"Importing is Cheaper Than Producing," Laments Cuba’s Minister of Economy and Planning

The Minister of Economy and Planning, Alejandro Gil Fernández, appeared on national television on Monday to dispel doubts about the Cuban economy. (Round Table / Archive)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 25 June 2019 — Popular concerns about the worsening economic situation in the country have led the Minister of Economy and Planning, Alejandro Gil Fernandez, to appear on national television on Monday to dispel doubts. “We are not going to have a second Special Period,” said the official, who lamented that “today importing is cheaper than producing in the country.” 

For more than a decade, since Raúl Castro assumed the presidency of the country in February 2008, one of the slogans most repeated by the Cuban government has been the need to “replace imports.” But the calls to reduce purchases abroad have been met with the monetary reality of the country, divided for a quarter of a century between the dual currency system comprising the Cuban peso (CUP) and the convertible peso (CUC).

Along with the two currencies, different exchange rates work for different sectors of the economy. A dollar can be equivalent to 1 CUP or 24 CUP, depending on whether it is a state or private entity. These distortions contribute to discouraging local production and “as long as this monetary environment persists, we have to find a way to directly finance the national industry,” the minister said. continue reading

“Today the country spends more than one billion dollars on the importation of food and not everything can be produced in Cuba, but a part of it could,” he said. “Today more than 900,000 tons of corn are purchased abroad for animal feed; this year the country is expected to produce more than 130,000 tons.” The greatest expenditures are for food and fuel.

Using great car, to avoid the phrases that generate alarm, and replacing “crisis” or “recession” with concepts such as “complex conjuncture” or “economic tension,” the head of the economy blamed the application of Title III of the United States’ Helms-Burton Act, in addition to the recent ban on cruise ship travel, for the difficulties in achieving the goals set.

In May, the Administration of Donald Trump approved the enforcement of this part of a law that punishes those who profit from properties that belonged to US citizens that were confiscated after the coming to power of Fidel Castro in January 1959. The first lawsuits have already been presented in US courts and are considered by specialists as a “bucket of cold water” for potential investors on the island.

Gil Fernandez also blamed the US embargo for the current situation, although he admitted that there are “internal shortcomings: productivity problems, deficits in the investment process, breaches of export revenues, lack of incentives to export more, diversion of resources (a euphemism for ’theft’), indiscipline, obstacles and bureaucracies.”

The minister alluded to the words of the President Miguel Díaz-Canel, who recently, during the Congress of the National Association of Economists and Accountants of Cuba (ANEC), recognized the existence of an “internal blockade,” a concept that until then was only voiced by opponents of the government and by the most critical voices within the island’s academics.

“Today we have a more diversified economy,” insisted the official, to mark the differences with the crisis known as the ’Special Period in Times of Peace’ into which Cuba fell after the fall of the socialist camp and the abrupt elimination of the Soviet subsidies to the island’s economy in the 90s. In contrast to those years, Gil Fernandez says, this time “we are not going to have an abrupt drop in GDP, in fact we are proposing that the economy should maintain its growth trend this year.”

At the end of 2018, the authorities announced that the Island had a discreet growth of 1.2% of GDP that year and that an additional 1.5% was expected for 2019. In a study published in January of last year, the Inter-American Bank of Development (IDB) indicated that Cuba have not 35%, as had previously been reported, but a “little more than 50%” of its Gross Domestic Product in the 90s and that crisis still weighs on the economy.


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The Conflict Between Google and Huawei Has Cubans Scrambling

The highest-end terminals on the island cost over 500 CUC (close to the annual salary of a professional). (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 24 May 2019 — As soon as the news was heard, webpages were filled with offers for Huawei phones accompanied by the words ‘rebate’ and ‘bargain’.  One of the ads included the phrase, “Don’t listen to what Google says, Huawei will win this battle.” The American technological giant announced last Sunday the suspension of all commercial activity with the Chinese firm, which has a huge market share in Cuba due to the sanctions imposed by the US Government.

Users who already have Huawei brand devices may install new applications and download updates for Google services, but they can not update the Android operating system, which presents an ongoing security problem.

“I already had to exchange my Blu-branded phone last year because it did not work for me to surf the internet with 3G service and I bought this Huawei Honor 7A,” explains Yaima Chávez, a Havanans who fears she will have to get rid of a device that she finds “practical and efficient.” However, she does not want to “have to jump through hoops and pay technicians under the table to update the operating system.” continue reading

“If there comes a time when I can’t update it, I’ll have to sell it, but who’s going to want to buy this when the thing gets uglier?” she says. In Cuba, as soon as you enter the José Martí International Airport in Havana, the posters with Huawei advertising immediately trumpet the firm’s leading role in the country.

The step taken by Google is in line with the executive order issued by Donald Trump, on May 15, which prohibits US companies from using services of foreign telecommunications firms that “endanger the country’s security.”

Huawei is currently the second largest manufacturer of telephones in the world and in Cuba it has deep roots among users due to its more favorable prices and the quality of its screens.

Since 2008 when the Government of Raul Castro authorized Cubans to contract for cell phone service, the number of customers with mobile lines has soared. Currently there are more than five million subscribers to the prepaid service of the Telecommunications Company of Cuba (Etecsa), in a country with a population of about 11.5 million people.

Osvel Álvarez Jacomino, a graduate of the University of Computer Science (UCI), downplays the situation and believes that it will not affect customers too much. “If you can’t use Google Play there are other alternatives. In Cuba you can visit platforms such as Apklis, or Cubapk.com, Apkpure, Uptdown and many others that, although they do not have as much security, basically provide the same service,” he says.

Ezequiel, a 27-year-old mobile repair technician who works in a small workshop on San Lazaro Street, has a different opinion. “People get very nervous with anything like this and it is enough that Google has said that things will not continue as they have, with Huawei, for someone in the market for one of those Chinese mobile phones, to think twice about it.”

Ezequiel believes that “when it comes to their pockets, the buyers want to play it safe.” Most of the sales of terminals take place in the informal market because the state network fails to satisfy users, who complain that Etecsa offers outdated models at very high prices.

Etecsa telepoints continue to sell models such as Huawei Y3 and Huawei Y520 for 80 and 85 CUC, respectively. Cataloged as low-end terminals with limited features, these devices are an option for those who can not afford higher-end terminals that, on the island, can exceed 500 CUC.

Huawei’s presence is felt not only in phones. In 2000, the Chinese company obtained a contract to install the national fiber optic network and its equipment is also used in Wi-Fi hotspots and in the newly-created Nauta Hogar service that provides Internet access from homes. The presence of the firm on the island dates back more than three decades, according to Javier Villariño Ordoñez, sales director.

But this presence has not been exempt from controversy. The freedom-defense organization Freedom House, based in Washington, has closely followed several allegations about Huawei’s close ties to Chinese state power. The entity warned about the security and human rights problems that have been associated with the company.

In the midst of this conflict, Huawei has called for calm saying that it will continue to provide security updates to existing models, including those already sold and those in stock.

“We will continue to build an ecosystem of safe and sustainable programming to provide the best experience for our users,” said the company, which has lamented Google’s decision.

The biggest markets affected by Google’s actions are the European and Latin American, since the US and China already inhabit practically different universes. In the US, Chinese phones are only 1% of the market and in China the presence of Google is very rare. However, in Europe, 18% of phones are from Huawei and in Latin America it ranges from 28% in Costa Rica to 17% in Chile.

“It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.  If I already didn’t trust Huawei very much because of all the security scandals, now this comes along and it is not worth risking it,” says a young man who, on Wednesday, convinced several friends to change to the Samsung brand. At the centrally located corner of G and 23rd Streets, the passionate user assured that “South Korea and the United States are not going to be squeezed out, so better safe than sorry.”


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Cuba’s Iconic Coppelia Ice Cream Parlor Loses Flavor

The ice creamery Coppelia is still one of the most visited sites in Havana in spite of a significantly smaller menu.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, May 28, 2019 — Hugo is nine years old and has never seen a pistachio. But the word sounds so funny that he asks for an ice cream with that flavor in a privately owned spot on the corner of Línea and L streets in Havana. The menu at this small shop includes everything from the unusual cherry to the common lemon, a variety of choices that can only be found in the private sector.

The privately owned cafe Amore is located near the legendary ice cream parlor Coppelia but there are different management styles, a disparity in price and a chasm in the level of cleanliness between each. While the iconic state-run establishment only sells two or three flavors, the privately owned competition offers more than a dozen.

When Coppelia opened its doors in 1966, its different sections sold dozens of flavors and many possible combinations of ice cream, with candies and other items that could be added. Over the years, however, there were fewer and fewer choices, the quality of the ice cream declined and the lines became longer and longer. With the advent of flexible self-employment in the mid-1990s, competition also emerged. continue reading

“I have been in this business for almost twenty years,” says Manuel Octavio Gómez, a self-employed worker who began making ice cream in an old Soviet-era Aurika washing machine and now sells his products to various privately owned establishments in Havana. “At first I was selling only two or three flavors, but now I offer almost twenty,” he says.

“It took me years to figure out the level of creaminess that Cubans like and now I sell to private restaurants, cafes and customers who want a high-quality, more artisanal product,” he explains. “My ice cream is more expensive than those you can buy at Coppelia but the quality is better. Just try it and you’ll taste the difference.”

Cheleny Darias, administrator of the Coppelia factory, told the official press last year that the company provides two types of product to the centrally located state ice cream parlor. The “special” version contains 18% butter fat, is served in the tower section and is the more select and expensive option. A lower cost version contains only 14% butter fat and is served in the so-called canchas (soccer pitch) section on the ground floor.

Under the laws of supply and demand, private ice cream parlors can charge up to ten times as much as Coppelia. (14ymedio)

Customers often complain about finding shards of ice inside their ice cream, a limited number of flavors, flavors that are bland, and a lack of fresh fruit options. There are also often complaints about serving sizes, which are often much smaller than expected.

Ice cream is in high demand on the island, especially in the summer when temperatures are high. Faced with strict rationing of milk, many turn to this product as a sweet source of dairy. For decades the state has kept prices low by subsidizing places like Coppelia throughout the country, but the pilfering of supplies and limited choices have become increasingly common.

“I have a Spanish passport so I am allowed to travel frequently to Mexico, Panama and the United States,” says Gómez. “I bring back different extracts, dried fruits and also ideas to improve my product. Now I want to offer more natural fruit flavored ice cream because there’s a big demand for it among tourists. The would like to try something with pineapple, frutabomba, guava or mango because these are more local.”

“For years, when anyone thought about ice cream, they thought about strawberry and chocolate. Sometimes vanilla or custard, but it was all very boring. Now private shops like ours want to innovate and offer more options,” he explains. “I’ve made ice cream with tamarind, with walnuts and chirimoya, and even with mandarin oranges and mint, all without preservatives or additives,” he explains.

On Sunday an employee at Amore helped a girl make a decision by giving her small samples of different flavors until the little girl settled on a waffle cone with a scoop of chocolate covered strawberry for 1.50 convertible pesos ($1.50 US), the equivalent of almost two days salary for a public sector employee.

Coppelia, where a scoop of ice cream costs 1.50 Cuban pesos (about $0.06 US), has been closed for repairs during the month of May and is expected to reopen in June. The Coppelia factory is also scheduled to begin operations again by that date.

“Now that its ice cream is no longer of the same quality as it was twenty or thirty years ago, Coppelia’s main draw are the subsidized prices,” says Niuris Fonseca, a resident of nearby 21st Street, who has had both some of her best and worst moments here. “There are several hospitals and schools in the area so many patients and children are able to drop in for an afternoon snack.”

On the other hand, Fonseca believes Coppelia has deteriorated and is dirty. “It’s best to avoid the bathrooms and the spoons are often not well washed,” she laments. “There are also very few flavors and, what few they have, are not as good as before. Sometimes, if I close my eyes and taste them, I can’t tell if I am eating strawberry or orange-pineapple. They all taste the same.”

“A few weeks ago, I went with my daughters before they closed and the menu board outside indicated they had four flavors. But when we got inside, they only had vanilla and strawberry,” she says. She shared a table with man from overseas, who had wanted to experience the famous ice creamery. “He didn’t care that there were only two flavors because what he wanted was to visit the iconic building.”

Private ice creameries have opted to compete with Coppelia on its weak points. “Cleanliness, comfort, convenience and flavors you’ve never tasted,” explains an employee of an ice cream parlor located near Infanta Street. “It’s true that it’s not common for people here to order five scoops at a time, like they do at Coppelia, because it would be too expensive. But if you order one scoop, it’s a high-quality scoop.”

“All our products are made here on the premises and most are made from raw, natural materials, without chemicals or preservatives,” explains an employee to two curious tourists who have selected one soursop ice cream and another with mamey. “You don’t find this in any state-owned shop because they only make ice cream from mass-produced concentrates.”

The most difficult ingredient to source is still milk, although Gómez says that the newly opened wholesale markets for self-employed workers have helped him get powdered milk in bulk as well as cream. Other ice cream makers consulted said that farmers provide them with fresh cow’s milk, but most purchases are done informally.

“If you don’t want to spend a lot and fill up, go to Coppelia. But if you want to splurge and enjoy a good ice cream, then you have to go to a private ice cream parlor, which is where the best ice cream in Cuba is made today,” he explains proudly as he serves a chocolate scoop with chips in a slender cup and a scoop with sour apple in another.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

"The Fridges Are on Vacation": The Obsessive Search for Meat Products in Cuba

In the larger markets like Carlos III meat supplies arrive more frequently, but the lines are long and contentious. “There is some kind of scuffle hear every day when they put out the chicken and sausages,” says one of the guards. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 25 April 2019 — “Is there meat?” asks a customer outside a market in Havana. “No, the refrigerators are still on vacation,” the employee, who has heard the same question a dozen times in the last hour, says ironically. In the midst of the famine of food supplies, the first to disappear from the shelves have been all those of animal origin.

Cubans have a long and painful obsession with flesh. During the crisis of the ’90s they tried to recreate it with other products, some of which weren’t even food. Today, in the midst of the shortages of chicken, pork and sausages that currently affects the whole island, the effort is being repeated, with an endless coming and going to the stores and markets.

“I got up at four in the morning to look for pork but when I arrived at the counter nothing but butter and orejas were left,” Lala Garcia tells 14ymedio. Garcia is a neighbor of the Youth Labor Market (EJT) on 17th Street in Havana’s El Vedado neighborhood, who had to be satisfied “with some chicken bouillon cubes to make some croquettes.” continue reading

Garcia inherited the recipe from an aunt who made it frequently during the Special Period: “You only need old bread, an egg, a little nutmeg and two small bouillon cubes to make up to 20 croquettes,” she explains proudly. “That’s the closest thing to a protein [of animal origin] that we will eat this week in my house.”

The crisis of the ’90s led to a “multiplication of substitute products and a decrease in the quality of products in general and protein in particular”, including “fricandel (sausage based on fishmeal) or minced meat that is textured or enriched (with soy flour and meat scraps),” according to a study by anthropologist Margalida Mulet Pascual.

History repeats itself for many, like Virgilio Fuentes, 78, who says he was lucky because he managed to get a pack of ten hot dogs in a store in convertible pesos. “With this I have my grandson’s food for several days,” he tells this newspaper. “One day I prepare two dogs in sauce, another I grate them and make a Chinese sauce (soy) and the third day  I slice and fry them on both sides.”

Fuentes was a teacher at a secondary school when the Soviet Union imploded and the island lost the huge subsidy that came to it from the Eastern European socialist camp. “I learned to make steak with the white part of the grapefruit, to prepare a good forcemeat with wheat flour or a plate of shredded “beef” from shredded banana peel.”

The retiree regrets that now there is less and less supply in the butcher shops and lists some products that have also been disappearing, such as “turkey hash, hamburgers and even the cans of spam, which solved a lot of problems because they can be prepared in various ways.” Now “only the cans of sardines are left but they are very expensive, at 2 CUC each (Cuban convertible pesos – roughly worth $1 each), and I have a pension of 300 CUP (Cuban pesos) (about 12 CUC)” per month.

The refrigerators in most stores are empty. (14ymedio)

A study carried out in 2017 by the Ministry of Agriculture and the United Nations Program for Development determined that “in Cuba there is an unmet demand for animal protein for feeding the population.” This dissatisfaction becomes more evident in the case of beef,” because “the consumption of this product has been deeply rooted in the food culture of the country and is the product that has suffered the most from the effects of the crisis.”

According to figures offered in the study, the amount of beef that each Cuban eats each year barely reaches 7.3 pounds, far from the 19 pounds consumed in the 1980s when the product was imported at very preferential prices from the countries belonging to the Council of Mutual Economic Assistance (CAME) of which the Island was also a member.

Although recent studies confirm that the consumption of animal protein is not necessary for proper health, beef has become a recurring dream for many Cubans who see it as an unattainable delicacy.

“The last time I could eat a beef steak was at an all-inclusive hotel in Varadero, when my brother who lives in Miami came and invited the whole family,” recalls Osmani, a 30-year-old who was born just when the Special Period crisis began.

“Every time I meet with my friends we end up talking about food, and especially meat, roasts, grills and chops,” he says with a smile. “We all end up salivating, and then the problem comes because we have to go back to the house and face a plate of rice with beans or maybe a croquettes of ’mystery meat’,” he says.

Among the reasons that Osmani yearns to emigrate outside the Island is just being able to eat meat more frequently. “I want to fulfill the old dream of one day eating breakfast with meat, eating meat at lunch and dinner with meat,” he says and touches one of his eye teeth. “I have to use this which nature gave me, because at the rhythm I eat here, they will atrophy on me.”

At the end of last year, the authorities announced that they were trying to stop the fall in pig production but the lack of liquidity has prevented buying the animal feed necessary for raising pigs abroad. In Candelaria, Artemisa, a town that has traditionally been dedicated to farming and raising pigs, many producers have had to sell their animals when they are just a few weeks old because they do not have feed to keep them.

“When the sow gave birth we had no food to give the piglets so we had to sell them when they were very small and also slaughter the mother,” Onelio Suarez tells 14ymedio. Suarez is a producer who insists he had twenty pigs in fattening barely two years ago. “Recovering will cost me a year,” he says.

“Even if we get a lot of feed for the pigs, the producers here need at least a year to recover the cycle of births and fattening that has been severed,” he says. “That’s why the cost of pork has exploded everywhere and will continue to rise,” he says.

In several agricultural markets in Havana the price of a pound of boneless pork has reached 60 CUP, the salary of two days of a professional. “As there is not much frozen chicken in the shopping centers there is an even greater demand for pork and that has complicated the situation much more,” says Suarez. “This has been going on for a while and the production is not going to meet the demand.”


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Nuevo Vedado Businesses Suffer after Viazul Offices Relocate

Viazul no longer occupies its signature location on 26th Street in Havana. (Martin A.)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, April 1, 2019 — “Things never slowed down. All day long the place was full of tourists. Now, if there are one or two, it’s a lot,” laments Sara, an employee at a privately owned cafe near the location where, until March 22, the Viazul bus company had its offices in Havana. The agency’s relocation has been a severe blow to businesses in this part of Nuevo Vedado.

“The economy of the entire neighborhood revolved around Viazul because there was nothing else here to attract tourists,” explains Sara, who notes that in the past week she has sold “very little food and almost no beverages” in the small cafe that also sells takeout items. “If this keeps up, we will have to close,” she warns.

Created in 1996, Viazul is a subsidiary of the Astro Business Group, owned by the Ministry of Transportation, which provides transportation services to travelers. With twelve daily departures from the capital and three departures from Varadero, Trinidad and Santiago de Cuba, the company handles more than 8,000 customers per month, most of them foreign tourists. Tickets can only be purchased with hard currency. continue reading

The Viazul station had always been located on 26th Avenue, near the Zoological Garden, before moving to the Central National Bus Station on Independence Avenue, a few yards from the Plaza of the Revolution. Until then, the central station had only been used by the state-owned transportation company Astro, which charges for its services in Cuban pesos.

“There were several short-term rental properties in this neighborhood which were doing well because they had customers who wanted to spend the night here before catching the early bus the next day,” explains Luís Alberto, who was born in the 26th Street vicinity. “Many residents also provided private taxi service for travelers, but now all that is up in the air.”

“This is the kind of decision that is made at the top without consulting the local community and that ends up causing a lot of difficulties and problems,” adds the young man. “There are people who are already losing a lot of money.”

A travel agency that provides trips to Isla de la Juventud is planning to move into Viazul’s former location, where passengers will be able to buy a bus ticket from Havana to Batabanó on the southern coast as well as a ticket for the catamaran that will then take them to the small island. “But that will mean many fewer customers because most of them are Cubans and they don’t have as much money to spend,” explains Luís Alberto.

Viazul has a fleet of more than 90 vehicles, at least 75 of which are forty-seat buses, as well as 13 microbuses with ten to eleven seats, and four mini-buses with twenty-four seats. In contrast to the buses operated by Astro, Viazul’s vehicles have a reputation for being safer and more comfortable.

Last January a Viazul bus was involved in an accident in Guantánamo province which killed three Cubans, two Argentinians, a German woman, a French man and injured thirty-three others. “This has been a very big problem for our company, which is currently involved in several lawsuits with the victims’ families, who are demanding compensation,” said an employee who preferred not to give his name.

We have tried to maintain a high level service but, over the years, the bus yard has deteriorated a lot, almost none of the restrooms in the buses work, the seats suffer from constant use and mechanical breakdowns are becoming more common,” he explains. “Even then, we’re still way above what Astro offers.”

The employee points out that the move to a new location is unrelated to the January accident or to the costs of the lawsuits. “It was a decision made by the former transport minister, Adel Yzquierdo, when she was still in office and is only now being carried out,” he notes.

The ministry announced its decision in mid-March and stated that the change was in response to the reorganization and consolidation of the National Bus Company, apologizing for any inconvenience this might cause.

During the initial phase, authorities have provided free transfers from 26th Street to the new location to give travelers time to adjust to the change.

“A lot of us who work for the company don’t agree with this but there is nothing we can do.”

“Having one company which charges in hard currency and another which charges in Cuban pesos under the same roof is not a good idea,” he states. “Their customers’ expectations are not the same. And Central Station does not meet the standards that tourists are looking for. There isn’t even a convenient taxi stand in the area.”

A group of drivers from Panataxi, who used to regularly pick up passengers at the former location, sent a letter to the ministry last week asking that Viazul either be returned to its former headquarters or that a dedicated taxi stand for its customers be provided. So far, however, they have not received a reply.

The issue of both companies operating under one roof has also led to complaints from Viazul customers, who lament the poor conditions of the station’s public areas. “You cannot use the toilets because they are so dirty. They have no toilet paper and you can’t flush most of them because there’s no water in the tanks,” complained Lucía, a Cuban living in Miami who bought a ticket on Saturday to travel to Camagüey.

“I arrived at the airport and thought I had to go to the terminal on 26th Street but they told me it had moved,” she reports to 14ymedio. “The old station was smaller but it was in better condition. At the new location things are very disorganized and the customer services leave much to be desired”. She acknowledges, however that “though the quality has gone done, at least it’s now in a more central location.”


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Fewer Potatoes, More Business

The line to buy the potatoes at the La Timba market at 37th and 6th in the Plaza municipality. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana,  27 March 2019 — “Between the end of February and April I do ’the harvest of potatoes’,” jokes Jaime, the fictitious name of an illegal seller of the tuber, in conversation with 14ymedio. “Before, I used to sell shrimp and lobster, but this is less dangerous, because despite having to move larger volumes, it does not leave a trail of odor like seafood does, nor is it so controlled by the police.”

Five years ago, Jaime went to the 19th and B market in El Vedado in Havana to buy some yucca and ended up talking with an informal vendor who offered a bag with 5 pounds of potatoes for 1 CUC. “I realized right away that there was a niche market and I started looking for contacts to do the same.”

At that time, he says, he was lucky. “The price of the potatoes went up because they have been scarce, so that same bag I now sell for 2 and even 3 CUC, it depends on the type of customer,” he says. “I sell from home and I have my network of contacts that are basically paladares (private restaurants), foreign diplomats and Cubans who can spend more.” continue reading

“I have two supply routes, several guajiros from the San Antonio de los Baños area and also some stores where they sell potatoes on the ration book,” he explains. “Both are all the same to me, but right now all the supply I have comes from the markets, because right now the sale to the population has begun.”

“The supply” to which Jaime refers is nothing other than the diversion (i.e. theft) of state resources that end up for sale illegally. “The miracle of the surplus,” as Jaime calls it, is the sum of what is obtained by manipulating the scales or by adding dirt and, also, from the rationed amounts that people don’t pick up. “I make a living from that, getting those potatoes to people who can pay what they are really worth.”

Consumers buying through the rationed market receive a total of 14 pounds of potatoes in multiple deliveries, at the subsidized price of 1 CUP per pound. The supply arrives in the months of February and March when the so-called Cold Campaign is harvested from the fields. In other provinces the sale of the product tends to be lower quantities and sporadic.

The fall in potato production has been remarkable in recent years. In 1996, during the Special Period when it was strictly rationed, exports began after the harvest reached 348,000 tons. With the Raulista reforms, in 2010 its unrationed sale was authorized, but in just five years the harvest had fallen to 123,938 tons and the authorities had to import 15,233 tons to meet the internal demand. In 2017, the potato was again rationed.

“We have several dishes that can be accompanied with mashed potatoes and malanga,” says Rubén Núñez, an assistant chef at a restaurant located next to the central Boulevard of Havana. “It has been several years since we began using instant flakes to replace the natural potato and although it is not ideal, there is enough demand.”

“The packages with instant mashed potatoes are very cheap and easy to bring to Cuba from Miami, Cancun or Panama, and they weigh very little so we have a stable supply,” says this paladar employee. “The recipes with fries are made with pre-cooked and frozen packages that we buy in some markets in Havana, but our menu does not include any dish with boiled or roasted potatoes.”

According to Núñez, you have to get used to it. “You can find many substitutes to the potato, such as bananas, sweet potatoes and taro, but we get tourists who ask for natural potatoes and you have to explain that there are none and suggest another garnish to accompany the main course.”

Luis Marrero was one of the first farmers in the area of Güira de Melena who joined the planting of potatoes when the state ended its monopoly on cultivation and distribution. “My father and my grandfather had planted a lot f potatoes at the beginning of the last century,” he tells this newspaper.

“That’s why when they allowed the farmers to buy the seeds to grow them, I immediately asked for the ’technological package’ that I needed,” he adds. In a state store he bought fertilizer sacks and the seeds necessary to achieve a good harvest.

“That first time I grew potatoes I was very happy because everything was very easy for me, although it is a crop that has its temperature demands,” he details. “I planted the Romano variety, which is quite common in this area and it went well, but over the years the purchase of the seeds became very complicated (as they call it in the Island when the tubers themselves have outbreaks) and the fertilizers have failed “

Over the years, Luis was reducing the area devoted to this crop because he thinks that the State pays the farmers “poorly for a quintal [101 pounds] of potatoes.” Most of the harvest must be sold to the State.

“We are paid between 45 and 65 CUP per quintal, it depends on the quality of the product but I can sell a pound at 3 CUP from the door of my house to the resellers who then sell them for twice that money,” explains the farmer. “It would be silly if I did not sell inthis way.” In this season Luis does not expect big gains. “I have not planted a lot of potatoes and if I take out about 1,000 or 1,200 CUP, it will be a lot.”

Until the beginning of March, 6,100 hectares of the tuber had been planted on the island and 7,200 tons had been harvested, of the 122,000 tons that are expected to be harvested in the provinces of Mayabeque, Artemisa, Matanzas, Villa Clara, Cienfuegos and Ciego de Ávila.

In view of this situation, the Government began, over a year ago, negotiations with Peruvian producers, who have surpluses. They do not seem to have reached an agreement. Meanwhile, the informal vendors continue with their business and the consumers with their packaged potato flakes.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

René, the Mattress Magician

Some mattress repairers have built electric machines that allow them to renew the wadding to fill the mattresses. (Revolico)

14ymedio bigger

14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 19 March 2019 — His hands move with agility, looking first for the scissors, then the thread and finally the needles to close the long cut made on one side. He is not a surgeon or a tailor, but a mattress repairman who, in the middle of a Havana roof, repairs that soft surface where later a couple will be sleep in peace, a child will romp or a grandmother will rest.

“There are two places in life where we deserve a good rest: the mattress and the coffin,” René Puerto reflects philosophically, like the mattress repairman with more than ten years of experience that he is. “In the coffin we do not realize it but a mattress can help us really get our rest, or it can be an ordeal.”

Puerto travels the Havana neighborhoods of El Cerro, El Vedado and Nuevo Vedado announcing his services. “I repair all kinds of mattresses.” He has in a small truck with two assistants and they bring with them all the tolls necessary tools for their work. “We know people’s embarrassments,” he says. continue reading

“Most of the mattresses that I have to repair are over 40 years old but I have been faced with some older than 70,” Puerto explains to 14ymedio, Before making the switch to this particular job he  was employed by a subsidiary of the Ministry of Domestic trade.

Ten years ago he obtained a license to practice as a mattress repairman on his own and he no longer imagines doing anything else other than straightening springs, placing a lining, and stitching and distributing the filling to make the mattress firm and fluffy.

Puerto charges about 50 CUC for repairing a mattress and claims to be able to do it in less than three hours. “That’s if I do not find surprises like too many broken springs or part of the outer wire frame split,” he clarifies. “This work requires patience but you also have to be very clever to solve problems that arise.” He considers that “each mattress is a mystery until it is opened.”

“I was always skillful with my hands and during the Special Period I dedicated myself to upholstering furniture but immediately I realized that if repairing a sofa is almost a luxury, repairing a mattress is a necessity and even people with less money are willing to spend a little bit to sleep better.”

Puerto’s team works on the most common models and types of mattresses in Cuba: bed, cradle, the so-called “three-quarters” and the enormous imperial ones. “We can repair the ones filled with wadding as well as those that are partly foam.” Although he says he prefers “the old mattresses with good springs that are no longer sold in the stores.”

“The most important thing is the mattress framework because the rest is the filling and what happens is that those they’re selling now look very nice but they do not last half as long as that mattress that my parents bought when they got married a lot of years ago,” says Puerto.

During the 70s and 80s, buying a mattress in Cuba was an almost impossible task. Through the rationed market, a few units were sold for newborns and couples getting married, but it was such a small number that it could not meet the demand. With the opening of stores in hard currency, in the 90s, the sale of mattresses reappeared.

Currently bed mattresses are for sale  in the network of state stores at about 250 CUC (the equivalent of well over half a year’s salary for the average worker). The price in the informal market can fall by half but scams and adulterations are frequent. For many families, repairing an old mattress is the only affordable way to sleep more comfortably.

Juan boasts that he has taken the mattress repair business to a “higher level,” he tells 14ymedio. “Before, I used to do it on the sidewalk, in a parking lot or on a rooftop, but since I put an ad in Revolico — an online ad site similar to Craigslist — to work in peoples’ homes, I’m doing better and with fewer risks.” Before, he says, the police bothered him a lot because although he has a license “most of the raw material that is needed can not be bought legally.”

“Strong fabric for the lining, steel wire for the springs to be replaced and the wadding itself are not for sale anywhere,” he complains. “We do not have access to a wholesale market and we have to recycle and recover everything we can so as not to waste new materials, but in any case we lack the resources to be found on the street.”

In more than 20 years dedicated to the trade, Juan says he has seen everything. He relates that once a couple getting a divorce asked him to separate a mattress to make two personal mattresses. “The most difficult thing is when we have to work with mattresses where an old man or a sick person has been bedridden because then it has spots or smells bad.” Although Juan knows that in these cases the mattress can be a health hazard, he does not hesitate to repair it if he is paid.

“The day I suffered the most was when I visited my brother in Miami and several times I saw mattresses thrown in the trash, almost new,” he recalls. “I wanted to take them all and bring them to Cuba but I could not.” His brother, as a family joke, sends him pictures every now and then of other mattresses that he sees being thrown out on the streets of that city.

Other times unforeseen events are not so negative. “Once we bought an old mattress very cheap to get the springs and when we took it apart in the workshop we found more than 1,000 CUP in a roll.” The practice of keeping money under or inside the mattress (shoved through a gap) is common on an island where many continue to distrust state banks.

“We couldn’t even return the money because the mattress had reached us through several intermediaries and when we started asking nobody knew who the original owner was.” With that unforeseen treasure Juan bought a good electric motor to fulfill an old dream.

“Between my son and I, we created an electric machine that helps to renew the wadding, which helps a lot with the old mattresses where the stuffing has gotten hard in places,” he explains. “We give a one year guarantee and the customer can stay close by the whole time to see what we do and what materials we use, there is no cheating.”

Scams are very common in that sector, which is why Juan likes to act with transparency. “I had a good mattress that I inherited from my mother, she needed to change the outer fabric because it was stained and fix a couple of springs but nothing else,” says Marilú, a client who was the victim of a hoax.

“I made the mistake of not looking at what they were doing in the parking lot of the building, which was where they were repairing my mattress,” she recalls. “The first night everything went fine but then some balls started coming out and when I couldn’t take it anymore and I opened it up I realized they had exchanged all the original stuffing with sacks of dried grass and jute sacks,” she laments.

Now Marilú is saving to buy a mattress in the stores in convertible pesos and insists that she will try to take good care of it to avoid having to resort later to the repairers. “These people are like magicians: they can  turn an old mattress into a wonder; or they can change it into a pile of garbage.”


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Peanuts, A Survivor of Economic Centralization

The police do little to control the illegal sellers of peanuts because many belong to very disadvantaged groups. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 13 March 2019 — Rebaptized as “Cuban chewing gum” because of its popularity, it is a constant companion in the face of the long lines at the bus stops, the days of agricultural ‘mobilizations,’ or the poor rations in prisons. The peanut, for decades, has remained the flagship product of the informal market, it has managed to survive the iron-fist nationalization to which it was subjected and today, when it is permitted to sell it from private hands, the product resurfaces but not without certain difficulties.

After the 1968 Revolutionary Offensive, when all the small businesses remaining in private hands were nationalized, few foods continued to be available outside the state apparatus and the rationed market. This legume continued to survive and continued to be sold on the black market from the hands of roving sellers until 2008, when with the Raulist reforms of the private sector, a good part of its sellers and producers were legalized.

The national tradition of consuming peanuts, embodied in the famous musical “maní, manisero se va” (peanuts, peanut seller goes), had to go largely underground. In a whisper, only showing a few paper cones while keeping the rest safely stored in a bag, merchandise was offered avoiding the eyes of inspectors and police. continue reading

“I’ve been sowing peanuts for almost 30 years,” Leopoldo tells this daily. He is a farmer in the Candelaria area who claims to have “gone through everything” with this crop. “It takes a lot of work and we have to be very attentive to pests but later it is sold at a very good price to nougat producers,” he says.

Soil preparation is vital for good peanut production and it should not be planted in stony areas. Its cultivation requires abundant water during germination, growth and flowering, but when it is time for the fruits to ripen they may have already become scarce.

“I have all my land destined for peanuts, but now I also grow flowers and beans.”

Leopoldo owns his land, which allows him to decide what type of product to sow, in contrast to the cooperative members and those who lease their land from the State. The State controls the products that must be harvested in each region and the farmers have to accept the list of priorities designed by the Ministry of Agriculture.

“In this area, most people who have leased land have to plant beans and vegetables to sell to the State,” says Leopoldo. “I went for the peanut because I can sell it directly, it’s in high demand all year and right now it has gone up a lot of price.”

“It is a product that does very well here and it is easy to preserve the seeds, but the drying process in the field has its complexities and it is a very important moment when the whole harvest can be spoiled,” adds the farmer. “Only when it is well dried is it separated from the bush to prevent it from being damp and having a fungus.”

Among the main risks are insects and worms, which feed on leaves. They also produce diseases such as the cercosporiosis fungus, blue mold and the so-called leaf spot, which can spoil an entire harvest, something that often happens with either excess moisture or with little availability of water at the time of initial growth.

In Havana markets one pound of peanuts currently costs between 20 and 24 CUP, the daily salary of a professional. However, few producers of nougat or of the little paper cones it is sold in by street vendors buy it from the stands in these markets, rather they are in direct contact with the producer.

The harvester sells peanuts at between 8 and 10 CUP per pound to the food producer who comes to the farm to get the crop. If the farmer is responsible to deliver the peanuts, he can ask for a little more. The price is unusual. Few agricultural products, with the exception of beans and pork, are sold at around 10 pesos per pound directly from the field.

“Once a month I go to the area of San Antonio de los Baños, where for years I have an agreement with a farmer to buy several kilograms,” says Marcial, a nougat producer who offers his merchandise to sellers in the areas of Centro Habana and Cerro. “My entire house smells like peanuts because we entered this business in 1992 and we have not left it.”

From those early years, Marcial recalls that “everything was illegal” and his wife and daughters sold the cones and nougats very quietly. “One day they confiscated all the production for a week, we were taking it to the house of a cousin who supplied other traveling vendors, when the police stopped us.”

“In those years we cooked at home with the oil we extracted from the peanuts, and we even used it as a skin cream,” he recalls.

Now, Marcial has a street vendor license and his wife has another license to make prepared foods, and they have expanded the products they make and distribute. “We have the typical ground peanut nougat, the another that many people like and we have added one similar to nougat with almonds, but with peanuts, that is in high demand at the end of the year and around other festive dates.” A weak point is “the supply of sugar, which is not stable, but we have also added products with honey to the list of what we sell .”

Family earnings range between 4,000 and 5,000 CUP per month, discounting the raw material and license payments, five times more than Marcial and his wife would earn together as engineers in a state company, which is what they were doing when they met more than 40 years ago.

The dream of Marcial’s family is to launch their own brand of nougat to the market, something that other entrepreneurs have been able to do, and even to register their brand and their recipes in the Cuban Office of Industrial Property (OCPI). But the tenacious manisero (peanut seller) thinks that he still falls short of that.

“The supply is not very stable because it depends on many things, the climate, the state controls on the producers, the transportation and the police searches on the road, having the plastic to wrap them in, in short it is an obstacle course.” Now he is designing a logo for his offerings and trying to add new combinations.

Although many vendors, such as Marcial, have legalized their activity in recent years, the peanut sector remains mired in illegality.

“Most of the peanuts that are bought in the streets are still in the hands of informal sellers, who do not have a license,” says an employee of the National Tax Administration Office (ONAT) who preferred anonymity. “But right now the police do little to control them because many are elderly, disabled or with serious economic problems.”

“It’s a lost case because if you fine or stop all the peanut vendors in Cuba they wouldn’t be able to pay the fines and the police stations would be full.”


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

"There’s No Cement"

Some bulk sales places for construction materials, such as La Timba, are closed to the public and are only serving victims of the tornado. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 11 February 2019 — The winds of the tornado that affected Havana just 15 days ago have not only left thousands of damaged homes and hundreds of families that lost everything, but have also deepened the shortage of building materials in the retail network, where cement, bathroom fixtures and slabs are all unavailable.

“We had planned to renovate the kitchen and got the money to buy everything we need,” Osmel Rodríguez tells 14ymedio. Rodríguez, 58, lives in the Havana municipality of Cerro, an area that suffered no significant damage from the tornado. “Now we have to hold off on the work because there is no cement,” he laments.

In the hard currency stores a sack of type P350 cement, used to set roof tiles and kitchen counters, costs about 6 CUC. Despite the price, which is the equivalent of a week’s salary for an average professional, the demand for this product is still very high in a country where 40% of the housing stock is in fair or poor condition. continue reading

“Last week we ran out of cement and they have not resupplied,” explains an employee in the area that sells heavy hardware in the centrally located Plaza de Carlos III in Havana. “We still do not know when we will have it again, because they are prioritizing the bulk sales places in the areas most affected by the tornado,” he says.

“We also have problems with bathroom fixtures, plastic tanks for storing water, floor slabs and tiles for bathrooms,” he adds. “The problem with cement started before the tornado, because for two years the supply has been very unstable and when the product comes in the quantities are low, but in this last week it has simply disappeared.”

The same scene is repeated in the most important hardware stores throughout the Cuban capital.

Since the passage of the tornado on January 27, the State is guaranteeing a 50% subsidy on the cost of construction materials for people with homes damaged by the disaster in the neighborhoods of Luyanó, Regla, Guanabacoa and Santos Suárez, and 70% of the amount of water deposits, according to Lourdes Rodríguez, general director of Institutional Care, of the Ministry of Finance and Prices.

But the volume of damage far exceeds the pace at which the country can produce or import many of these materials. The latest official figures put 3,513 properties damaged by the tornado, although the number grows every day as families sign onto the damage registry that is being prepared in several offices open for the occasion.

The tanks to store water among the product most in demand after the tornado. (14ymedia)

The national cement industry has been operating at half speed for decades, after the fall of the socialist camp and the end of the Soviet subsidies in the early 1990s. In 2016, only slightly more than 1.4 million tons of gray cement were produced, a figure that is far from the 5.2 million reached that same year in the Dominican Republic, according to a report by the Association of Producers.

“They gave me a subsidy to buy sand, steel bars, cement and a water tank,” says Moraima, who owns a house that lost part of its roof and the wall of the facade in La Colonia, a neighborhood in the municipality of Regla on Havana Bay. “We went to the bulk sales place and they have the materials, but all the workers told me to rush to buy them and move them to my house because there is instability in the supply.”

“Now the problem will be to watch over all this,” says Moraima. “Because the need is great and having all these materials outside the house will be a headache.” In the block where this Regla resident lives, the neighbors take turns to guard the blocks, the piles of cement and the metal windows that have been arriving for the reconstruction.

“We are praying that it does not rain because if it does much of this material can be lost and they have already clarified that there will be no second round in the deliveries; whatever is lost or damaged has no replenishment subsidy,” she explains.

In the vicinity of the ironworks on Reina Street at the corner of Lealtad, informal vendors whisper their merchandise. One of them, wearing a cap that says “100% Cuban” explains the list of products on offer. “Sinks, adjustable showers, vinyl paint, sand, gravel and cement.” But the price of a bag of the P350 cement that could previously be bought for between 6 and 8 CUC on the black market is now around 10.

“I can not lower the price,” he responds to a customer who tries to bargain.” There’s no cement and right now moving a bag is a tremendous danger,” he says. It is common that after the damages caused by the passage of hurricanes and tropical storms, the Police reinforce controls on the informal sale of construction materials.

“They are searching the trucks and even the pedicabs they see with bags that could be cement, sand and gravel,” the informal vendor tells this newspaper. “They have already fined two friends of mine who are also engaged in this business and confiscated all their merchandise.” Most of these “thick” materials sold in illegal networks come from the bulk sales centers.

The merchants buy them wholesale in these places, and then repackage them and resell them at retail taking a good slice. “But now things have gotten bad at the bulk sales places and they are only selling to people who come with the papers showing they were affected by the tornado,” he says.

List of materials “subsidized” by 50% by the State for sale to people with homes affected by the tornado. (14ymedio)

“We are closed to the public and we are only taking care of the victims,” the employee of the bulk sales outlet located in La Timba neighborhood, a few meters from the Plaza of the Revolution and far from the areas where the tornado passed, repeated in tone that brooked no argument on Friday. His statement set off expressions of dissatisfaction among customers who came to stock materials for their domestic renovations.

“And now those of us who are already building, what we are to do?” protests a young man who had come to buy some sand and cement. “My work is paralyzed, the contracted bricklayers and all the work of months without being able to finish because I am lacking some sacks of cement.” An informal vendor approaches, speaks to him in a low voice and, after a few minutes of conversation, they both leave in a small tricycle towards a nearby house.

In 2017, a network for the resale of building materials in Pinar del Río was uncovered and seven people were convicted of the crimes of hoarding and illegal sale of cement and steel bars, among other products. Three of them received one year prison sentences and four spent 10 months in prison.

“This business has its risks, especially when there is an emergency,” says a cement and steel vendor.” It is the moment when we profit the most but also when it is most dangerous to do it.”


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

The Plastic Bottle is Invading Us

Clogged drains, fish eating the plastic, and dirty rivers are some of the country’s problems caused by bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate. (14ymedio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, February 7, 2019 — Together with her kitchenware, Dagmary has several plastic containers that once held soft drinks. “We use these bottles to hold water or save milk,” this Matanzas native living in Havana explains to 14ymedio. The so-called “cucumbers” make up part of the domestic scenery but have also invaded public roads, the coasts, and the countryside.

Clogged drains, fish eating the plastic, and dirty rivers are some of the country’s problems caused by bottles made of polyethylene terephthalate (PET). Although forceful campaigns have arisen in other countries to reduce their presence, in Cuba the strategy to reduce them has not quite taken off.

“Every morning when I arrive to set up my rod, it’s a mess of plastic bottles,” laments César, a 48-year-old fisherman who arrives very early in the morning at the entrance of Havana Bay. “A few years ago having a plastic bottle was almost a luxury and families kept them to do a ton of things, but now they throw them out everywhere,” he points out. continue reading

“I’ve found little fish trapped inside these bottles and once I caught one that had eaten a piece of a cap,” remembers César.

A 2016 report published by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) confirms that the presence of microplastics has been found in 800 species of mollusks, crustaceans, and fish.

A study carried out in Cienfuegos by the biologist Arianna García Chamero confirmed the presence of these microplastics in Jagua Bay. “It hit me that the levels there are sometimes similar to, even greater than, the ranges found by studies in ecosystems of very industrialized places on the planet,” explained the scientist to the local press.

Currently, Cuba Law No. 1,288 obligates all state-owned bodies to deliver waste, especially plastics, to the Raw Materials Recovery Companies, but the majority of these waste products end up in garbage dumps. The same occurs in the residential sector, due to the lack of a mechanism to separate trash and the absence of recycling education.

Individual pickers dig through trash containers on public streets in search of these products in order to bring them to the more than 310 state-owned raw material collection centers in the country. In tourist areas they can also be seen gathering water bottles left by visitors and soft drink and beer cans.

“Everything that we don’t see in time to take out of the dumpster ends up in the garbage dumps,” explains José Carlos, a retiree who after working four decades at the gas company spends his days trash-diving in search of something that could be useful. “I prefer to look for cans and pieces of metal because Raw Materials pays us by the weight of the merchandise and plastic weighs much less,” he says.

“Sometimes I pick up plastic bottles that have no damage, that aren’t smashed or dirty, to sell them to yogurt producers who pay well for them,” he comments. “But if they’re not like that I don’t pick up bottles, although when there’s some outdoor concert and they sell little bottles of soft drinks…” he says with a smile.

On the island there is no restriction on the sale of plastic containers in public places, not even near nature parks like they have implemented in several European and Latin American countries. For the majority of Cubans, a plastic bottle is still a symbol of status or of economic solvency instead of an environmental problem.

“We’re passing from being a country where the only thing people had to save something in was glass bottles — sometimes they lasted years in a kitchen — to one where parents want to send their child to school with a new plastic water bottle each week,” believes César, the fisherman. “Then, all that ends up here,” he points out the trash in the water of Havana bay.

In 2017 an experimental trap was installed in the Almendares river, to the west of the Cuban capital, to trap the animals, logs, plastic bottles, and remains of containers that were floating in the water. The obstacle blocks them from reaching the mouth but the trash collection has to be done manually, so it’s not a system that can be applied on a large scale.

“A change can only come from education, from all people getting involved, not only cleaning and collecting the plastic but also using fewer disposable bottles,” explains Oliver González, a young biochemist who with a group of friends is promoting a campaign for “a coast free of plastic.” “We have to start at home because if people don’t help from their homes, little can be done.”

“We’ve gone to several private businesses to speak with the owners and tell them to buy less bottled water for their clients and offer more treated water in the same businesses,” he says. “But many respond that tourists want safe water, and so the cycle continues.”

Two years ago a study was carried out to apply in Cuba some of the recycling technologies that have been tested successfully in other countries, according to what Estela Domínguez, vice director general of businesses of the Union of Raw Materials Recovery Companies (UERMP), told the official press. The project should start in Havana and with the sorting of waste in people’s own homes, but the complex economic situation of the island has slowed its implementation.

“We had everything prepared, even a broadcast campaign in the national media to create a greater awareness and for people to start separating trash in their homes and to use less disposable plastic,” a UERMP official who preferred to remain anonymous explains to this newspaper. “But the task is titanic and requires resources that we currently don’t have, like selling domestic containers to categorize waste at a subsidized price and changing packaging concepts.”

“In the case of plastic containers we have a problem because this type of trash has grown with the increase in tourism, because they use them a lot for bottled water and soft drinks.”

“We have to take the plastic bottle down from the altar we have placed it on,” he says, “and make Cubans see that it brings more problems than benefits.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Black Friday Arrives in Cuba in the Hands of Private Businesses

Websites selling products that can be shipped to Cuba try to motivate users to join Black Friday. “Free delivery for orders over $100!” (Screen Capture)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 23 November 2018 — Without long lines outside stores or massive orders via Amazon or store windows decorated for the occasion, we have Black Friday in Cuba, a practice that has come  with the private sector and that this year has featured extensive offerings in the informal market.

“If you send text message with the #BlackFriday hashtag, we discount 20%,” says an ad spread across several websites offering purchases and shipments to Cuba. Benefitting from the sales are both Cuban emigrants who send products to family and friends in Cuba, as well as self-employed entrepreneurs who order the merchandise to sell on the Island. The offers are included range from dishes, through mobile phones to food supplements. continue reading

“It’s about motivating people to join this practice of Black Friday that is increasingly spreading to more countries,” says Yusimí, 40, an informal saleswoman of toiletries, cosmetics and vitamins. “This year we have had many orders and we have also offered special combos for the date.”

Originating in the United States, “Black Friday” marks the start of the Christmas shopping season and is characterized by its significant reductions in prices. Custom now dictates that  Cyber Monday is celebrated on the following Monday. Its original intention was to boost digital sales that had once taken place on “Black Friday” in physical stores, but today these borders do not exist and “Cyber Monday” focuses on selling technological products at tempting prices both on-line and in street-front stores.

As a practical matter, Cubans living on the island cannot make online purchases because very few have a credit card. For this they depend on emigrants, and thanks to them and to the sites that ship to Cuba they can take advantage of these offers. “Sales and gifts, free delivery,” read an email sent to thousands of people and intended for Cuban emigrants. The discounts were only valid until 23:59 on Friday.

Nobody is surprised by these options because, little by little, certain festivities and traditions that come directly from Cuban emigrants in the United States have entered the island reality. “We are taking advantage of the two-day opportunity because Thursday is Thanksgiving and Friday is Black Friday,” explains Duaney, a merchant who specializes in footwear and appliances.

Although the state stores, the only ones that legally exist in the country, did not show a single sign that this Friday was commercially special, the private sellers filled that absence. “Two for the price of one,” “spend your black Friday here, so you do not miss the sales,” “it’s not Monday and it’s not Tuesday … it’s Black Friday,” were some of the improvised slogans of a sector of sales that officialdom limits.

Since the authorities banned self-employed workers from selling imported merchandise at the end of 2013, the inspectors persecute those who market these goods. But instead of disappearing, merchants have retreated to the black market and now widely use classified sites to place their products. A mobile phone number placed in an advertisement is the primary link to contact the sellers.

Instead of an automatic recording, José Luis, 38, repeats in his own voice the Black Friday sales every time an interested party calls. “If you want an appliance, the rebates are up to 15% this Friday and if you are looking for clothes, shoes or perfume we have discounts up to 35%,” he says on the phone to everyone who calls.

“We have to take advantage of this day when people have more desire to buy,” explains this young man who was born and raised in a Cuba where the government harshly stigmatized words such as “business,” “profits” and “merchant.” Part of a wide network of people who do not study or work in state-run workplaces, José Luis defines himself as “a great servant, who serves the clients what they need.”

However, he also takes advantage of the pull of consumption to peddle products that sell better accompanied by others or that
move slowly,” as he calls them. “We have good cologne, shaving foam and perfumes for men,” he explains and “for children there are backpacks with Wonder Woman and Spiderman.”

Others reject the arrival of these commercially focused dates of foreign influence. “We have reached a point where Halloween is celebrated more than Mother’s Day and where Cubans in Miami dictate to the family here that they should eat turkey instead of pork,” a retiree complained on Thursday, as he stood in line at a Western Union office on 3rd street in Havana’s Miramar district.

Most of those waiting to collect their remittances sent by relatives from the United States had a plan to celebrate Thanksgiving, more to please their families across the Straits of Florida than becuase of their own desires. Some also thought to set aside some of the money to spend on Black Friday.

The compulsion to buy that characterizes this Friday in other regions of the planet is still limited in the island, where in recent months the shortages of products have worsened in the network of official stores. So it is not uncommon to find “two-door refrigerators” for sale on the black market while state markets post a sign saying “out of salt.”

Black Friday has also coincided with the days dedicated to second anniversary remembrances of the late leader Fidel Castro, a bitter enemy of consumption. “With him in the Government, none of this would have been possible,” speculates José Luis, the seller. While in state markets posters with the face of the Commander in Chief are seen, the young merchant’s small illegal shop offers brands such as Adidas, Nike, Huawei and Dolce & Gabbana.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Flour Shortage Affects Thousands of Private Businesses in Cuba

The Cuban milling industry is going through a bad time because of the lack of raw material and problems with infrastructure. (Imsa)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, November 18, 2018 — First eggs went missing, then it was sugar’s turn, and now it’s wheat flour that has been added to the list of products that are lacking in Cuban markets. The valuable ingredient is the basis of many recipes that are sold in private businesses, like sweets, breads, and pizzas, and so its absence puts the menus of these cafes and private restaurants in crisis.

The problems started in the middle of this year, when the lack of spare parts for mills and a drop in the arrival of raw material caused a shortage of wheat flour, as Jesús Rodríguez, first vice president of the Business Group of Food Industry (GEIA), told the official press at that time.

After the crisis generated by the deficit of the product in the markets for several weeks, authorities decided to import 15,000 additional tons to guarantee the preparation of bread for the rationed market and bread bound for social assistance. However, the hard currency stores remained secondary in the distribution. continue reading

Without a wholesale market to go to, the self-employed must buy from the network of retail businesses. “A few months ago we could still find a 5-kilo bag of flour but now not even the 1-kilo is available,” laments Jesús Ruiz, a vendor of sweets on Calle Infanta in Havana.

“For our business flour is the main ingredient, because pastries, cakes, and all the other sweets that we sell are made from flour,” the entrepreneur explains to 14ymedio. “When there is none, we can only remain open selling soft drinks and shakes, so we have a lot of losses, it’s as if they have taken away the oxygen that allows us to breathe as a cafe,” he points out.

Traditionally many owners of private businesses go to the black market to stock up on flour. The product arrives in the informal business network after being diverted [i.e. stolen] from bakeries on the rationed system and other state centers. However, the deficit of the past few months has sharpened the administrative controls and notably diminished the illegal sale of flour.

The shortage of the crucial ingredient “isn’t going to have a short-term solution,” according to an employee of the José Antonio Echevarría mill in Havana, one of the principal wheat processing centers in the country. The source, who preferred to remain anonymous, attributes the deficit to the “terrible situation of the infrastructure” of the industry.

“The spare parts that we were waiting for haven’t arrived, and the mill is far below its capacity, it’s only milling to satisfy the demand of the subsidiary services, like the one-pound loaf and whatever is bound for schools or work centers,” he clarifies. “From the 500 tons daily that we were expecting to be processing by this time of the year, we aren’t doing even a fifth of that.”

“But it’s not only a problem of parts, but also that the transporting of cereals via Cuba Railways and other methods isn’t functioning well,” adds the mill worker. “Sometimes the merchandise stays in our warehouses and deteriorates because they don’t come to pick it up in time.” Nevertheless, he emphasizes that the whole situation has worsened in the past few weeks because of the lack of raw material.

“There’s no money to buy wheat and even if we had a great industry with all new equipment, we can’t make miracles if there aren’t products to put through the mills,” he specifies. “Wheat flour is considered a strategic line of goods and it is like this for us, what will remain for other industries that aren’t prioritized,” he questions.

Something similar is happening at the Turcios Lima plant, also in the capital, which for the past few years hasn’t managed to regain the 130 tons of wheat that it obtained once a day. The other three mills, out of the five in the country, are located in Matanzas, Cienfuegos, and Santiago de Cuba, all of them in a deteriorated technical state.

In the portfolio of opportunities for foreign investment is included the assembly of a wheat mill for processing 300,000 tons of flour each year at a cost of $120 million, but the offer has generated little interest until now.

“Most affected are the businesses that sell Italian food,” says Ricardo Valdés, courier at a restaurant specializing in pizza and pasta in Havana’s Chinatown. “The flour reserves that we had for some emergency are running out and we don’t know if we are going to be able to remain open by the end of the year,” he tells this newspaper.

In the Milling Factory of Havana, located in the Regla municipality, the telephones haven’t stopped ringing in the last few weeks with calls from self-employed people worried about the supply of the product. The joint-venture, specializing in flours, semolina, and wheat bran, processes the majority of the merchandise that ends up on the shelves of stores that sell in convertible pesos.

In the last year packages of flour of a foreign make, originating primarily in Italy and Spain but also Mexico, have also arrived at these businesses. “We don’t have foreign flour now, either, because we ran out even though it’s more expensive than the nationally produced kind,” assures an employee of La Puntilla market, one of the best stocked in the capital.

“When we put out a few packets they run out right away because the self-employed take them,” says the employee. “We’ve had to put limits on purchases so that people don’t take 10 or 20 packets at once, but this doesn’t solve the problem.”

A few meters away, a private business offers empanadas, pizzas, and churros. “We are going to stay open until we run out of our last bag of flour but after that we will have to close,” says the owner. The self-employed man believes that a solution could be allowing people to import the product in a private manner. “But that would be asking a lot because they don’t allow us commercial import.”

The entire vast framework of businesses, small shops, points of sale, and the most sophisticated restaurants that operate on a basis of flour wait for the state to manage to revive production or permit private people to bring in the basic ingredient from other countries.

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Caring for the Elderly to Have a Home in Havana

The psychologist Indira Villavicencio says that due to the great need that exists “for caregivers right now in the country, it happens that people without preparation or who are not trained to care for the elderly in all aspects, are in charge of their care.”

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 1 November 2018 — The promise to be included in the will, 60 convertible pesos a month and a roof over her head in Havana is what Rebecca, from Guantanamo, receives for taking care of an elderly couple in Havana’s La Vibora neighborhood. This phenomenon, not exempt from risks, is increasingly common on the Island, where the number of senior citizens is growing.

With a deficit of residential care facilities and social workers, the authorities have recognized that elder care is riddled with legal loopholes. The Government has authorized a self-employment license to act as caretaker for the elderly, for which the self-employed person receives a payment, but any other terms of the agreement between caregivers and the elderly (or their relatives) are merely verbal, outside the law and may be breached by one of the two parties.

“I started doing this work out of necessity, because I arrived in Havana and had nowhere to live,” recalls Rebecca, a divorcee with two children, one of whom lives with her in home of the retired couple. “It is hard work because not only is it my job to ensure that they are fed, they are clean and they take their medication, but I also have to give them affection,” she says. continue reading

Working as a nurse for more than 15 years in a polyclinic in the city of Guantanamo has helped her to practice her new profession. “Most of the people who are now caring for the elderly come from the Public Health sector,” says Rebeca. “There we learn many procedures that are important when looking after a senior citizen.”

On the shelf of the living room where the elderly couple live there is a photograph from more than a decade ago where you can see the parents, who stayed in Cuba, together with the children who emigrated. The two children send money from the United States to pay the caregiver, along with packages of food and disposable diapers. “But they almost never call and haven’t come for three years,” explains Rebeca.

In the same block, six other elderly people live in similar situations, some receive remittances and others live through begging. There are also those who suffer from lack of attention or mistreatment or who only survive because the neighbors have taken charge of their care.

The practice of caring for dependent elderly people in order to obtain some benefits in return has meant that many Cubans do not live their last years alone, but it also entails great dangers when either party fails to comply with its part of the agreement, especially for dependent seniors.

“It is a common situation for old people to put in their will someone who will take care of them, but after that person has rights over the house, they often don’t do their part,” laments Iloisa who works for a notary in the San Miguel del Padrón municipality. “The risks are high if the family can not control whether everything is going well and that the elderly person is receiving good care.”

Marisabel Ferrer García, head of the Labor Directorate of the municipality of Diez de Octubre, recently acknowledged in the official press that “it is very risky to install an unknown individual inside the home, due to the risk of robbery and mistreatment,” but that it is still a very helpful solution.

At the Zanja Street Police Station in Havana, reports of elders suffering from abuse are common, an officer on duty explains to 14ymedio, showing the file where the complaints are received. “We have had cases of very old people locked in small rooms so they do not escape and even tied to beds or with clear signs of malnutrition,” he explains.

“As a general rule, when we receive these complaints, we pass them on to social workers to visit the place, but we can’t do much,” he admits. “The harshest cases we have had are with caregivers who tell the family, who do not live in Cuba, that they are taking good care of the old man, but in reality it is not like that, they mistreat him and even rob him.”

“Many times caregivers for the elderly focus all their attention on physical needs, especially for those who have mobility problems and are confined inside their homes, but that is a time when the individual needs a lot of affection and emotional support,” psychiatrist Indira Villavicencio explains to this newspaper.

For Villavicencio, due to the great need that exists “for caregivers right now in the country, it happens that people without preparation or who are not trained to care for the elderly in all aspects, are in charge of their care and without the presence of the elderly’s children or relatives to supervise their work.”

The mistreatment of the elderly is rarely reported, points out the psychologist, “because the elderly do not have the ability to tell an authority to help them, because they fear ending up more alone if they lose their caregiver or because they are afraid of suffering greater reprisals from the caregiver,” she says.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Havana Turns 500 With its Infrastructure and Services Anchored in Time

At the point of turning half a millenium old, Havana is many cities in one. (Aris Gionis)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, October 15, 2018 — Havana is many cities in one. Tourists see it as a theme park of the past, with old cars and “beautiful” ruins; those who were born here more than five decades ago recall its endless nights and lament its deterioration; while young people consider it like a jungle where one must survive or flee.

The city, at the point of turning 500 years old, doesn’t leave anyone indifferent. Its wide coastal avenue, with the emblematic Wall of Malecón, is one of the great attractions of a metropolis that the sea breeze refreshes from time to time. For the majority of foreign visitors, the city is reduced to Old Havana, Central Havana, and Plaza of the Revolution. Few venture farther out, to shining Cerro, the old and stately La Víbora, or the deteriorated San Miguel del Padrón.

However, for those who live in this old town founded in 1519, the neighborhoods of the city are like pieces of a badly-fit-together kaleidoscope that reveals social differences, the greater or lesser attention of the authorities, and even the racial composition of its inhabitants. All of them long to see an improvement in “the capital of all Cubans.” continue reading

“In this city they’ve hardly built any new roads, beltways, tunnels, or bridges in 60 years,” notes Niurka Peraza, a graduate in civil engineering who has been self-employed for the last six years as an interior designer. “And notice that I say ’hardly’ but I could be more categorical and say ’nothing at all.’”

The tunnel of Havana Bay, its two close cousins that cross to the other side of the Almendares River, and the “elevated” bridges of Calle 100 are part of a past glory of construction that has not been repeated again. The avenues and roads are still the same that Havanans have walked for the last half century.

For the young architect “that lack of expansion and evolution in the roads and infrastructure directed at improving traffic affects the life of all Havanans, even in the smallest details. It’s seen in the dangerous traffic circles, where there are continuous accidents, in the collapse of transport when one of the tunnels from the Republican era fills with water. And new alternatives haven’t been created,” she explains.

Peraza thinks that Havana “needs an urgent investment in roads because now the problem isn’t seen as so serious because the car volume is relatively small in comparison with other cities, but we could be arriving at a rupture point, a crisis point.”

The well-known actor Luis Alberto García exploded last week on Facebook about the situation of the roads. “Why? Why do the citizens of this country, pedestrians, passengers, and drivers have to be exposed to these dangers on the highways and streets that are in such poor shape, without the slightest safety conditions for our lives?” he demanded. The performer from Clandestinos and the saga of Nicanor O’Donnell seemed indignant because resources keep being directed at building hotels rather than repairing the streets.

Nieves Suárez, resident of Cayo Hueso in Central Havana, is one of the many who view as a “major problem the collection of trash and the lack of hygiene” and says that she feels ashamed when she travels around other cities in the country and finds them cleaner and better cared for. “Meanwhile, this looks like a pigsty,” she protests.

Havana generates 20,000 cubic meters (m3) of solid waste each day, classified as 15,000 of urban waste, 3,000 of debris, and 2,000 in tree prunings, in addition to other types of trash. Although the quantity isn’t very high for a city of two million inhabitants, a good part of the waste ends up on the pavement, in abandoned lots, or on the sidewalk.

Despite those problems, Suárez doesn’t want to move to another area of the Island. “The best opportunities are here, because this is a very centralized country, if you’re not in Havana you miss almost everything.” One of her children recently emigrated, “thanks to a tourist he met at the Malecón. Can you imagine that in Aguada de Pasajeros?” she reflects.

The problem of the trash is directly connected with that of the water supply. Havana has suffered for decades from instability of water access in homes. Residents have developed mechanisms that range from the popular wheeled carts with which they move tanks of water from one neighborhood to another, to learning to bathe with the minimum amound of liquid.

“If it wasn’t for that problem I would feel very good here, because the area has been restored and honestly there are buildings that have remained very pretty,” confesses Esperanza González, resident of Calle Cuba, in Old Havana. “We’ve had to put more tanks inside the house and washing with the water from the sink is a luxury because it uses a lot. You have to do it by little jugfuls.”

From González’s window you can see part of the bay, an area that once saw the hustle and bustle of cargo ships coming and going. Now, there are only mainly cruise ships and small fishing boats. “They say that they’re going to turn it into a big recreation zone, but as long as we Cubans are unable [i.e. forbidden] to go on yacht trips and get to know our coast, that will be very difficult,” the Havanan believes.

Traveling by sea is a fantasy that seems unreachable and that few think about when they need to catch a bus at rush hour.

Starting in 2016 the Government undertook a reordering of the routes and frequencies of passenger transport inside the city, but two years later Havanans are exasperated in face of the small progress and the lack of improvements.

In that time, the number of buses fell. While in 2016 the capital had 858 buses in circulation, 339 of those articulated, currently there are only 792, 260 articulated. The result is long lines at stops and the irritation of the population, which sees itself forced to turn to private shared fixed-route taxis, which have disproportionate fares in relation to salaries.

For the 500th anniversary of the city’s founding, which will be celebrated in November of 2019, a broad program of repairs and cultural activities is expected, but Havanans are skeptical. “They’ll stay in the same places as always, Old Havana, the most touristy streets, and the avenues where foreign visitors walk,” laments Nieves Suárez.

“Something will touch us, but it might only be music and fanfare, because I don’t believe that the problem of leaks and the bad state of the plumbing is going to be fixed in a year when it has had decades of deterioration,” predicts Suárez.

For the architect Niurka Peraza, the date is “an opportunity. For a city, celebrating 500 years is a great challenge, and this can help the authorities as well as the inhabitants value more what we have. In the case of the Government that translates into more investments, and in the case of the citizens, into more care.”

Translated by: Sheilagh Carey


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.

Food Markets Without Refrigerators

Most of the agricultural markets in Cuba lack equipment to refrigerate meats. (Bryan Ledgard)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Zunilda Mata, Havana, 11 October 2018 — The image of flies perched on a hind leg or hovering around some ribs is familiar to all customers of the so-called agros, where refrigerators to preserve the meat are scarce. Instead, the cuts are exhibited outdoors on pallets from where the sellers pick them up with their hands, without any protection, to weigh them and sell them.

The product that finally reaches the homes of consumers has been without refrigeration for more than 12 hours, because the animals slaughtered the night before and brought to the markets in vehicles that also lack any equipment to preserve them. If the cusotmer is lucky, nothing will have happened and the meat will be tasty, but many times the food already shows a certain degree of deterioration. continue reading

“The color was a little weird, but I thought it was nothing,” a customer at the 17th Street Youth Labor Army market in Havana tells 14ymedio. “When I got it home I realized that part of the meat was in poor condition and a piece of the bone had a greenish tone.” The result was the loss of 250 CUP (Cuban pesos), half of her monthly salary.

The complaints are constant and, although there are rules that regulate the handling of food in Cuba, the State has a hard time controlling the problem which also extendes to the network of butchers and dairies in the rationed market. “When the chicken arrives, consumers have to buy it in the first hours, because the fridge is broken,” says an employee of a state-owned store in La Timba neighborhood.

World Health Organization reports that one of the factors that lead to the diseases transmitted through food is, precisely, “the failures in the cold chain” during the transfer and storage of these products.

Need, and a demand that far exceeds the available supply, means that traders end up selling their meats despite the obvious signs of their not having been adequately preserved.


The 14ymedio team is committed to serious journalism that reflects the reality of deep Cuba. Thank you for joining us on this long road. We invite you to continue supporting us, but this time by becoming a member of 14ymedio. Together we can continue to transform journalism in Cuba.