Building Your Own Home in Cuba is an Obstacle Race

After decades of strict controls on the sector, in the last decade the permits have been made more flexible for those who wish to start these works. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Havana, 21 January 2021 — Five years ago, Edelmira Rodríguez laid the first brick in her house. It was the beginning of a dream, of building her house with her own efforts, which at times turns into a nightmare. The shortages and the lack of liquidity mean that, to this day, the roof has not even been installed.

Rodríguez, an employee of the Ministry of Labor and a resident of Havana, was enthusiastic about the push the authorities gave a few years ago to the construction of houses by the interested parties. After decades of strict controls on the sector, permits have become more flexible in the last decade for those who wish to start this kind of work.

Given the lack of State resources, more than half of the homes built in Cuba between January and October 2020 were built by individuals, according to the Minister of Construction, René Mesa Villafaña. During that period, 40,215 houses were completed in Cuba, of which 23,429 (over 58%) were built privately. continue reading

During that period, 40,215 houses were completed in Cuba, of which 23,429 (over 58%) were built privately.

But behind those numbers there are thousands of stories of difficulties and moments of hopelessness like the ones Edelmira Rodríguez is living through today. “The land they gave me is only seven meters long by six meters wide and that forces me to build a two-story house,” she explains to 14ymedio.

A construction of more than one story requires that the lower structures be able to support the weight of the second story. This translates into having greater quantities of steel, cement and other materials, but these resources are not always available, or of the required quality.

“I started five years ago and have not even been able to install the first-floor ceiling. Since before the pandemic began, the materials were nowhere to be found, and the price of cement in the black market is prohibitive, and let’s not even mention the rebar”, Rodríguez laments.

Those shortages also encourage the theft of building materials. Avoiding losing aggregate and bricks becomes such a nightmare that it often forces families to permanently camp on the construction site.

More than half of the homes built in Cuba, between January and October 2020, were built by individuals. (14ymedio)

“Not only do you have to monitor whether they are taking cement or not in the wheelbarrow, but also keep your eyes open so that they do not steal in one night what has cost you months to obtain”, says a young man who is making repairs to his home in Calzada del Cerro. In the front porch of the house, whose roof collapsed a few years ago, sandbags and stone dust are piled up.

“My father watches at night and I do so during the day, because we cannot lose any of this material. Here, in this neighborhood, there are many people who are trying to repair or build their own little houses, but cement is only available at the foreign currency stores”, explains the young man. “Rather than because of self-effort, this is due to self-strain, because nothing is guaranteed”.

The improvised builders complain that banks grant very small loan amounts, ranging between 20,000 and 80,000 pesos, but currently in the informal market one bag of cement exceeds 500.

The improvised builders complain that banks grant very small loan amounts, ranging between 20,000 and 80,000 pesos, but currently in the informal market one bag of cement exceeds 500.

In recent years, this material has become a rare “gray gold”, sought by all those who want to repair a kitchen, modernize a bathroom or touch up a facade. For two years, the product has barely appeared in the stores that take payment in Cuban pesos and has been rationed in State construction yards for victims of natural disasters.

The shortage of the product was aggravated by a tornado that hit Havana in January 2019. With thousands of houses affected, the State guaranteed a 50% discount off the cost of construction materials for people with houses damaged by the disaster in the neighborhoods of Luyanó, Regla, Guanabacoa and Santos Suárez.

Avoiding the loss of aggregate and bricks becomes a nightmare that often forces families to permanently camp on the construction site. (14ymedio)

The monetary unification and the rise in many prices of products and services since last January first, the has had a negative effect on those who dream of finishing their own home. Some, like Tomasa Correa and her husband, have had to move into the house while still waiting to be able to buy what is left to finish construction.

“We still have to install the glass on the windows and front doors on both floors,” says Correa. “Public Health gave us the go-ahead and for a few months we have been living in the house but we have the biggest problem with the money we owe,” she acknowledges. Debts in excess of 60,000 pesos have been accumulating and now the couple does not know how they are going to repay that sum.

“We have a food stand offering vegetables and fruits located in a privileged area and over two hundred people pass through there in any given day. In addition, attached to the stall, we sell soft drinks, juices and condiments, but sales have been declining for months in a tailspin, due to lack of products”, Correa details.

However, Correa feels lucky to have been able to finish her home, in a country that needs around a million homes. Others have barely advanced beyond the foundations or some walls of what will be their future home. As is the case with Gerardo Mena, who has been with his family for 15 years in a shelter for victims of the disaster after the collapse of their building.

“Economically, we are not doing badly, but in Cuba, it is not enough to have money to solve things. Three years ago, I bought a piece of land in Monaco [Cuba] from the State and began to build a house for the family.”

“Under these conditions, my wife and I had two daughters because time went by and we couldn’t keep waiting to become parents until we owned a house,” Mena told 14ymedio. “Economically, we are not doing badly, but in Cuba, it is not enough to have money to solve things. Three years ago, I bought a piece of land in Monaco [Cuba] from the State and began to build a house for the family.”

A brother who emigrated helps him with part of the resources he needs to buy materials, but even his solvency has not materialized in advancing with the construction. “In these three years I have not been able to go beyond raising the walls and building the supports on the first floor,” Mena laments.

After decades of strict controls on the sector, in the last decade, permits have been made more flexible for those who wish to start these works. (14ymedio)

But even those walls that have yet to be plastered are an unattainable illusion for Eduardo Portales, a Havana native who has been trying for a long time to buy a piece of land on Vento Street from the State. About four years ago there was a small store that offered its products, selling its goods from a metal container placed on the site. Now, the metal box is rotting in the open while officials of the Physical Planning Institute and those of Tiendas Caribe play hot potato avoiding the responsibility of removing it.

Until the container is removed, the land purchase process cannot be finalized. But when the site is finally liberated, Portales will still have the long and tortuous path of starting to build with his own effort.

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.

Looking for a Mailman

Technological advances have caused the delivery of letters, telegrams and printed newspapers to plummet. (Flickr)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Havana, May 21, 2020 — “The mailman finally came. Let’s see how long he lasts. The previous one lasted the longest, about eight months, but he disappeared once the pandemic started,” laments Roberto Gomez, a resident of Havana’s Casino Deportivo neighborhood.

“For the last three years the newspaper has not arrived on time or every day. In that time period there have been more than fifteen different mail carriers. Some only lasted one day,” he complains to 14ymedio.

Not receiving the newspaper in a timely manner has not meant a reduction in the cost of Gomez’ subscription. Occasionally, three-days worth of newspapers have arrived at the same time. When they were not delivered to him, he had to go to the nearest post office to pick them up. continue reading

Fed up, he went to the post office to file a complaint with the manager about a situation that, since the pandemic began, has only gotten worse, but she was not even there. “I am left here holding the stick until all this mess gets sorted out,” replied the person who took his complaint.

Victor Perez, who worked for the Postal Service in the Tenth of October district about seven years ago, complains that, though employees are known as postmen because they deliver letters and telegrams, that is only part of what they do. His toughest task was delivering Granma and Juventud Rebelde. Back then he was paid a few cents for every newspaper and a little less for the letters, magazines and telegrams he delivered. Since there were only two-hundred houses in his delivery run, the most he ever earned was 400 pesos a month.

“I quit because it wasn’t worth all the time and effort,” says Perez. “I would get to work at seven in the morning and often stayed there until noon, waiting for the periodicals to arrive.”

During that time he lost fifteen pounds. Postal workers do not receive a stipend for lunch, as do other state employees. While making his rounds in heat of the day, he often consumed only water, a soft drink or a piece of bread since he could not afford to buy an afternoon snack.

Some postmen take advantage of the widespread problems in the distribution system to earn some extra money, stealing four or five copies and reselling them to customers willing to buy them for a peso apiece.

For a couple of years Odalys Vetia managed a post office in Casino Deportivo. “Dealing with all the problems that exist takes a heroic effort. Periodicals arrive at any time of day or don’t arrive at all. The office is always short one or two postmen. On top of that there are the hassles with money orders, cash, stamps and parcel delivery, although those are minor problems.”

According to Veitia, the problems are never ending. “The customers complain and the mailmen complain and the worst of it is that clients are almost always right. They don’t get their Granma or Juventud Rebelde until almost nighttime, when it’s all old news. Or even worse, it never arrives at all,” she says.

Every so often a post office finds itself without a manager and someone has to take over on a temporary basis. “It’s shocking when you see all this but are powerless to resolve the situation. To top it off, when you are the administrator, you have to justify the unjustifiable, or to quietly put up with complaints. Not everyone who complains is polite about it. Some people insult you and there are even those who want to physically attack you,” she says.

The profession has also failed to attract young people.

“I started working as a mailman two years ago and I only lasted a week,” says Ariel. “They say young people are irresponsible but the Ministry of Communications is the champion of irresponsibility. The newspaper never arrived on time.”

“The sun is brutal and going up two or three flights of stairs is a killer. I spent almost as much on juice and sandwiches that week as I would make in a month. It’s also a job that’s very uncool.”

Technological advances have caused the delivery of letters, telegrams and printed newspapers to plummet. But the decline of postal services and the number of mailmen began much earlier due to the delays and carelessness of the postal service itself. Opened letters, damaged packages and undelivered telegrams announcing the death of a family member tried the patience of customers.

With some exceptions the people who deliver periodicals are elderly or retired. This is the case with Julian, a 70-year-old who has taken up this work. In spite of his age he remains strong and agile. Life has trained him to do jobs that require physical effort and and a tolerance for sun.

“The neighbors in my building have gone without regular newspaper delivery for a long time,” explains Julian. “That’s why I decided to take up this work. It doesn’t pay much — 500 [Cuban] pesos a month [roughly $20 US] — but it’s not bad. Life gets harder every day.”

He started a week ago and must deliver 900 publications to 450 homes. Between the back and forth of picking up and delivering the papers, he walks about two and a half miles a day. “I am working hard to see if it suits me and if I can do it, but the years are taking their toll,” he says.

“In war and in peace we shall maintain communication,” goes an old slogan from the Ministry of Communications. Creole humorists say it should be changed to “we shall maintain mis-communication.”


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

The Cuban Private Sector Remains Unemployed and Stranded by the Pandemic

The Government only offers State jobs or other solutions that are unacceptable for private workers. (Trabajadores)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Havana, May 6, 2020 — Edelmiro Marrero is 62 and has worked as a gardener since he was 24 years old. “I have 12 steady clients and two or three possible ones, and I work a few days a week. Normally I begin at 6:00 in the morning and work five or six hours. That way I can earn enough to eat every day and live without a lot of hardship,” he says.

His wife and grandson also live from the income that this private employment has provided, until he had to cease his activity in March because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Since then, he hasn’t found the solutions he was hoping for.

“I’m a person with high risk, and I’m afraid that someone contaminated might have spit on the lawn and that I’ll catch the illness. In addition, I have problems with high blood pressure, and the medicines I should take are almost never available.” Now Marrero spends time maintaining his tools, but that doesn’t help much. “I’ve had to stop, and in spite of paying my taxes and social security, I don’t have the right to any kind of compensation.” continue reading

Marrero explains that he cannot work “with this rag on my face,” since he can’t breathe well, sweat runs down his face and sometimes his glasses fog up. The activity of gardeners, taking care of flower beds and small house gardens, requires manual labor and crouching down, on your knees or sitting, so it’s exhausting and uncomfortable.

Around a month ago, he saw on television that self-employed workers could contact the Ministry of Finances and Prices Department of Attention to the Population to clarify their concerns about the benefits they might qualify for given the situation created by the coronavirus.

“They told me that according to the law I didn’t have a right to any compensation. It seems that all they do is take money away,” he explains, clearly bothered. The Government expected private businessmen to suspend their licenses without complex procedures and to be able to incorporate themselves into the State sector. In addition, it activated social assistance from Social Security for the people contracted by private businessmen or older and vulnerable persons. But no one has offered any of these alternatives to Marrero, and many who have called about this option say that the red tape is cumbersome.

The gardener complains that it doesn’t mean much now that he’s paid more than 15,000 pesos in taxes for his business in the last 10 years, nor that he has donated more than 20,000 pesos to Social Security. Self-employed workers have the right to several loans, like a pension for retirement, accident or illness, and maternity coverage, but they lack aid for termination of their businesses.

Something similar happened to Ibette Tabares, the proprietor of a paladar [home restaurant] since 2010, and the only thing she achieved in the Ministry of Finance and Prices was the understanding of the official who answered the telephone. The employee told her that she understood the problem and a claim was very fair, but she couldn’t do anything because there was nothing in the law about aid for people in her situation. After this, she told her to contact the national and provincial offices of the National Office of Tax Administration (ONAT).

“I called the provincial ONAT office and whoever answered the phone didn’t want to identify himself. When I asked he told me he was an official. After formulating the question in different ways, the response was blunt: ’This is what the law establishes, and up to now no solution has been issued with respect to the topic you raise.’ The worst was that he told me that, in addition to not having the right to any compensation, I must continue making payments to Social Security. You can’t win with them,” she reported.

According to Gerardo Moné, a lawyer with more than 30 years experience, “the courts don’t have jurisdiction over these matters since they don’t go to trial.” However, “I can say that Law No. 105 and Decree No. 326 establish the form of payment in these circumstances for State workers.”

And Moné concludes, “I’ve spent 30 years in this business and I don’t know any lawyer who has mastered the laws of self-employment.”

In Cuba, 595,600 people work for themselves, according to official data, of which 275,900, 47%, have jobs that are the most economically affected by the pandemic: restaurants and cafés, transport of cargo and passengers, housing rentals, including the workers contracted by the owners of these businesses.

In the middle of April, the Minister of Employment estimated that 52,000 workers in private transportation suspended their activity at the request of the Government and explained that they could also apply for aid, an option that 139,000 people chose. At that time, he calculated an impact of some 99 million pesos, including the monthly tax quotas and the 10% of services or sales that are not being captured now.

Since then, the private sector has requested access to a rescue package that includes preferential credits. In addition, it has asked for authorization to import and export without having to go through the State. But this hasn’t been successful, now that the Government only offers incorporation for State businesses or other solutions that are unacceptable to the private sector.

Translated by Regina Anavy


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 Uncertain Path of Pork

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Havana, 16 April 2020 — For lack of other meats, pork has taken center place in the diet of Cubans who can classify as “emerging middle class” or who are on the way to taking their place on that social perch. Fresh fish, sea food and beef are the privilege of that ten percent who don’t ask “how much?” before deciding to buy something. The rest of the population hopes for sausages and canned sardines, and line up early when the rationed chicken arrives.

Pork, however, shows up in one degree or another at all levels of consumption. This is the reason that any situation that decreases its production or hampers its transaction is reflected immediately in its price. The response of the State, which tries to control everything, wavers between rationing and applying a price cap.

A few months before the crisis caused by Covid-19, a rule was announced to regulate at 45 pesos (CUP) the maximum price for a pound of boneless pork in the capital city. In the other municipalities of the countryside, the top price remained at 35 pesos. continue reading

At the present time, in the middle of April, a pound of pork on the hoof varies between 25 and 30 pesos. The hunting-down of each animal is quoted at 50 pesos, because these hogs are not in a stock-yard waiting for someone to come by and pick them up. Detective work is required which consists of verifying who has the hogs and in what place the hogs are kept ready for sacrifice, in addition to going out on horseback to round them up.

On top of this, the drover who exercises this roundup has to pay at least 600 pesos to the wagon driver who will deliver the condemned to the abattoir, and to the executioner goes another 100 pesos for each hog he kills and cleans.

Throughout this process (similar to what the State calls “chain port transport internal economy”) [sic] and at each of these steps the crises is felt. For there is no hauling if fuel prices are too high, and the vigilance for anything which might appear illegal has become insufferable.

As it is dangerous to raise prices at the point of sale, which is the only point under surveillance by the authorities, the merchants have begun to close their butcher shops — at least the visible ones that operate under license. This doesn’t mean that the business has ceased. Each butcher has a fixed number of clients whom he knows personally. Selling to these on the sly suffices to continue earning at least enough to live.

This brings to light a feature of the dark mechanisms of the informal market. When the producer comes to the conclusion that competition doesn’t affect him and that the consumer has no alternative but to accept the prices the producer imposes, the stimulus to increase production in order to earn more disappears.

One needn’t be an economist to realize that this generates a vicious cycle in which the prices enter into a spiral.

Where does it end, and when? First, we need to know when the pandemic ends…

Translated by: Pedro Antonio Gallet Gobin


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.

Granada, 1983, the Hidden Cuban Martyrology / Somos+, Pedro Acosta

US soldiers taking Cubans to a prison camp

Somos+, Pedro Acosta, 19 January 2017 — Thirty-three years later, I talked to more than 60 people under age 40 and with more than a 9th grade education; none of them knew exactly what I was talking about.

I asked them: Do you know what happened on the island of Granada in 1983? Most of them looked at me like I was asking them to solve a riddle. Some, the oldest, without being sure what I was talking about, said they thought there had been a military intervention there. Only one explained it to me, with middling clarity, because he had heard about it from his family. continue reading

A little history lesson, well hidden! In October of 1983, the Chief of the Armed Forces of that country, at the request of the party in power, “The New Jewel,” staged a coup d’etat and assassinated Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and his entire family. The United States threatened, and days later invaded the island.

A group of Cuban construction workers were there building an airport along with a small group of Colonels sent by Fidel in its presidential plane, AN-24 (el patico), had to confront the elite troops of the US 82nd Airborne Division.  You, who went to build, without the slightest right, without the simplest analysis and for the absurd chimera of someone looking for a military victory over his eternal enemies, is there weapons in hand and in mortal danger.

They did not have the right, nor the reason, nor the recurrent and often false, Internationalism!

I wonder, in a spectacular maneuver of my fantasy, and if, in the face of an uncontainable push of the builders, the elite American troops would have withdrawn: Who were we going to hand over power to? How long would we have remained in that territory? What role would we play there in the meantime?

We, like the ancestral custom of the regime, learned what happened through foreign radio stations and, first of all, those of the “enemy.” Despite there having been Cuban builders there, and Maurice Bishop was a great friend of Fidel, it was not until three days did we offficially here what happened there, when the entire Cuban people had a different version of the events.

Maurice Bishop and Fidel Castro

The officers were meant to block the US troops from taking control of the airport under construction, with the help of the builders. But the undesirable things happened. When confronted with the American troops, the immense majority of those who fought back were the construction workers, while the military experts and “warriors” sent by the Commander, Fidel Castro, including the chief of the troops, turned tail and left the field to the civilians. Those Colonels, some of whom were stations at the USSR embassy on this island, and others, wandering the mountains and the city, were detained by US forces.

The Cuban military were cowards for not confronting the big boss and telling him that they weren’t willing to commit suicide as they were being asked to do, and much less demand that others do it. And they were traitors for allowing those inexpert builders to do it. They should never have asked someone to fight. This was not their battle, and what’s more, incredibly unequal. They were asked to immolate themselves, and in whose name? By whom and for what?

While our soldiers were fleeing the news was alienating. The disgrace that was happening was also oversized, huge and fallacious. The last thing they put in the mouth of a brilliant figure on Cuban radio and television was that Cubans, defending their last redoubt, had offered their lives, embracing the Cuban flag.

What really happened in Granada is know only to the Cubans who returned with their lives from there, and they are the only ones who know the US military committed with the Cuban officials. Speaking correctly, they are not the only ones who know what happened, the international press played up the Cuban disgrace.

Because in Cuba it is taboo to talk about Granada, it has not been possible to get figures or data of any kind, I have only written what I remember. I don’t want to resort to foreign data.

There is no mention of Granada because, more than what is said, it was the greatest blunder, among all the orders, of the now deceased comrade Fidel, then Commander-in-Chief.

Also, the position and honor of a man, the head of the Cuban “troops,” has come to be talked of and he is compared with the Bronze Titan: “Emulator of Maceo.” What a crime and how embarrassing!

In Granada, Fidel suffered his hardest, saddest and most sobering defeat. But those who really suffered and felt it were the people of Cuba, and particularly the families of those who uselessly gave their lives and shed their blood in the land of others.

When will anyone ask forgiveness, publicly, to the mothers, wives and children of the martyrs of Granada? When will the people of Cuba get an explanation for such decisions. For the martyrs of Granada, there has been no minute of silence, only suspicion and slyness, that has lasted for more than thirty years.

Legacy and End Point / Somos+, Pedro Acosta

Somos+, Pedro Acosta, 6 December 2016 — After your departure the Cuban people should be eternally grateful for:

The fall of the dictatorship. Fulfilling your political promises, especially the respect for the 1940 Constitution, the quick holding of free elections, and not placing yourself permanently in power.

For making us economically independent (??!), developing our industry and raising it to levels never before seen, diversifying production and eliminating our dependence on our dangerous neighbor to the north and transferring it first to the Socialist camp and then to the first ones who came along. Maintaining the boom and constantly growing our powerful sugar industry. continue reading

Also for giving us a dignified wage that allows us to live at ease. Because our children can savor a tasty breakfast, lunch and dinner. And the Cuban family has the possibility to enjoy some deserved vacations in the respectable hotels that adorn the national territory, including the keys.

For granting us a Social Security System that covers the basic needs of the human being and allows us to retire without having to depend on our families to maintain us or having to take up any task we can find to be able to subsist and not live by begging.

For giving us decent housing that resists hurricanes, with only 52% of the housing stock in the country in fair or poor condition. Because the stores have fair prices according to the generous income the government pays us. In addition to having at our disposal all kinds of new generation appliances.

Giving us free choice and having telephones, TV channels and internet and so having an excellent level of information and not being subject to the opinions of any individual or of the communication media.

For giving us free (??!) education and health care. And in the schools and hospitals having facilities and technologies sustained by country’s powerful economic development.

For giving us the chance to feel proud of the behavior and formal education of the population, especially the youth. For eradicating: gambling, prostitution, racism, marginalization, corruption and other evils of the past.

Establishing diligent public services and eliminating absurd bureaucratic and cumbersome procedures, with officials who feel proud of serving the people, for fulfilling an honorable duty.

Infinite thanks:

For not interfering in warring conflicts of any kind. And not squandering the country’s abundant resources. For respecting our free will and possessing an unsurpassed freedom of expression, given through the media.

For never having lied to the people and for expressing from the first day your intentions to implant socialism in Cuba.

Because with your example we learned to respect and never denigrate our compatriots with political opinions different from those proclaimed by the Communist Party, and the Organs of State Security never having repressed in any way the regime’s opponents, much less tried and condemned them under false accusations. With your actions jealously respecting the Constitution of the Republic.

For maintaining a clear separation between legislative, executive and judicial powers.

For giving us the best Electoral System in the world where others think and argue for us and for having the ability to know, through their biographies, the Deputies of the National Assembly, people who don’t need to be from the area where they are elected from and whom we have never seen in real life. For giving us the ability to elect the president of the county.

Also, for giving us, at 50 years, hopes that in the next 50 years it will be possible to find the right road.

For this and a thousand other things:


Looking at Society Through the ‘Cuban Lens’ / 14ymedio, Pedro Acosta

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Havana, 12 November 2016 — Iliana Hernandez and Yusmila Reyna circulated among sculptures and art installations at the Cuban Art Factory this week. The two women recorded some scenes for the program Lente Cubano (Cuban Lens), a program that approaches the reality of the island through culture, complaints, and the stories of success or hopelessness that populate the streets.

Camera in hand, Hernández and Reyna organized on this occasion an interview with the model Katy Gil. To reach Vedado in time, the two artists had to cross much of the city: from Cojimar and Bauta, respectively. They did it without hesitation, because the project arouses a passion in them along with a good dose of enthusiasm. continue reading

“Transportation is a serious difficulty, because we do not have our own,” Hernandez told this newspaper, saying that she sustains the program economically with her personal resources. Renting a car is a luxury they cannot afford during these first steps of their audiovisual creation.

The aim is ambitious: a weekly, half-hour show, with five sections in which they talk about fashion, report on complaints, promote private businesses and disseminate the work of artists. It is “totally free,” the creators clarify when asked about the distribution of the material.

The difficulties that need to be overcome include not only the illegalities the alternative media in Cuba are subjected to. In recent years several independent spaces have emerged and competition becomes fiercer every day. Users are very demanding and it’s not enough to reflect on the issues the government ignores, professionalism matters.

“I know it seems difficult,” explains Reyna, who has also had extensive experience as an activist. “We have edited five programs and aired four,” she says. Uploading each chapter to the great World Wide Web takes a lot of time and money. Sometimes it has taken up to nine hours to send one of their programs through the collapsed Cuban networks.

“The interest in getting ahead and making a quality product is our main motivation,” she says. Even the microphone used during filming is an innovation from other team members: Gabriel Gonzalez in film-editing and presenters Jose R. Galan and Andy Marrero.

However, the major obstacles that must be overcome are not exactly material ones. During their work they often come up against the fear that runs through Cuban society. Getting statements in the street is complicated by respondents’ fear, but they always end up finding someone who decides to speak.

Some figures of Cuban culture have refused to appear in Cuban Lens because it is an alternative program. Others have been given long proposals, but never responded. On one occasion, after doing an interview and editing it, the guest asked them not to publish his speech because the show has a “political bent” and he isn’t looking for problems.

In part, to exorcise those demons, in the project’s early episodes they have made it clear that they are “looking at society in all its aspects” and at people “with their successes and their problems.” Cuban Lens “is not political, but with a varied approach and uncensored,” so that it “never misrepresents reality, nor the opinions of its guests.”

Those facing the lens of the two restless creators have ranged from the president of the Yoruba Society of Cuba, José Manuel Pérez, to musicians in the style of Yomil, El Danny, El Noro, Dayana and Adriano Disjay. Activists Eliecer Avila, Manuel Cuesta Morua, Wilfredo Vallin and Martha Adela Tamayo have also been invited to share their views.

Hernandez says that they are in negotiations with an American producer for the program to be broadcast in that country. To the extent that they earn the resources, they will cover other areas of the island outside the capital. In the future, this Cuban who lived for many years in Spain and decided to repatriate, dreams of owning an advertising agency.

While waiting for the much-needed resources, those who are a part of the project do not receive a salary. “You have to juggle until finances appear”, says its director. Instead, warnings from the State Security have not been lacking, and an official has been charged with letting the activist know that she must “be careful” with what she does with her program, especially with the section dedicated to citizen complaints.

The True Support of the Majority of the People for the “Revolution” / Somos+, Pedro Acosta

Somos+, Pedro Acosta, 1 March 2016 — In any forum our highest leaders intervene in, they express the idea that the majority of the people support the regime, however…

When the people, without excluding those who manifest being its followers, nor those militants of the PCC and the UJC, or leaders at all levels of the country, prove in a massive, uncontrollable, and endless manner, an entire category of “attributes,” such as those that:

Steal or receive, buy, sell, or give academic titles and medical continue reading

certificates. When the means of the state are deviated for personal benefit and enjoyment, corruption swarms. When the working day is wasted, and they absent themselves during working hours for different issues outside of these.

When hundreds of thousands abandon their homeland and many more hope to do so. When there is apathy, skepticism, accompanied by a high dose of indifference and  irresponsibility, it’s only for a simple, easy and obvious reason, and if you have not noticed it, or try to ignore it, I will remind you.

Know, gentlemen of the Political Bureau and the Council of State, the Cuban people neither respect  nor follow you, their daily actions prove it.

To be governed, Cuba needs young blood and fresh minds with new life and renewed energy. People who aren’t contaminated by previous vices, who know how to act with sagacity and intelligence, adapting to the reality of the moment. A youth that does not fear the whirlwind and indispensable changes needed to adapt to this 21st century, knowing in turn how to preserve our independence and sovereignty. People who know how to confront the leadership of the country thinking first of all, and understanding in reality, which are the real interests of the public, unlike those who think they know them only because they are consistent with their own opinions. Human beings that don’t protect their personal desires and privileges, under the misleading pretext that these are the interests of the homeland. Cubans that don’t defend with cloak and sword their incompetence, who are able to ask forgiveness from their people when it is necessary, taking responsibility for their errors. Cubans who bravely abandon power when it exemplifies their ineptness.

New vitality must undertake this gigantic task. And above all: people who don’t take advantage of power.

People who are not afraid to lose that which they don’t have!

(Taken from my book, unpublished, Promised Paradise, Acquired Purgatory)

Translated by: Emily Piltzer

Girls For Sale / 14ymedio, Pedro Acosta

The Cuban government continues to deny the existence of child prostitution in Cuba beyond isolated cases.(EFE)
The Cuban government continues to deny the existence of child prostitution in Cuba beyond isolated cases.(EFE)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Havana, 9 March 2016 – The teenage girl looks at the display window of CUPET at Santa Catalina and Vento with greedy eyes, a girl hungry for candy. She is tall, thin and fragile. She looks at me and seems to be saying “throw me a rope,” so I buy her a chocolate bar for 1.25 CUC.

Her name is Barbarita, she lives in the Palatino neighborhood and is 14. She opens up after having lied to me when I asked her age when she promised she would “pay me” if I bought her a pair of sandals. No, she’s not 16, let alone 17. She’s been prostituting herself since she was 13 for between two and four CUCs. Her father died when she was three, trying to reach the shores of the United States, and her mother is an alcoholic. She hasn’t studied since she quit elementary school two years ago. From the way she expresses herself it seems unlikely she passed the fourth grade. continue reading

Tonight Barbarita was waiting for Dayana and Lisandra, two friends age 21 and 16 respectively, who soon arrived. The three of them in front of my eyes gave the lie to the official statistics. In a 2013 report, the authorities assured that “cases of prostitution involving minors were minimal” and denied that Cuba is “a destination, transit or source country for human trafficking.”

Dayana and Lisandra are cousins and live in El Cerro where they have been providing sexual services since they were 14. The younger girl is called la Yegua (the mare) and the older Tetris, like the computer game. Dayana has two children to support; their fathers are unknown but she doesn’t give that much importance. “Look, Lisandra knows who the father of hers is, but what good does it do her? She gave birth at 15 and went with him until she was 17 and the wretch hasn’t given her a single CUC.”

La Yegua explained that she couldn’t support her daughter if she didn’t do “this.” “My dad kicked me out of the house and I live with my cousin who charges me even for the water,” she laments.

Dayama maintains a relationship with an 84-year-old Canadian who comes frequently and, according to her friends, since then hasn’t lacked for anything. “Paul has bought me everything,” showing off an iPhone and a Rolex, “but with the money he leaves me I can’t support five people.”

The increase in tourist arrivals has caused a surge in prostitution. Last year the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child called on the Cuban government to establish “an archive to analyze and monitor the possible impact of child trafficking with regards to the sale and trafficking of children for sexual purposes and prostitution.”

The committee showed particular concern about the definition of adulthood as age 16, leaving a group of children very vulnerable to sexual abuse and prostitution without legal protection. Last September, the Cuban Justice Minister, Maria Esther Reus González, said in an interview that the country was considering legislative changes including, among other measures, raising the age of criminal responsibility and freedom to marry to 18.

But below age 16, these are still cases of child prostitution. “La Reina (the queen) also works at this and she is only 12 and is ‘an expert’,” says Lisandra.

Three days earlier in the Monoco wifi zone, I had met Leydis, an exhuberant mixed-race girl from the San Peditro neighborhood in Santiago de Cuba. “At 12 I already had this great body. I wanted my mother to give me a little party for my 14th birthday, I was mad for it. And one day, in the middle of the street, I told myself I would go to bed with some foreigner, and I would be yummy and he would give me a lot of dollars,” she said. A week later, she went to bed with an 18-year-old Cuban, the son of a businessman. She got pregnant and was thrown out of the house and went to live with her grandmother. She had just turned 14. Her son is now five and she lives in Santiago with her great-grandmother.

Leydis is embarrassed, but told me her story after a beer. “In Santiago, between my pimp and the police they barely leave me a cent, and I bring in 10 CUC for Cubans and 15 for foreigners. Also, since they’ve already fingerprinted me, they could put me in prison at any moment for ‘dangerousness’*,” she explains.

Her situation brought her to Havana, where she settled in the home of an uncle without a residence permit.** “I wanted to quit with the bad life and go after my little bucks, although not legally, but without bitching and without stealing. And you see, today they fined me 1,500 pesos and they seized from me soaps and tubes of Colgate toothpaste worth 100 CUC.”

When I ask her if she is thinking of selling her products to pay off her debt she tells me that I’m crazy and reminds me that now she is fingerprinted. “What I’m going to do is what I did in Santiago, hit the streets. Here, in the Monaco neighborhood, there are rentals nearby and a lot of people with money. I already met some girls who do it, even from Santiago, and they tell me that so far the police don’t pick you up for that.”

In 2014, the Interior Ministry said in a report that most crimes of sexual abuse of minors occur “domestically” because in Cuba there are no “criminal networks” engaged in trafficking or child abuse. This was the response to a United Nations report which placed Cuba among the countries with the most cases of sexual exploitation of children in the world – along with Argentina, Brazil, Sri Lanka and Chile – while the authorities continue to close their eyes to the evidence.

Translator’s notes:
*Prostitution is not a crime in Cuba but “pre-criminal dangerousness” is and carries a sentence of 1 to 4 years.
**Cubans non-native to Havana require a residence permit to live in the capital city.

Jovellanos, a Cuban Town That Lives on Nostalgia / 14ymedio, Pedro Acosta

The old Gravi toothpaste factory is today Jovel, belonging to the joint venture company Suchel.
The old Gravi toothpaste factory is today Jovel, belonging to the joint venture company Suchel.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Jovellanos, Cuba, 19 January 2015 – “People here live in the former Gravi factory that is now called Jovel,” says the driver of a bicitaxi (bike-taxi) during a tour of Jovellanos. The industry that made the town famous for its excellent toothpaste now belongs to the joint venture company Suchel, with products of little personality and worse flavor.

The lost glory days of its flagship factory is only one of the many problems of this village in Matanza province, crossed by the highway and the main rail line. If six decades ago the area had a growing economy, today its inhabitants remember past glories and imagine what could have been.

All the city’s transportation is by horse-drawn carts or bicycles. “To leave the village, there are private trucks, but at night its difficult to catch one,” says the driver of an old jeep that travels the route to Matanzas.

The place is no longer a destination of workers and has become a source of workers for the tourist areas of Varadero. “Here there isn’t much to do, so people leave and the young are the first to go,” says Ramon, born in Jovellanos 56 years ago. On Thursday he was having lunch at a private restaurant in the village with some relatives from Miami. With the suggestive name of Kitsch, decorated with baroque furniture and lamps, the restaurant is one of the few that exists in the small town. Young people complain that there is no disco and they have to settle for a depressing cabaret on the outskirts of town, much frequented by flies and drunks. continue reading

Joachim, 79, says he didn’t leave Jovellanos because he always believed that “things would get better. When I realized, it was too late for me to get out.” He worked in one of the two sugar mills that, during the harvest season, “never stopped grinding,” he says with enthusiasm. Now, “the two are closed and useless, pure junk lying in the field,” he laments.

On the streets of the small town many houses have signs saying “For Sale.” For a little more than 12,000 Cuban convertible pesos (roughly $12,000 US), Alina is offering the house where she was born and that was built by her grandfather. It has five bedrooms and a large terrace. “I don’t want to stay here, because I have to give my children a future,” she says. Her plan is to rent for a few months in the capital and ultimately to emigrate to the United States with the money.

Like anywhere else in Cuba, in this town private timbiriches — tiny “mom-and-pop” kiosks – have beat out the State snack bars. Vendors of costume jewelry and useful odds-and-ends furtively offer their merchandise in the doorways of the main street. “We once had three hardware stores, four general stores, two furniture stores and a printer, but that was a long time ago,” remembers Joaquin.

Renamed Jovellanos in 1870, due to the efforts of a mayor originally from Asturias, the town was initially known as Bemba. In the middle of the last century it had a library, two movie theaters, one of which also served as a live theater. Now there is only one still functioning, while the other is just a building with boarded up doors and a faded façade.

The local Communist Party headquarters is located in a beautiful building, which once housed the Association of Small Settlers of the territory. “They criticized the old landlords so much and look at how they’ve destroyed the earth,” comments Joaquin, who remembers when the region “boasted” of its farms with fruits and important crops of vegetables and grains.

In 1959 they had planned to build a jam factory in vacant lot in front of the rice mill and electric plant, “but the Comandante (Fidel Castro) arrived and ordered it to stop,” people comment satirically.

Just over half a century ago a plant was erected to assemble engines with Bulgarian technology, but it no longer functions. A modern smelter was also installed, but a short time after its launch it had to be disassembled.

A resident of Jovellano who was involved in that work and later emigrated to Havana said, “the investors in the foundry had not taken into account the electricity required for this work and when the foundry started running the whole village was left in the dark.”

The soft drink factory that was the pride of the region doesn’t exist any more, nor does the rope factory, nor the coffee roaster, nor the beef slaughterhouse, nor the cement block factory nor the dairies. All the conversations with residents older than 60 invariably end up in a review of these past glories.

Some of the younger people say they remember the taste of Gravi toothpate, “the queen of toothpaste,” but at their age it’s unlikely. In Jovellanos, those who don’t want to accept the fate of its people take refuge in the past to escape the present.

When The Cement Was For Tunnels / 14ymedio, Pedro Acosta

Tunnel between the Palace of the Revolution and Raul Castro’s office in the Ministry of the Armed Forces (MINFAR). (Llamado32 'Blog)
Tunnel between the Palace of the Revolution and Raul Castro’s office in the Ministry of the Armed Forces (MINFAR). (Llamado32 ‘Blog)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Acosta, Havana, 13 October 2015 — As a part of the so-called “War of All the People” in 1991, the construction of tunneling was resumed with great intensity, with the trite prediction of a possible United States military invasion of Cuba.

In the Havana district of Cerro, drilling was carried out under the well-known Finca de Los Monos, the Mexico Cinema, the People’s Power, and the Havana Institute of the Economy. They also tunneled under the rocky promontories between the Zoonosis Institute and the Havana Pediatric Hospital. The ultimate goal was to interconnect all these places.

In January 1992 I entered the Pediatric Hospital tunnel. The things I saw showed me another face of what was happening in the country. There, as in every workplace, there were Communist Party and union nuclei. The day after I joined I ran into an individual who didn’t belong to the contingent. He collected bets for “la bolita” — the lottery. continue reading

Unconcerned, he announced the previous day’s numbers, paying the winners and collecting new bets. The flood of the workers who did the tunneling and built the tunnel entrances shocked me. Members of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC) and the Young Communist League (UJC), union leaders, administrative directors, almost everyone played the lottery or was interested in the resulted. A worker with debts was even shot through the throat with a .22 caliber revolver and it was covered up.

The high-density cement was put into an immense hopper with a capacity of six cubic yards. I never saw an invoice or voucher covering the output. I don’t know if its use was justified or not. Any kind of control was impossible with regards to the veracity of it. The blasts made deep holes in the hard rock and the volume was not always the same. They then placed the prefabricated structure, and the free space between this and the rock was filled with pieces of stone and cement. This space varied in width between a foot and a yard and a half. They worked in different “drawers” (tunnel cubicles) at the same time, so the workers wouldn’t realize how much as consumed.

They swapped blocks, bricks and iron rods for the cement. In the Special Period more than 15 of the tunnelers built, enlarged and repaired their homes. On two or three Sundays when no work was done, I was curious enough to examine the hopper before I left, and then again when I got to work on Monday morning; the contents had diminished considerably.

You could take off work there for sickness, personal problems or whatever, because your wages were never affected. On one occasion I abused this prerogative and in the two months that I didn’t go to work, they didn’t dock my wages.

The tunnel was completed in December 1992. In the two years of its construction, there were some 40 permanent men with a monthly salary of 250 Cuban pesos. So in wages alone it was around 240,000 pesos. Add to that some 600,000 pesos in food rations from the Cerro Pelado High Performance Sports Center. To give you an idea, the worst thing I ate as a main course was scrambled eggs with chorizo, with more chorizo than eggs.*

But the real main course was what was spent on construction materials. For that tunnel, the smallest in Havana, the tunnel was about 4,000 feet long (counting the cubicles), 8 feet wide and 13 feet high. The floor was about 8 inches thick, the walls about 14 inches, and the ceiling more than 24 inches. Plus the lighting system.

This tunnel I worked on was located under the People’s Power of the district. There were more than 3,200 feet of tunnel constructed in various directions even under the 10 de Octubre Surgical Hospital, some 500 feet from the mouth of the tunnel. To give you an idea of the size once it was finished: it passed under the hospital and the street of the same name to join the one that passed under Cristina Street. Another went under the Mexico Cinema to Via Blanca. Another went under Calzado del Cerro, with a mouth under the little park in front of the Latin American Stadium, and continuing below the stadium to the Havana School of Economics on Ayestaran Street.

The fifteen of us on this tunnel spent all of 1993 using a powerful pump to pump out the water that seeped in from the water table and flooded the underground system. I don’t know how long this chatting, eating and earning a salary went on, as I left my usual workplace in December of that year, but in May of 1994 the situation remained the same.

This was my third season in the “middle ground.” In 1963, when I started junior high school, they had built a shelter for future aggressions at the elementary school across the street. In the eighties – the Reagan era – all the workplaces in the country were required to have an air-raid shelter.

Millions of Cubans live in dwellings declared uninhabitable, in shelters, in huts with dirt floors, in badly built houses incapable of withstanding hurricanes, with no means to enlarge or repair them. In a country in ruins the government spent millions of pesos on tunnels. Were these constructions a necessity, a presidential whim, or a political strategy?

No Cuban ever had to enter a shelter or tunnel to protect themselves from an enemy attack!

*Translator’s note: This would have been luxury food, at this time of great national hardship after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of its subsidies to Cuba.