11,000 Stolen Uniforms Are In The Black Market / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

School Uniforms (Luz Escobar)
School Uniforms (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 28 August 2015 — Every summer national television calls on us to save electricity, reports the high temperatures and disseminates statements by officials of the Ministry of Education in which they assure us that school uniforms are guaranteed. However, year after year, complaints about deficient supplies and problems with the sizes of these garments return to inflame public opinion.

On this occasion the sale started in the capital on May 25 and will extend to December 31. According to prime time news, “The industry did its part and fulfilled the order for 699,000 garments,” for Havana’s students. However, beginning in the first half of July, the uniforms began to “go missing.” continue reading

“I spent a week looking for a girl’s skirt, but all I find are huge sizes,” says Caridad, the mother of a little girl who will enter first grade this year. “They told me the only place that has any left is the store on Dolores Street in Lawton. So I will go there,” says a determined but otherwise exhausted mother.

“I have all sizes of uniforms,” ​​an illegal vendor boasted Tuesday on the outskirts of La Cuevita, a known enclave for everything one needs to buy under the table

Among the reasons for such a poor offering is the pilfering of more than 11,000 elementary, polytechnic and high school uniforms from the wholesale warehouses, according to a report that appeared Wednesday night on national television.

So far the authorities have not specified if the perpetrators of the robbery have been arrested, but the informal market shows all the evidence of having received a large assortment.

“I have all sizes of uniforms,” ​​an illegal vendor boasted Tuesday on the outskirts of La Cuevita, a known enclave for everything one needs to buy under the table. You just have to follow her to a nearby shack for her to show you the merchandise. There are blouses and skirts for girls in elementary school, a complete set for boys, and also junior high uniforms. They sell for 100 Cuban pesos (just under $4 US) for each set, more than ten times the price in State stores.

Manuela, retired from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, is blunt, ”They should shoot those engaged in reselling uniforms, because this is very sensitive because it’s about our children.” She expressed this opinion loudly in front of her daughter and two granddaughters, outside the store at 20 de Mayo and Ayesteran streets, in El Cerro. But the young woman accompanying her didn’t agree with her opinion. “On the contrary, they should get a medal, because at least they do better than the State,” she opined.

The deficit has forced the provincial trade company to take a series of measures so that an assortment of the most popular sizes will reach Havana

The deficit has forced the provincial trade company to take a series of measures so that an assortment of the most popular sizes will reach Havana. “Undress one saint to dress another,” quipped a grandmother accompanied by her seven-year-old granddaughter when she was told to expect supplies from other provinces.

“Keep checking back every day,” an employee told a mother who couldn’t find pants in her son’s size at an establishment in Central Havana. “This woman thinks that I have nothing else to do in my life but to look for a uniform,” she commented to other customers who also left the store empty handed.

Both the Provincial Education Department and the Provincial Trade Company have issued a call for calm and promised that in the coming weeks uniforms will return to fill the state stores, especially the small sizes. By then, those who have not bought on the black market or used their seamstress skills to alter a large garment, may have their chance.

Food Shortages Are Getting Much Worse / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

The shortages and high food prices have led many retirees to stand in line for others.(14ymedio)
The shortages and high food prices have led many retirees to stand in line for others.(14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 19 August 2015 – She boasts that she “walks all over Havana” and there isn’t a single store, market or point of sale she doesn’t know about. “I have a family to feed and for years I’ve also taken advantage of my walks to tell the neighbors where they can get something,” sais Maria Eugenia, 58, who these days never stops repeating, “everything is bare.” The food shortage has gotten worse in recent weeks and the situation has reached crisis levels in many places.

“There is no chicken, no chopped soy-meat, no sausages, and never mind meat,” details this stubborn housewife. The refrigerators in the stores of the Cuban capital have hardly any merchandise and in many cases the cooling system has even been turned off, to avoid wasting electricity. “People don’t know what is happening, because they don’t explain it on television,” the lady complains. continue reading

Few markets are spared the deficit in products. Ultra, a store in the heart of Central Havana, is one of the most affected. “It’s been days with no supply of chicken and when it comes it’s very little, people have even come to blows the get a package,” an employee who preferred to remain anonymous explained to 14ymedio. On Tuesday, a sign proudly announced, “We have butter,” but there was nothing else to see in the windows of the meat and freezer departments.

If they would at least carry hot dogs,” a woman with her baby pleaded, looking over the empty shelves. The frustrated customer was talking about the chicken sausages imported from the United States, Canada or Brazil, one of the food products in greatest demand among the Cuban population, given its low price and the number of hot dogs included in each package.

The last week dozens of telephone calls crossed the city to let family and friends know that “sliced mortadella is available” in the store at San Lazaro and Infanta. The message was brief and accompanied by a “hurry, before it runs out.” Two hours after the product processed by the Canadian firm Golden Maple was put on sale, this newspaper was able to confirm that it had run out.

“There’s no powdered milk anywhere,” bellowed a young man outside the Carlos III Plaza Monday morning. With a mother who had recently suffered a hip fracture, he shouted, “I must get milk,” perhaps hoping to reach the ears of any underground seller passing through the area.

There is a particular shortage of products from the United States. The import figures from that country have plummeted in the last year. If in the first quarter of 2014 the island imported $160 million in food from the US, in 2015 that figure has barely reached $83 million, according to MartiNoticias.

The effects of this decline are visible in the shops. “Every day it is more difficult to cook and give food to the children,” says Yanisbel, a 34-year-old mother of two, one of which is gluten intolerant. The woman was surprised that, “with all the contact we have now with the yumas (Americans) we’re no longer seeing the products that used to come from that country.” As an example he mentions frozen chicken, ground soy-meat, various kinds of tomato sauce.

The lack of liquidity to pay cash in advance for purchases from the U.S. has dented what seemed to be a growing trade. Moreover, the Cuban government’s poor credit history and unpaid debts does not favor the search for new suppliers.

The drop in imports cannot be made up for by a rebound in domestic products. “There is no significant increase in the production of food,” says the economist Karina Galvez. A reality that contradicts Point 184 of the Political and Social Economy Guidelines that urge, “the replacement of imports with foods that can be efficiently produced in the country.”

During the last session of Parliament, Marino Murillo Jorge, Minister of Economy and Planning, confirmed missed production targets, among them the delivery of fresh milk to the industry, which fell 13 million liters shorts.

With regards to the shortages of products in the hard currency stores, the official attributed it to the late arrival of imports and announced a set of provisions to better serve that market. More than a month later, the effects of these measures haven’t been felt on the plates of Cubans.

Cayo Granma’s Golden Dreams / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

The economy of Cayo Granma has been in decline for many years. The only way to secure a job is by crossing the channel separating it from Santiago de Cuba.
The economy of Cayo Granma has been in decline for many years. The only way to secure a job is by crossing the channel separating it from Santiago de Cuba.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Santiago de Cuba, 8 August 2015 — “If Cuba is the key to the Gulf of Mexico, than this is the key to Santiago de Cuba,” asserts Gaspar, who lives on Cayo Granma, and swears that he has not crossed the narrows separating him from the city in many years. Gaspar thought it “was the end” when hurricane Sandy devastated the area in October 2012. During those early morning hours when waves reached thirty feet, forty homes were destroyed and two hundred experienced major damages. Gale force winds took their heaviest toll on this tiny bit of land, and the storm’s scars are still visible.

A team of students from the Martha Abreu Central University of Las Villas has been rewarded for its rescue plan for Cayo Granma during the London-based i-Rec Conference 2015: International Perspectives on Disaster Recovery and Reconstruction. But thousands of miles from England, the residents of the most famous island in Santiago Bay are trying to rebuild their lives three years after what seemed like a meteor impact. continue reading

The team is led by Professor Andrés Olivera Ranero, and includes students Ana Lourdes Barrera Cano, Royer Leno Medina, Elisa Medina Toboso, and Niuris Martín Rosabel, all of who hail from the provinces of Cienfuegos and Villa Clara. With the objective of the revitalization of the community, they presented their four-step plan, and were able to beat out over fifteen other projects competing for the award given in London.

The longboat that arrives once a day at Cayo Granma is noisy and leaves behind an odor of burning oil. Immediately after disembarking one is struck by the natural beauty of the place, and by the precarious life of its inhabitants. Cayo Smith, as Cayo Granma was originally called, is still a humble fishermen’s village, with wooden shacks that gave it its architectural uniqueness, and that used to house families of up to twenty members. The holes the winds left in the roofs and in the walls have been concealed with zinc slabs and pieces of wood collected after the storm.

“There’s not too much to do here,” explains Agustina, who lived through those years when most of the owners of Cayo Granma’s best homes left for exile, and the government turned the dwellings over to very poor people. “It was like a dream come true, but then everything got run down.” This lady confirms what specialists and sociologists have proven through their research: Cayo Granma’s economy is at a standstill, alcoholism rates among the youth are alarming, and unemployment figures are high.

“There’s only one school here that goes up to the sixth grade, and a lot of the adolescents drop out because it’s too hard getting to the other side,” explains Agustina as she points to Santiago de Cuba. Some of the villagers have their own dangerous and fragile rowboats. When they use them, they do so very quietly since most of them are not authorized and therefore are subject to frequent confiscations. When talking abut the unreliable schedule of the only means of transportation connecting them to the city, Agustina complains: “There’re days we’re not sure if the government’s longboat is coming, or at what time.”

The architecture students have proposed a first phase that would guarantee a decent home with a roof for each family living on the key. Only after this is accomplished, the second phase of the project would start with the building of a manufacturing plant and a sawmill in order to create employment in an area with a high percentage of people without ties to the labor force.

The initiative’s third step would focus on urban and economic development. The models shown the judges who gave the award to the proposal show a lovely place, with flowers and abundant gardens, where residents build their own boats and semi-attached homes. “Picturesque, resilient, sustainable, and dignified habitat,” are some of the words used to describe the community that will ensue after the project is executed. The fourth stage would be the consolidation and preservation of what has been accomplished. However reality is far from this panacea.

With strong winds powerfully whipping the shoreline, 72-year old Carlos Cesario passes by with a bag hanging from his shoulder. “Very few homes have been repaired,” he states, while explaining how he shares a dilapidated house with fifteen relatives. This problem is common among the key’s residents, and they stare blankly out towards the horizon without the slightest hope that solutions will come through official channels.

“It’s an awful situation,” protests Moraima Fernández. “My roof caved in, my house fell apart, and I couldn’t find zinc slabs.” Mrs. Fernández points out that the local authorities’ poor handling of the situation has contributed to “after three years, everything still being more or less the same.”

When Cayo Granma’s residents were shown the winning models from the London competition, some could not contain their laughter, while others asked “And when is it supposed to happen?” The project’s timetable and date for the completion of the homes have yet to be determined. There is not even a budget yet to start on the first phase. “I’m sure that they’ll have to wait for some foreign organization to fall in love with the idea, ones that will want to finance it,” reflected Ana Laura, a young lady born on Cayo Granma. Nowadays “I only come here to visit my grandmother, because this place is like death,” she added.

Far from here, on a few restless architects’ drawing boards, rest the plans for Cayo Granma’s future, a faraway, utopian place that the island’s current residents do not even want to think about.

The projected future of Cayo Granma as it appears in one of the award-winning models presented in London.
The projected future of Cayo Granma as it appears in one of the award-winning models presented in London.

Translated by José Badué

Havana’s Pools: That Blue Water Yonder / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

The José Martí Stadium Pool, on Havana’s Avenue of the Presidents. (14ymedio/Javier H.)
The José Martí Stadium Pool, on Havana’s Avenue of the Presidents. (14ymedio/Javier H.)

14ymedio bigger 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 21 July 2015 — Now 67 years of age, Juan Carlos recalls how when he was a kid he climbed up on a roof and from there spied on the pool of an adjacent exclusive Havana hotel. He was fascinated by what he saw, but Juan Carlos’ family’s financial limitations kept him from enjoying all that magnificence. The slogan “The People Have a Right to Sports” had firmly taken root by his teens and early adult years. Consequently, Juan Carlos got to splash around in several pools, and for free. However, his memories of those blue waters now come back to haunt him. Today, all the pools near Juan Carlos are either in a state of total ruin or way beyond his budget.

Currently retired, Juan Carlos insists that “access to pools in July and August should be a human right.” When summer heat waves make Cubans sweat so profusely, “there’s nothing better then taking a dip to cool off,” he says, with a confident half-smile. continue reading

The lack of chlorine, paint, failing pumps, and lack of maintenance has led to all the “Closed” notices appearing on many of the capital’s pools

After touring those places in Havana where kids once frolicked loudly as others pirouetted before plunging in, it is obvious that pools are no longer affordable to all. Public pools are the most dilapidated. The lack of chlorine, paint, failing pumps, and lack of maintenance has led to all the “Closed” notices appearing on many of the capital’s pools.

Whoever walks under the blazing sun up the street leading to the University of Havana’s Calixto Garcia Hospital would undoubtedly be upset when coming upon the faded blue paint on what used to be the University Stadium’s Swimming Pool. Lying there empty, deserted for no reason, rests the place where once upon a time students practiced their strokes, and where swimming meets between the University’s departments were held.

The same thing has happened to El Pontón, a sports and recreation center on the corner of Oquendo and Manglar Streets in Downtown Havana. El Pontón used to house two pools, one for laps and the other for diving. The latter had a thirty-foot-high diving platform. Yet all that remains of these pools is an enormous pit full of trash through which the floodwaters in this low-lying area are drained off.

“This was once full of kids,” recalled an elderly man who was trying to do his morning exercises in the midst of overgrown weeds on a field which many years ago was a baseball diamond. “A lot of us from the area would bring our kids here so that they would learn to swim,” he remembers. “I now have a fifteen-year-old granddaughter. If she falls in the water she’d drown. She’s never had the chance to swim in a pool, not even to just learn how to float.”

Pool in a privately owned restaurant near the U.S. Embassy. (14ymedio/Javier H)
Pool in a privately owned restaurant near the U.S. Embassy. (14ymedio/Javier H)

On the list of destruction on which appears El Pontón, one can also find the José Martí Stadium, located on the Avenue of the Presidents just a few yards from the Malecón. Youngsters now use the empty pool for soccer matches. It is also not uncommon on some nights for couples to use this pool for lovemaking under the twinkling stars. “The only thing missing in this pool is an avocado plant growing right in the middle of it. Maybe when that happens they’ll finally realize they need to fix it,” complained Fidelio, a resident of nearby “E” Street, who goes for a run on the stadium’s dilapidated track every morning.

A few blocks from the José Martí Stadium stands the Havana Riviera Hotel, opened in 1957 with twenty floors and 352 guest rooms. This enormous hotel has a pool that can be enjoyed even by those who are not guests. Admission costs 15 CUC for adults and ten for children, with a snack included that is actually eighty percent of the total price. Juan Carlos would have to not touch one single cent of his pension for a whole two months in order to enjoy such a luxury.

Aside from offering dining services and lodging in their homes, many families advertise the use of a pool as an added attraction.

Notwithstanding all the bad news, our retiree is not giving up. He asked a friend with Internet access to find him a private pool. Three days later he was handed a list with more than fifty options, almost all of them in the more upscale districts of Vedado, Miramar, and Casino Deportivo. “This one is the pool I told you about!” Juan Carlos exclaimed, with the same eagerness that as a youngster he felt when first spied on those distant blue pool waters from a rooftop. However, now he cannot afford to enjoy it.

Aside from offering dining services and lodging in their homes, numerous families also advertise the use of a pool as an added attraction. These houses are usually rented out for “fiestas de quince” (15-year-old girls’ birthday parties), weddings, or for the arrival of an émigré relative whose family wants to welcome him in one central location where they can all enjoy a relatively lavish get-together. In Havana’s most centrally located neighborhoods, enjoying a day of dips in a pool, with a couple of beverages included, and perhaps a light lunch, costs no less than ten CUC per person.

After touring all the pools he swam in his youth but that now lay in ruins, Juan Carlos also had to rule out the hotel and private home offers. The excessive prices are a reality he cannot ignore. Nevertheless, a friend lent him a 67-inch diameter inflatable pool. Last weekend he set it up on his balcony, filled it with a few buckets of water, and sat in it with a bottle of Cuban Bucanero beer in hand. He looked like a teenager. The next day, Juan Carlos was informed that a neighbor had snitched on him to the police for “excessive use of water from their building’s tank.”

Translated by José Badué

Delegates to Cuba’s National Assembly Blame the “Weekly Packet” for Drug Use in Schools / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Singularidad-paquete-contenido-digitales-httpfalcowebbcom_CYMIMA20140913_0008_1614ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 13 July 2015 — Ten official caucuses of Cuba’s National Assembly of the People’s Power* convened last weekend to discuss –among other things – the state of the country’s senior citizenry, and the use of drugs in schools. This gathering at Havana’s Convention Center was a working prelude to the July 15th’s opening of the eighth session of the National Assembly.

The caucuses also examined Cuba’s housing problems. They reported that from December 2011 until this date, more than 424,000 credit applications for housing improvements have been approved by the government, totaling 4.4 billion Cuban pesos. Still, the delegates in attendance criticized the pervasive irregularities and illegalities hampering production, transportation, and the sale of construction materials. continue reading

A delegate from Ciego de Ávila Province, Antonio Raunel Hernández, reminded his colleagues that 19% of the current Cuban population is older than sixty years, and it is anticipated that by 2025 that figure will reach 30.5%, making the island the oldest country in Latin America. Faced with this challenge, delegates agreed to launch programs ­­­– within the framework of senior citizen homes – focusing special attention on those suffering from Alzheimer’s disease and other ailments requiring special attention.

Children also took center stage in last weekends’ meetings with a discussion on the urgency of improved training for childcare specialists. Martha Elena Fleitó, First Vice-Minister of Labor and Social Security, stated that of the 1,726 childcare professionals in the country, 34% of them work in Havana. The increasing propensity among Cuban parents to opt for private daycare facilities has raised alarms about the conditions of their State-run counterparts.

The Economic Affairs Caucus reported that revenues to the State’s budget last year rose to 47 billion Cuban pesos. At the moment, there are 498 cooperatives in the country, of which 204 focus on gastronomy and other services. According to Tania Duconger, President of the Customer Service Caucus, 95% of these enterprises are “turning a profit.”

While Cuban national television did report summaries of the topics discussed, many viewers lamented the lack of a “National Assembly channel” where speeches, reports, and debates could be followed live. Among the numerous topics for discussion, one that aroused enormous interest is the consumption of alcohol and drugs in schools. Although barely ever mentioned in the official media, this consumption is increasingly common in the country’s educational institutions.

The caucus meetings disclosed that with each passing year Cubans who smoke cigarettes and drink alcohol are younger and younger. Several deputies attributed this to newscasts and audiovisual materials that reach the youth through “el paquete” or the “weekly packet,” where they learn about celebrities who consume drugs. Therefore, a new law will be passed requiring the expulsion of young people over sixteen who consume or distribute alcohol and drugs in schools.

At the meeting of the International Affairs Caucus, Josefina Vidal, Director General of United States Affairs at the Foreign Ministry, gave a synopsis of events after the announcements of December 17, 2014. Ms. Vidal confirmed the opening of an embassy in Washington on July 20th, and also said: “On that day we will be ending the first phase of the process we initiated with the United States.” Nevertheless, she warned that the process towards normalization of relations between both countries “would take some time…We have yet to discuss very complicated matters that have accumulated over the past five decades.”

Translator’s Note: According to Cuba’s 1976 Communist constitution, the “Asamblea Nacional del Poder Popular” is the single-chamber legislative branch of government. All its delegates are Communist Party members, nominated by their local Party branches, and elected unopposed through obligatory universal suffrage. The National Assembly, which seldom meets, serves as a rubber stamp for the decisions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba.

Translated by José Badué

About 60,000 Havanans Receive Water via Tanker Trucks / Rosa Lopez, 14ymedio

At the end of February the situation got worse because of leaks and electrical problems (14ymedio)
At the end of February the situation got worse because of leaks and electrical problems (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 25 May 2015 – A sound that is inseparable from the streets of Habana Centro (Central Havana) is the screech of the trucks filled with water, with their metal wheels on the asphalt. This symphony of necessity has become more intense in recent months because of the frequent cuts in supply that the city has undergone due to repairs, breakages and a drought affecting the entire country. More than 58,760 people receive water through tanker trucks, as affirmed, this Monday, in the Trabajadores (Workers) newspaper.

In Havana more than half of the water being pumped is lost in leaks, 20% of which are located in the so-called household networks, inside homes and buildings. For the engineer Antonio Castillo, Deputy Director of Operations for the Havana Water company, the situation is unsustainable in the medium and long term. “Supply basins are like bank accounts. If you deposit, but take out more than you deposit, you have less and less, and if you stop saving, one day you’ll have no money. That happens with the water,” he declared to the official press. continue reading

In late February the situation began to worsen because of the disastrous combination of leaks and electrical problems that caused large losses at La Cuenca Sur reservoir. About 45,000 residents of Habana Vieja, Plaza de la Revolución, Diez de Octubre, Centro Habana and Cerro municipalities in Havana were severely affected.

In order to reduce leaks, sector specialists propose to continue with network rehabilitation plans and impose a new fee on the charge for service for the residential sector. Meanwhile, capital residents are demanding shorter water delivery cycles and a higher quality of the precious liquid. “The water is very hard and this damages the pipes and bathroom iron fittings, that’s why there are so many leaks,” says Ruben, a self-employed plumber in La Lisa municipality.

Capital residents are demanding shorter water delivery cycles and a higher quality of the precious liquid

Others demand, as soon as possible, the enactment of a water law to regulate the consumption of this important natural resource. “Although in December the Council of Ministers approved a stricter policy, they are still indiscriminately wasting something that should be treated as a real treasure,” expressed Yaquelin de la Osa, engineer and promoter of a more focused policy on caring for the environment and natural resources.

Apart from the specialized opinions or those with in the environmental field, the main demands come from a population sector that needs to bring the water into their homes with wheelbarrows, buckets and bottles. “I don’t remember when was the last time that I could take a shower, because for several months I have had to bathe with a pitcher,” says Xiomara, resident of a tenement room at Marqués González street in Centro Habana.

Everyone agrees that repairs to the hydraulic networks are necessary, but the slowness and lack of efficiency with which they are tackled causes discomfort among many Havanans.” This seems like a city after a bombing,” said an owner of rooms for rent for tourists located in Amargura street in in Habana Vieja, who must deal with the holes and trenches in the street every day to find customers. The municipality is being subjected to a replacement of the water networks which will be completed in 2017 and which has a budget of more than 64 million.

I don’t remember when was the last time that I could take a shower, because for several months I have had to bathe with a pitcher

The water that should fall from heaven hasn’t performed as expected in this rainy period. Downpours that flooded parts of the city in late April and early May failed to fill the cachement areas supplying the city. Precipitation was not abundant in the southern provinces of Artemisa and Mayabeque, which are the main sources of supply, nor in the Almendares-Vento basin, which supplies 47% of the water which is destined to Havanans.

As the situation worsens, Havanans wake up trying to detect clouds on the horizon and fall asleep with the sound of the trucks on the pavement.

Translated by Alberto

‘14ymedio’ seen by its readers / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Printed version of 14ymedio distributed on the island through alternative networks
Printed version of 14ymedio distributed on the island through alternative networks

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 21 May 2015 – “The connection doesn’t work,” the young man tells the employee who frowns at him for making her get out of her comfortable chair. The heat is terrible and the air conditioning hasn’t worked for weeks in a State-run “Nauta” Internet room centrally located in Havana’s Plaza municipality. The woman approaches listlessly, looks at the screen, types in a some web address and the page opens with no problems. The client returns to the fray, “And why when I type in 14ymedio.com nothing happens?” A snort is heard throughout the navigation room. “Look son, it is because you can’t enter that site, you understand me?” In a few seconds the internaut has received his first lesson in censorship.

Who in Cuba reads the digital daily 14ymedio? This is the question for which the management of this medium has gone out into street to look for answers and suggestions to improve our work. We have surveyed different age groups, political viewpoints, and geographic situations, to try to trace a map of those Cubans who have in front of their eyes some of the content that we publish on the site. continue reading

An initial incursion along busy G Street, last Saturday night, shed light on some of those followers or detractors. “Ah, yes, I’ve had a copy for some months, but they publish almost nothing on videogames,” although, “my dad likes it because it talks about politics and that stuff,” says Juan Carlos Zamora, 19, a student at the Pedagogical Institute. “A friend told me about the newspaper, but I would recommend more topics for young people, like fashion and technology,” added this young man.

Since the day it was founded, 14ymedio has been blocked on the national servers that provide public Internet. Internet rooms, connections from hotels and other state locales show an error message on the screen when someone tries to access the portal. A PDF version published every Friday, with the best of the week’s news and an active network of friends and colleagues, is distributed within the country. The appearance in February of last year of Nauta email service has also contributed to the spread of the content, although there is much more to do in that direction.

For Marcia Sosa, a retired civil engineer living in Santiago de Cuba, “The best part is the list of prices for products in the farmers market, because you can see how expensive life is.” The lady receives the content of our site by email, because, “My son sends it to me every day from Miami, but without the images because that takes too long to load.” The retiree believes that “they should open a section saying where to find what product, because sometimes I’m like a crazy person looking all over and not knowing where to find it.” What she likes least, however, are “the opinion columns, because here everyone has an opinion, there are 11 million Cubans and 20 million opinions.”

In the city of Ciego de Avila, Ruben Rios has taken on the task of sharing with his friends copies of the 14ymedio articles that come his way. “I do it because I believe people should hear all versions, although I don’t agree with part of what you publish.” Recently released from prison, Rios has dedicated himself to getting his life back, “and informing myself is a way of feeling free, so I read everything that comes to hand and I am lucky that the newspaper comes my way.”

In the guts of 14ymedio, Juan Carlos Fernandez finds that his work on the team “Has been a liberating experience.” For this activist and reporter, writing for the digital site is not only “a democratic exercise, but also it is a very serious project.” He remarks with pride, “This is the prelude of the new press that is coming, the prelude of freedom of the press, of democracy.” However, he concedes that there is a long way to go to improve the quality and elevate the training of the press’s reporters and correspondents. “This is a school for me, now I have to publish every article with more objectivity.”

Yunier receives the articles appearing in our independent daily through the so-called “Marta’s list.” A Cuban immigrant living in Miami who participated in December 2004 in the founding of the digital magazine Consenso (Consensus), one of the first embryos of the independent press that took advantage of the new technologies. Marta Cortizas performs the true “labor of a little ant” compiling every day the best of the Cuban and international press and sending it by email to a growing number of subscribers. “If it weren’t for her, it would cost me a lot of work to read what you publish from Holguin.”

And why is it called 14ymedio, asks a resident of the Fanguito neighborhood when we inquire about our portal. With long experience standing in lines and counting every gram she receives from the ration market, the elderly lady is sure that behind a name like this, “there has to be something hidden, a warning… come on.” She doesn’t accept the explanation about the 14th floor where our headquarters are located, the “Y” from a well-known digital blog, nor the polysemy of “medio” in Spanish, which means both “half” and “press media.” “There is some trick here, some mathematical formula or who knows,” she concludes maliciously.

Not everyone likes it, which is evidence of the plurality of tastes and information preferences of the Cuban population. “I haven’t read it, I’m not going to read it, because I don’t have to visit this site to know that you want to destroy the country and do away with the Revolution,” says Nelson Bonne. A self-employed worker in Las Tunas, the man considers that “The [the State run newspaper] Granma is enough for me, and I don’t need any little newspaper created by the enemy.”

The director of the magazine Convivencia (Coexistence), Dagoberto Valdes, has a more constructive opinion. “To have a newspaper made in Cuba, by Cubans and for Cubans, is for me the best, and we are going to all push together to get access to the Internet so that we Cubans can look into this window.”

Cuba has 11,000 sources of pollution that affect water / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Ditch with sewage from the town of Guanabo, east of Havana. (Luz Escobar)
Ditch with sewage from the town of Guanabo, east of Havana. (Luz Escobar)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 20 May 2015 – On World Environment Day, this coming 5 June, Cuba will have 11,000 sources of pollution that affect ground water and coastal areas. This information was updated by Odalis Goicochea, Director of the Environment at that Ministry of Science, Technology and Environment (CITMA), in a press conference Monday.

The figure is very alarming, especially when we take into account our dwindling water reserves. 2014 was the driest year reported since the beginning of this century, and 2015 looks like it wants to compete for this negative record. With a long and narrow island and with no major surface or underground water resources, the country needs to do a better job of managing its waste stream to protect the water. continue reading

The town of Guanabo, east of Havana, is a clear example of the drama that is damaging our most precious natural resource. Part of the sewage from the urban area ends up in the sea and is mixed with the water where people swim. In some areas, the air stinks from the waste exposed in ditches and ponds, becoming an epidemiological danger and contributing to environmental degradation in areas crossed by the filth.

2014 was the driest year reported since the beginning of this century, and 2015 looks like it wants to compete for this negative record

The residents have appealed to every agency, even writing complaints to the “Letters to the Editor” section of the newspaper Granma. However, the town continues down the slippery slope of apathy and ecological damage. “Before this was a nice beach, when families came with their children, but now the number of people coming is greatly diminished,” says Agustin, a resident of the area who has a home where he hosts tourists near to the famous Horses of Guanbo.

According to the latest report from CITMA, Cuba needs large investments in the environment, although the text also stressed that the provinces of Villa Clara, Holguin and Artemisa have improved environmental management in recent years, such that the latter has been selected to host the activities for World Environment Day. But there is a long road ahead, especially in the proper recycling of waste, the creation of a social conscience of respect for nature and the application of legal penalties to entities and individuals who contribute to the deterioration of the environment.

The country urgently needs to begin implementing solutions, because every day that passes water is slipping through the fingers of indolence.

Lowering the price of milk does not satisfy buyers / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

There is more rum than milk in Cuba (14ymedio)
There is more rum than milk in Cuba (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 28 April 2015 – In Cuba it is cheaper to buy a liter of rum than a kilo of powdered milk. Ever since convertible currency stores appeared in the nineties, people have been demanding price reductions for basic products. In its Monday edition, the Communist Party newspaper Granma announced a price reduction for powdered milk, but the measure has not been met with the satisfaction the authorities expected.

The new measure reduces the price of kilo of powdered milk by 15% in the hard currency stores. Now a kilo (2.2 pounds) costs 5.50 or 5.75 convertible pesos (CUCs), and a half kilo cost 2.90 or 2.80, depending on the quality of the container. The reduction, which went into effect on April 24, ranges from 0.45 to 0.85 CUC per packet, and is derived from “updating import costs,” according to sources at the Ministry of Finance and Prices. continue reading

The price adjustment benefits only the small sector of Cubans who can afford to pay the equivalent of what the average worker earns in four days for this product. Everyone else has to abstain from drinking milk or resort to the black market, where it is sold for a little less than half the official price.

In the store attached to a gas station located at the corner of Boyeros and Ayestaran Streets, several customers browsed on the Monday of the publicized price reduction, which so far has not set off any buying frenzy. The parishioners were wary and disappointed by how small the price reduction was for this basic food.

“What they have done is to return to almost the same price they had before the last year’s huge price increase”

Caridad Rojas has twin three-year-olds and the milk quota assigned to them in the ration market isn’t enough. After reading the note in Granma, she went to the closest store to buy milk at the new prices. “The truth is, what they have done is return to almost the same price from before last year’s huge price increase.”

The unpopularity of the measure adopted in 2014 could be one of the reasons the authorities decided to lower the price of the product. “They greatly reduced sales with the increase in prices, so in the end the State ended up losing money,” said an employee at the Carlos III commercial center, one of the largest supermarkets in Havana.

Meanwhile, milk continues to be distributed in the usual way to children under seven and to patients prescribed special diets at subsidized prices in the ration market. The rest of the buyers will confront the prices of the “hard currency” stores, where they can also pay in national pesos at an exchange rate of 1 CUC to 25 CUP (Cuban pesos, or “moneda nacional” – national money).

The Bridgettines, in the Shadows of Power / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

The Bridgettines’ Convent/Hotel in Havana. (Holidaycheck)
The Bridgettines’ Convent/Hotel in Havana. (Holidaycheck)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana 6 February 2015 — Discreet and elusive, donning gray habits and cross-adorned veils, they attend mass at the Shrine of Our Lady of Charity in Pinar del Río. The three nuns, originally from India, belong to the Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget headed by the Italian religious Mother Tekla Famiglietti. Known as the Generalessa, Mother Tekla is one of the most influential women in the Vatican, and her ties to the Cuban government have been reinforced in the last few years.

The Bridgettines ­– a religious order of nuns founded in 1911 in Sweden by Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hesselblad – recently inaugurated a new convent in the city of Pinar del Río. A little more than a decade after opening their impressive headquarters in Havana, this religious order has now turned its attention to Cuba’s far western province. No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution. continue reading

“While we’ve been waiting for years for [the authorities] to approve a complete restoration of our convent, the Bridgettines have managed to open a new convent, and even built a hostel for tourists,” protested a nun of the Daughters of Charity who chose to remain anonymous.

Last November 26th, Jorge Enrique Serpa, Bishop of Pinar del Río, blessed the new Bridgettine building. Their headquarters are located on what was once a homestead known as “Celestino the Mute’s Farm,” which was sold off by the original owner’s grandchildren due to family quarrels and financial difficulties.

The nuns bought the mansion nestled on a 2.5-acre property thanks to the efforts of Bishop Serpa himself. The diocese helped look for a building, negotiated the selling price with the owners, and helped the nuns sail through the red tape. Everything was undertaken with the utmost discretion, as is characteristic of the Bridgettines.

Work on the property started only a few days after the nuns settled in. The freshly painted façades, the hauling of building materials, and the constant presence of construction workers caught the attention of the residents of Galiano and Cuba Libre, two adjacent communities suffering from a high degree of poverty and social inequality. Nobody knew what was being built. Yet as the chapel was nearing completion, the public was informed that apart from their pastoral work focused on the care of the elderly and the poor or the region, the nuns were planning to build on a ten-room hostel on their property. At present, only a few of the rooms are ready for occupancy, and reservations have to be requested by email. The rate for a double occupancy room is 50 CUC, breakfast included. The hostel also offers a suite for 65 CUC.

No other religious order on the Island has experienced such rapid growth, which has only been made possible thanks to the longstanding ties between the Mother Tekla and the political élite centered around Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution

Time is of the essence. An avalanche of visitors from the United States could begin arriving in the next few months if the U.S. Congress lifts travel restrictions to the Island. The regions of Viñales and María la Gorda, the marinas at Cape San Antonio, and Jutías Key and Levisa Key are among the most important attractions in the western Cuba. Consequently, the city of Pinar del Río would be a mandatory stop on the way to most of these sites. Construction at the Bridgettines’ hostel has picked up in recent weeks.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy, and that for the moment does not have much to offer in the way of accommodations. Mother Tekla Famiglietti’s privileged position allowed her to have beforehand knowledge that the United States and Cuba were negotiating a rapprochement with the Vatican’s support, and especially with the help of Pope Francis.

The Generalessa and the Comandante

The Bridgettines’ first convent in Cuba was inaugurated a few days before 75 opposition members were arrested in what is known as the Black Spring of 2003. At the time, Church–State relations had worsened due to the publication of a pastoral letter from Jaime Cardinal Ortega y Alamino, Archbishop of Havana, in which he called for more economic freedom and social justice. The political tensions at the time heralded the repressive wave unleashed shortly thereafter. Yet Mother Tekla would not be deterred.

In an event* broadcast on March 8, 2003 on Cuban State television, the Generalessa and the Comandante expressed their mutual affection and exchanged accolades. Fidel Castro was made Commander of the Order of Saint Bridget of Sweden, and in exchange, the Cuban Council of State awarded Abbess General Tekla Famiglietti the Order of Félix Varela.

Under the protection of Bishop Serna, and with their eyes set on a possible upturn in tourism to the province, the Bridgettines are positioning themselves in the hotel market in a city suffering from a stagnant economy

Both parties plotted the creation of the Havana convent in 2000 during Mexican president Vicente Fox’s inauguration. From that moment on, the Generalessa –born in southern Italy in 1939, and Abbess General of the Bridgettines since 1981 – would strengthen her friendship with Castro, showering him with gratitude and affection. When the Comandante suffered a fall during a 2004 speech in the city of Santa Clara, Mother Tekla rushed to send him a letter, published in the official Cuban press, wishing him a speedy recovery.

The Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy reacted angrily at the publicized presence of the political élite at the Havana convent’s opening ceremony. Three days after the event, the Cuban Conference of Bishops released a stern reprimand against Famiglietti in a communiqué calling on her “to clearly differentiate the person of Holy Father John Paul II…and his scriptural foundations ­– as is to be expected of him – characterized by dignity, respect, serenity, and moderation, and not associate the Holy Father with excessive praise in words and deeds, as we have seen some Church figures do at these events.”

As a gesture many understood as evidence of a break with the Bridgettines, Jaime Cardinal Ortega boycotted the convent’s inauguration. Moreover, the Cuban Conference of Bishops let it be known very clearly in its statement that “no Cuban bishop or clergy designated to officially represent the Archdiocese of Havana or the Cuban Church was present at the event.”

The advantages accorded the Bridgettines were very frustrating for the over fifteen Catholic religious orders and several priests who had been waiting for many years for a response to their request to serve in Cuba. For their part, the Cuban bishops did not delay in making it perfectly clear that when it came to the matter of the Bridgettines’ presence on the Island, “the Catholic Church in Cuba did not in any way actively participate in bringing them to the country, nor did it plan their arrival, nor did it coordinate their plans in any way.”

Less than one week later the first dissidents of the Black Spring were arrested, as was reported in headlines worldwide. The Bridgettines kept quiet, and just concentrated on moving forward with building their convent and hostel in Old Havana. Their stance caused other Catholic orders to distrust them so that now, fifteen years on, the distrust still lingers. In fact, the levels of distrust have only worsened with the Bridgettines’ purchase of the property in Pinar del Río. 

In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the Generalessa assured that former Cuban president Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

In 2004 Mother Tekla found herself in a tight spot. Six novices from India who were living in a convent near Rieti, Italy, went before a prosecutor to lodge a formal complaint against Abbess General Famiglietti, accusing her of resorting to violence, blackmail, and threats. The nuns swore that Famiglietti went so far as to confiscate their passports and health insurance cards. They also went on to claim that they were being so exploited when it came to their work at their convent’s hostel that they had no time to pray. Pope John Paul II himself was forced to intervene, speaking publicly in support of the Generalessa’s work “that has been so valuable to the whole Bridgettine family.” The nuns’ lawsuit was filed away without Mother Tekla ever facing any charges.

The name Tekla Famiglietti would again surface in a Wikileaks cable exposing a meeting she held with American officials in Rome. During their encounter, the Generalessa boasted of having visited Fidel Castro’s home “on numerous occasions,” and that she advocated for the lifting of the US trade embargo on Cuba. By contrast, she did not say one word about the imprisoned dissidents.

Another Wikileaks cable cast doubts on the renovation of the Havana convent without the mediation of the Cuban Catholic Church’s hierarchy. In response to criticisms lodged against her at that time, the Generalessa assured that former Cuban President Fidel Castro was invited to the inauguration solely out of “Christian love and courtesy,” and that he did not help with the expenses.

To Caesar what is Caesar’s…

The waters now seem to have calmed down, and the relationship between the Bridgettines and the Cuban Catholic Church hierarchy has reached a certain level of normality. According to sources close to the Archdiocese of Havana “our relationship has indeed improved, but we still keep a proper distance.” Still, the Bishop of Pinar del Río has served as a key ally in the expansion of the order into his province, and he has finally managed it so that the Bridgettines have won the favor of Cardinal Ortega y Alamino and the Cuban Conference of Bishops.

The Bridgettines have successfully run their hostel in Havana – on Oficios Street in the heart of the historic district – for more than a decade. The sign on the façade reads “Order of the Most Holy Savior of Saint Bridget,” yet the convent’s doors are usually locked.

Lorenzo Montalvo Ruiz de Alarcón y Montalvo, Quartermaster General of the Navy and Minister of Shipbuilding of the Royal Treasury and Bank of Havana, lived in this same building at the end of the 18th century. Many years later, the renowned Café de Copas would also find a home there. Consequently, none other than Eusebio Leal – Havana’s official historian, who also happens to maintain a close relationship with Mother Tekla – supervised the allocation of this historic building to the Bridgettines.

Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order

Impeccably restored at a cost of US$4,000,000, raised for the most part by the Generalessa herself, the former mansion now boasts an intercom ensuring access only to guests with reservations. Since religious orders are tax-exempt, even when they run lucrative businesses, the Cuban National Tax Office’s logo is clearly missing from convent’s door.

Upon entering this Havana hostel, one encounters a central courtyard embellished with well-kept plants, and the soothing sound of water flowing from a fountain. A nun of few words greets guests. The hustle and bustle of the streets is left behind. It feels like crossing a temple’s threshold.

The hostel consists of only eleven rooms, and offers no brochures explaining its history. It does not offer direct Internet service either. Reservations must be requested by writing to an email address whose domain is a Cuban domestic server, and then waiting for a response. Several travel sites list and recommend the hostel, but with the same halo of secrecy that surrounds everything associated with the Bridgettines.

The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)
The Bridgettines’ new convent in Pinar del Río. (Juan Carlos Fernández)

A room in the convent is priced at around 50 CUC a night, and in high season it goes up to 75 CUC. “It’s a very peaceful place, and guests aren’t allowed to bring in another person to spend the night,” says a Polish family that stays there every time they travel to Havana. “And this is a good thing, since we travel a with a small child.”

The real world is outside, on the corner, where a café with live music functions as a meeting point for prostitutes and foreign customers. The nuns are wary of allowing Cuban guests, who they politely refuse, telling them there are no vacancies.

Before long, the Bridgettines will be offering another tourist oasis, but this time, in Pinar del Río. Although he has been the nuns’ key backer in Cuba, Fidel Castro’s retirement from the pubic stage has not in any way diminished the privileges accorded the order. The deal that the Generalessa and the Comandante once reached still stands. With an almost eerie quiet, the Bridgettines have managed to position themselves in the shadows of power.

*Translator’s note: The televised event was in commemoration of International Women’s Day, a national holiday in Cuba. First conceived by German Communist Clara Zetkin in 1910, it became a national holiday in the USSR after the October Revolution of 1917, by order of Vladimir Lenin himself. Since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, most former Communist countries no longer observe it. It survives in a handful of countries, including Cuba, Russia and North Korea.

Translated by José Badué

Queens for a Night / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Painting of a woman's face (Silvia Corbelle)
Painting of a woman’s face (Silvia Corbelle)

14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Camagüey, 8 March 2015 — On the kitchen table is a smeared plate of pink meringue. It’s been there since Friday afternoon, when she brought that piece of cake from the party for Women’s Day. After the celebration, the music and a boring speech from the factory director, Magaly returned to the routine of her life. To a house where a double workday awaited her, with no union, no protective laws, much less a salary. Almost sixty, she’s learned that the speeches about gender equality are just that, speeches.

In the distant year of 1869, within a few hours of the proclamation of the Guaimaro Constitution, Ana Betancourt launched a phrase that would mark women’s illusions with the processes of political change in our country. “Citizens: the woman in the dark and quiet corner of the house waited patiently and with resignation for this beautiful hour in which the new revolution broke her yoke and continue reading

unchained her wings.”

Which is what Magaly felt as a teenager when she went to a meeting of the Federation of Cuban Woman (FMC) for the first time. In those years she was also a part of a squad in the Territorial Troops Militia (MTT), and at the same time she did volunteer work almost every weekend and was raising two small children.

Those were the days of the so-called “orchestra woman” this graduate in Chemical Engineering says now, with disappointment — a time when women thought they could play all the instruments at once. Her disenchantments are shared with many women who gave the best years of their lives to a process where emancipation was only achieved on paper in official reports. “Before every problem where I needed some kind of protection for being a woman, I found myself helpless,” remembers Magaly, sitting in the living room of her house, an old mansions with cracked walls in the city of Camagüey.

I experienced moments of domestic violence with a husband who was obsessed with me, but the police would never give me a restraining order

 She details the situations where she felt the weight of her ovaries like a difficult burden to bear. “I experienced moments of domestic violence with a husband who was obsessed with me, but the police would never give me a restraining order and when I complained they told me that we had to ‘work things out ourselves.’ Imagine how frightened I was, barely able to go outside.”

She became an expert in hiding bruises behind dark glasses and looked for a lover who “would punch out the abuser, and so it was resolved, because here it’s only done man to man.”

“When I divorced that husband, just to top it off, they only gave me a monthly support payment of sixty pesos [roughly $2.40 US] for each child. What could I do with that?” she asks, upset. Although in Cuba child support after a divorce is obligatory, the amount is determined based on the legal earnings of the father, or of his salary in Cuban pesos. In a society where the Government itself recognizes that wages are not people’s principal source of income, calculating support in this way puts the main economic burden of raising children on the mothers’ shoulders – who retain custody in most cases.

In Magaly’s family the women were always strong and fighters, she says, while showing some photos from the past. “My grandmother participated in 1923 in the First National Women’s Congress, when there were 31 women’s associations in the different provinces.” It was the first meeting of this type in Latin American and in its discussions they demanded the chance to campaign for women’s suffrage. The voices of women were also heard in getting laws to protect children and to achieve equal social, political and economic rights.

After reviewing the history of the women in her family tree, Magaly says that “when the Revolution triumphed my mother was very excited by the advantages this would bring us.” However, the consensus opinion is that with the speeches about emancipation that accompanied the process from its first day, women achieved major representation in public positions and a double workday, but very little changed inside the home.

“All my friends spent the day working on domestic issues, some even left their jobs to be able to dedicate full time to their homes,” says this professional who makes a living reselling products she manages to extract illegally from the factory where she works. She clarifies her statements with a dose of irony, “It’s true that having an abortion became very easy and divorce is achieved at the blink of an eye, but the machismo structure of society remains intact, leaving us the role of almost-slaves in the home.”

“Having an abortion became very easy and divorce is achieved at the blink of an eye, but the machismo structure of society remains intact”

“And the FMC?” she asks loudly. “Well thank you for convening meetings and giving us more tasks to do because that’s all it does.” This in reference to the only women’s organization allowed in the country, founded in August 1960, which today comprises more than four million females. The majority of them have joined the federation in an almost mechanical gesture, very similar to the push making so many Cubans members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR).

Magaly belongs to that generation that grew up surrounded by promises of equality. “Most of my classmates at the university were women, but today a large percentage of them are no longer working.” The economic collapse of the Special Period sent many women who had worked in a company or state entity back to their homes. Today, many depend economically on their husbands, and upon retirement receive they will receive only a symbolic pension, leaving them to be supported by their children.

Someone knocks on the door while this woman from Camagüey describes her daily life. It is an onion seller who asks two days wages for one bunch. There’s no choice but to buy them, because “I’m soaking some beans and I have to have something to put with them,” she says, wrapped in a robe so old it’s transparent. When the transaction is over she continues talking about her frustrations. “My friends can’t afford hardly anything, even to buy makeup they have to jump through hoops.”

“But I don’t fight it,” she concludes. “What I can’t do without is diazepam,” she explains, taking from her purse a packet with little white pills that are prescribed for anxiety, muscular spasms and seizures. In Cuba there is an extensive illegal market for this drug and other anti-anxiety medications which are greatly used by women. “This is the real emancipation, almost all the women I know take something like this… it is the pill that makes us feel like queens, at least for a night, while we sleep.”

Lettuces of Lead / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Urban organic garden in Miramar, Havana (flickr)
Urban organic garden in Miramar, Havana (flickr)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 1 March 2015 – The raised bed exhibits its curly lettuces a few meters from the rough concrete building. There is an hour to go before the urban organic garden near Hidalgo Street in the Plaza township begins its sale, but already customers are thronging to get fresh vegetables and lower prices. None of them knows that the products they will buy here are neither organic nor very safe for their health.

Urban agriculture is a phenomenon that dawned in the nineties with the rigors of the Special Period. In the words of a humorist, “We Havanans turned ourselves into peasants and planted leeks even on balconies.” The economic crisis and the inefficiency of state farms required taking advantage of empty lots in order to cultivate greens and vegetables.

The initiative helped all these years to alleviate shortages and has many defenders who emphasize their community character, so different from the mechanization of modern agriculture. Nevertheless, together with the undeniable merits are hidden serious problems that point to the contamination of the crops with wastes characteristic of urban areas. continue reading

Hidden, serious problems point to the contamination of the crops with wastes characteristic of urban areas

Nationwide, about 40,000 people work in urban agriculture projects on some 83,000 acres (130 square miles) that are divided into 145,000 parcels, 385,000 patios*, 6,400 intensive gardens and 4,000 urban organic gardens. These last under the leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture, although with some autonomy for crop management.

With these lands planted in populated areas, it has been the goal to reduce food insecurity, offer greater access to fresh produce and to expand green spaces in urban zones.

Havana has 97 high yield urban organic gardens. One of the best known is located in the Alamar neighborhood and is currently managed by a cooperative of 180 members. The capital also has 318 intensive gardens, with crops sown directly in the ground, in addition to 38 crops that are semi-protected and in enriched soil.

The soil enrichment uses a technique known as vermicomposting, which consists of transforming solid wastes by the action of earthworms and micro-organisms. The problem is that many of the urban wastes that serve as a basis for the process are gotten from residential trash and carry a big load of heavy metals that with time accumulate in greens and vegetables.

The compost comes from household trash containing cadmium and lead above the maximum permissible levels

A study carried out in 2012 by several researchers from the Institute of Soils and that included samples from urban organic gardens in Havana and Guantanamo brought to light that “the compost obtained from the urban solid wastes originating in household trash extracted from landfills without prior sorting, and the subsoils prepared from them, contain heavy metals, especially cadmium and lead, above the maximum permissible levels.”

The lack of an effective system of trash sorting and processing works against us, because much of the waste used for compost in the urban organic gardens has had previous contact with materials like cans, paints, and batteries, thrown indiscriminately into landfills all over the country.

Urban agriculture in Havana (flickr)
Urban agriculture in Havana (flickr)

Furthermore, the process to achieve compost often is not carried out properly, so that the pathogens contained in the wastes are not destroyed. Although part of the material used in this process comes from the garden itself, trash from nearby settlements, market wastes and agro-industrial refuse are also added.

Family gardens account for close to 90% of the greens consumed by the population, so ingestion of high doses of heavy metals could be affecting a great number of Cubans.

Irrigation adds a high content of chlorine and other water purifiers 

Irrigation of the urban organic gardens aggravates the problem because the water comes from the population’s supply network and affects the amount of water available for human consumption, besides also being unsuitable for crops because of the high content of chlorine and other purifying products.

The proximity of streets and avenues to the crops worsens the pollution because heavy metals also arrive through the ground and the air. Add to that the use of pesticides and fungicides for control of pests in the urban organic gardens. An un-confessed but widespread practice.

Most alarming is that the Ministry of Agriculture keeps silent about this matter and does not promote research into the presence of chemical agents harmful to health in produce that consumers imagine fresh and organic. Complicity or apathy? No one knows, but there are many reasons to distrust that bunch of lettuce with its attractive green leaves.

*Translator’s note: “Patios” in this context refers to home gardens producing food primarily for family consumption.

Translated by MLK

The Ordeal of Automated Teller Machines / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Lines at Cuban ATMs grow on weekends (14ymedio)
Lines at Cuban ATMs grow on weekends (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, Havana, 23 February 2015 – The line reached the corner and was moving with agonizing slowness. They were not selling eggs or potatoes. It wasn’t even a line for seeking a visa. Those who waited just wanted access to the automatic teller, the only one working last Saturday afternoon near Havana’s Central Park.

A few days before MasterCard can be used in Cuba, many are asking how the Cuban bank network will deal with the increased demand for money if it can barely keep its service afloat for domestic users and tourists.

The congestion in front of the machines grows even though only 1.3 million magnetic cards have been issued in the country, and for the moment only retirees, customers with accounts in convertible pesos, businesses that have contracts with the bank, self-employed workers and international collaborators can get them. The rest of society continues to depend exclusively on paper currency.

“When the subject is money, people fume,” says a young man whose Saturday night hangs by a thread because of the congested ATM. Even though this weekend the temperature dropped in the city, no one seemed ready to leave before getting their cash.

The scene is repeated at most of the 550 ATMs (Automated Teller Machines or automatic tellers) of Chinese manufacture, of which 398 are in Havana. In 2013 200 new units were purchased in China, but the majority were to replace defective terminals and did not solve the serious deficit of tellers. Cash payment is still the most common method in Cuba for acquiring products and services.

The scarcity of terminals combines with the deficient functioning of the system, affected by electrical outages, frequent connection failures between the ATM and the bank and lack of cash

The terminals are only available in private businesses with great resources and obvious official backing 

Almost all the self-employed workers offer their services for cash payment. The use of point of sale terminals (TPVs) for card scanning and payment, also known as POS, is only available in private businesses with great resources and obvious official backing.

In state business networks, the landscape is different but not very promising either. Although there exist POS terminals in most big department stores and hard currency shops, their service is unstable and slow. “When a client comes to pay with a card, the line stops for minutes because sometimes the communication with the bank is down and you have to try it several times,” explains a cashier from the busy market at 70th Street and 3rd in Miramar.

In the provincial cities and above all in the townships, where they are practically non-existent, the ATM and POS situation is even worse. Tourists who travel deep into Cuba must carry cash with them, increasing the risk of theft and loss in addition to the demand for liquidity.

The problem hits natives and foreigners. “Why do they pay me on the card if in the end I have to go get the money at the bank because I can make purchases almost nowhere with this?” complains Marilin Ruiz, a former elementary school teacher who also was waiting in line on Saturday for the ATM near Central Park. The delay was so long that she wound sharing recipes for making flan without milk and knitting suggestions with another woman.

 “I have a pension of less than 200 pesos (about $8 US) and I spend up to two hours in line at the teller to collect it,” an old woman complained

Between the 4th and 6th of each month, Cuban retirees go to ATMs to collect their pensions. “I have a pension of less than 200 pesos (about $8 US) and I spend up to two hours in line at the teller to collect it,” explained Asuncion, an old woman of close to eighty years of age. Meanwhile, some kids scamper from one side to the other. They are the children of a couple waiting at the end of the line without much hope of getting money before nightfall.

“We are late for everything; when the world has spent decades using plastic, now it is that we are trying it,” laments Asuncion. The first ATMs, of French manufacture, were installed in Cuba in 1997, but after 2004 only Chinese terminals arrived.

Asuncion keeps in her wallet a Visa card that her son sent her from Madrid. “I use this only every three months when he puts a little on it for my expenses.” There are no public statistics about how many of the country’s residents might be making frequent use of debit or credit cards associated with a foreign bank account of an emigrated relative, but the phenomenon has grown in the last decade.

In the line several Chinese student also put their Asian patience to the test with the red and blue cards in hand from the Chinese banking conglomerate UnionPay. More than 3000 citizens of that country study or work on the Island, and they receive their family remittances through that channel. Also, in 2013 alone some 22,000 Chinese tourists visited Cuba.

“We Cubans and Chinese are good at waiting, but let the gringos arrive in great numbers, they are more desperate, they want everything fast,”

“We Cubans and Chinese are good at waiting, but let the gringos arrive in great numbers, they are more desperate, they want everything fast,” says Lazaro, a teen with tight clothes, to a friend with whom he waits in the line.

The alternative to the ATM, which might be the window of the bank branch, is not recommended. In Havana there are 90 branches of the Banco Metropolitano, but at the end of 2014 at least twelve offices were partially or completely closed because of problems ranging from leaks, sewer network blockages, danger of building collapse or other infrastructure issues. Insufficient attention and lack of trust in the banking system make many continue to prefer hiding money “under the mattress.”

The limited work schedule of banks and the scarcity of offices open on weekends cause long lines on weekends in front of ATMs. The more optimistic, however, manage to profit from the wait. Marilin managed to achieve everything by renting a room in her house to the Chinese students who must, of course, pay in cash.

Asuncion could not stand the pain in her legs and left without her money, while the couple at the end of the line had to buy some ice cream to pacify their restless children. Lazaro was luckier, and in addition to exchanging phone numbers with a French woman whom he met in the crowd, he managed to extract twenty convertible pesos from the ATM to spend that same night. At least this time the blue screen did not appear with the “out of service” announcement, nor was there a power outage and, yes, the machine had cash.

Translated by MLK

Nauta lowers its prices by 50% for Internet / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Lines in Front of Etecsa
Lines in front of Etecsa (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Rosa Lopez, 18 February 2015 — These days the line outside the State-run Nauta Internet “cafés” all over the country are much longer than usual. The reduction, to half price for Internet connection cards is the reason for such an influx. The special offering, put into effect by the State-run Cuba Telecommunications Company (ETECSA) this last 10 February, will remain in effect until this coming 10 April. Users not have to pay 2.50 CUC (convertible pesos) for one hour of Internet access, instead of the usual 5.00 CUC.

The measure has caused some excitement among customers, hoping that the special offering will be maintained to the end of the year. “It’s still expensive, but if now I have to pay half the price it means I can do twice the work continue reading

when I connect,” says Liudmila Muñoz, an entrepreneur who coordinates tourist trips to the Island, for which she arranges accommodating, dance classes and transportation.

In front of the Nauta Internet room in the centrally located Focsa Building, people spread the word of the new prices. “I have to come a lot. I’m a sailor and I’m looking for a contract to work on a cruise, so I shouldn’t have to pay so much,” explained José Antonio Romero who, nevertheless, believes that “it’s still armed robbery, to pay so much for Internet.”

The Nauta Internet rooms opened in June 2013 and there are now over 155 nationwide. In statements to the official press, ETECSA’s Director of Institutional Communication, Luis Maneul Díaz Narajo, said that during the first quarter of 2015, another 136 rooms with 538 computer stations will be added in the Youth Computing Clubs.

Local navigation Nauta opened in June 2013 and there are now over 155 nationwide. Speaking to the official press, the director of Institutional Communication ETECSA, Luis Manuel Díaz Naranjo, said that during the first quarter of 2015 136 other rooms with 538 points will be added in the Joven Clubs de Computación (Youth Clubs for Computing).

Despite the high prices of the connection rooms, the demand is very high. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, in 2012 Cuba had only a 25 percent Internet penetration with a population of 11.2 million inhabitants.

Shortage of Condoms / 14ymedio, Rosa Lopez

Some condoms (CC)
Some condoms (CC)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, ROSA LOPEZ, Pinar del Rio, 12 February 2015 – People in Pinar del Rio didn’t have to wait to read about it in the newspaper Granma. For weeks the popular voice says it, louder and louder. “There are no condoms,” started to be heard like a whisper on the corners. “There are no condoms,” said the couples on hearing it and the teens warned their parents before they went out on Saturday night. “There are no condoms,” howl the pharmacy clerks when their customers dare to ask. The uproar was such that finally this Wednesday the official organ of Communist Party issued a formal answer.

Those who still have a sense of humor, after a month long shortage continue reading

of contraceptives in the country’s westernmost province, suggest that perhaps it’s a government strategy to increase the birth rate. We will have to see the birth statistics between September and October of this year, although it could be that the number of abortions will also shoot up in the coming weeks.

Before every shortage, some specialist always suggests a workaround. That’s what happened with the article published by the official newspaper, which says that the Program of Prevention and Control of STDs and HIV proposes that, given the scarcity of the product, “people find alternatives, for example, limiting the sexual act to kissing, caresses and masturbation…” Tell that to a customer burning with passion whose store of condoms ran out at the end of last year!

What the note in Granma doesn’t say is that contraceptives aren’t the only thing missing from pharmacies. A brief tour this morning of places where medications are sold in the city of Pinar del Rio demonstrated that other products have also been disappearing for weeks. Both in the pharmacy on the central corner or Marti Street at Recreo, as well as the one known as Camancho or the one located on the ground floor of the 12 story building on Maceo street, have empty shelves and drawers.

The shortages include drugs such as Meprobamate, anti-flu medications, Dipyrone, Azithromycin, Prednisolone and Clotrimazole. What do the public health authorities propose in the face of such shortages? Looking for alternatives like with condoms? Will they then engage in the fantasy to anticipate what the patients should do in the face of such shortages.