Monday, December 18, 2017

Season's Greetings and Best Wishes from LADB

On behalf of our editors and writers and our administrative unit (Latin American and Iberian Institute at the University of New Mexico), the Latin America Digital Beat (LADB) would like to extend warm holiday wishes to our subscribers and readers.   

One important development for us in the past year is the change of our name. We kept the same acronym, but we became Latin America Digital Beat (previously the Latin America Data Base) and launched a redesigned website.

We look forward to continuing our detailed coverage of Latin America into the new year.  We will begin our new coverage of the region in January. However,  we would like to take a quick peek at some of the events that affected Latin America in a significant way during 2017 (and many of these same issues are very likely to resurface in 2018).

Colombia and Venezuela
One of the most  important topics we covered was the implementation of a peace accord in Colombia, an agreement that ended more than half a century of conflict. There is resistance to the accord from some sectors of the Colombian political spectrum, so watch for more coverage of this topic in 2018.

We also saw the near collapse of the the Venezuelan government of  President Nicolás Maduro, but a divided opposition and clever political maneuvering have allowed the administration to remain in power.

Electoral developments were important part of our coverage during the past year. Presidential elections were held in Ecuador and Honduras and a primary election took place in Chile. In addition, regional  and/or legislative elections were held in Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, and Nicaragua.  We also covered the installation of new or incumbent leaders in Haiti and Nicaragua, and electoral maneuvering in Chile, Paraguay, Bolivia,  Costa Rica, Colombia, and Mexico ahead of important elections in 2018 and beyond. Corruption scandals also were the topic of our coverage, particularly in Brazil, Guatemala. El Salvador,  The Dominican Republic, Mexico, Chile, and Peru. 

The Trump Effect
The arrival of a new administration in the United States also had a very deep impact on the region, particularly on immigrants from Mexico, the Northern Triangle countries (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) of Central America, Cuba, and Haiti The Trump administration's protectionist policies have also had significant economic implications for Mexico, particularly the push to renegotiate and/or its threat to withdraw from the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Social Issues
Continued violence against journalists in Mexico, particularly Veracruz state, ensured that the country remained one of the most dangerous places in the world for the news media. Violence also remains a constant in Central America, even though the region is official "at peace." Two countries, El Salvador and Chile, moved to reduce some restrictions on abortion, but policies remain fairly restrictive in the region as a whole.  Uruguay legalized limited sales of marijuana, while Mexico's Congress passed an initiative approving the use of pot for medical purposes.

In Hati, the Senate approved a harsh law that would make same-sex marriage––and any pro-diversity expressions––punishable by both prison and an exorbitant fine. In Mexico, President Enrique Peña Nieto’s campaign to legalize same-sex marriage throughout Mexico suffered a major setback when a key committee of the Chamber of Deputies rejected an amendment to the Constitution allowing such unions

The Catholic Church remains a major source of opposition to liberalized laws on abortion, same-sex marriage and legalization of marijuana. Conversely, the Vatican under the leadership of Pope Francis is moving toward promoting a church that is more open and responsive to the poor in Latin America with the appointment of new leaders in Mexico and Costa Rica.

Disastsers also were part of our coverage during the past year, including two major earthquakes in Mexico, one in the southern region of the country and the other in Mexico City, Three major hurricanes caused significant damage in the Caribbean and Cuba.

Below are excerpts from some of the pieces we covered and the journalists who wrote the articles. Here are biographies of our 2017 Editorial Team and occasional writer Janelle Conaway.

With Rev. Raul Navarro, S.J.
Peru: A series of events––including a teachers’ strike lasting more than 70 days; Congress’ questioning and censure of the education minister 90 days after doing the same against her predecessor; its refusal to grant the vote of confidence requested by the prime minister, and the resulting reorganization of the Cabinet––shows that Peru’s president is facing a political crisis. Continuously fueling this crisis is an already tense relationship between the executive branch and the opposition-controlled legislature.
-Elsa Chanduví Jaña, NotiSur, September 29, 2017
*(Elsa is also our Assignment Editor)

Venezuela: With Venezuela’s political, economic, security, and humanitarian crisis deepening, the region is seeing a growing wave of Venezuelan migrants. These are no longer the most privileged—many of those left in the early years of the Bolivarian revolution—but often the more desperate. Some are making perilous journeys into the hinterlands of Brazil, while tens of thousands more have poured into Colombia—in many cases, returning to the country their families had fled decades ago. On a much smaller scale, some Venezuelans have even set out to sea in rickety boats, to try their luck in Aruba or Curaçao. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) recently called on countries in the region to take special measures to protect Venezuelan migrants  -Janelle ConawayNotiSur, May 5, 2017

Lindajoy is also a Translating Editor
Mexico: In the Tierra Caliente (Hot Land) of southwestern Mexico, a region troubled with narco-driven crime, music schools have popped up in many small towns, including Tlalchapa, Tlapehuala, Zirándaro, and Arcelia, in Guerrero; and Zicuirán, Copuyo, and Apatzingán, in Michoacán. Although many of the places where children learn to play instruments and dance to traditional music are independent endeavors, the government occasionally contributes, sometimes in reaction to the violence. El Tecolote Cultural Center in Arcelia, for example, got help from the government in the wake of a tragedy that had attracted international condemnation.
-Lindajoy Fenley, SourceMex, September 13, 2017

Colombia: With the handover to UN inspectors of the remaining weapons in their arsenal on June 27, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionaria de Colombia (FARC) guerrillas put an end-note on the longest and costliest internal war in Latin American history. In the country’s principal cities, the development was cause for celebration, while for the extreme right, it was further evidence that the government of President Juan Manuel Santos has “given itself over to Marxist terrorism.” That sector also warned that, should it win next year’s elections, it will dismantle, one-by-one, the agreements that paved the way for peace.  
 -Andrés Gaudín, NotiSur, August 4, 2017

Dominican Republic: Human rights activists are alarmed that child prostitution and trafficking have become common in the Dominican Republic. The practice has been accepted as a source of income by many of the victims’ families, who receive money, gifts, and other goods in exchange for allowing their children to be exploited, activists say. In 2015, according to UNICEF República Dominicana, the Attorney General’s Office (Procuraduría General de la República) received 6,741 complaints of sex crimes.
-Crosby Girón,  NotiCen, June 15, 2017

Region: Mostly due to its abundant natural resources, Latin America has long relied on mineral exports for revenue as its primary means of sustaining broader economic and social development. However, due to commodity price fluctuations, this dependence leaves the region vulnerable to sharp income losses when prices fall, often unpredictably. After a decade reaping the benefits of a commodity boom, many Latin American economies have been severely stretched, if not pushed into decline, during the last two years as a result of global price decreases. 
-Johanna Marris, NotiSur, May 12

Mexico: Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the center-left politician who twice lost presidential elections by narrow margins, might have much better luck in the 2018 presidential contest, thanks in part to the policies of US President Donald Trump. López Obrador, a populist who gained a reputation for speaking his mind against the neoliberal economic model and the corruption of the governing party, started to climb rapidly in the public opinion polls in late January and February of this year. López Obrador, who is president of the party Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena), is increasingly seen as the one person who could stand up to Trump. The US president has angered most Mexicans with his anti-immigrant rhetoric and his statements showing disrespect for Mexico  -Carlos Navarro SourceMex, February 22, 2017

Guatemala: A formal request by the US to extradite Roxana Baldetti, the former Guatemalan vice president, on drug trafficking charges has brought to light details of her alleged ties to the Zetas Mexican drug cartel. On June 7, the Attorney General’s Office (Ministerio Público, MP), said in a press release that it had received a request from the US Department of Justice for Baldetti’s extradition for “criminal association and conspiracy to traffic drugs.” The disgraced former vice president, who was indicted in the US District Court for the District of Columbia in February, has denied the charges. -Louisa Reynolds, NotiCen, July 13, 2017

Northern Triangle: If they manage to enter US territory after an extremely perilous journey through Mexico, migrants from the Northern Triangle of Central America are now faced with a new risk: Anti-immigration stalwart Donald Trump as the new tenant at the White House. But the magnitude of the violence in their home countries––El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras––is such that it is not likely that their numbers will decrease in the immediate future.
-George Rodríguez, NotiCen, January 26, 2017

Ecuador: President Rafael Correa’s handpicked successor, Lenín Moreno, was declared the winner of the April 2 presidential elections with 51.15% of the vote. But two weeks later, Moreno has not been able to overcome the uncertainty caused by the way the Consejo Nacional Electoral (National Electoral Council, CNE) handled the vote count and by the contradicting results presented by three pollsters, who gave the win to Guillermo Lasso, the opposition candidate. Lasso has charged there was election fraud.   
-Luis Ángel Saavedra,  NotiSur, April 21, 2017

Brazil: In a plot twist befitting a telenovela, Brazil’s wildly popular former president, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva (2003-2011), has been convicted of corruption and money laundering. He was sentenced to nine and a half years of prison, but the presiding judge will allow him to keep his liberty during his appeal. The July 12 decision shook Brazil to its foundation, with the current and previous two presidents (including da Silva’s successor, Dilma Rouseff [2011-2016]) now tainted by impropriety following the June indictment of President Michel Temer on formal corruption charges.   -Gregory Scruggs, NotiSur, July 28

Cuba: US President Donald Trump’s threatening rhetoric towards the Cuban government has created uncertainty and resignation among Cuba’s population––the apparent result of a popular intuition that the recent period of relationship-building activities was too good to last for long... Trump’s electoral victory sparked concern about a return to a hostile state of affairs such as existed during the George W. Bush era, when remittances sent to Cuba were limited and Cuban-Americans could only visit relatives on the island for a period of 14 days every three years. "Trump’s announcements about Cuba could have been worse,” said Artemio, a taxi driver who covers the route from downtown Havana to José Martí International Airport. There has not been a decrease in travelers from the US, he said, adding that he felt some concern from Cubans who are permanent residents of the US but have not been able to gain US citizenship.  -Daniel Vázquez, NotiCen, August 10, 2017

Ben is also a Translating Editor
Nicaragua: With last year’s lopsided and highly controversial presidential and parliamentary elections, Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega and Rosario Murillo, his wife and vice president, tightened their already firm grip over what is now, for all intents and purposes, a one-party state. Opponents have good reason to question the pair’s democratic credentials and sense of political fair play. But they proved powerless to stop the regime as it dismantled, one by one, the various checks and balances that might have kept Ortega from earning his third consecutive five-year term as president and fourth overall, not including his period as head of the country’s post-revolutionary junta government (1979-1985).  -Benjamin Witte-Lebhar, NotiCen, April 27, 2017

Our Editors and Administrative Unit

Ileana Oroza  Copy Editor

Carlos Navarro  Managing Editor

Vickie Madrid Nelson (right) Associate Director for Busiesss Operations at LAI (with Carlos Navarro (Left) and Greg Scruggs (Center)I

The Staff of the Latin American and Iberian Institute

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Independent News Site Covers Environmental Challenges for Cuban Neighborhoods, Communities

"En la finca, las piñas, los plátanos, los aguacates, si brotan, se caen secos..."

El ciclo de la sequía  
Caseríos de la frontera de Santiago de Cuba con Guantánamo ante la escasez de agua.  Lian Morales Heredia, 4 de Abril, 2017

"Para la mayoría de su gente, no hubo otra vida que la playa, el carbón y la pesca. Se trataba de una vida en la que eran felices y a la que muchos regresarían sin pensarlo demasiado. Pero ya no hay nada a lo que volver, salvo escombros."

Playa Rosario: memorias de un fiasco 
En 2005 se demolió un centenar de viviendas en Playa Rosario. En 2017, muchas familias permanecen todavía en albergues “temporales”. Julio Batista Rodríguez, 5 de Marzo, 2017

By Sabrina Hernández
Over the years, Cuba has suffered a number of environmental contingencies, including drought in 1998,  and again in 2011, 2013, 2014, and 2015. Severe storms and hurricanes have also hit Cuba,  including  Michelle in 2001, Gustav in 2008, Sandy in 2014, and Matthew in 2016. Periodismo de Barrio tells the stories of how neighborhoods and rural communities in Cuba are coping with environmental challenges, including climate change. These stories are rarely found in the official news media and are told from the point of view of those who are affected by these challenges. Founded by Elaine Díaz Rodríguez, a Neiman fellow who studied journalism at Harvard in 2014, Periodismo de Barrio was created in October of 2015 with a multitude of intentions.

Cuba’s first independent daily digital news outlet, 14ymedio, reports that Periodismo de Barrio’s perspective is that, “Journalism is an implicit promise of change. To be a journalist is almost as if you were to be preaching in favor of hope. When you ask someone to tell you their story, you are not only asking them to trust you, but also believing that sharing their story can help change something.”

Periodismo de Barrio, which offers comprehensive narrative and investigative journalism, is a beacon of hope for Cubans and a means to open dialogue about the necessity of independent news outlets in Cuba, according to Díaz Rodríguez. However, the very existence of this news outlet is a challenge to the Cuban Constitution, which forbids any non-state media outlet, However, Periodismo de Barrio sets out to improve the condition of freedom of expression and freedom of the press in Cuba, she notes in an interview.

(Video: Elaine Díaz explains to participants at the "Mobile Media Culture in the Americas: The Digital Divide" conference in Miami  how her news team obtains information from local community leaders and how the news reports are shared with residents of those local communities

Periodismo de Barrio was created with the objective of bringing to the public the stories of communities affected by natural disasters or especially vulnerable to phenomena such as hurricanes, floods, droughts, fires, landslides, and other events caused by the incidence of man,” said 14ymedio.

Periodismo de Barrio broaches topics related to climate change, and its staff hopes that through  investigative reports offered by the news site, local governments will be better informed when it comes to making decisions for their communities.

Periodismo de Barrio does not intend to project itself as a means of opposition to the Cuban government and, in accordance, has made public its refusal of donations from any institutions that seek, or have sought in the past, the subversion of the Cuban political system. Simply, the purpose of the news site is to disseminate better information and to truthfully reflect the realities confronted by Cubans in the face of natural disasters and other events—realities that the government may be silent on or that even might run contrary to what government news sources are publishing. Precisely because of this potential conflict with official governmental press, Periodismo de Barrio demonstrates courage in their commitment to describing reality, especially when the government has a demonstrated history of imprisoning those who speak out against it.

However, Periodismo de Barrio is not immune to the reality of repression against the press in Cuba. In October of 2016, while covering the damage caused by Hurricane Matthew in Baracoa in the Guantanamo province, Díaz Rodríguez and several members of her team were arrested by government authorities. The journalists claim their arrest was illegal because Cuban legislation does not limit the exercise of journalism in areas affected by natural disasters. The Periodismo de Barrio made its position known via this editorial.

Clearly, the model of journalism proposed by Periodismo de Barrio—one whose operation is not subject to state funds—may have a ways to go before it is fully accepted by the government. However, with passion and conviction and a desire to give a greater voice to local communities, Periodismo de Barrio carries on.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Nicaraguan Activist Fights Daniel Ortega's Canal Project

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
In attempt to stop her powerful work advocating against the destructive inter-oceanic canal Francisca’s children were attacked. Her home was raided, and authorities have harassed and detained her. During four years of peaceful resistance, Francisca has been repeatedly assaulted, leaving her physically injured and constantly alert to being attacked.
 -Frontline Defenders

By Sabrina Hernández
Francisca Ramírez is an activist from the rural community of  La Fonseca in the municipality of Nueva Guinea in southeastern Nicaragua. For more than four years, she has coordinated the Consejo Nacional en Defensa de Nuestra Tierra, Lago y Soberanía (CENIDH), an effort to protect the rights of rural communities in Nicaragua. The council's efforts are focused particularly on opposing the construction of  a canal that would connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Opponents of the project have made their discontent known through marches and rallies, The efforts of the council to oppose the canal have received strong international support, including the European Parliament.

Proponents of the canal, including President Daniel Ortega, argue that the project could give a potential economic boost to Nicaragua. The opponents point to the potential for significant environmental damage and displacement of many rural communities.In his work analyzing the effect of the Panama Canal on U.S. relations with Latin America, American History professor at John Hopkins University, John Holladay, calls the canal “the greatest liberty man has taken with nature.” One can rightly assume that this statement is even truer for the proposed Nicaraguan canal, which will certainly crisscross more significant amounts of land than the Panama canal did.

Comparisons to Berta Cáceres
The principal strategy of (CENIDH) is to is repeal Law 840, which effectively gave life to the project through the allocation of $50 million and stipulates that displaced land owners will be paid for their land a sum that the state deems “adequate." Even though the amount of money offered fails to meet the "adequate" threshold, the CENIDH does not want the canal to be built at all.

That is why Francisca Ramirez and other members of the organization have taken the opportunity to speak out against the project to international non-governmental organizations and to the foreign media. In this video,  Ramirez speaks to the press after meeting with the secretary-general of the Organization of American States (OAS).

Ramírez’s efforts has drawn comparisons to Honduran activist Berta Cáceres, who was murdered in 2016. However, her ctivism, much like that of Cáceres, has come at no small cost, though. She has been arbitrarily detained, her property raided, seized, and damaged, her family members have been beaten by men in military uniform, and she faces constant harassment from government officials.

"In addition to the repressive nature of the government, Ramírez is fighting back against the propaganda and efforts to misinform citizens," blogger Andrew Anderson wrote in the Frontline Defenders blog. "The latter seems to be one of the biggest challenges when denouncing human rights violations and mobilising fellow countrymen and women against them."

Ramírez confirms this, saying: “For a long time, the government has been dedicated to misinforming people, people are unaware of their rights. They think we are infringing on the government’s rights every time we march!”

"Nicaraguan defenders are struggling to preserve vital civil society space where values of equality and human dignity are upheld above the personalisation of power and ubiquitous clientelism. The country is at a turning point where it might head for a one-party State. The question is whether this time the international community is ready to support those who are using peaceful means to counter increasing authoritarianism and ensure respect for human rights," Anderson said in his blog.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Ricardo Trotti Addresses Digital Divide, New Trends in Media

Ricardo Trotti, executive director of the Inter-American Press Association/Sociedad Interamericana de Prensa since 2014, was a panelist at the "Mobile Media Culture in the Americas: The Digital Divide" conference at Florida International University in Miami on March 23, 2017. Trotti was one of four people who addressed the digital divide in many countries in Latin America and the impact of social media on traditional news coverage.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

SUNU: A Documentary Film about One of the World's Greatest Treasures

Seen through the eyes of small, midsize and large Mexican maize producers, SUNÚ knits together different stories from a threatened rural world. It journeys deep into the heart of a country where people realize their determination to stay free, to work the land and cultivate their seeds, to be true to their cultures and forms of spirituality, all in a modern world that both needs them and despises them. SUNÚ reveals how maize and everything it gives life to could be lost forever, and shares a generous tapestry of simple, heartfelt messages for the farmers of the world and the city dwellers who could lose the capability to make important choices unless they act soon. 
 By Sabrina Hernández
On Feb. 24-26, the Student Organization for Latin American Studies (SOLAS), in conjunction with the Latin American and Iberian Institute, hosted their annual Sin Fronteras film festival. The festival, held at the Guild Cinema in Albuquerque, is a student organized free event devoted to films about and from Latin America.

This year, SOLAS was fortunate to show Sunú, and to host the director, Teresa Camou Guerrero, who answered questions after the screening. While I was unable to attend all of the films shown over the weekend, Sunú spoke to me as its agricultural and smallholder focus is very much in-line with my own research interests.

As a member of SOLAS, I arrived early to help set up and was able to meet Teresa beforehand. Visiting from her home in Mexico City, Teresa was just beginning a film screening tour that brought her to Albuquerque and Santa Fe and will eventually take her throughout California.

Sunú, which has won awards from nearly a dozen different film festivals, shows us the reality of small, middle, and large maize producers throughout Mexico as they struggle to fend off the advances of Monsanto and genetically modified maize varieties. Maize, first cultivated in Mexico at least 7,000 years ago, is more than just an economic means to survival or a source of nutritional sustenance, for the maize producers in Mexico, it represents their identity and is an intrinsic part of their cultural and spiritual practices.

Mexico has prohibited commercial planting of the genetically altered varieties that threaten to disappear thousands of years of maize traditional and cultural heritage, although there is pressure from commercial interests and multinational seed companies to allow GMO corn (SourceMex, Jan. 17, 2017). With her documentary, Camou Guerrero aims to fortify the battle against GMO corn and to present to the world what exactly is at stake. One of the largest threats faced by producers of native corn is that of contamination. The possibility of imported GMO corn contaminating native varieties was the subject of an article we posted back in 2004 – evidencing the persistence of this problem (SourceMex, Sept. 22, 2004).

Camous Guerrero, in the clip below, speaks to the motivations of contaminating native corn:

With a background in puppeteering, Teresa’s connection to the subjects treated in this film may not seem like a natural fit.  However, she explained to the audience that as an artist, she recognizes the power that the arts can lend to social movements and social issues, including the producer resistance to GMO corn in Mexico. In the clip below,

In this clip, Teresa further explains how she became involved with this subject matter.  

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Anti-Immigrant Sentiment Also Present in Chile, Argentina

By Sabrina Hernández
Anti-Immigrant sentiment is present in other areas of our hemisphere besides the United States. As US President Donald Trump decries immigration from predominately Muslim countries and vows to build a border wall to defend from  immigrants from Mexico and Central America, two of South America’s two most financially prosperous and stable economies also are experiencing a growth of xenophobic expression.

 Migrant Women Folk Festival in Buenos Aires (Wikimedia Commons)
In Chile and Argentina—economic powerhouses of the continent—an influx of immigrants in recent years has resulted in new anti-immigrant actions. Argentina, newly under a politically and economically conservative government, has seen a crackdown on immigrants. In fact, government officials have begun the rhetorical work of conflating immigration with crime.

Susana Malcorra, foreign minister of Argentina and a serious candidate for UN Secretary-General in last year’s election, has done her part to establish a link between immigration and drug trafficking. Led by President Mauricio Macri, Argentina’s government has developed the rhetorical framework to vilify immigrants, established new controls meant to discourage immigration, targeted bus terminals used by immigrants, and on Jan. 26, implemented a system that obligates airlines to comply with the Interior Ministry.

Not unlike Argentina, Chile, too, has proposed legislation to curb immigration. In the face of a 132% increase of legally registered foreigners, Chile’s rightist coalition, Chile Vamos, wants to make it more difficult to obtain residency visas and also impose clearer penalties for violation of immigration laws.

Peruvian immigrant women in Chile (Wikimedia Commons)
Policies Fuel Anti-Immigrant Sentiment
And what is the collateral damage of these legislative and discursive campaign against immigrants? Much as we have seen here in the United States, discrimination against immigrants is on the rise in both Chile and Argentina as well. While immigrants are strategically targeted for national scapegoating, one study found that immigrants in Chile on average have spent more time in school than their Chilean counterparts.

Immigrants in Argentina primarily come from Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru, although some people are also migrating there from Uruguay and Chile.

The majority of its immigrants entering Chile hail from Peru, Argentina, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Colombia, with a recent arrivals coming the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Venezuela (a country that finds itself in times of unprecedented inflation). As more Haitians and other immigrants of African descent arrive, an interesting result has been the diversification of the traditionally homogenous ethnic makeup of Chile.

There is uncertainty whether proposed and enacted legislation will ultimately discourage immigration into the two powerful economies at the tip of South America. Other factors could also come into play, such as the lack of job opportunities. Chile has experienced paltry economic growth in recent years, and Argentina has seen a growth in inflation, a drop in domestic consumption, and an explosive rise in the country’s poverty numbers during the Macri years. The economy was a factor in recent migration patterns in the US, In the years following the Great Recession, the number of Mexican immigrants who left the US surpassed arrivals.

Monday, February 13, 2017

Experiencing Transition in Cuba

“It is incredible to me all that has happened on the island in just a few months, and still, what awaits us doesn’t seem to be good at all,” Rubén, a doctor in one of Havana’s principal hospitals, commented at the start of 2017. “We’ve lived through some of the worst moments in the last 25 years, but [we] always had expectations that something better was coming. This time the illusions have ended,” he added, affirming that the government now has nothing to offer and is not even trying to sugarcoat the difficult circumstances."    from NotiCen, Jan. 26, 2017
(Editor's Note: Just weeks before former President Barack Obama traveled to Cuba in March 2016 to expand relations with the island nation, Sabrina Hernández and two fellow travelers visited the island.  Even then, there was a sense of optimism about the pending improvement of relations between the US and Cuba, as Obama and Cuban leader Raúl Castro had announced the resumption of bilateral relations in December of 2015. Fast forward to January of 2017, and that sense of optimism has been replaced by extreme concerns about the future, as Daniel Vázquez reported in the Jan. 26 issue of NotiCen. Here is Sabrina's account (including pictures) of what she and fellow travelers encountered during a trip to Havana, Las Terrazas, Viñales and Trinidad between mid-February and early March 2016).

Sabrina Hernández (right) and her friend Erika
By Sabrina Hernández
Only a year ago I traveled to Cuba with my sister and a friend, and the situation we encountered was one of hope and optimism as our trip coincided with former President Barack Obama’s normalizing of Cuban relations. We planned our trip not knowing that Obama would visit the island nation two weeks later. Aware of Obama’s impending visit, once we arrived in Cuba, we were bombarded with questions about our opinions of the then US president, and Cubans marveled at this historical moment. Excitement was palpable; as palpable as the money to be earned by an influx of U.S. tourists. Former President Jimmy Carter visited the island nation in 2011, but no other U.S. executive had been there since Calvin Coolidge in 1928.

After years of dreaming of Cuba, my sister and I finally decided to pull the trigger and planned our trip for February/March of 2016. Our friend Erika accompanied us. We flew from San Francisco International Airport to Cancún, and from Cancún, we caught our flight to Havana via AeroMexico. Arriving at the airport in Havana was surreal and one of the first things we experienced was the lasting legacy of Che Guevara: upon arrival we were asked to present our insurance cards as we would have to purchase costly per day insurance if we did not have our own. This unique requirement pays homage to the memory of the co-liberator of the country, Che Guevara, and his medical pursuits. From the airport we took a taxi to our lodging arranged through the Airbnb site. Initially I had been opposed to the idea of booking a place via Airbnb, since I was intent on having the most authentic experience possible. I wanted to stay in a casa particular.

Comfortable accommodations
A casa particular is the home of a Cuban family who rent out a room to guests. The rates are more or less fixed throughout the country (or, at least the western half of the country) at US$25/night for a single traveler, or US$35/night for a room with two beds. We learned that in Cuba--a country that can be costly to navigate because budget hostels and affordable do not transportation exist--three is the magic number in terms of  affordable travel. Every room we stayed in had both a full sized bed, and a twin bed. My sister and I split the full size bed, and my friend took the single bed. Thus, we split $35/night three-ways. By booking through Airbnb, I learned that this booking site can indeed provide an authentic experience--it offers a  new platform for casa particular owners to reach prospective guests.

Ichel was our host in Havana and we couldn’t have asked for anyone better. She was sweet and lovely and also an amazing cook. The best dinner I had during my whole two week trip throughout the western half of the island was the pork and yucca al mojo cooked by our host. The pork was so soft, tender, and flavorful that we asked her if it was beef. She told us that it was pork and that the difference was that Cuban pigs are happy and fed very well.

While we booked three nights in Havana in advance of our arrival, we did not make any further accommodations beyond our stay in Havana. As is common, Ichel took the liberty of asking us about our plans and phoning people she knew in the places we wanted to visit to arrange for us to stay in their homes. From everything I read prior to arriving in Cuba, this is an extremely common practice. However, with the advent of thawing US-Cuban relations, tourism was up dramatically and the ability to walk up to a casa particular – demarcated by a little triangle on the exterior of the house – and find vacancy was a thing of the past. Tourism was up and housing availability was down.

From Havana, our next stop was to Las Terrazas, an ecological oriented village on the western side of the island. While in Las Terrazas, we met agro-tourists, Matt and Liz. They are the owners of Joyfully Organic Farm and CSA service near Toronto, Canada. As farmers themselves, they were attracted to Las Terrazas and Cuba in general so that they could learn more about alternative methods of farming.

Dark roasted Cuban coffee
Home-roasted Coffee
As a former coffee professional, our casa particular in Las Terrazas was a delight because a good portion of the land adjacent to the house was used for coffee production. The owners were excited that I was interested in their coffee operation and proudly showed me a tin of their own, home-grown, home-roasted coffee. If you are a fan of specialty, trendy coffee at all, then the coffee you find in Cuba is really going to confuse you. Cuba, true to its general “existing in the past” kind of charm, prefers an extremely dark roasted and sugar laden cup of coffee – a style that saw its peak in the beginning to middle of the 20th century. This method of preparation and consumption  is not everyone’s cup of tea, err, cup of coffee. I found it so refreshing to experience something entirely different from what I knew. I made a point to consume Cuban coffee everywhere I went. I took the opportunity to speak to Cubans about their coffee every chance I could, and let me tell you, coffee is a great conversational jumping point in Cuba. There is a tremendous amount of pride among Cubans about their preference for coffee: fuerte. One man in Havana, so eager to share with me the strength of Cuban coffee, even bought me a café Cubano – a potent dose of Cuban coffee served in a thimble-sized cup – and administered a strict warning before I began to consume it. It was dark. It was sweet. And I was in love. Cubans even have a saying in reference to their coffee preference: “Lo tomamos muy dulce porque la vida es amarga,” or, “we drink it sweet because life is bitter.

Tobacco leaves drying in Viñales
Tobacco country
From Las Terrazas, we took a bus to the popular site of Viñales, a UNESCO World Heritage site on the western side of the island.  This community is perhaps well known for its mogotes
(dome-like limestone outcrops) and tobacco production. It would be useful to mention that in Havana, I somehow managed to lose my tourist visa. Yes – this will forever be a low point in my life when I consider my personal responsibility, management, and organizational skills. Losing a visa in a country that has exceedingly strict regulations on, well, everything, is especially daunting. However, Ichel, the wonderful woman in whose home we stayed in Havana, accompanied us to the Havana immigration office where we learned that losing my visa just meant we needed to get to the airport at least five hours ahead of flight back to Cancun. Inconvenient? Absolutely. But overall, a serendipitous resolution to a problem I was certain would be much more serious.

So the rest of the trip was going to be worry free, right? That was true until we arrived at Viñales. In  that commmunity, we found that hosts in casa particulares were generally pretty terrified when they realized I did not have my tourist visa. I should add that at every casa particular, immediately upon checking in, you are asked to complete a page in their government issued guest book. These books are tightly regulated by the government. Previously, none of the hosts gave me too much grief about not having my visa, but in Viñales, the experience was totally different. Hosts did not want to accommodate us because they feared what would happen if and when the government took a look at their guestbook and noticed my visa number missing. There is a lot to unpack here and their fear was not without reason.

A feast in  Viñales
It is only recently that Cubans have even been permitted to fraternize with tourists. Previously, any Cuban caught socializing with a tourist could be arrested and thrown in jail for “bothering” tourists. Cubans were not allowed to go to tourist hot spots such as the pristine turquoise beaches in Varadero. Even today, beef and various seafoods are designated for tourist consumption only. When you consider this in conjunction with that fact that we were tourists from the United States, the fear was entirely justified.

But why is Viñales so different from the rest of the country?  It might be useful to read Insurgent Cuba by Ada Ferrer, for a perspective on why the situation might be different in Viñales than other parts of the country. Ferrer writes that during the various attempts for independence, the westernmost areas of the island were staunchly opposed to independence. The predominantly Spanish populations of the west, compared with Afro-Cuban populations of the east,  preferred to remain a Spanish colony and to abide by the laws established.

We ultimately found accommodation with a woman whose husband worked for the immigration office in Viñales (and on the condition that we go to the office the very next morning to sort things out and acquire a visa so she could document the number in her guest book). After that fiasco was settled, we spent three to four days in Viñales. We made a day trip to Cayo Jutias, took tours of tobacco farms, and ate a lot of ham sandwiches. In Viñales, we ended up finding both Matt and Liz and Florence and Justin (a  French couple we had met en route to Las Terrazas). In order to remain in contact, we began to utilize a note system; we would stop by their casa particular, and if they were not there at the moment, we would leave them a written note informing them of our plans for the day and inviting them to join any part that they were able. In the absence of technological innovation, we reverted to passing notes.

Mojitos in Trinidad
Better mojitos in Trinidad
When we  finished exploring Viñales, we caught a bus to Trinidad. Again, the “Cuba-is-not-economically-friendly” truism reemerges. The bus ride was not all that cheap, yet, it was the most affordable option. As someone who has traveled “on a shoe-string” throughout Latin America, I find it worth mentioning as many tourists are often surprised at how Cuba can be so taxing on the wallet.
Trinidad, close to the center of the island, was far and away my favorite location, a lovely colonial site rich and vibrant with culture.  As we moved east from Viñales and other sites,  the cultural changes are noticeable. The mojitos in Trinidad were sublime and better than those that I encountered in Havana.

Overall, my trip to Cuba was a wonderful and unforgettable experience. My experience of the western half of the Island left me hungry to get to know the eastern half. Living for two weeks without connection to the outside world was an inexperience in and of itself – one that my worrisome father was none too thrilled about. That I got to know another culture, another way of living, and an entirely new way of being, is something that I won’t take for granted.