Exclusive Cuban Restaurant, Now an Expensive Fast-Food Joint, Flaunts Its Privileges

A garbage truck parked next to El Biky, on Concordia Street, in front of a luxury automobile. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Espinosa, Havana, February 12, 2024 — The combination restaurant, cafe and dessert shop that make up El Biky, located at 412 Infanta Street, is less and less shy about flaunting its privileges. One of the most striking examples is the garbage truck that was recently parked alongside it, on Concordia Street, right in front of a luxury automobile.

In contrast to the neighborhood’s other street corners, with their mountains of trash spilling out of their containers, El Biky’s are pristine. The restaurant has at its disposal no less than ten new, well-maintained garbage bins, all of them with locks to prevent the public from using them.  This is especially paradoxical when it comes to comparing this “non-agricultural cooperative” (CNA) to a micro, small or medium-sized business (MSME), which — according to the regime — is “more commercial in nature while the former is “more social.”

Their prices, however, have never been for everyone. And though their desserts are still reputed to be the best in the city, that is not the case for their restaurant or their service. “For what it costs, you shouldn’t leave feeling starved,” says Lydia, who recently celebrated her wedding anniversary there with her husband. “A teaspoon of rice, a little bit of this, a little bit of that. They tell you it’s because it looks nicer, that refined people prefer small portions. It’s not about refinement or anything else. It’s about trying to steal your money and getting rich.” continue reading

The restaurant has at its disposal no less than ten new, well-maintained garbage bins, all of them with locks to prevent the public from using them. (14ymedio)

For Eduardo, the worst thing about the place is the service. “They’re not friendly. You feel as if they’re doing you a favor… The last time I ate there, the headwaiter walked around the room like he was on patrol, like a guard on a military base. It was intimidating.”

One need only step foot in the place on any given day to notice the controlling atmosphere and absence of friendly faces.

“The food is mediocre and has gotten worse over the years. And the portions are getting smaller,” explains one Havana resident who works as a tour guide and sometimes visits the place with his clients. “A good gauge of a restaurant’s quality here in Cuba is how fresh the salad is and, at El Biky, it’s generally not in great shape by the time it’s served. The dishes are sometimes cold, the sauces are obviously overheated, the rice dishes are mixed with leftovers that look like they’ve been around for several days… For me it is just a very well located fast-food joint.”

One need only step foot in the place on any given day to notice the controlling atmosphere of control and absence of friendly faces. (14ymedio).

Customers have also complained about prices and quality at a satellite branch that opened in September at the José Martí International Airport. There is no evidence the company was required to submit a bid and its employees wear uniforms with the logo of the state-owned Cuban Aiports and Aeronautical Services Company. (ECASA).

All these perks have raised suspicions about the owners since it opened in 2013. Local residents openly point to Mariela Castro but, in fact, the names of the four partners credited with starting the CNA have never been revealed.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.

A Mechanic’s Workshop, the Only Sign of Life After the Eviction of Dozens of Families

On the ground floor of the building, a mechanics workshop remain’s open that seems to defy the risks. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Espinosa, Havana, 5 February 2024 — The bustle coming out of number 70 Factoría Street between Corrales and Apodaca, in Old Havana, has stopped for days. Last Wednesday, the almost hundred people who lived in the building were evicted due to the danger of collapse, a threat they had been living with for years after illegally occupying the building.

With the façade blackened by humidity alongside some areas of yellow ocher color that remind us of its former splendor, the three-story building with its stately bracing barely preserves part of the original ceilings. “This had been declared uninhabitable for a long time but the need is great,” acknowledges Carmita, a neighbor who from the opposite sidewalk fears every day “that this ruin will fall forward and cause misfortune.”

According to the woman, “all these bricks that you see down here in the doors and windows were to wall up the entrance.” In this way, the authorities of the Housing Directorate wanted to prevent the building from filling up with inhabitants again after the neighbors who lived there were evacuated when the structure became very unstable. “But they didn’t do it well, people found a way to get in.” continue reading

The majority of those who settled came from the provinces, homeless people and without an identity card with an address in Havana

Despite the balconies without railings, the orphaned door and window thresholds lacking blinds, necessity meant that in a short time the hubbub of families, the cries of children and the barking of the occasional dog once again populated the place. The majority of those who settled came from the provinces, homeless people and without an identity card with an address in Havana.

Fleeing from the misery of eastern Cuba, in the hallways of the old palace they were heard talking about mushrooms, hammering a board to prevent the rain from seeping into the babies’ cribs, playing dominoes when the daytime blackout paralyzed life, and fighting, when the neighbor on one side took advantage of a distraction and moved the dividing wall a few centimeters towards the other person’s house.

Now they are gone. According to Armando, an old retiree, who this Monday wore his pants rolled up to avoid the puddles that splashed all over the street, “they took them to various shelters in San Agustín, Altahabana and Santiago de las Vegas.” Others “were returned to their provinces of origin,” he adds, although he would not be surprised if “they are taking time for things to calm down and return.”

The smell of waste wet with the rains of recent days reinforces the feeling of abandonment and decrepitude of the property. (14ymedio)

At first, when they took over the demolished building, solidarity prevailed, but as the months passed, overcrowding and neighborhood problems raised the temperature inside the quarters. The fights and continuous scandals led Factoría 70 to earn the reputation of a confrontational place, a place to avoid and cross the sidewalk when walking down the block. Being located in the Jesús María neighborhood, fame like this multiplies.

The neighbors alternate feelings. “If it’s not for the toughest necessity, no one goes into such a place where you can’t even sleep a wink in case the roof falls on you,” says a woman who lives around the corner, on Corrales Street. “The poor people, who knows what they’ve been through, but it’s true that it got ugly here and the fights were constant.”

On the ground floor of the building, a mechanics workshop remains open that seems to defy the risks. “No, this area is not in danger of collapsing,” summarizes one of the store’s employees before entering back into an area where an impeccably restored antique vehicle in a deep pink color alternates with the wood that supports the upper floor and a immense mountain of waste and debris coming from the floors above.

The smell of waste wet with the rains of recent days reinforces the feeling of abandonment and decrepitude of the property. Outside, the old folding metal doors that once gave way to a thriving business stand with some dignity against the surrounding destruction. They no longer go up or down and they no longer safeguard bags of beans, various preserves or chocolate. They have been paralyzed by the improvised brick barrier that should have prevented people from sneaking into the building.

On the rough wall there is a name: Pedrito. Could it be one of the neighbors evicted last week? Where will he be now?

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.

Desperate for More Workers, Cuba’s Electric Company Holds a Job Fair

The electric company’s facilities on Independence Avenue in Havana’s Boyeros district, are well maintained. The sign reads: “The Party Is Immortal”. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Espinosa/Juan Izquierdo, Havana, 21 January 2024 — The Cuban Electrical Union (UNE) needs operators, linemen, inspectors, economists, dispatchers and meter readers. However, attendees at Thursday’s job fair, sponsored by the state-owned enterprise in an effort to alleviate its worker shortage, were not met with promises of good salaries. Instead, they were greeted by a rusty sign over the gate to its operations center that read, “The Party is Immortal.”

The company’s Havana facilities, located on Independence Avenue in the Boyeros district, are well maintained. Several repair vehicles loaded with equipment and ladders are parked next to the main building. Also adjoining the premises is a training center for linemen where, on Thursday, several uniformed apprentices could be seen climbing poles and using training cables.

“All the state-owned companies are desperately looking for people because no one wants to work for them given how little they pay,” says one of the candidates for a lineman position. continue reading

All the state-owned companies are desperately looking for people because no one wants to work for them given how little they pay

Despite UNE’s need to increase staffing, company representatives at the fair did not go out of their way to tout the benefits of working for the company. Essential questions about the nature of the work were met with obfuscation, hemming and hawing, and “misdirection.” Shrugging her shoulders, the building’s receptionist apologized when asked about the pay. “I lost the salary schedule,” she replied.

After an expedited hiring process, the lineman positions — the best paid but also the most dangerous — were quickly filled. For those interested less risky positions, such as those for computer engineers or operators, the news was disappointing.

“The pay is 4,000 a month plus a performance bonus,” explained a department head to an applicant who had already been shuffled from one office to another. “If you exceed your target, you can earn between 9,000 and 12,000 pesos.” Hardly a tempting offer considering a police officer can make up to 15,000 pesos.

Adjoining the company’s offices is a training center for linemen where, on Thursday, uniformed apprentices could be seen climbing poles and handling training cables.  (14ymedio)

Not yet convinced, the candidate was told that transportation was provided for employees. Also needed are inspectors and meter readers, as well as security and protection workers, who require a higher level of certification than the average technician.

Those attending the fair, however, were able to confirm at least one thing. At the electric company, where blackouts are expected and excuses are made for the country’s energy crisis, every office is air conditioned and the place is amply lit. “Blackouts don’t happen here,” said one candidate as he exited under the same Communist Party sign that greeted him when he came in.

With its jobs becoming increasingly less attractive, and with little to offer potential employees, the public sector is running out of workers. The most recent strategy to improve the situation is to organize job fairs, which have proliferated throughout the country since December. Company directors highlight the advantages of working for the state: stability, more reliability and lots of job openings

Job-fair fever has spread throughout the island as officials from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security continue boasting of their success

The last point has proved to be an easy sell. The stampede to the private sector combined with the high level of emigration has meant that organizers of a single job fair last December in Guantanamo province were able to offer candidates more than 2,200 positions.

Job-fair fever has spread throughout the island as officials from the Ministry of Labor and Social Security continue boasting of their success. The ideal candidates, according state media, are those who are “not studying or not currently employed,” and who live in “vulnerable communities.”

One of the workplaces that has worked hardest to recruit Cubans “excited” to work for the state is Cubadebate, the flagship — along with Granma — of official state media. After an attempt to add more journalists to its payroll , the online news outlet received more than a few sardonic responses, some in the form of a query. One example: “Can journalists write their own articles or do they have to wait for the Communist Party to dictate them?”

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.

Excluded from Millions of Dollars in FIFA Funds, Cuba’s La Tropical Stadium Languishes

Weeds from the nearby Almendares River threaten to engulf the stadium. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Espinosa, Havana, 18 January 2024 — “It’s a pasture,” says the athletic coach as he contemplates the desolation of the Pedro Marrero stadium in Havana’s Playa district. The soccer field originally belonged to the old Tropical Brewery. Maradona once played here but it is about to turn 100 years old and looks its age. Though the grass is worn and and the track is full of potholes, the coach’s students run wild here.

There is no trace of the eight million dollars that the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA) gave Cuba between 2016 and 2022 to improve its facilities.

It was never a high-end stadium but at least it was well maintained and had some moments of fame. Like that day in June 2000 when the Argentine soccer player scored a goal right before checking himself into a Cuban drug addiction clinic at Fidel Castro’s urging. Times have changed. “No one plays soccer here anymore,” the coach tersely admits. continue reading

The fragile zinc roof totters on rusty columns covered in graffiti, the walkway walls need painting and chunks of the stone benches are missing

His colleagues in the provincial athletics program are waging a small battle with the National Sports Institute (INDER). Athletes need a space to train, they argue, and no one has played at Pedro Marrero for years. They prefer the slightly less precarious facilities of the Pan-American Village. The only good to come out of it, the coach says, is that officials finally turned it over to the people who actually use it.

At the moment those are chamacos, street kids who come here to play, and teenage athletes whom their coach cajoles from the stands. On the field, the boys do what they can. The rain has left the grass sticky and wet, and water gathers in potholes on the track. It is impossible to have a clean race. They avoid the puddles by jumping over them.

If the field and the track are bad, the stands are not much better. The fragile zinc roof totters on rusty columns covered in graffiti, the walkways need painting and chunks are missing from the stone benches, which look like they have been hit with a sledge hammer. In the distance, the moldy green scoreboard displays two numbers — three and two — from the last time someone was in charge of keeping time and keeping score.

The stadium is used by street kids and teenage athletic students. (14ymedio)

In February 2023, FIFA officials visited several Havana stadiums and decided to prioritize the restoration of the Polar field over Pedro Marrero. At the time, they were deciding how to invest the international subsidy for the development of Cuban soccer through FIFA’s Forward 3.0 program.

Luck was not on Pedro Marrero’s side. The officials limited themselves to “analyzing possible projects” and announced that soon – they did not give a date – a master plan to refurbish the facilities would be finalized. “The project is not as far along as that of Polar, on which work is about to begin, but we are aware of the interest and support the local government in carrying it out,” they said. Nothing else.

Pedro Marrero’s walkways are in a precarious condition. (14ymedio)

In December, a FIFA report revealed that the organization had invested eight million dollars in Cuba between 2016 and 2022. The announcement raised several questions. With stadiums like the Pedro Marrero still in terrible condition, what did the Cuban federation do with that money? The official response was that the money went towards events, salaries, training of managers and the repair of the Antonio Maceo stadium in Santiago de Cuba, where artificial turf was installed. The explanation did not convince anyone and raised other, more disturbing questions about FIFA’s complicity in misspending of these funds.

Some half-hidden clues on the walls of the stadium provide some indication of what it was like in its early days. A plaque, signed by US Major League players, acknowledges the “altruism” of the directors of the New Havana Ice Factory for having built the stadium in 1929. Originally known as the Grand Tropical Brewery Stadium, it could seat  28,000 spectators. It was also where, in 1930, the Central American Games were first played. ​

The Tropical’s “hall of fame” displays commerative plaques dedicated to various Cuban sports figures and benefactors.

There is also a plaque from 1956 to one particular benefactor who was also the heir to the brewery, Julio Blanco Herrera, along with another that commemorates the first amateur baseball game to be played in Latin America, in 1939.

When it came to renaming the sports complex after 1959, however, the memory of hundreds of Cuban athletes who had played there meant less than the name of Pedro Marrero, a participant in the assault on the Moncada barracks and a kind of patron saint of brewers. The official encyclopedia Ecured defines him as a “hero of food workers” for having been a driver at the Cristal brewery.

All that is in the past. Weeds from the nearby Almendares River threaten to swallow up the stadium. With the advancing vines and moss, it will  soon cease to be a “pasture” and become a ruin like so many other iconic facilities built in Havana, and in the rest of the country, before 1959.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.

Cuban Gasoline Set to Rise to 200 Pesos a Liter, 250 for Diesel, while Service Stations Await the Go-Ahead

Gas pumps still display the old prices while a filling station manager in Camajuaní awaits instructions from his bosses before charging the new prices.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Espinosa and Juan Matos, Camajuaní/Manzanillo | 2 January 2024 — The impacts of the new macro-economic readjustment measures that the government announced at the end of the year have yet to be felt at Cuban filling stations. During visits to several of the island’s gas stations, reporters from 14ymedio found that employees of the Cuba Petroleum Union (Cupet) were still waiting for instructions from officials, who have ordered them not to allow customers to take photos of the new prices or the facilities.

That is the case at a filling station in Camajuaní, a village on the outskirts of Villa Clara. Though the pumps still display the old prices, a company source has confirmed that the cost of a liter of gas will rise from 25 to 250 pesos. The station’s  manager is still waiting for confirmation from his bosses before charging the new price. When asked about sales to tourists, he says he is unable to answer the question but refers the reporter to the town’s other gas station, in the direction of Cayería Norte, which is already operating under the new guidelines.

What is clear to the employee is the ban by the local government and police on taking photos of gas pumps. “The DTI (Directorate of Intelligence) chief was just here to pass along that information,” says the worker, casting a sideways glance at the police station located a few yards from the gas station.

The situation is much the same at filling stations in Manzanillo. “Prices haven’t changed but there’s still not much gas to be had,” explains a Cupet employee to a driver at the Celia Sanchez Hospital’s gas station. continue reading

Meanwhile, the gas station at the corner of Boyeros and Ayestarán, one of the most important in Havana, had not a single car parked next to its pumps. In addition to the strange absence of a line at the establishment is the lack of employees to answer customers’ questions and concerns. Expectations are that the Cuban government’s economic readjustment plan will be devastating for Cubans but we won’t know until the holiday lull is over.

 

During visits to several of the island’s gas stations, reporters from 14ymedio found that employees of the Cuba-Petroleum Union (Cupet) were still waiting for instructions from the officials before implementing the new 2024 fuel prices.   — 14ymedio 

In yet another change in economic direction, Havana announced a series of austerity measures that include a sharp increase in prices for fuel, electricity, water and food.

Government leaders feel some urgency to implement the plan, which they have stressed is not intended to further impoverish the population but rather to make those who spend the most pay more. It is keeping Cubans in suspense, worrying that the package will significantly affect their daily cost of living.

One Cuban economist who has criticized the plan is Pedro Monreal, who claims, “An economic package does not necessarily have to be neo-liberal to have affects similar to those of a traditional neo-liberal package” 

Prime Minister Manuel Marrero likened past several years of crisis to  a “war economy,” which he claimed is caused by “waste.” This stands in contrast to the dozens of ships loaded with fuel that were seen docked in the nation’s ports in 2023.

Since the plan was announced, the government of Miguel Díaz-Canel has taken pains to point out that it is neither a “neo-liberal* package” nor a “crash program.” This claim, which has been a constant refrain in recent days, is in response to accusations from some in the opposition that these measures are similar to those adopted in recent decades by other, mostly right-wing, governments in the region, including that of the Argentina’s new libertarian president, Javier Milei.

One Cuban economist who has criticized the plan is Pedro Monreal, who claims, “An economic package does not necessarily have to be neo-liberal* to have affects similar to those of a traditional neo-liberal package.”

*Translator’s note: A term used to refer to market-oriented reform policies such as eliminating price controls, deregulating capital markets, lowering trade barriers and reducing — especially through privatization and austerity — state influence in the economy. (Source: Wikipedia)

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.

If You Want to Travel, Bring 3,000 Cuban Pesos to Bribe the Staff at the Villanueva Bus Terminal

With no money or particular skills, the majority of passengers just have to wait their turn. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, Pedro Espinosa, 29 December 2023 – Every day he comes into the Villanueva bus station in Havana knowing that, if it weren’t for his particular role, very few passengers would be departing from the city. A number of members of staff now don’t want to work with him. “You’re too noticeable” they tell him. But business goes on and is getting better and better. At this year’s end, for 3,000 pesos the “journey fixer” of Villanueva is able to get you a passage to any city on the island.

Desperate to get out of this terminal – a complete microcosm of the misery of the Cuban capital – whoever has the money also knows the tricks and passwords for finding him. The man arrives at Villanueva – a hive of people waiting, sleeping, talking – and looks for the staff member who will supply him with seats for resale that day.

They greet each other as if they don’t know one another and shortly after they enter the toilets. Here is where the first phase of the transaction takes place. The “journey fixer” then locates his client, takes a piece of paper from his pocket with a number on it – the number of his place in the waiting list – and asks him to be patient. After a moderate wait the terminal’s employee will call the client, reeling off his identity card number. This is the signal that the transaction is completed. He has paid 3,000 pesos instead of the 75 that it would normally cost him to get to Santa Clara, but it relieves him of the massive tedium of a long stay in the pigsty that is Villanueva. continue reading

 La mugre del suelo, donde hasta los perros callejeros de la terminal se sienten incómodos, es la opción reservada para la mayoría. (14ymedio)
The majority of passengers have to put up with the filthy ground, which even the street dogs find uncomfortable. (14ymedio)

The “journey fixer” is the king of Villanueva. Everybody knows him – that’s his Achilles’ heel, but it’s also part of his modus operandi: he goes through the waiting area calling all his regulars “cousins” or “nephews”.

Outside of this “family”, and with no money or particular skills, the majority of passengers simply have to wait their turn. And that can take days. Before turning up at Villanueva the best thing to do is get yourself equipped with water, pillows and duvets. The experience is exhausting, especially for children and the elderly, who have to take it in turns to watch over and protect their luggage. Whole families often turn up at the terminal, intending to meet up – especially in holiday periods like this new year – with the extended family they left behind in the provinces where they were brought up.

The tenuous line that separates the state from the private sector passes through the cafeterias, which the government handed over to the mipymes [small/medium sized private businesses]. However, the number of customers they have is small, because a ham sandwich will cost you 150 pesos and a cookie and soft drink the same price. If you do have the money the better course of action is not to waste it on all this indigestible food at the terminal, but to use it to try and haggle a price with the “journey fixer”. Also, except in cases of emergency, the best thing is to avoid at all costs the toilets at Villanueva. The poor experience you’ll have there isn’t even free: the doorman will demand three pesos for using the facilities.

 El delicado ecosistema de Villanueva depende de la Policía y, en última instancia, del régimen, que por ahora deja hacer. (14ymedio)
The delicate ecosystem of Villanueva is dependent upon the police – and ultimately the regime – which for now leave him alone. (14ymedio)

In the microcosmic world of Villanueva, he who has managed to grab a seat is the winner. The majority of passengers have to put up with the filthy ground, which even the street dogs find uncomfortable. Recent arrivals spend hours standing around waiting on foot; the “veterans”, who have perfected the art of hunting down a seat, will sleep there: some of them even for as long as fifteen days.

In the meantime, even the “journey fixer” knows his time here is temporary. However many followers he brings together or clients he locates, the delicate ecosystem of Villanueva is dependent upon the police – and ultimately the regime – which for now leave him alone. Tomorrow? Nobody knows.

Translated by Ricardo Recluso

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.

Obispo Street, the ‘Beggars’ Boulevard’ in the Cuban Capital

Orlando ‘El Barba’ [The Beard] begs for alms next to La Moderna Poesía, which at one time was the best bookstore in Havana. (14ymedio)
14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Espinosa, Havana, 21 December 2023 — The belongings of old Orlando, whom everyone in Havana knows as El Barba [The Beard], can be counted on the fingers of one hand. With fingers left over. A quilt, a couple of shirts, some pants, his crutch and a small box. His 86 years are also part of the inventory – it is what weighs the most on him – and he has lived them, at least the last few decades, on the streets.

Every morning, Orlando opens his eyes and sees the facade of a bar, next to the dilapidated Saratoga Hotel. Since he sleeps in a corner of the doorway, the bar is the closest thing he has to a house. So that he can go out to “work,” the employees store the quilt and the clothes that he is not going to wear that day.

Like all beggars, Orlando remembers a previous life. “I had a house with everything inside, but my family made a mess for me. They sold it, furniture and everything, and left the country,” he tells 14ymedio from the sidewalk of La Moderna Poesía, the famous bookstore – also abandoned – in the Bishop Street.

Passing children point to Orlando’s long beard. Passersby greet him and leave what they can in the cardboard box, which used to hold bottles of Havana Club rum. “It’s all a story and a lie,” he insists to those who ask him why he has not demanded assistance from the authorities. “I have gone to the municipal government several times. They have never given me the time of day, they have never wanted to help me.” continue reading

William, a neighbor by trade and on the street of ’El Barba’, does not sleep in any doorway but in “a little house” on Avenida del Puerto. (14ymedio)

William, a neighbor by trade and on the street of El Barba, does not sleep in any doorway but in “a little house” on Avenida del Puerto. With all the patience in the world, and sometimes pushed by a neighbor, his wheelchair leaves the Malecón heading towards Obispo. He stops at the door of a store, in front of La Moderna Poesía, and – he clarifies – “I don’t call out to anyone.” It is the people who, “if they want,” leave him some money.

“I’m not selling my house because I can’t sleep in a porch,” he emphasizes, when it is recommended to him. He is right: with one leg missing – he lost it 25 years ago in an accident, when he was a Comunales employee and collected garbage – William has a hard time expressing himself. He smokes a lot, coughs often and his memory fails. “They pay me 1,000 checkbook pesos a month,” he says, and clarifies that that’s all: “No social assistance, no spare parts for the chair, no nothing.”

29 years ago, at the wheel of his Moskvitch, Osvaldo braked badly while crossing the train line. (14ymedio)

Every beggar is a story. Sometimes fantastical – pain rewrites the past – but always bitter: in the end, one of Fidel Castro’s countless promises to the people of Cuba was that with the Revolution there would be no beggars. Another lie. Osvaldo, who is missing both legs, knows it well. 29 years ago, at the wheel of his Moskvitch, he slammed on the brakes crossing the train line. It was the worst of times. Before he could react, a locomotive rammed into the vehicle.

With him was his wife, who died instantly, and his two daughters, who survived. In the crash he also lost both legs. Osvaldo lives in Old Havana and likes to drink. Alcohol, in any quality and caliber, helps numb pain and fosters sleep. Sleeping, in fact, is what a beggar does most in Havana. Huddled in the corners of Carlos III or in a doorway on San Rafael Street, in rags or without a shirt.

Osvaldo is also paid 1,000 pesos a month, and the wheelchair he has was not given to him by the State. There is nothing at all, was the response of every doctor or technician he asked, when he tried to get it through official means. “The worst thing is that no one told me lies: they really didn’t have even a single screw,” he admits.

Now he can just “sit there,” he admits, and witness the movement of the city. In the box where people deposit a note there is always a statuette of Saint Lazarus. The beggar and lame saint – who is also the sickly orisha Babalú Ayé – is the patron of one of the many hidden Havanas: that of those who, like Osvaldo, William or El Barba, only aspire to a quiet corner to remember and sleep.

Sleeping is what a beggar does most, curled up in the corners of Carlos III or in a doorway on San Rafael Street. (14ymedio)

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.

Devoid of Tourists and Locals, Only the Turkey Vultures Remain in the Plaza of the Revolution

The guide, always attentive to curious visitors, leads them to a narrow perch with acrylic windows. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Espinosa, Havana, 13 December 2023 — A few years ago a line of taxis and old convertibles regularly filled the esplanade in front of the Plaza of the Revolution’s tower. But the decline in tourism has also led to a decline in visitors to what was once the nerve center of political power on this Island.

On Wednesday, guards stood watch over the broad rectangle in front of the statue of José Martí that the writer Eliseo Alberto de Diego described as the saddest one that had ever been made. Its faded contour and melancholy pose suggest a sculpture that has melted under the tropical sun while observing the city spread out at its feet.

Adding to the sense of ossification is the stillness. Nothing in the scene moves, not even the uniformed guards. Hours pass before a lone person walks up the ramp towards the José Martí Memorial. The view provides a different vantage point, allowing us to see what  most Cubans have only observed from below, when they participated in May Day events or stood listening to a very long speech by Fidel Castro. continue reading

The leader known for waving his index finger when shouting into microphones there died in 2016 and the site lost its political importance

But the number of political rallies in the plaza have been decreasing over the years as have visits by foreigners. The leader who used to wave his index finger while shouting into microphones there died in 2016 and the site lost its political importance. The same thing has happened to other official spaces such as the Anti-Imperialist Grandstand and, more recently, La Piragua, the esplanade next to the National Hotel in Vedado. The latter, with its proximity to the sea and location at the foot of a cliff, allows for far more effective security precautions for party leaders.

But despite its decline as a revolutionary symbol, visitors still get the sense they are entering the sancta sanctorum, or peeking into the inner workings of the Cuban regime, when they take the elevator or walk past the marble benches that so often held the posteriors of Communist Party bigwigs. Even though everyone knows it was Fulgencio Batista who built the place, and that before the Revolution it was originially known as Civic Plaza, the site has become an emblem of Castroism.

Motivated by curiosity and the almost desperate public pleas by its caretakers for people to visit the site, the visitor climbs the hill and heads straight to a small ticket office to purchase a ticket to the viewing platform, galleries and temporary exhibitions, which are open, Monday to Saturday, from 9:30 A.M. to 4:00 P.M.

Those in charge of the monument took advantage of the sudden attention from goverment media outlets to point out that entry to the museum is 20 pesos for Cubans. Since currency unification, foreigners can now also pay in the local currency, for which they will need 150 pesos, less than a dollar at the unofficial exchange rate.

Its faded contour and melancholy pose suggest a sculpture that has melted under the tropical sun while observing the city spread out at its feet.

After buying a ticket, a guide will explain, upon request, that the tower was built on the highest point of the site, formerly known as Loma de los Catalanes. He will discuss details of the design competition that led to two of the proposals being combined into one and will describe the marble that was transported from the what is now known as the Isle of Youth.

One of the employees, most of whom are women, will provide details, names, figures and dates but will avoid mentioning the slogans about “¡paredón!” — to the wall! — that were chanted in the plaza during fits of collective hysteria demanding the executions of opponents after Castro came to power. Nor will she talk about the unsavory characters, trigger-happy figures or authoritarian leaders who have been invited to appear at the memorial. And she will certainly not allude to the turkey vultures that constant inhabits of the hilltop.

Then, after listening to this speech in which the guide takes the opportunity of to denigrate the former republic and praise Castro, one will be allowed to cross the threshold and enter an odd series of spaces. Laid out in a configuration dictated by the star shape that the tower maintains from its base to its pinnacle, the first thing that stands out are the walls with quotes by the “apostle,” José Martí. And what quotes!

“Unify, that is the word of the world.” And “Silence is the modesty of great characters.” Or the politically incorrect “The people who want to be free shall be free in business.” These are among the seventy-nine musings by Martí that can read in a mural by the Cuban painter and ceramist Enrique Caravia, all of them inscribed in 22-carat gold on a greenish blue background.

Photos, facsimiles of letters and personal objects on display in the galleries provide a snapshot of a man who only lived for forty-two years. (14ymedio)

Photos, facsimiles of letters and personal objects on display in the galleries provide a snapshot of a man who only lived for forty-two years. Among the large format images on display, a head-to-toe photo of Fidel Castro stands out. A dark snapshot that often puzzles tourists, it shows him holding a Cuban flag on a narrow stretch of beach at Cajobabo that recalls Martí’s landing on that coast in 1895.

The image of Castro, dressed in a khaki uniform and assuming a rigid posture, clashes with the warm civility of Mariano and Leonor’s son, who has accompanied the visitor to the memorial here. Wielding the flag like a spear, the ruler seems to want to lay claim to any space or reference having anything to do with José Martí. By planting a flag, he is signaling that this is also his museum.

It is no surprise that one of the temporary exhibitions on display is titled “Fidel’s Hands.” It includes photos by Alberto Korda and Roberto Chile as well as a painting by Oswaldo Guayasamín in which Castro looks more like a saint in an El Greco painting than a stern tyrant who held power for almost half a century without allowing free elections.

Finally, it is time to go up to the lookout. The guide, always attentive to those who are curious, leads them to a narrow perch with acrylic windows. Up there, where vehicles driving along Rancho Boyeros Avenue look tiny and the Council of State building looks it was designed for the Third Reich, the guide begins to share details about the size of the building: 142 meters tall.

One of the temporary exhibitions on display is titled “Fidel’s Hands,” and includes photos by Alberto Korda and Roberto Chile. (14ymedio)

According to urban legends, of which there is no shortage when it comes to this topic, there is a regulation which prohibits the construction of any building in Havana taller than the José Martí Monument. But, at 154 meters, the imposing Tower K, which can clearly be seen from the windows at the top of the monument, makes it clear that this is just a hoax. Or that politics lost out to tourism in the battle over height.

The absence of human presence in the plaza, the imposing buildings and lack of trees is more noticeable from the top. One can make out, in a foreshortened view, the outline of Che Guevara’s face on the gloomy Ministry of Agriculture building, the same portrait that is slyly included in official photos so that he appears in the frame alongside official visitors such as Barack Obama and King Felipe VI of Spain.

The immediate impression one gets is that the entire architectural complex has not aged well. While the world is moving towards more people-friendly public spaces, the center of Cuban power is not a place where people choose to go voluntarily, where friends meet and mothers walk their babies in strollers. The gray marble also gives it a funereal quality that is only reinforced by the completely empty esplanade.

A turkey vulture pervades the space beyond the window. On the other side are scavenger birds drawn to high elevations and tall buildings. One cannot help but see a parallel between the rotting meat they feed on and the decadence of the Cuban system that the Plaza of Revolution represents. The guide doesn’t even glance at the huge bird just outside. Instead, she quickly wraps up her speech and warns visitors that it’s time to head down.

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.

China Enters the Competition in Online Commerce in Cuba With Tiendas Caribe

The store only allows for pickup of purchases from abroad paid for in foreign currency. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Pedro Espinosa, Havana, 15 December 2023 — GD-Mart is the new Cuban Chinese business that practices the policy of apartheid, although Cubans have not been long in finding a way to take advantage of it. The official press announced with great fanfare last week the inauguration of the establishment, located on Infanta Street in Havana, which is actually a delivery point for the products that are purchased in the online store, a website that only accepts payments in hard currency from abroad.

The place, presided over by a huge poster hanging from the arcades, hosts a small sample of products, as announced by José Ernesto Madan Cambó, Cuban representative of the Chinese company Guangdong Stationery & Sporting Goods, Corp. and an ally of Tiendas del Caribe, of the Gaesa military consortium, in this new operation to collect foreign exchange.

“We have set up a product counter so that customers can see first-hand the offers we have online,” the manager explained to the official press in reference to the user, since the buyers, who live abroad, cannot see them.

A shelf houses a brief sample of flat-screen TVs of different sizes, fans, microwaves and other small appliances

A shelf houses a brief sample of flat-screen televisions of different sizes, fans, microwaves and other small appliances. Meanwhile, at ground level, one can see half a dozen electric vehicles of the Onebot brand, with prices ranging from $999 for an electric motorcycle to $2,600 for a tricycle that is already available Havana’s resale websites for $3,200 and more.

An employee explained to a 14ymedio reporter that the buyer abroad must name the Cuban beneficiary who will later pick up the product. “People have to come with a screenshot, an identity card and the guarantee.” continue reading

Although some curious people approached to nose around the store, the employee affirms that there is “movement” for the Christmas season. The products are already on the resale pages, uploaded just two days ago and advertised as new, but the conditions of purchase are a mystery.

The website, the only way to buy, has a frequently-asked-questions section that is empty. The terms and conditions refer almost exclusively to the online environment in terms of navigation. The guarantee is not mentioned in the return policy, and in “About Us” one can barely read an empty paragraph: “GD Mart Online Shop is our digital emporium, dedicated to shortening distances between loved ones and creating memorable moments. With a single click, you can send your family or friends everything they need.” And little else.

The employee explains that she does not know for sure what warranty period the products have, but “it is said” that it’s six months, a tiny amount of time for products of that profile, which in most cases are covered for at least one year.

“We have set up a product counter so that customers can see first-hand the offers we have online,” said the manager. (14ymedio)

“Scan the QR code or go to the link. Tell your friends to share it,” the saleswoman insisted with kindness.

Among the brands that can be found, according to Luis Orlando López, head of the purchasing group of Tiendas Caribe, will be LG and Samsung, although the truth is that all the appliances that are currently on sale are from the Chinese brand Konka, well known on the Island, but little known outside it. The company, despite its 45 years of experience, began selling in Europe just a year ago.

The Cuban Government opened the first stores for appliances only in dollars in 2019, when it decided to compete against the mules that imported quality products to the Island. Although the first sales were a success, the pandemic and the aggravation of the crisis have emptied state stores of these products, but the regime is determined to continue capturing foreign exchange from relatives abroad, now partnering with its foreign allies.

GD-Mart has a hard time, however. Numerous digital sites, some of them based in Florida, have long offered the online purchase of appliances with shipping included to Cuba, in addition to offers of products that are already on the Island and are delivered to the recipient’s home between 7 and 10 business days.

The Cuban Government opened the first stores for appliances only in dollars in 2019, when it decided to compete against the mules that imported quality products to the Island

Portals such as Cuballama, DimeCuba or Cubamax have a more varied offer of brands. They include U.S.-brand appliances, more valued by customers on the Island than the Chinese brands, and the customer can track the shipment until its delivery. Other portals add bonuses for future purchases, Christmas discounts and a more intuitive shopping interface.

The Konka-brand televisions that in recent years have burst into the Island’s market, mostly by the hand of official establishments, do not get the best evaluations by buyers. Some require an external decoder box because they don’t comply with the standard for capturing Cuban digital television.

Other televisions of the same brand have less up-to-date technologies than those found in markets in Panama, Mexico or Miami, from where many Cuban travelers import these devices. They also do not have a wide range of sizes, with the 32-inch Konka televisions being the most common in Cuba, at a time when the demand for devices with larger and thinner screens is growing on the Island.

Translated by Regina Anavy

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COLLABORATE WITH OUR WORKThe 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.