive that from the loading centers they convey the information to the off-loaders about which boxcars are marked by the police, to be inspected on arrival. A game of cat and mouse, where this time the rodents appear to have greater ingenuity and creativity than the stupid cat who monitors them without success.

Contrary to what many believe, a great part of the stolen flour ends up in the state institutions themselves. The bakeries are the final destination of thousands of these stolen sacks. It will be there where they concoct, with the implements and state infrastructure, the bread and baked goods that later will be sold by private vendors. A mix of state and private (estatal and particular) that people have jokingly baptized estaticular.

The phenomenon of undeclared production has become common in state institutions. However, it is in bread baking where it reaches its highest peak. The bakeries work at double their capacity, although the product offered on the ration book is poor quality and underweight. Inside the state entities, the ovens never stop and on the kneading tables they give shape to the bread sold according to supply and demand. This is marketed “under the counter” from the display cases of the bakery itself, or is supplied to private bakers, birthday party managers, café owners and casual shoppers.

Another part of the stolen grain goes to families who hide distribution centers where they package the merchandise in smaller portions and offer it to their usual clients. “We supply owners of private restaurants and cafés, mostly to people who sell Italian food,” says Amilkar, a young man of 28 who is part of the flour distribution network in the capital neighborhood of Puentes Grandes, very close to the Cuba Milling Company.

“This is a dangerous business,” says Amilkar, who has seen many “end up in the tank.” In mid-2013 an illegal flour distribution network was dismantled in the city of Camaguey. The police arrested two young men hiding five sacks and flour and two pounds of leavening in the false bottom of a tricycle. The investigators busted it wide open and ended up taking down a network of 17 people, who included some who were issuing false invoices to account for the grain transfers.

An illegal industry that is carried out with the stealth of those who traffic in cocaine, because all the flour circulating in the country has been stolen from the state network that imports the wheat and processes it in domestic mills. Attempts to cultivate the grain in Cuban soil have ended up being a sterile, and excessively expensive, enterprise.

If I were to buy all the flour I use in the hard currency stores, I would have to sell every pizza at a price no one could afford

In selling flour, so it can be processed by others, the suppliers try to find regular customers. They are offered each sack at a price that varies between 300 and 400 Cuban pesos. Much cheaper than the 2.2 pounds for 1 convertible peso (equivalent to 24 Cuban pesos), which it costs in the network of hard currency stores. Along with the illegal grain business, there also flourished a wide offering of counterfeit receipts so the self-employed workers can justify the product to the inspectors.

An establishment of the Cuban Bread Company.(14ymedio)
An establishment of the Cuban Bread Company.(14ymedio)

“In the absence of a wholesale market, if I were to buy all the flour I would have to sell every pizza at a price no one could afford,” says Norge, an electrical engineer who now runs a private pizzeria. “We have several empty containers labeled with the brand of flour sold in stores in convertible pesos and we fill them with what we get outside, in case an inspector suddenly shows up.”

On Norge’s kitchen floor, there is a trail of white powder that extends to the back door. In the words of an old baker, that footprint is like a betrayal, a most indiscrete and eloquent track left by the illegal flour business.