In recent years there have been a number of small properties which have been converted into TRD (hard currency) shops, as well as into small Caracol, Panamericana and CIMEX “container” stores and kiosks, all under the same ownership: the State. Given that there are buildings that remain underutilized, one might ask, What’s behind all this? In those old 1950s supermarkets — now badly deteriorated due to lack of maintenance and repair — there are only four or five products currently available through the antiquated and sadly all-too-famous ration book.

Each of these stores has on its payroll a minimum staff of directors, economists, managers, cashiers and janitors even though the selection of merchandise, which is almost identical all these stores, is very limited. When supplies such as toilet paper, cooking oil or detergent — to name just a few — run out in one of them, there is an equally short supply in the others mainly because imported items such as these are sold in the container stores. Only the supplies of electrical appliances for sale at these stores are relatively stable due to their high prices.

Many citizens complain and wonder aloud why the old supermarkets are not being modernized to consolidate all the timbiriches (small container stores) that have been proliferating in their neighborhoods, especially given their lack of basic requirements. This leaves only one small establishment in any given neighborhood to carry the few products still available through the ration book.

Converting architecturally magnificent houses into tiny shops is also an unfortunate practice. The dramatic reuse and inadequate care to which these buildings are subjected leads to deterioration and subsequent damage. One such example is a building located on 47th Street between Conill and Santa Ana in Nuevo Vedado. Designed by the architect Carlos Ferrer Nadal and built in 1956, it is one of the jewels of modern Cuban architecture.

In my very personal opinion, this is a way of disguising unemployment in a country that produces almost nothing. By underemploying the staff of these small stores, where three employees would essentially be enough to provide a decent level of service, the size of the workforce can be increased.

6 March 2015

Rebeca Monzo,11 February 2015 — After nearly three months of going to a clinic to set a date for a surgical intervention (outpatient and minimal), good news! Finally I got a date for a month later. I felt happy, because in all the hospitals here it’s normal to have little availability of operating rooms, for many reasons, such as contamination, leaks, damage to ceilings, walls, etc.

And now with everything planned and in order for the moment, yesterday I went to an appointment with the anesthesiologist which was scheduled for 8:00 in the morning. I went to the information desk to find out where the appointment would be. They sent me to the fourth floor, Room G.

Once there, I realized that the room was empty. I checked out the entire fourth floor, from one end to the other, asking every person in a white coat who crossed my path; no one knew where to send me.

Some suggested I go down to the third floor and ask. It was all useless, I went up and down the stairs a couple of times, because there was a line at the only elevator of six that was working.

Back on the fourth floor, I decided to wait for the surgeon who would operate in the morning, to explain what happened. When I saw him coming, I stepped forward to intercept him, as there were several patients waiting for him. It was then that he explained to me, not to keep looking for the  anesthesiologist, because he wouldn’t be operating due to an accident in the operating room, and to return to the clinic in 15 days to see what could be done.

I left the hospital surprised and disappointed, because I had already been preparing physically and mentally for the moment. I even had to postpone an exposition abroad and delay the longed-for visit of my granddaughter to Cuba, two things very important to me. In addition, why when I filled out the form for the operation did they ask me for a telephone number where they could find me?

On arriving at the hospital parking lot, where fortunately a car was waiting for me I learned from the parking attendant himself, who had worked there for a few years, that the operating room in question had caught fire a few days before and that’s why it was closed, and also there was only one anesthesiologist for the whole hospital because, normally, the person who come for pre-operative consultations sometimes don’t get done until 3:00 in the afternoon because he is the only one for the room and the consultations.

I left the hospital thinking that, sadly, I myself had experienced a joke that I often used on my friends: if you get sick here, then get a ticket and go to Haiti or Venezuela because there you’ll find a good Cuban specialist to see you with all the necessary equipment, because public health in Cuba is “A candle in the street, darkness in the house.”*

*Translator’s note: A common saying that means you “show off your good works” away from home, bt don’t help your own family. Rebeca is referring to Cuba’s healthcare “missions” abroad; the export of doctors is a major source of hard currency for the country.

Rebeca Monzo, 8 February 2015 — After reading an article from the January 31, 2015 issue of the newspaper Granma  about Cuba and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) entitled “Cooperation Leads the Way,” a ton of questions came to mind about the subject at hand.

It has been forty years since a UNDP office was established in our country with the objective to collaborate with the island’s government on the promotion of social development and public well-being.

From my meager understanding, the only party to have benefited from this has been the government itself, especially in terms of the favorable publicity it has received. They make up a negligible part of the population but the Cubans who work for this and other UN organizations are paid in CUC (Cuban convertible peso), which surpass by leaps and bounds the highest salaries of the most qualified professionals in our society, who are paid in CUP (Cuban pesos).

According to the aforementioned article, Granma “chatted” with Mrs. Jessica Faieta, Director of the UNDP Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean as well as the Assistant Secretary-General of the UN, who discussed the improvement of the quality of life of our citizens. She recognized the efforts of the Cuban government in regards to food security and the strengthening of the agricultural and non-agricultural cooperatives, pointing out, in addition, that the Cuban healthcare system has been strengthened.

With all due respect, it strikes me that this official had only a limited view of the situation, as is the case with everyone who visits us. Guests are taken only to those organizations that have been prepared in advance by the government and which serve as “display windows” for foreigners.

Perhaps if she had to depend on the ration book for a while or to seek medical help at one of our clinics — those  used by the average citizen — it is quite possible she might think differently. I do not understand how UNDP, based in our country for four decades, has not been given the task of investigating on their own — in closer contact with the population — to verify the “wonderful statistics” provided by the government, which does not at all reflect our reality.

One need only take a stroll through Central Havana, Old Havana (provided one ventures beyond the historic center), Cerro, Tenth of October Arroyo Naranjo, San Miguel del Padron and even Vedadao and other neighborhhoods to see the poor sanitation conditions and overcrowding in which the Cuban people must live. and the lack of specialists in our health centers, for being these missions abroad, being replaced mostly by students, many of them foreigners. There is also the issue of a shortage of specialists in our health system due to the large number of them serving abroad in medical missions. They are being replaced mainly by medical students, many of them foreigners.

In terms of our society’s standard of living, it should be pointed out that the disappearance of the middle class — the very mark of a country’s wealth — has led to the emergence of an impoverished class (with equality for all) with salaries that do not cover even the most basic necessities. The contrast is made even more striking by the emergence of a leadership class with an affluent lifestyle which only accentuates the differences.

However, Mrs. Faieta and I are in full agreement when it comes to the positive steps taken towards normalization of diplomatic relations between the governments of the United States of America and Cuba. Once there is a successful outcome — one hopes sooner rather than later — it will be to the benefit of all Cubans. I believe that it is time to end once and for all the blindness that until now has led the way.


Rebeca Monzo, 23 February 2015 — In the Plaza de San Francisco in the historic center of Old Havana there is a traveling art installation, United Buddy Bear, made up of huge bears that surround the square. Each of them represents a country in the western hemisphere and they are decorated by an artist from each nation. Representing Cuba is the work of painter Nancy Torres.

The exhibition is like a cry, like a hymn to tolerance, which has captured the attention of both the Cuban public and tourists alike. Sometimes people even line up to be photographed in front of their favorite bears, especially those of Cuba and the United States, perhaps due to the historic moment in which we now find ourselves.

Besides these beautiful multi-colored artworks, a lovely bronze sculpture recently appeared in the square at the entrance to the Lonja del Comercio building. The sculptor, Vittorio Perotta, has given it a very evocative title: The Conversation.

Something that also caught my attention is the restoration work being done in this area and along the waterfront. It is being carried out by the Office of the City Historian and includes large potted plants, outdoor lighting and date palms, all of which give the place a touch of freshness and elegance. Upon seeing this, there was one thought I could not get out of my head: “When this whole of fifty-six-year nightmare of destruction is over, the only government official whose name will not be on the blacklist will be Eusebio Leal (Havana City Historian).”

23 January 2015

Photos of the ceiling in the main hallway and the roof parapets.

At 885 41st Street between Avenue 26 and Conill B in Nuevo Vedado there is a beautiful six-story building with some seventeen family apartment units dating from the late 1950s that by some miracle is still standing. The building is currently in a state of disrepair despite repeated appeals to local authorities made at various times by its most concerned residents. Up till now the only action taken has been a sloppy paint job to its facade, hallways and common areas. All of this has, of course, been brought to the full attention of the local governmental representative, who seems to lack the ability to find a solution to this problem.

The parapets at the roof are in such poor repair that they appear to be in danger of imminent collapse. As a result, those who are aware of situation make a point of walking on the other side of the street lest they become victims of falling debris. Others, however, continue to walk blissfully unaware along the sidewalk below.

This is yet one more of the many examples of physical deterioration resulting from governmental apathy. Though building residents may be owners of the individual apartments, the building itself remains the property of the state. Resident’s salaries and pensions are, of course, insufficient to cover the costs of maintenance since most of the necessary materials can only be purchased with hard currency (or CUCs).

Also, because of low water pressure and the increase in crime, residents have been forced to install heavy individual nickel-lined water tanks and metal security bars, which have added additional weight to the building’s structure that was not foreseen by the building’s architects and engineers at the time of its construction.

Adding yet another health concern for the families living there are the four enormous original water tanks, which have remained uncovered for some twenty years. One of the residents has expanded his unit into parts of the hallway that serve as sanitation areas without any responsible governmental agency taking action to prevent him from doing so.

All these situations have, I repeat, been brought to the attention of the official local representative and to the UMIV (Municipal Bureau of Privately Owned Housing) as well as to the corresponding local governmental body, whose president is a resident of the neighborhood.

16 January 2015

December has for decades always been a month of circuses, but, in the economically failed regimens, the circus is always present: “If there’s no bread, give them circuses*,” says an old refrain.

The principal actors at this year-end have been the unstocked farmers markets which, upon closing their doors, have given way to improvised fairs where, in place of food, police have abounded.

Yesterday on Monday, when I went to take a turn using the Internet, I took the P3 Bus, at the 26th and 41st stop, the closest to my house. The bus had barely made it past the next two stops when all of us passengers who were travelling to Playa** had to get off at 26th and 25th. The route was detoured due to an agricultural fair that was taking place on 24th and 17th, next to the farmers market at that location — which, by the way, was empty and closed off.

Three trucks filled with sweet potatoes, plantains and tomatoes made up the fabulous offerings at the fair. A line of naive customers waited their turn among dirty puddles, squalid stray dogs, and more law enforcement officials.

A friend and I, due to the absurd diversion of the only route, were returning in the afternoon, walking from the recently-restored iron bridge, searching for the P3 stop so that we could ride the bus back to our neighborhood. Imagine our surprise when we discovered that the morning’s detour was still in effect. We were forced to continue on foot until we reached our respective homes in Nuevo Vedado.***

Upon nearing the trucks that bore the agricultural products on offer, I overheard the following comment: “Such a fuss over a tomato that’s more expensive than at the farmer’s market!”

Translator’s Notes:
*Literally, in this post, “A lack of bread, circus.”
**Playa is a municipality in the city of Havana.
***Nuevo Vedado is a neighborhood in the Plaza de la Revolucion municipality of Havana.

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison, and others.

31 December 2014

The big news for all Cubans, without a doubt, has been the reestablishment of relations between Cuba and the United States, which has been a dream for three generations on our captive island, although there are opponents among some fellow countrymen both here and abroad. The other story — the one about the release of the three spies from the Wasp Network who, for refusing to the collaborate with American authorities, became by the grace of the Cuban government “anti-terrorist heroes” even though they had acknowledged their role as spies in courts of law — raises a secondary issue, which is the high economic cost for our country in the form of lawyers, propaganda and family visits.

Of course, the vast majority of Cubans without access to the internet or any other means of information other than Cuban television or Venezuela’s TeleSur (more of the same) has dutifully accepted as true what government propaganda has them led to believe, since the priorities of this long-suffering people are food and day-to-day survival. Others who rely on official media accept it out of fear of being challenged politically.

If (like me) you wander the streets of Havana, you will hear various expressions of playful joy that reveal the average person’s true feelings. Comments, especially those of young people (who do not have an official microphone under their noses), reflect dreams of a better future: We will soon have the internet, ferry service will return, McDonald’s will be everywhere, we will now be able to go to the “yuma”* without endangering our lives and those of others.

However, some old, recalcitrant members of the Committees for the Defense of the Revolutions (CDR) only talk about the release of the three spies, portraying it as a Cuban triumph over the United States, unaware that it was merely an exchange of three spies for fifty-three political prisoners of interest to the US. Of these details they are ignorant.

This reflects the focus by government-run television (the only kind) which, apparently on orders from above, focused on the return of Gerardo, Ramón and Antonio, who incidentally appeared healthy, well-fed and in superb physical condition, quite at odds with the terrible stories about mistreatment, sweatshops and other falsehoods officially promulgated during their internment.

It also stands in contrast to Alan Gross, who upon his release was anemic, having suffered loss of vision and some teeth. It was a picture worth a thousand words. By continually lying to the Cuban people and unscrupulously manipulating information, the mass media makes it clear that our country does not enjoy freedom of the press.

Now as never before, civil society and the various opposition groups must prioritize this important event, setting aside our personal differences to jointly maintain pressure on the regime so that everyone might find a place in this new, emerging era and that our voices may finally be heard. It is worth remembering that whenever negotiations of any kind take place, one should carry two suitcases: one to give and one to receive.

 *Translator’s note: Slang term for the United States.

22 December 2014

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