Cuba 2018

In Cuba, homeopathic treatments are an integral part of health care

By Hayley Prokos
Medill Reports

COJIMAR, Cuba — On an average afternoon in a fishing village just outside of Havana, Dr. Gaston Rodriguez works in a local clinic, treating his patients’ aches and pains with cupping, acupuncture and massage therapy.

Rodriguez uses arnica montana, a wildflower native to Europe, for inflammation of muscles. “It’s like an aspirin,” he says. He uses auriculotherapy, an electrical stimulation of the surface of the ear, which originated from ancient Chinese practices of acupuncture, to help reduce anxiety. In cupping, he creates suction by placing small cups on the skin. The practice may help to stimulate blood flow and promote healing.

Some Cubans look to salsa parrilla for lowering cholesterol and weight management. Others look to caisimon anise for inflammation of the pelvis and tila to quell sleep anxiety. Many use plants to control dandruff, treat hematomas and ease joint pain.

In a country that prides itself on advanced health care, one of the country’s greatest sources of medicine is the earth. The acceptance of homeopathic medicine comes partly from tradition, but a more important factor may be necessity: In the past 25 years, Cuba has simply been unable to meet the domestic demand for medicine found on dozens of shelves at a typical American pharmacy, from hydrocortisone to ibuprofen.

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Is entrepreneurship the next Cuban revolution?

The story of a small one-year-old magazine encapsulates the still-tough media and business atmosphere in Cuba

By Vangmayi Parakala

HAVANA – Halfway through our nine days in Cuba, when a colleague and I find a bilingual magazine on Cuban entrepreneurship, we are intrigued at its very existence.

Itself a fledgling media start-up, Negolution’s aim to cover business-culture in the country is far removed from the state-run style and socialist ends of Cuba’s one-party system.

But the magazine we learn, is now close to two years old. Run by Marta Deus, 31, and Rigo Garcia Berriel, 26, Negolution covers a range of stories—from profiles of up-and-coming Cuban businesses to interviews with established international entrepreneurs. It also disseminates information useful to all possible stakeholders inhabiting a brand-new ecosystem within the Cuban economy: private businesses.

Deus and Berriel ensure that the magazine is printed in Spanish and English— an important marker of their ambition in a country that branded the United States as “Yankee imperialists” and constricted English education after the 1959 Cuban revolution.

“English is the language of business. We think entrepreneurs should know English,” says Deus. “We were very clear about this from the beginning.”

Negolutionis headquartered in Miramar, one of Havana’s most upscale neighborhoods. As Deus and Berriel welcom me into its sparsely-furnished living area, I can’t help but ask if I was reading the magazine’s name right: “Negolution” felt like a clever and deliberate comment on the anti-privatization sentiment in Cuba’s socialist history. Was “negocios,” the Spanish word for business, mashed up with the English word “revolution?”

“Solution, too,” Deus is quick to chime in. This, she says, is what the magazine wants to provide for young and struggling entrepreneurs, hungry for better access to news and advice about developments in the business world.

This is no small mission.

In a country where any media—other than otherwise sclerotic state-run mouthpieces—are legally contentious, Negolution itself has also to deal with the near impossibility of access to forms of production-and-distribution that would be routine in any modern economy.

Yet, in the past five years, a crop of many such independent, Cuba-focused magazines and news outlets have started mushrooming across the country. There are now roughly 20 magazines like Vistar (covering art and culture), El Estornudo (focusing on long form journalism) and OnCuba (which covers a range of topics including culture, politics, economy, sport and science), that have flourished in a legally gray, and logistically chaotic area.

Living between the laws

Negolution’s goal of becoming a catalyst for socio-cultural change risks running afoul of Article 52 of the Cuban Constitution, which prohibits the existence of privately-run media. Article 53, while recognizing freedom of the press does so by limiting it towards the “ends of the socialist society.”

Despite putting together a year’s worth of monthlies, with stories from 17 different contributors located in different parts of Cuba and the world, Negolution is run as a website registered in Mexico. The apartment that they’re located in—the one where I’m meeting them—is a “casa particular” or private property, belonging to Deus’s father.

Of the two other rooms in the house, one is for her other business venture, a financial consulting firm, and the third room is a large and handsome office-space. It overlooks Miramar’s neat tree-lined streets that are home to countless international businesses and foreign diplomats and entrepreneurs.

While the room we are sitting in has a stack of printed hardcopies of the magazine’s latest issue, Berriel tells me that these are courtesy copies reserved only for advertisers and guests. Negolution, like most of its counterparts, is produced like a print magazine, whose .pdf copies are circulated through El Paquete de la Semana (The Package of the Week), a system that is itself also illegal but operating in a gray zone.

An offline data delivery system, The Package makes sure that Negolution reaches Cuban doorsteps in a 1-terabyte drive, through a network of trusted distributors. The latest soap operas, movies, and music from neighboring countries, too, are included.

Initially, Berriel found that there were three verticals of El Paquete, with different source-distributors.

“So, we released the magazine on all three, with a unique digital code on the cover released through each one,” Berriel says. “When someone tells us that they’ve read us on El Paquete, we ask them to recall the code, the version, so that we can keep track of which matrix is doing well for us.” After months of trial and error, Negolution figured which particular matrix of The Package was doing better for them than the others.

Many Cubans we spoke to referred to The Package with a common phrase: “illegal but tolerated”. As long as there is no pornography or anti-government propaganda circulated through The Package, the government allows it to exist.

The government, according to one theory, turns a blind eye to these otherwise-illegal ventures because they provide to the public what the government has yet not been able to. These also serve as safety valves, taking care, at least temporarily, of rising public discontent about the country’s inferior infrastructure and poor access to information.

When seen through The Package’s circulation, these magazines seem almost as unregulated as the party flyers handed out on Havana’s streets past midnight. And The Package, too, is an unregulated network of piracy, growing every day. Unless internet access and mobile data services in Cuba really pick up, Deus and Berriel’s job will only keep getting more complicated.

Change through reform

Despite existing and circulating under these constraints, the magazine El Estornudo even went on to win an award at the 2017 Gabriel Garcia Marquez Journalism Festival in Medellin, Colombia. The awards, instituted by the Gabriel García Márquez Foundation for New Ibero-American Journalism aim to “acknowledge and incentivize the search for excellence, innovation, rigor in dealing with facts, and ethical coherence on the part of journalists publishing regularly in Spanish and Portuguese for audiences in the Americas, Spain, and Portugal in an age of upheaval in journalism.”

Whatever its legal status, The Package’s popularity has helped these independent magazines create cracks in the well-cemented hold of traditional, socialist news publications: Granma, the official mouthpiece of the Communist Party and Juventud Rebelde, run by the Young Communist League have both been operational since 1965, and Trabajadores published by the government-controlled Central Union of Cuban Workers has been running since 1970.

In 2017— the year that Negolution turned one— the number of Cubans engaged in non-public sector jobs grew to about 567,000 from 157,000 in 2010 when then President Raul Castro had pushed for privatization. This increased number translates to roughly 12 percent of Cuba’s workforce.

As Deus and Berriel try to ride and help raise this tide, they note that the government is also learning through the process, just like they are, as to what enterprises need in order to thrive.

“This is a government that has never had private business before. They have to deal with this new reality,” says Berriel. By being “respectful in covering this change, he says they’d “achieve more things and help in it.”

But not all journalists though toe this reformist line. Some journalists sidestep government scrutiny by avoiding words that might trigger government scrutiny, says culture reporter Veronica Vega.

Vega writes for Havana Times, another independent and online-only publication edited in Nicaragua. Others, like Luis Manuel Otero and Yanelis Nunez Leyva protest by showcasing silenced or nonconformist voices on their website, Museum of Dissidence.

“A little more effort”

Meanwhile, President Miguel Diaz-Canel, who took charge in April 2018, has been hailed as an accessible, open-minded leader, pushing for greater internet access in Cuba. But in a leaked video from 2017, Canel was seen telling fellow party workers that the government would take down OnCuba, a website that, he said, was aggressively publishing anti-Revolution content.

Back at Negolution’s office, Berriel says that this uncertainty in Cuba’s media-and-entrepreneurship environment was already finding roots with Donald Trump’s ascension as President of the United States. The Obama-era thawing of relations between the countries had brought tourism and investment into Cuba. This, he adds, has slowed since Trump took office.

“We feel isolated again, like it was before Obama,” he stresses.

Despite this, Negolution is unrelenting in its international ambitions. At the end of 2017, Deus had attended the Global Entrepreneurship Summit—with 1500 participating delegates from 160 countries—in India.

“Now more than ever, it’s very important to continue strengthening global relationships, and maintain exchanges and collaborations,” Deus says. “We want to show that though this is our reality right now, we’re still trying to do great things here. It’s just going to take a little more effort.”

Photo at top: A sample of some of Negolution’s issues. (Source: Negolution’s Twitter page)

Cuba’s contradictions

By Holly Honderich
Medill Reports

HAVANA – A cab driver earns more in one day than a doctor does in a week. Monthly government ration cards provide only enough rice, coffee, eggs and milk to cover basic needs for 13 days. Education is free, but tens of thousands of teachers have abandoned the profession because of poor working conditions and negligible pay. Daily life in Cuba is stained by contradictions.

When President Raúl Castro steps down later this year, it will be the first time in six decades that Cuba will not be led by a Castro. His successor faces a country struggling not just to live up to the soaring ideals of the 1959 socialist revolution, but also to realize more earthbound goals: put milk on the shelves, provide a living wage and restore a missing sense of opportunity to the national narrative.

“We expect nothing,” said Leslie Alemán, 25, who lives with her husband Jorge in her parents’ Havana home.

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The private sector brings change to Cuba

Loumay Alesali
Medill Reports

For years, Luis Manuel Rodriguez made vaccines for a living. He liked his job, but he didn’t earn enough to support his family and improve his life. Attracted by the money available in the tourist industry, he quit his job as a chemical engineer and became a waiter in a popular brewpub.

Eight years later, the brewpub thrives in the beautifully restored Plaza Vieja in Old Havana, where tourists keep the convertible Cuban currency flowing in restaurants and bars.

It is only the tourism sector, Rodriguez said, that holds out the possibility of a living wage.

“Our economy is on the bottom,” he said.

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Photo Gallery: Portraits of Cuba

By Giulia Petroni
Medill Reports

From Havana to Matanzas: away from 1950s Cadillacs and souvenirs of Che, these are the people we met, the streets we walked.

Photo at top: Havana, Cuba. (Giulia Petroni/MEDILL).

In Cuba Family Means Collective Wisdom

By Giulia Petroni
Medill Reports

HAVANA — A sunbeam streams through the window and crosses the living room. It is 9 a.m., and Lesbia is opening the shutters while humming the notes of Cuban guajira. They resonate in her mind as the most powerful of memories.

It was the late 1970s, and Lesbia was in her house in Matanzas. Her mom was getting ready to receive family for lunch. Eleven siblings, three children each. It was the same every Sunday: a meal, a guitar and songs until late afternoon.

“Siempre juntos,” says Lesbia. Always together.

This is how she defines family. It’s the essence of Cuba and, perhaps, an inadvertent product of the socialist experiment.

Scarcity forces entire families to live under the same roof. Houses with three bedrooms accommodate up to nine people. The sense of community – the greatest strength of the Cuban population – stems from the necessity to share.

Physical closeness ensures a continuous exchange of knowledge and wisdom. Stories are turned into life lessons that family members pass on to each other.

At the same time, as the country undergoes historical changes, generational gaps become more tangible: Young Cubans face the limits imposed by the regime and mature a stronger desire for openness.

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In modern Cuba, English is key for success

By Ilana Marcus
Medill Reports

HAVANA – On the top floor of a walkup in the chic Havana neighborhood of Miramar sits the office of entrepreneurship magazine Negolution. Co-founders Marta E. Deus and Rigo García Berriel are young, professional, speak perfect English and look the part of any business owner in a capitalist country.

Except that this is Cuba, where communism reigns and “capitalism” can be a dirty word.

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Cuba’s future population is tied to the strength of its private sector

By Caroline Tanner
Medill Reports

HAVANA – For young people in Cuba, like 19-year-old computer science student Julien Martos Farinos, the emerging private sector presents the greatest opportunities for professional growth and wealth after six decades of Communist Party rule.

“Most young people want to go to the private sector because it represents more money,” said Martos, who studies at the University of Havana. “Most of my friends are planning to go to another country to make money and maybe they come back, maybe they don’t.”

As President Raul Castro prepares to step down this year, a central question facing his still unidentified successor is how to spur a moribund economy that fails to provide basic sustenance to the population and continues to hemorrhage young workers. More than a million Cubans have departed for the United States since 1960. The government is struggling to find ways to the most talented people at home – and that means providing economic outlets. Continue reading

In Cuba, chess is not just a sport—it’s an institution

By Em Steck

Medill Reports

Cuba is known for cars, cigars, communism and…chess?

HAVANA – Though little-known to many in the world, chess is one of Cuba’s greatest prides. The game is considered to be a blend of sports, arts and science among players and is deeply embedded in Cuban history and culture. Among chess circles worldwide, Cuba is known for producing one of the greatest chess grandmasters of all time—José Raúl Capablanca, whose influence led generations of Cubans to study chess in school and become internationally-ranked chess players.

“Cubans like chess and we had a world champion—Capablanca—and any country that has a champion has to seek the steps of their champion,” says Ramòn Pastor Hernàndez Somè, a professor of chess here in Havana.

Even Fidel Castro, the country’s longtime leader, played chess and promoted it along with his nationwide literacy programs. Castro and his right-hand-man Che Guevara organized the Chess Olympiads in 1966 and the world’s largest simultaneous game of chess in 2002. Since 2002, chess lessons have aired weekly on national television. Continue reading

Medicine, heroes and dancing in Cuba

This is the final installment in a multi-part series on Cuba. Read the previous collection of vignettes: “Memory and invention mix in Cuba”


“No es lo que quiera, es lo que hay”

HAVANA – Donated medications can’t be given to the state, my host mother Lesbia explains to me as I pry for anecdotes about her experiences with health care for a potential story.

I am walking the fine line between acting as a journalist and a house guest, but it is paramount to get to the bottom of medical resource accessibility after months of research and listening to doctors vaguely talk about the lack of resources.

Lesbia is telling me about her son-in-law, Jorge, who had an accident about a decade ago. He was on the roof when he fell into a power line and suffered a severe electric shock.

He suffered no permanent brain damage, but one of Jorge’s legs never fully recovered. Now, he takes vitamins sent to him by doctors in the United States to ease the pain.

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