"Where are the Chinese trains?": Transport in Post-COVID Cuba

Cycle rickshaws, known as bicitaxis, are common in Cuba; and the country has received a donation of 23 “auto” rickshaws, which are similar but powered by a motor.

14ymedio biggerElías Amor Bravo, Economist, 24 July 2020 – A few days ago, a post-COVID update on the interventions of the state in the transport and tourist industries was held at the round table. In today’s article, we will look at the former, an area within the Cuban economy with closer ties to the private sector and thus particularly relevant for discussion.

The paralisation of transport following the confinement measures and the resulting decrease in tourist arrivals since the start of the year have determined the results of a sector now on the brink of collapse. Especially vulnerable to this situation are the private brokers who rely on loans and charging the public for their services.

Shamefully, the ministro (transport minister) did not produce any contingency measures, such as reimbursement of the lost revenue suffered by transport carriers who now find themselves on the verge of bankruptcy. This is unlike other countries, where governments have offered temporary loans to help combat the complex situation caused by the pandemic. Instead, private carriers in Cuba have been left to their own fortune by the government. continue reading

Instead, the transport minister was quick to proclaim, at the very beginning of his presentation, that “the reactivation of public transport in La Habana was the greatest challenge, requiring the guidance of the Ministerio de Transporte (Ministry of Transport), the Consejo de Defensa Provincial (Provincial Defense Council) and of bodies with the Ministerio del Interior (Ministry of the Interior)”. What else is to be expected? Even during periods where none of the problems created by COVID-19 existed, the industry has long resented the various difficulties weighing it down that are caused by chronic structural deficiencies, such as weak demand and an inflexible operating framework in the provision of of public and private services.

This raises the question, how are problems within the sector being addressed? For the transport minister, the answer is simple, “by guaranteeing compliance with the measures, by the posting of inspectors at stations and by the establishing of a youth force in collaboration with la Unión de Jóvenes Comunistas (the Union of Young Communists) aimed at identifying problems and sharing them via a WhatsApp group”.

In other words, monitoring and informing on private brokers. A cocktail of increased order, discipline and obedience is the speciality of a ministry seeking to eliminate what it calls “irregularities” in the capital, such as playing music at a high volume or staging protests against the inspectors on behalf of the population. If someone complains about the transport service, they are deemed responsible for an “irregularity”, which could then be classified as a offence. A masterclass in the handling of complaints and demands by the communist government. It is incredible that situations such as the one outlined above can still arise in the 21st century.

The transport minister repeatedly described the problems within the sector, which “require the understanding of the public during this period”, and added that “a systematic reform of the stops is underway with the active involvement of the Defence Council”, another one of the regime’s informants. Images of the long queues of Cubans waiting to use a public transport network running at full capacity all throughout the day have been widely circulated on social media sites during the pandemic, images that are also notable for the complete lack of social distancing.

Given the severity of the situation, confronting statements made by the Ministry of Transport can seem like some kind of a sick joke. One such statement is “the establishment of a reinforced service to the beaches. This has involved the reorganisation of the entire flow of transport based on the fact that the beaches are an area where people tend to congregate”. In particular, the Ministry referred to the “9 a.m. Tuesday-Sunday train to Playas del Este that leaves from the loading bay of the Central Station, La Habana Vieja“.

It highlighted that services were restricted during the pandemic in line with the confinement measures taken by the government. Consequently, the interprovincial lines have been running at 30% of normal as 70% of these lines are connected to the capital. The Ministry also signalled “difficulties with airplanes” when discussing air transport, which explains the focus of the ministry on buses and trains. It confirmed that the ticket sales would be made through the app “Viajando” (Travelling) and las Agencias de Venta (Sales Agencies) while marking the recent “significant investment in the Terminal de Ómnibus Nacionales (National Bus Terminal)” as a success. This investment includes a refurbishment of the terminal with the goal of improving ventilation and with it the passenger experience.

Also emphasised was how “the initial phase will soon put into service the 23 ‘electric trikes'” (small 3-wheeled motorized carts also commonly called auto rickshaws) that were donated to the country; these will operate along routes in Centro Habana and Habana Vieja. Likewise, an app will soon be made available for users of the “gazellas” (metropolitan taxis), allowing them to check prices, routes and even the real time location of the taxis, in addition to other features currently being finalised. The figure of 23 auto rickshaws in a city of more than 2 million inhabitants is somewhat perplexing, to say the least.

Having reached this point, the minster began to explain the integration of transport within the context of the revitalisation plan for the Cuban economy that was recently approved by the Consejo de Minsistros (Council of Ministers).

At its most basic, the measures proposed are designed to “make the most of what we already have”, taking into account that the “financial resources will be limited”. Furthermore, the interventions in transport must “give priority to exports and import substitution, as well as providing the scope for improved management and greater efficiency. This will generate incentives and management strategies that mutually support one another”. All this is accompanied by the potential of “science, digitalisation and other alternatives that prioritise greater efficiency”.

Having finished his presentation, the minister then provided additional detail on the measures.

With regard to freight transport, it was announced the publication of “a series of guidelines establishing the responsibilities of all actors involved in internal port-freight economic activity that would improve control and management systems for GPS-equipped fleets”. It is unbelievable that this technology needs to be improved, or worse, that it does not already exist in the first place.

Secondly, the minister signalled the adoption of additional measures to “restructure the transport network, because there are cases where the means of transport are not in the hands of the state entities that most need them”, which could be interpreted as an increased centralisation of services that were previously offered by private brokers.

Next, an increase in “the more efficient mode of cabotage transport (management, manufacturing and maintenance of small boats)” was announced, a service that the government is constantly trying to secure but is usually hindered by the insular structure of the country.

Fourthly, and with respect to passenger transport, the minister indicated that “there will be a reorganisation of routes in order to adjust schedules in line with demand during peak hours. The use of bicycles, auto rickshaws and electric motorcycles will also be encouraged, all of which are expected to improve traffic flow in the upcoming months”. The consequences of these initiatives that interfere with the autonomy of private enterprise while increasing state control are well known.

The fifth presentation follows its predecessors, with what the minister called “the establishment of an organisational task force to facilitate improvements to the efficiency of the railway system, including the transport of sugar”, as if the problem of the Cuban rail network could be resolved through organisation and nothing else, given the constant delays and abysmal quality of an infrastructure left to decay because of a lack of state investment.

Almost slipping under the radar was the minister’s announcement of a new railway operator “to provide services to the Zona Especial de Desarrollo Mariel (the “Mariel” Special Development Zone). Meanwhile, the transportation of passengers and cargo via an express service will continue to be developed. This is the development that had previously been put on hold, but should soon restart with better organisation”. The minister concluded the section about the railways by indicating that “work will be done to transform the railway maintenance networks, which had seen delays due to the current constraints.”

Finally, and forming part of the additional measures taken within the industry, the minister highlighted the “work being done to fine tune the necessary protocols for the sale of internal combustion engines within the country”. It is expected that they will be available in shops dealing in MLC (moneda libremente convertible, freely convertible currency). In this sense, the minister highlighted the need to “provide incentives that will increase the production of spare parts both in the public and private sector”, without going as far as to indicate what these incentives might be.

In line with the introduction of MLC in all areas of the economy, the minister affirmed that work is being carried out in the “promotion of various enterprises that currently provide services in the public sector so that they can continue to provide the services in MLC. Foreign companies will also receive assistance”.

With regard to the service in state-owned workshops that are privately run, featuring as one of the few references to the private sector, it was remarked that “there will be an evaluation to determine which state-owned workshops would be able to pass into private management (of which La Habana already has experience in this)”. There was little more, if anything at all, on the matter. It was also said that “cooperatives will continue to be actively promoted, and modes of transport will be loaned by state entities to individually selected productive activities”. Once more, precious little detail was provided on what form this would take.

There was also time to dangle a carrot in the direction of one of the nation’s great powers. This carrot consisted of an increase in support from the Ministry of Transport to the Unión de Industrias Militares (The Union of Military Industry) with the aim of “boosting the number of drivers, chauffeurs and crew members who are competent with the latest technologies”.

Finally, the minister heralded the arrival of e-commerce to the transport industry, encouraging private carriers who provide interprovincial services to register with the “Viajando” application, as well as incorporating the sale of airplane tickets to e-commerce platforms.

By way of a summary, the minister asserted that mass transport, both by train and bus, had now been restarted, as had the sale of interprovincial tickets through “Viajando“. Despite being relatively a relatively new platform, approximately 26,000 bus tickets have already been sold via the application. He went on to state that the Cayo, Coco, Cayo Largo del Sur and Villa Clara airports were ready and waiting for when international flights are permitted and begin arriving once more, adding that all of the services comply with the health procedures put in place. This includes the obligatory use of facemasks, the disinfection of transport facilities and capacity limits placed on terminals around the country.

The minister affirmed that “all the freight transportations scheduled by the country have had safety checks performed as part of the process in which begin provide their services once more. This process includes an update of the fuel cards to the latest version”. On that note, it was shown that more than 70% of freight carriers had updated their cards, which can now be used in conjunction with the Transfermóvil application to carry out transactions on the go. The remaining workers in the industry, totalling more than 70,000 (including mechanics and repair technicians), are able to continue working without any issues.

There is no doubt that the reactivation of the transport industry is crucial for the national economy, and there is a lot at stake. Most important are the interests of the state and the private sector. Supported by the WHO, the gradual, phase by phase restarting of services according to the regulations established by Salud Pública (Public Health) follows a path that attempts to limit new outbreaks.

However, the process is by no means free of contradictions. To that end, since regular flight schedules were suspended on March 24, the minister has confirmed that there have been more than 300 “humanitarian flights” chartered for various reasons. The flights have carried more than 30,000 Cubans and foreign citizens abroad, while more than 7,000 have entered the country.

The minister indicated that local trains have their services up and running again, as do a number of interprovincial lines linking together more than one province. On the subject of the Chinese trains, the minister had to explain that these were still not in service “since that all of the national routes start from La Habana, which is still in phase 1. Additionally, the establishing of interprovincial lines that do not include La Habana is complicated, especially since all of the trains are based in the capital”. It is precisely the capital where these dormant Chinese trains can be found.

 Translated by: Andy Barton


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

Mexico Has Paid More Than $6 Million US Dollars for Cuban Doctors in the Fight Against COVID-19

The 585 doctors hired by Mexico gave medical attention to patients with COVID-19 in the capital, Ciudad de México. (Twitter/@EugenioMtnez)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 26 July 2020 — The Mexican government paid Cuba more than $6 million US dollars (135 million Mexican pesos) during May and July of this year for the services of a group of doctors from the Island. The 585 doctors hired by Mexico gave medical attention to patients with COVID-19 in the country’s capital, Ciudad de México.

“The amount 135 million pesos was the figure agreed for all of the activities carried out, including training, research, sharing of protocols and good practices, epidemiological monitoring and a number of other activities of a more technical nature” confirmed the Health Secretary of Ciudad de México, Oliva López Arellano.

Nevertheless, it remains unclear how much of this money found its way to the doctors bank accounts. It has been a long-established practice that Cuban authorities pocket between 70% and 80% of the financial compensation they receive from the host country, while the health professionals only receive a fraction of the total amount. continue reading

“We are extremely happy and grateful. The solidarity shown not only by Cuban doctors, but by all of the health workers who have thrown themselves into the heat of the battle against COVID-19, is incredibly important to us”, López Arellano stressed.

She went on to add that doctors from the island stood alongside an additional 2,000 health workers hired by the capital with the aim of “strengthening the [city’s] ability to respond to the virus”. Together, they were tasked with facing up to the state of emergency brought about by the pandemic.

López Arellano was also keen to praise the dedication shown by the Cuban doctors, “many of the workers came from other federations within the Mexican state, so the Cuban professionals who joined the fight have been vital for medical attention within the city; we are overwhelmed with gratitude for their commitment and their willingness, and we remain open to future collaboration”.

The public official remarked that while it would be possible to renew the agreement in the future, for the time being, it had come to an end. The final cohort from the Cuban envoy returned to the country last Saturday and is currently observing the obligatory 14-day quarantine in compliance with the measures taken by the government.

In a statement, Migual Díaz-Canel welcomed the cohort back to the country and took the opportunity to highlight the strength of the Cuban health system. Juan López, one of the chief medics of the envoy based in Villa Clara, asserted that the professionalism shown by the doctors allowed them to gain recognition as they adapted to the protocols of the Mexican health system.

The Mexican chancellor, Marcelo Ebrard, tweeted a message of thanks on behalf of the government and the Mexican people for the “invaluable support of the Cuban doctors and nurses who came to save lives in our country during a difficult few months in the fight against COVID-19. We are eternally grateful for your support.”

Translated by: Andy Barton


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

Cuban Artists Are Not Being Paid Because of a ‘Lack of Money’

La Empresa Provincial de la Música y los Espectáculos Ignacio Piñeiro (The Provincial Company for Music and Entertainment “Ignacio Piñeiro”), in barrio El Vedado.

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 23 July 2020 — They were supposed to receive their furlough pay on July 15. Instead, thousands of artists have gone unpaid during the month of June because of a supposed “lack of money”. With their employment tied to a sector of the economy that has been paralyzed by the pandemic, those affected by this situation had been receiving 60% of their previous salary. However, sources from within the industry have told 14ymedio that they will now have to wait until at least August 1.

In April of this year, Marta Elena Feitó Cabrera, the Employment Minister, reassured workers employed by the state that they would receive 100% of their salary during the first month they were unable to work, a figure which would decrease to 60% in subsequent months. However, singers, comedians, dancers, actors and circus performers have all joined forces to criticise the lack of payment for the month of June.

Artists employed by la Empresa comercializadora de la Música y los Espectáculos Adolfo Guzmán (The Marketing Company for Music and Entertainment “Adolfo Guzmán”), la Agencia de Espectáculos Artísticos TurArte (The Agency for Entertainment Events “TurArte”) and la Empresa Provincial de la Música y los Espectáculos Ignacio Piñeiro are among those worst affected by the delay in payments. Each of the entities has justified the delay in complying with its duties by claiming a lack of resources or issues with bureaucracy. continue reading

The most seriously affected artists work in what is known as the “régimen comercial” (“commercial arrangement”). Generally speaking, these workers negotiate their own contracts, with the company representing them taking a 15% cut on their earnings. Elsewhere, workers receive a fixed salary whether they perform for the public or not. These are known as the “régimen subvencionado” (“subsidized arrangement”). Older artists, troubadours loyal to the government and folk groups are usually employed in this second category.

With events being cancelled and the borders closed to international tourism, artists have found themselves in a precarious position during the last few months. They include Carlos, a musician who no longer receives the extra money he previously earned while giving performances at nightlife venues: “I asked around in my company and they told me that they didn’t know whether any payments would be made this month. How are we supposed to eat if the schedule has been cancelled?”

Normally, artists employed in the “régimen comercial” would not receive a fixed wage. However, on April 6 of this year, the Consejo Nacional de las Artes Escénicas (the National Council of Performing Arts) and the Instituto de la Música (The Institute of Music) jointly announced that they would provide financial assistance to all those working in the entertainment industry regardless of their employment contract. A tax holiday was also announced for those employed in the commercial sector.

Lázaro lives by his guitar. At the weekend, he accompanies a singer to play boleros, guarachas and other traditional music on the terrace of an important hotel in the Playa district of Havana. Until a few months ago, he could be found playing timeless classics like Nosotros, El cuarto de Tula and Dos Gardenias week after week. However, the pandemic has left him without any work.

“There was rarely a night when I didn’t return home with 30 or 40 Cuban pesos in tips from patrons. You might say that I had quite a high standard of living that allowed me to buy and to do pretty much whatever I wanted. The problem is, I wasn’t able to save for the difficult times because I also financially support my mother, my wife and my two kids”, Lázaro explained to this publication. “In the blink of an eye, everything ground to a halt and I now depend on the money I receive from the company. So, this delay has got me treading water”.

Until very recently, Lázaro was able to travel via taxi, afford an annual holiday in a national hotel and even go on a trip to Cancún with his wife. Now, this has all changed: “I simply cannot wait until August 1 because I have debts to pay, and in my household there isn’t even money to buy food”, the guitarist lamented.

The story hasn’t changed much: In recent years, delays or non-payments in the music industry have been frequent, becoming prevalent enough to see the figures included in the official press at the end of 2019. The current situation makes one inclined to think that nothing will be changing anytime in the near future.

Translated by: Andy Barton


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

Countries Seeking Cuban Doctors Must Insist the Government Reforms Its ‘Orwellian’ System

A special envoy of Cuban doctors arrives at the Aimé Césaire International Airport, Martinique. (Twitter/@CTM_Martinique)

14ymedio biggerEuropa Press/14ymedio, Madrid, 23 July 2020 — Last Thursday, Human Rights Watch issued a reminder that “countries receiving Cuban doctors have a duty to protect the human rights of all people within their territories, including those of Cuban health workers”. For that reason, they “must ensure that any agreements reached with the Cuban government include effective guarantees for the rights of workers”.

In personal communication, the director of HRW for the Americas, José Miguel Vivanco, stated that “governments interested in receiving the help of Cuban doctors must insist that the Cuban government reforms its Orwellian system, which dictates with whom the doctors are allowed to live, speak with, or even establish an amorous relationship”.

The head of the NGO has warned that should this not occur, “governments that accept Cuban assistance that comes with absusive labor conditions imposed by La Habana, could be considered accomplices to serious human rights violations”. continue reading

“No one is surprised that the Cuban regime is not willing to respect the rights of its health workers, but other governments should refuse to contribute to this exploitation,” Vivanco demanded.

The organization has condemned the “draconian measures” imposed by the Cuban government on its health workers, which includes those health professionals who have travelled to other countries to assist in the fight against the Coronavirus pandemic.

The first special envoy of Cuban doctors was sent to Algeria in 1963; since then, they have spread across the world. At present, there are an estimated 30,000 Cuban doctors stationed abroad, to which a further 1,500 have been added in various countries in Europe, Africa and South America during the fight against COVID-19,  according to the figures published by HRW.

“The Cuban doctors sent in response to the pandemic offer vital assistance to numerous communities, but at the cost of their most basic freedoms”, Vivanco went on to criticise.

The NGO insists that “Cuba has designed repressive laws that dictate the lives of those they send abroad”, laws which “severely limit freedom of expression, association and movement, as well as the privacy of health workers”.

Enacted in 2010 by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Investment, “Resolution 168” would subsequently limit the right of freedom of association by defining as an offence “the establishing of friendships or any other type of relationship” with anyone “whose behaviour does not conform to the values and principles of Cuban society”, and especially those who hold “hostile or inimical views towards the Cuban Revolution”.

Furthermore, the resolution “limits the freedom of circulation”, because it also defines as an offence “the visiting of places which negatively affect the prestige (of the doctor) in the eyes of the public” or “places that, given their nature, pose a threat to public order”. “Health workers must also obtain ’authorization’ to ’take part in public events of a political or social character’”, the NGO explained.

HRW has indicated that “the freedom of expression of Cuban health workers is also severely limited”, since “they need ’direct orders and authorization’ to ’provide commentary’ to the press regarding ’internal matters within the workplace’ or which ’undermine Cuban assistance’ in the country. Likewise, “it is considered an offence to ’disseminate or propagate opinions or rumours which are to the detriment or the collective morale or prestige of any member of the group’”.

Cuban legislation also “significantly limits the right of the doctors and other Cubans to leave the country”. To that end, “health workers that form a part of the special envoys receive so-called ’official passports’ that are only valid for the duration of the mission. Upon their return to Cuba, authorities are able to prevent them from leaving the country for up to 5 years if it deems them to be workers who “provide services that are essential to the economic, social and scientific-technical development of the country”.

“The prospective sanctions for those who commit disciplinary offences range from the withholding of salaries to expulsion from the special envoy itself and a return to Cuba”, the two most commonly employed disciplinary measures, HRW went on to remark.

However, there is also the possibility of criminal proceedings for health workers who “abandon” the envoy, an act punishable by up to 8 years in prison or exile from the island for the same amount of time. Both penalties are established in Cuba’s immigration laws for those who it determines as “undesirable”.

Human Rights Watch issued a reminder that in November of 2019, a group of special rapporteurs from the United Nations investigated the predicament of workers participating in the Cuban medical envoys. Following the “first-hand” data they received regarding working conditions, the group warned that “it could constitute forced labor”.

Translated by: Andy Barton


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

So Far This Year, Maduro Has Sent 33 Boats Containing 13 Million Barrels of Oil to Cuba

Carlos Vecchio alleges that Maduro’s regime sent 33 oil tankers to Cuba in the first half of 2020. (AlNavio)

14ymedio bigger14ymedio, Havana, 23 July 2020 — This Thursday, the Venezuelan ambassador to the United States, Carlos Vecchio, denounced Nicolás Maduro’s regime for sending oil to Cuba with a value of approximately 348 million US dollars at a time when 9.3 million Venezuelans are estimated to be suffering from either moderate or severe food insecurity.

The diplomat from the Guaidó administration, recognised by Washington as the sole legitimate representative of Venezuela, alleges that the resources “looted by Maduro and Cuba” could be used to provide “immediate solutions” to the devastating crisis faced by Venezuela.

The present regimes of Cuba and Venezuela have maintained close ties ever since Hugo Chávez, the now deceased head of state, first came to power in 1999. The United States accuses La Habana of propping up Maduro’s regime by providing intelligence and military personnel in exchange for oil. Both countries have repeatedly denied these accusations. continue reading

In his report, Vecchio alleges that the Maduro regime sent 33 oil tankers to Cuba in the first half of 2020. The tankers were estimated to contain over 13 million barrels of oil with an approximate market value of 348 million US dollars, based on current prices.

“Venezuelans do not see any of this money, it goes directly to the Cuban regime and Díaz-Canel, Nicolás Maduro and front men like Alex Saab. There is nothing that the Cuban regime could possibly give us that would compensate for the sheer quantity of petrol and other products that we send to them”, the ambassador insisted.

“In exchange, Cuba has offered nothing more than support for the madurista regime via the provision of intelligence and the repression of millions of Venezuelans. This has manifested itself in the torture and violation of human rights of both civilians and military personnel, all of which is confirmed by the most recent report by Michelle Bachelet”, he added.

According to data provided by the ambassador, the shipments to Cuba represent over 12% of Venezuelan crude oil exports. These exports have fallen drastically in recent years as a result of the disastrous effects wrought upon the national economy by chavismo.

The diplomat has stressed that Maduro is sending to Cuba “the highest quality light crude oil; the Merey blend”. He added that shipments to the island increased dramatically between May and June of this year. This period coincides with the deepening of the internal crisis within the Cuban economy, which has been left exposed by mismanagement at the state level in conjunction with US sanctions.

Vecchio continued, “In May, exports to Cuba rose to 27.2%, while in June, Maduro sent more than 43% of our total exports to Cuba. This is the exact period when the Venezuelan people, both those resident in the country as well as migrants, have been most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic”.

The ambassador highlighted that “the resources delivered to Cuba in the first semester of 2020 could have been directed towards helping the 2.3 million Venezuelans who are shamefully kept in a situation of severe food insecurity by the Maduro regime”.

“It is clear that Maduro is not interested in solving this crisis, he has never been interested; on the contrary, his only objective is to profit from the pain, suffering and oppression of the Venezuelans”, condemned Vecchio.

Translated by: Andy Barton


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