Author Archives: BBC

Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar launch Independent Online Newspaper

BBC, 21 May 2014

Original Article here: Independent Online Newspaper

The Online Newspaper is here:  http://www.14ymedio.com/

An online newspaper by Cuba’s best-known dissident blogger, Yoani Sanchez, has gone live.

Sanchez said the website would provide daily news about the communist-run country, but insisted it would not be a platform against the government.

The paper is produced in Cuba, but is only available online; it does not have a print version. Cuban media, including the country’s three national newspapers, are under strict state control. But President Raul Castro has eased restrictions on dissidents in recent years, allowing opponents of the government – including Sanchez – to travel abroad.

The paper, which is called 14ymedio, launched at 08:05 Cuban time (12:05 GMT). The title makes reference to the year of its publication, 2014, and the word medio, which is Spanish for media.

In her blog published in the online paper’s first edition, Sanchez says 14ymedio has been an obsession for her for more than four years. She says she wants the paper to “contribute information so that Cubans can decide with more maturity their own destinies”.

Its first edition also features a report from a Havana hospital, describing the work of nurses and other staff on night duty and the victims of violence they attend to. It also showcases a lengthy interview with jailed opposition writer Angel Santiesteban.

 But not all its contents is of a political nature. There is also advice on how to deal with dry or damaged hair and a sports feature on why Cuban football is getting less coverage and state backing than baseball.

‘No loaded words’

The editor-in-chief is Sanchez’s husband, fellow activist Reinaldo Escobar. Escobar told the Associated Press news agency that the paper would try to avoid any trouble with the authorities by remaining as an online-only publication. But he said that it would apply for accreditation for official events.

“We want to produce a newspaper that doesn’t aim to be anti-Castro, a newspaper that’s committed to the truth, to Cubans’ everyday reality,” he told AP. Escobar said the paper would avoid using loaded words such as “dictatorship” and “regime” and would refer to Mr Castro simply as “the head of state” or “President Gen Raul Castro”.

About 10 staff worked for weeks in Havana on the launch of the first issue. Critics say the website will reach very few Cubans inside the country, where there is limited internet access.

Sanchez achieved international recognition with her prize-winning blog Generation Y, in which she criticised the restrictions on freedom of speech and movement imposed on the island since the 1959 revolution

yoani-marido-cuba--644x362Yoani Sanchez and Reinaldo Escobar

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Cuba’s sugar mills get new lease of life

BBC, 22 May 2013 Last updated at 00:15 ET

The chimneys are back at work in the Cuban sugar town of Mejico   It is a sight the people of Mejico thought they would never see again – sugar cane pouring onto a conveyer belt, beneath chimneys pouring smoke into a bright blue sky.  Silent for seven years, the town’s sugar mill has been given a new lease of life.

Sugar was Cuba’s biggest export until the 1990s, providing half a million jobs. But when the Soviet market disappeared and the world sugar price sank, almost two-thirds of the island’s mills had to close.  At those that remained, production plummeted. Weeds overran the cane fields, and abandoned sugar plants – once the heart of many communities – fell into ruin.

 ‘Tough blow’

But Mejico is one of more than a dozen mills gradually being salvaged as Cuba looks to capitalise on a recent rise in sugar prices and improved yields in its cane-fields.

The mill in Mejico dates back to 1832, when the canefields were worked by slaves housed in nearby barracks  “When they said the mill would stop working, it was a tough blow,” says Ariel Diaz, who used to work as an engineer at the old mill before it shut down in 2006.  “It really traumatised us,” he says of its closure, which happened almost overnight.

There had been a mill in Mejico since 1832. The original stone slave barracks are still standing – converted into workers’ housing. “We were nothing without the mill. It was our life,” Mr Diaz says, now happy to be back in the noisy, steamy sheds shouting orders to his team as huge metal cogs turn down below..

Repairs, Australia Sugar Mill, 1994,  (now converted to a museum). Photo by Arch Ritter

 Centuries-old tradition

The re-opening has created some 400 new jobs in the mill itself. Sixteen farmers’ co-operatives are supplying it with cane. The country needs to produce sugar, and we can help”

Across Cuba, as mills closed, many people were redeployed to collective farms; others were paid to study and re-qualify.  “Clearly people were affected, especially psychologically,” a spokesman for state sugar company Azcuba, Liobel Perez, accepts.  “The mills represent years, centuries, of tradition so it was very hard. But steps were taken to help.”

Just a short drive from Mejico, the chimneys of the Sergio Gonzalez mill are still cold some 15 years after the last sugar rolled off the conveyer belts.  Weeds poke out of holes in the concrete. The old sheds have been partially dismantled and are rusting.A sorry-looking stage has a faded pro-revolution slogan painted across it: “Revolucion, Si!”

“All the families here lived off the mill, and life was much easier,” recalls Argelio Espinosa, a mill mechanic for many years. He now sells slush-ice drinks from a street cart, one of the small, private businesses that communist Cuba now allows.  But sales in such a poor town are slow and Mr Espinosa echoes many who say the mill closure brought other difficulties.

“When the mill was open there was always transport for the workers and everyone used it. Now there’s just two buses a day,” he points out. “It’s the same with the water. When the mill was grinding, it needed water and we were never short. Now we have problems,” he adds.

The locals talk of how new businesses, like a spaghetti factory, were brought to other former sugar towns.   In Sergio Gonzalez, the luckiest now hitch a ride 80km north for jobs in the tourist resort of Varadero.

Challenges ahead

By contrast, there is a fresh buzz of activity in Mejico. In the nearby fields, workers have been rushing to cut the cane before the weather turns. A shiny new Brazilian harvester charges forward, swallowing up the cane as it goes.  Cuba has invested in some new equipment to kick-start its revamped sugar business. It is one of four machines Cuba invested in for the mill re-opening, far more efficient than the aging, Soviet alternative.

There have been teething troubles with the re-opening. New machine parts arrived late, the workforce is young and inexperienced, and production is below target. Senior staff have slept little, under pressure to perform.

But the whole community is willing this to succeed. Some pensioners are helping out at the mill for free, passing their expertise to a new, young generation. And many sugar workers who took up farming when the mill closed have hung up their spades and returned.

“They like the mill. It’s a tradition here, more than anything. And it’s more secure work, right next to their homes,” explains mill director Jesus Perez Collazo. “There are a lot of challenges. The harvest is not as good as we wanted but the country needs to produce sugar, and we can help,” he says.

China buys 400,000 tonnes of sugar from Cuba a year; now production is increasing, Azcuba says international brokers are also knocking at the door.

 New life

With the revamped mills back online, the eventual target is three million tonnes per year, though persistent inefficiencies mean this year’s harvest will fall well below that.

Some old-time sugar workers are passing on their knowledge to a new generation of workers. “Sugar is once more becoming one of our principal export goods and that will be reinforced in the years to come,” argues spokesman Liobel Perez.. Despite the difficulties, those are welcome words in Mejico.

As the day cools, men gather in the main square watching the mill smoke rise and discussing the harvest.  For some, like 68-year old Joel, the re-opening has meant coming out of retirement.  “I need the money,” he says bluntly. At $35 a month, his mill salary is more than three times his pension. Others take a broader view. “There was no life, no movement here without the mill,” one man comments. “This place was like a cemetery.”

Now Mejico is shuddering back to life.

Australia Sugar Mill, 1994

Steam Locomotives, vintage  +/- 1910, at the Australia Sugar Mill, 1994, Photo by Arch Ritter

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Cuba sugar cane marabu weeds ‘could be turned to fuel’

Original Article here: Cuba sugar cane marabu weeds ‘could be turned to fuel’

By Sarah Rainsford BBC News, Ciro Redondo, Cuba

Driving the Cart past a “Marabu Woods

Drive anywhere in the Cuban countryside and you will spot the marabu lining the road: a dense, woody weed that grows as tall as trees and has invaded vast swathes of agricultural land. The land-grab began in the 1990s when Cuba was in economic crisis following the collapse of its great benefactor, the Soviet Union. The mighty sugar industry slumped too, and cane fields were overrun by marabu.

But to one British firm, the aggressive weed is less a problem than a valuable resource.

Havana Energy has just signed a $50m (£31m) investment deal to build a renewable-energy power plant in central Cuba, supplying one of the country’s biggest sugar mills as well as the national grid. During the harvest it will be fuelled by sugar-cane residue, known as bagasse. The rest of the year it will be fed with marabu. “Marabu has a very high calorific level and low moisture, so as biomass it’s very attractive,”

Harvesting marabu will also address a pressing issue on the island. “Seventy per cent of the food Cubans consume is imported, which is a national tragedy with their climate and soil,” says technical director Keith Dawson. “Every Cuban hates marabu so we’re doing a service: not just removing it but also returning the land to farming.”

The deal is a joint-venture with Cuba’s state sugar monopoly and is part of a move by the Communist government to diversify its energy supply away from dependence on subsidised, imported oil from its socialist ally, Venezuela.

“Cuba relies on diesel-powered power stations, which are even less green than coal, very expensive and give-off horrible emissions,” Mr Macdonald explains, saying his firm’s green energy will also be cheaper.

Now the papers have finally been signed, the British team face their first major test. Early next year they will import a combination of forestry and construction equipment that they hope can harvest the marabu economically. No-one has managed that yet. “You can’t underestimate marabu. We’ve brought foresters to look at it and they’ve been confused, and agricultural kit is not strong enough,” says agricultural adviser Julian Bell.

‘Terrible state’

The plant’s woody roots vary in size and are as dense as teak with fierce thorns.

“Usually you just wouldn’t bother. But I don’t know anywhere else with 1.5 million hectares covered in such a good energy source,” he says.

There is another incentive. Research at Strathclyde University has revealed that marabu produces high-grade activated carbon for use in filters – like in Cuban rum production. Potentially, the carbon could also be used in new-generation fast-charging batteries. So Havana Energy will bring a reactor to the Ciro Redondo mill next year to trial carbon manufacturing.

In the small town that grew up around the sugar mill, there is a good deal of expectation about the investment. The joint venture should create around 60 new jobs and includes funds to upgrade the dilapidated mill itself, now a century old. Only one of its three crushing machines are operational, it still has Soviet-era signs and ageing east German equipment, and large sections of the roof are missing. “It’s in a terrible state,” says retired sugar-worker Oberto Vazquez as he passes on his bicycle. “When it rains, it rains more inside than out.”

So for Cuba this venture is not only about sourcing alternative energy.

The government is in the midst of a drive to boost sugar production, cashing in on higher global prices and increased demand from countries like China. It has reopened almost a dozen old mills, targeting 20% production growth per year.

Tackling weeds

It has allowed foreign funds into the sector for the first time since the 1959 revolution. As well as the British venture, a Brazilian firm has been contracted to manage another large mill in a nearby province.

“The main [British] investment is to build the power plant, but we have negotiated access to credit to improve the cane fields and the sugar mill itself,” says Rafael Rivacoba, director of international relations at Azcuba, Cuba’s sugar firm. “I think that’s positive.” He describes further foreign investment in the sector as a possibility, but is cautious. The deal with Havana Energy took three years to negotiate. “We’re thinking about other things,” he says, admitting that international sugar brokers are knocking at his door. “But nothing’s been decided.”

On the ground in Ciro Redondo though, funding from anywhere is welcome.  The mill can only afford to irrigate 12% of its crops today; average yields in the cane fields are under half the international norm. “We have the will and the knowledge,” says manager Victor Dieguez. “But we need investment.”

That is now on its way and if this pilot project succeeds, the British team has an option to build four more power plants at other sugar mills. First though, it has to tackle the marabu: to prove that it does have the solution, to turn a weed into a valuable asset.

La Lucha Contra Marabu

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Hurricane Sandy: Cuba struggles to help those hit

12 November 2012. By Sarah Rainsford. BBC News, Santiago province, Cuba

Siboney was a pretty town on the Caribbean coast of Cuba before Hurricane Sandy tore through. Now, it is a disaster area. In some spots there are piles of rubble in place of houses. Many of those buildings still standing have gaping holes in their walls; most are missing all, or part of, their roofs.

Residents are still struggling to come to terms with the destruction more than two weeks after the passage of the storm which killed 11 people in eastern Cuba and razed 15,000 homes.

“We have had cyclones before, but nothing like this devastation,” says Trinidad, a pensioner whose house was drenched and possessions washed away when waves up to 9m (30ft) high smashed through Siboney.

The sick and infirm had been evacuated from the town, but everyone else was at home.

They talk about having watched a state TV forecast defining Sandy as a tropical storm; then the power went out. The next morning they were hit by a Category Two hurricane.

Trinidad tells me: “I stayed to try to protect my things, because I am poor. But I couldn’t. I had no time to save anything.” “I want to leave here now,” she confesses, starting to cry. “I’m afraid.”

The damage further up the coast is even worse. One house has concertinaed to the ground, as if hit by an earthquake.

Joaquin Variento Barosso leans on the squashed ruins of his home and remembers the storm’s arrival. “The sea was furious. It carried off everything: bed, fridge, mattress.” “We had to run, but we watched the destruction from higher ground.”

No electricity

Many people have moved in with relatives. Others are now sheltering in state workers’ holiday homes where basic food is being provided. But by Friday, 16 days after the storm, Siboney still had no electricity. Teams of electricians were deployed to Santiago province from all over the island within hours of the hurricane hitting. They have been working late every night to repair thousands of lamp posts and reconnect power lines.

The lights came back on in Cuba’s second city, Santiago, late last week. But restoring power to everyone is a huge task.

“Cuba had not seen anything like this at least in 60 years.” Barbara Pesce Monteiro, UN co-ordinator.

“We’ve got no money, not even a spoon to eat with. There’s nothing left,” Joaquin Barosso shrugs, contemplating the destruction of his house, and his hometown. “I don’t know what we’ll do now.”

The situation is particularly tough for a poor country like Cuba, which is still struggling to re-house those caught up in the last major storms four years ago.

Subsidies

This time, the government has announced a 50% price cut for construction materials and interest-free loans to repair the damage. That aid will be means-tested, in line with the new Cuban thinking. Further subsidies are promised for the poorest or hardest hit. There are already supplies of usually scarce building materials in a street in Siboney, including corrugated iron sheets, metal rods and cement.

Nearby, local officials are compiling data from families about the damage they have suffered. They have recorded 178 total house collapses in this small area alone. A blackboard advertises the cost of building materials, halved by a government subsidy

Housing officer Susen Correa is helping the effort and she assures me: “People were pretty depressed at first, but the mood has lifted since we’ve been offering support.” “They are traumatised, but we are trying to address as many of their problems as we can.”

Across the province, other military and civilian teams were mobilised quickly to clear the streets of rubble and an estimated 6.5m cubic metres (230m cubic feet) of felled trees. This once lush, green region now looks bare. And it is not just the small or coastal towns like Siboney that have suffered.

Santiago city itself is a jumble of missing roofs, flattened street signs and smashed windows. Bizarrely, the giant replica bottle above the original Bacardi rum complex has survived.

Aid arrives

By Friday, 18 planeloads of humanitarian aid had arrived in the region from countries including Venezuela, Russia and Japan as well as the International Red Cross and UN.

The resident UN co-ordinator, Barbara Pesce Monteiro, is visiting the hurricane zone. “This [situation] is extraordinary. Santiago de Cuba had not seen anything like this at least in 60 years. It goes far beyond what they’re used to,” she explains. “It has affected a large population and all the livelihoods that go around it. It is obviously on a major scale and needs to be given attention.”

None of those many tonnes of foreign aid – food, clothes, and construction materials – have made it to Siboney yet, or its newly homeless. But Maria Louisa Bueno of the Ministry for Foreign Trade and Investment denies that the government is being excessively slow to deliver aid. “Institutions like hospitals, homes for the elderly and schools are favoured,”

She points out that storage warehouses need re-roofing after the storm to protect the aid.

“The hurricane victims will be looked after by the government, you can be clear on that,” she insists.

On Friday, the Red Cross made the first delivery direct to the population, taking cookery and hygiene packs to the picturesque, but now battered Cayo Granma, a few minutes ferry-ride from the mainland. The aid had arrived in Cuba the day before. Its delivery, via a long human chain of volunteers, was applauded by residents still picking up the pieces in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

But this is short-term emergency relief. A massive recovery task lies ahead.

“We have got nothing left but the clothes we were wearing,” Roberto Salazar tells me, amidst the flattened ruins of his home. The enormous rock responsible now stands in what used to be a bedroom. It was thrown through the house by a raging sea.

“I need to find some way of rebuilding it all,” Roberto says, quietly. “But it won’t be easy.”

Impacts of Hurricane Sandy on Santiago de Cuba

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BBC: “Cuba to End Exit Permits for Foreign Travel”

From the British Broadcasting  Corporation, October 16, 2012

Original article here: Cuba to end exit permits for foreign travel

Cuba has announced it is removing the need for its citizens to obtain exit permits before travelling abroad.

State media said the move, to come into effect on 14 January next year, would “update” migration laws to reflect current and future circumstances.

Cubans currently have to go through a lengthy and expensive process to obtain a permit and dissidents are often denied one, correspondents say.

The move is the latest in a series of reforms under President Raul Castro.

Cubans who have permanent residency on the island will also be allowed to stay abroad for up to 24 months, instead of the current 11, without having to return to renew paperwork.

The BBC’s Sarah Rainsford, in Havana, says the exit permit process is hated by most Cubans so this reform, which was much anticipated, will be widely welcomed.

Cuba previously saw people attempting to leave the country as traitors or enemies of the revolution, says our correspondent, but official recognition is growing that many Cubans want to leave for economic reasons and that the country can benefit from the cash and knowledge they bring back with them.

Now all that Cubans will need to leave is a valid passport and a visa.

However, the new law still argues for the need to protect Cuba’s “human capital”, our correspondent adds, so highly-qualified professionals like doctors, will continue to face extra hurdles to travel.

Government critics are also likely to experience further difficulties, as passport updates can be denied for “reasons of public interest defined by the authorities”.

The restrictions have failed to prevent hundreds of thousands of Cubans emigrating illegally in the past few decades, many of them to the US where they have formed a strongly anti-Havana diaspora.

The US grants automatic residency to anyone who reaches it from Cuba.

Brink of war

For nearly half a century, Cuba was run as a command economy, with almost all activity controlled by the state. But under President Raul Castro, who took over from his ailing brother Fidel in 2008, it has gradually eased restrictions in many areas of politics, business and society. The latest reform comes on the 50th anniversary of the Cuban missile crisis, the closest the world has ever come to nuclear war as the US and the Soviet Union nearly went to war over Soviet missiles placed on the island. But the crisis was resolved diplomatically when the Soviets agreed to remove the missiles in exchange for a US promise not to invade Cuba.

However the relationship between Cuba and the US remains hostile – they have no diplomatic relations and an American economic blockade of the era is still in effect.

Cuba has struggled economically since the collapse of the Soviet Union and now relies heavily on the support of the left-wing government of Venezuela.

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Cuba’s crumbling buildings mean Havana housing shortage

By Sarah Rainsford;  BBC News, Havana

Havana risks seeing its historic city centre reduced to ‘a void’

Havana is beguiling from a distance, especially its old colonial buildings bathed in tropical sunshine. But up close this city is crumbling. Number 69 on the Malecon, the city’s long seafront, looks particularly perilous. The apartment block has gaping holes where chunks of brick and plaster have fallen away. Bare metal rods protrude where balconies used to be.

“Look how badly these columns have deteriorated,” says Olga Torriente, pointing to thick cracks in the external wall of her flat, up on the top floor.

She pulls her bed into the centre of the room in a storm, afraid the whole wall could come crashing down.  Big chunks have already fallen off this building on the Malecon Some of Olga’s neighbours – those judged priority cases – have been rehoused. Others joined a “microbrigada”, or construction team, almost three years ago to help build a replacement apartment block for themselves. But there is still no completion date, and no alternative.

“How long will we have to wait? We need to get out,” says Ms Torriente. “People ask me if I’m not afraid to live here. Of course I’m afraid, but this is my house so where can I go?”

Like Ms Torriente, most Cubans own the house they live in – one of the principles of the revolution. But many have lacked the funds to maintain them.

Adding to Cuba’s difficulties, some 200,000 families across the island were left homeless by devastating hurricanes in 2008.

“Buildings are crumbling because they’re old. Then there’s the salt spray, humidity, termites, hurricanes and overcrowding. There are many kinds of problems and sometimes altogether,” explains former city architect Mario Coyula.

Seven out of every 10 houses need major repairs, according to official statistics. Some 7% of housing in Havana has formally been declared uninhabitable. The province around the capital needs some 300,000 more properties.   The shortage has forced expanding families to build lofts and new partitions within their homes, putting weakened structures under additional strain.

“It’s difficult, because neither the government nor the people have the money to care for the buildings. In a way, we inherited a city we are not able to keep,” Mr Coyula says, referring to Havana’s once grand colonial-era architecture in particular.

But the government is now trying to stop the rot – literally. For decades, Cuba subsidised all construction materials, but production slumped when state budgets became strained. Finding materials was difficult and an expensive black market emerged. There were also tight restrictions on building work.

Now, Cuba has shifted tack. It is allowing builders yards to sell materials at market prices, while offering state funds to help those home owners in most need. Hurricane victims are a priority but anyone on a low income and in what is considered “vulnerable” housing can apply.

“We used to subsidise materials now we’re subsidising the individual,” says Marbelis Velazquez, from Havana’s provincial housing office. “Not everyone is in the same situation, economically and the state clearly has to help those most in need,” she says.

The new grants range from 5,000 Cuban pesos ($208) for minor repairs to a maximum 80,000 pesos ($3,333) to build a 25 sq metre room from scratch.

In Cerro, one of central Havana’s most run-down districts, the Padro family is hoping their own petition will be accepted. Nadia Padro’s parents built a basic wooden and brick shack in their garden when living there with six siblings and assorted partners and grandchildren became too crowded. There is a kitchen, with water and electricity. But the roof leaks when it rains and Nadia and her husband have to squeeze into one bed at night alongside their two young children. “A government grant would really improve things,” Nadia says, explaining that they want to build a separate room for their daughters. Neither she nor her husband has a steady job and could never afford the work on their own.

The government plans to fund the grants with the sales tax it collects from state-owned building yards. It has already increased production and after years of bare forecourts, the yards are filling up with materials for sale.

“Before you had to hunt for things through friends or contacts,” Hernan Mayor explains, as he loads roofing material onto the back of his bike at The Wonder builders yard. He has been saving money to build a small extension to his house. “The materials are all here legally now, which is better. If things were a bit cheaper, it would be perfect. But at least they’re available now,” he says.

Nadia Padro is hoping to get a government grant to build another room in her shack New regulations have also made it much faster – and simpler – to get a licence for new building work. And, for the first time, bank credit is becoming available.

So Cuba is creeping into action over its housing stock. But the delay has already cost dearly. In Havana alone, it is said that three houses collapse either partially or completely every single day.

As for the city’s heritage, beyond the carefully restored “hub” of Old Havana, much of that may already have been lost for good. “It’s impossible to preserve all the buildings, I know many will go,” says s architect Mario Coyula. “If nothing changes, Havana may end like a circle…with a void in the middle where the city used to be.”

Havana, April 2012, Photos by Arch Ritter


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