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 Fast forward to January of 2017, and that sense of optimism has been replaced by extreme concerns about the future, as Daniel Vázquez reported in the Jan. 26 issue of NotiCen.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.

Friday, January 27, 2017

Warmer Temperatures Melting Glaciers in Andes Mountains

Pico Bolivar, Venezuela, comparison of 1950 to 2011.  Photo: Wikimedia Commons
By Sabrina Hernández
In a recent article in NotiSur, we covered the effects of climate change in Bolivia.  According to the piece written by Andrés Gaudín, Bolivian President, Evo Morales has demonstrated a strong dedication to combattig climate change, as his country has suffered a disproportionate impact from the warming of the climate, as evidenced by extended dry conditions over the past several years.

Morales is fighting an uphill battle. The combination of a persistent drought and the alarming rate at which Andean glaciers are melting threatens the livelihoods of millions of Bolivians. The increasing scarcity of water in the region makes subsistence farming an increasingly precarious existence.

Access to water is an issue that is relevant across the globe (including the US, where a proposed fuel pipeline in the state of North Dakota could threaten to pollute local water supplies). The Andes containing 99% of the world’s tropical glaciers, and a large percentage of these ice formations are in decline. This has prompted a myriad of studies by scientists hoping to find some sort of response to the ever-growing threat to the local water supplies. One of the threatened areas is Cordillera Blanca of Peru, where researchers from Syracuse University are trying to understand how the loss of glaciers has put local water supplies under pressure. According to one of the Syracuse studies,  Peruvian glaciers have lost nearly half of their surface area since 1970. Laura Lautz, an associate professor of earth sciences at the university is trying to determine how glacial erosion has had an impact on reducing flows of rivers and streams in the region. Few other studies have been conducted on the topic because the remote nature of the region, which has made access difficult.

Photo: Sabrina Hernández
The Perils of Mining
The lack of access to the rugged Andean terrain is one reason why the border between Ecuador and Peru remains a point of contention. In 2011 we published an article in NotiSur on the Ecuadoran government’s decision to implement large-scale extractive-mining projects in the southeastern part of the country, even though these lands had been demarcated as “intangible” because of their great biological diversity or because of their being a source of water for nearby populations. This area has generated ongoing conflicts as both Peru and Ecuador seek claim to this region because of large deposits of gold, copper, and uranium. Mining has proven disastrous for the environment as it destroys high wetland pastures, dries up water sources, and completely alters the mountain landscape by removing mountain tops.

Chile, a country that is home to a large chunk of the Andean chain (though not considered geopolitically an Andean state), also sees its glaciers threatened by mining. The country is home to approximately 82% of South America’s glaciers and relies on these icepacks as a source of fresh water.

Chile has recently experienced drier-than-average weather, leading the government to issue official water- shortage declarations. The unusually dry weather and shortage of water has led many to search for both short- and  long-term solutions also and to consider the importance of protecting glaciers and the fresh water they provide. Mining is just one threat that Chilean glaciers face and efforts have been made to thwart proposed multi-billion-dollar mining projects in the region.

While governments and NGOs look for solutions to glacial erosion and water shortages, another effect of climate change is the loss of cultural practices and traditional homelands for the predominantly Quechua-speaking Andean inhabitants. Not only are farmers being forced higher up mountainsides by warmer weather, but theirs is a culture that views the Andean peaks as protective deities. Mountains that once were covered in glaciers now show bare rock.

This glacial erosion also hurts employment in the tourism industry, as many tourist trails have now been rendered unsafe because of snow melt. There is strong concern that the disappearance of the snow will also result in the disappearance of local communities.

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rating Havana's Private Restaurants

By Carlos Navarro
The private restaurant business was born in Cuba in the 1990s when the government authorized individuals and families to use their homes to serve prepared foods to the public. (This was in the midst of the so-called Special Period, a time when the loss of subsidies from the Soviet Union caused the Cuban economy to collapse). Tourism remained one of the few bright spots in the Cuban economy.  (See our coverage in NotiCen, March 5, 1998).

The private restaurants, which became an alternative to the state-run eateries serving the tourist industry, came to be known as paladares (coining a term from the Brazilian soap opera Vale Tudo).

We covered the evolution of the paladares in the LADB news service. "These started with seating authorized for only 12, but recently the number has been increased to 50," Mike Leffert wrote in NotiCen, March 3, 2005. At the end of 2011, it was estimated that there were almost 1,500 of these restaurants, the majority in Havana. "On her only visit to Havana in 1999, Queen Sofía of Spain dined on her first night in the country at La Guarida, a bastion of self-employment and good food," Daniel Vázquez said in NotiCen, June 28, 2012

The future became even brighter for the private restaurants (and similar operations like bed and breakfasts) with new reforms enacted by President Raúl Castro's administration in 2014. "Thousands of Cuban entrepreneurs, who for the past two decades have maintained their own small restaurants despite government restrictions, can now look to the future with more optimism after President Castro's regime announced that greater opportunities would be offered in order to grow the culinary sector and that private hands would manage part of what, until now, has been state-run food services," Vázquez wrote in  NotiCen, Oct. 30, 2014.

With the early focus and still-prevalent attention on the tourist industry, travel sites like TripAdvisor, Cuba Restaurant Guide, and others began to offer visitors to Cuba reviews about the private eateries.  In 2012, the British newspaper The Guardian, published a list of the Top 10 paladares in Havana.

A huge downside 
A major downside to the growth in private restaurants is that all the high-quality food is going to the tourism industry. "Tourists are quite literally eating Cuba’s lunch. Thanks in part to the United States embargo, but also to poor planning by the island’s government, goods that Cubans have long relied on are going to well-heeled tourists and the hundreds of private restaurants that cater to them, leading to soaring prices and empty shelves," The New York Times said in an article published on Dec. 8, 2016.  This is a topic that we would like to address in a future post.

Cuba Paladar: The Voice of Local Reviewers
The  more than 20-year-old private restaurant sector has also become an option for some Cuban citizens in Havana and other parts of the island, especially as an easing of economic restrictions has promoted the growth of the middle class on the island. With this segment of the Cuban population now going to private restaurants, a group of enterprising young professionals developed a new site a couple of years ago called Cuba Paladar. "We are a small and dynamic group of young professionals who have developed this site specilizing in the culinary criticism of Cuban cuisine," said the organizers.  "Our team visits each establishment, evaluating the quality and the creativity of the food, the service, the environment and the relationship between quality and the prices that are charged."

Cuba Paladar separates the eateries into three categories: restaurants, cafeterias and bars. (As of Dec. 30, only the restaurants category was active). The site offers an easy search mechanism to the reviews posted by Cuba Paladar raters, as well as opportunities for others who have dined at each of the establishments to offer their own two cents on those eateries. "We have an interactive space where readers can participate with comments, criticisms, votes and recommendations, although the popular vote does not always match our specialized ratings," said site creators (led by Rodrigo Huaimachi and Jessica Rodríguez).

The team--which includes more than two dozen critics, advisors, directors--hopes to keep expanding the operation. "Cuba Paladar is a non-profit and autonomous project of art and culinary criticism," said the organizers. "We hope to become a national and international reference site on Cuban cuisine."

Rating the Restaurants where UNM Group Dined
Cuba Paladar offers reviews for three of the restaurants where visitors from a University of New Mexico tour group dined during a visit to Havana in December 2016.

The group traveled to the Cuban capital to experience and learn about Art Deco and other historical and cultural landmarks in Havana.  We also attended the main events of the Havana Plaza Jazz Festival, featuring Cuban jazz icons Chucho Valdés, Roberto Fonseca and Omara Portoundo, and international performers Terence Blanchard, Christian McBride and Fatoumata Diawara.

I start with brief impressions of six restaurants that we visited, followed by the Cuba Paladar review of three of those eateries, and Trip Advisor reviews. Please note that my personal assessment does not necessarily match those of my fellow travelers. Also, let me say up front that the food at the private restaurants was far superior to the offerings from two state-run eateries where we at lunch. One of those state-run restaurants La Torre, made up for its ordinary offerings with a spectacular view of Havana from up above.

Grilled fish goes well with rice and beans
La Paila Fonda
Our view: This restaurant was a welcome treat on our first night in Havana, after waiting several hours for our luggage to be downloaded from the Cubana aircraft that brought us to the Cuban capital. The scent of grilled food permeated the site, and the offerings were quite good. A few of us went back on another night to dine at the same place. One member of our group especially liked the grilled lobster tail. The moros y cristianos (rice and black beans cooked together) was outstanding.

Here is a review of La Paila Fonda from Marisel Morejón Barbán of Cuba Paladar in October 2015. "This restaurant in the heart of the Vedado neighborhood and only a block away from the main thoroughfare known as La Rampa, This is not where you expect to find a place that typifies a Cuban ranch. Highlighted by a colorful environment and the open-air layout, this restaurant has been operating for only a little more than a year. During this time, it has gained a loyal clientele, which favors the low prices and high quality provided by this eatery. Simple and harmonious, the decorations invite the customers to sit and enjoy food served in a country environment. The ample space allows clients to choose where they want to sit..Known for its delicious grilled meats and by the economical suggestions from the chef, one can choose between  several entrees ranging between 2.95 and 11.00 CUCs (1 Cuban Convertible Peso is equivalent to US$1.00).

TripAdvisor Reviews generally concur with Cuba Paladar. Here is one from a satisfied customer, who rated the restaurant in December 2016. "The place sits on top of a little hill and is nicely decorated. There is a charming romantic patio. My husband had ropa vieja which was excellent and I had fish which could be best described as filling. Not bad but not good either. The extras that came with it were very good though."
Lobster tail San Cristóbal
San Cristóbal
Our View: We were excited to dine at the same restaurant where President Barack Obama and his family ate during a visit to Cuba to formalize the restoration of relations between the two countries. The food and ambience was excellent, although our space was a little cramped. I had the lobster tail, which was tasty and well prepared. The restaurant does not appear to have a website, but does host a Facebook page.

Reviewer Frank Padrón of Cuba Paladar offers his two cents on  San Cristóbal. "This is a great setting,with a good indoor climate and international and Cuba gourmet food. This has become a destination for foreign and national visitors even with its high prices.  I knew the place not only because of its reputation but because of a meal I had there two years ago,along with members of a jury from Latin American Film Festival. All of us, including the foreign visitors,  were impressed by the good service and wide variety of choices--a true delicatessen. I must acknowledge that the restaurant has maintained a high quality since then: courteous service and a large menu. However, while accepting that many of the choices are expensive, there is still an imbalance. For example, even though most of the shrimp options are offered for 10 CUC (Cuban convertible pesos. 1 CUC equals US$1.00), why is the enchilado (cooked in tomato sauce) offered for $15 CUC? What is so special about the red sauce that would cost an additional 5 CUC?

TripAdvisor Review: This review shows that restaurant pricing is in the eye of the beholder and that Westerners have a different price-rating scale. "My friends and I went here not expecting too much, as you really do not visit Cuba for the food. We had one of the best dining experiences of the trip, and one of the best ever. The food was lovely, well priced for such a wonderful restaurant and the service was flawless. After dinner we were given 15 year."

Painting of President Obama
The 'Obama Room' at  San Cristóbal
When we asked about Barack Obama, we got nothing but positive feedback because of the president's efforts to remove some restrictions with Cuba. See coverage from Daniel Vázquez in NotiCen, Jan 29, 2015 and NotiCen, March 26, 2015

One of the owners of San Cristóbal personally served the president, First Lady Michelle Obama, daughters Malia and Sasha, and Michelle's mother Marian Robinson. President Obama declined an offer of wine with his meal. "I have to work tomorrow," he joked with the server.

In the room where the Obamas dined, there is a painting of President Obama, along with a picture of the owner with the president and the first lady. 

Rabbit at La Casa
La Casa
Our View. When we came here, we were not aware that this was one of the oldest paladares to operate in Havana. One of the owners told me that the place has been operating for more than 20 years. The name La Casa reflects the early nature of the private restaurants, which were housed in a person's converted home. Because of its extensive experience in the food-service industry, La Casa has developed its own website

 I had the rabbit, which was quite tasty and prepared superbly. This is the only place where we went that offered beer that was not produced in Cuba. Our option was the Dominican beer El Presidente. The service was good, and we were serenaded by two members of a group called Trio Madrigal.

Cuba Paladar: Here is the review of La Casa by Yanko Marrero in September 2015.  "Dozens of diners, primarily foreigners, enjoyed fresh lobster recently caught from our waters.,,, \We noticed, somewhat disappointed, that there were not many healthy options available on the menu...Once the needs of the clients were met, the host engaged in conversation with diners to learn their opinion about the food.  Amid the myriad of rave reviews, it was inevitable that the news about the reestablishment of relations between the US and Cuban governments made it into the conversation. The host announced in perfect English that his family planned to open new and larger sites in the immediate future. With a sigh of hope, one did not have to wait for the hugs."

TripAdvisor This visitor, which wrote the comments in December 2016, offered a review that was typical of the reviews posted on the travel site. "Excellent visit to this homestyle restaurant. Classic Cuban food and drinks, and great atmosphere with live music. We were there with an academic tour group, so we got the full treatment. I had the Conejo (Rabbit), while others around us had the Chicken, the fish, and the lamb. All reported that they were great. Excellent rice and black bean sides, as well as desserts rounded out the meal. I would definitely go back!"
A true "free range" chicken El Cañonazo
Hostal y Paladar El Cañonazo
Our View: The food was good, but the ambiance really made this place. This site, which also offers lodging via its hostel, creates even more of a country atmosphere than La Paila Fonda. (The chickens running around the place and the dirt  floors in some areas add to the atmosphere). The restaurant does not appear to have its own website, but it does host a Facebook page.

Cuba Paladar: "Our critics will soon visit El Cañonazo and let us know what they think."

TripAdvisor Here is what one reviewer said in May 2016. "Having spent 10 days on the resort, we were more than ready to go for a meal somewhere else. We were not disappointed! Beautiful courtyard with chickens roaming free. Fantastic servers and a fab band. Amazing sharing platter with shrimp, lobster, pork and chicken. A little expensive for lunch time at 40 pesos (CUCs) but lovely for a special meal.

Octopus appetizer at King Bar
King Bar
Our View: We ate lunch at this location, which was memorable in many positive and negative  ways. We ate in a patio, just a few feet from a graphic sculpture, a piece that could be considered artistic in many art circles and pornographic in others. Check out the restaurant/bar's own website.This was probably the least favorite of the private restaurants among some members of our group. The choice of was primarily seafood (the octopus appetizer is shown at the left) and shrimp and fish. I thought the shrimp was OK, but not outstanding. Others thought otherwise. Reviews were also mixed for the fish. 

Cuba Paladar: "Our critics will soon visit King Bar and let us know what they think."

Trip Advisor (Two Reviews). From the standpoint of many visitors to this site, this is a great bar and nightclub.  Perhaps that  is why the location is not as great as a dining option.

"Great place to enjoy food, drinks and dance the night away. A must if you are in Havana. Highly recommended. Great value for money. An open plan seating terrace and indoors disco bar. Great atmosphera," said an English-speaking reviewer in February 2015.

Contrast that review with this one, which was written in Spanish in December 2016.  "This is a restaurant bar with a name and logo that are in bad taste  (and the name of the place alludes to a Cuban vulgarity) with many pretensions and a lack of class."

Ropa Vieja at La Casona de 17
La Casona de 17
Our View: This was the site of our final dinner in Cuba. The restaurant is located in a restored classic building, so the atmosphere was very good. I had the ropa vieja. Even though I avoid red meat whenever I can, I could not leave Cuba without trying this traditional shredded beef dish. I was not disappointed. I can't remember what everyone else had, but I heard no complaints about the food. (The top floor of this restaurant served as the location for two of our meetings, one with architect and urban planner Miguel Coyula and the other with members of Proyecto Espiral).

The restaurant does not appear to have a website or Facebook presence, but some sites like Cuba Restaurants offer a good promo for this paladar.

Cuba Paladar: "Our critics will soon visit La Casona de 17 and let us know what they think."

TripAdvisor Here is one nice review from March 2016."Beautiful Caribbean home with nice landscaping in an open environment. They have the best Chicken and Rice in Havana, there is a 45 minute wait as the food is cooked to order. They also have a nice "flan" dish that is very well done and have live music.... very nice location near much of typical Cuban culture. We came back..."

Friday, December 2, 2016

The Role of Food Banks in Addressing Hunger in Latin America

Photo: Plataforma de Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional
By Sabrina Hernández
In recent years, Latin America has become a leader in the fight against hunger and has worked to formulate plans that aim to achieve lofty goals such as the eradication of hunger in the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) region by 2025. We covered this  (NotiSur, May 30, 2014).

In a NotiSur article in February 2016, Johanna Marris wraps up her otherwise entirely optimistic synopsis of the progress made to reduce hunger rates in  half in Latin America with a pragmatic tone. She cautions, however, that all of the aforementioned progress in the region as well as future progress is largely dependent upon continued dedication from political leadership and the changing economic conditions.

Some organizations like the Plataforma de Seguridad Alimentaria y Nutricional (SAN) contend that Latin America produces enough food to feed the entire population of the region. "More than half of the agricultural imports in Latin America come from outside the region, illustrating the potential for trade in food and agriculture within the region," said (SAN). \

The question of global policies on agriculture are also very relevant for Latin America.  With the US and the world waiting for the dust to settle from a contentious presidential campaign--and an unforeseen victory by a candidate known to exploit fear and completely lacking in any prior political experience--one has to wonder what the future holds in regards to the glorious strides Latin America has made to tackle hunger in the region.

Setting aside concerns about the future of agricultural trade policies and the potential for a protectionist and punitive administration, countries in Latin America are doing what they can to try to feed people within their borders. In the Nov. issue of SourcMex, we published an article about the emergence of food banks in urban communities throughout Mexico. In this week’s blog post, I’d like to examine the role of  food banks  in several Latin American countries.

It might be especially useful to know what Nicaragua is doing to combat hunger within its borders. While the country is one of poorest in Central America, it is also one of the least violent.  The main food distribution efforts are led by Caritas Nicaragua, which operates under an Church-based ideology of servitude to the most vulnerable with society, specifically, children, seniors, sick, and families in extreme poverty. The food bank collects goods from private companies, businesses, and individuals. Donations are later organized and distributed to vulnerable people through community kitchens, hospitals, home visits, school, and rehabilitation centers. With a background in coffee importing, what is salient to me is that Caritas has locations established in the prominent coffee producing regions of the country – undoubtedly a much needed safety net when market volatility inevitably renders small, rural producers incapable of garnering a profit.

This is another coffee producing country that also finds its agrarian population subject to the fluctuations of a market over which it has no control, Banco de Alimentos de Guatemala is a private-sector civil association that works to obtain and distribute food donations to hungry communities in Guatemala.  The majority the donations the food banks receives comes from large corporations. Whether these corporations are acting out of genuine good will or seeking to rectify decades of egregious bad karma, Banco de Alimentos puts their donations to use by serving 56 organizations that represent 11 departments within the country. Through the delivery of groceries and other basic necessities to families, Banco de Alimentos serves 23,000 people monthly.

Dominican Republic 
With an estimated 15% of Dominicans suffering from some degree of hunger, Banco de Alimentos de la Republica Dominicana, founded in 1967, is a non-profit that is dedicated to alleviating hunger by making use of what, in other circumstances, might be considered food waste. El Banco collects and distributes large quantities of food in good condition that cannot be commercially sold for one reason or another. Their goals are two fold; to reduce waste and to reduce hunger.

The Argentine branch of Banco de Alimentos operates throughout the country and primarily works in collaboration with community kitchens. Through the connections with these 750 community kitchens, Banco de Alimentos estimates that some 100,000 people are served every year. The food bank also processed an estimated 4 million kilograms of food in 2015. Banco de Alimentos Argentina is able to serve such a large population because it is run by close to 7,000 volunteers.

Banco Alimentos Chile is a nongovernmental organization that was founded in 2003. The goal of the food bank is to collect surplus food production and distribute it to organizations that work with poor and hungry populations at a local level. The food bank engages in a variety of food fundraisers including a race that brought in 1,300 kilos (2,866 lbs) of food that was distributed to different organizations that  benefit from Banco Alimentos Chile.

The stories are similar in other countries in Latin America.  Here are links to national or municipal food banks in the region.

Brazil Banco de Alimentos Brasil
Colombia Banco de Alimentos de Bogota
Costa RicaBanco de Alimentos de Costa Rica
Ecuador Banco de Alimentos de Quito
El Salvador Banco de Alimentos de El Salvador
HondurasBanco de Alimentos de Honduras
PanamaBanco de Alimentos de Panama
ParaguayBanco de Alimentos de Paraguay
Peru Banco de Alimentos de Peru
Uruguay Banco de Alimentos de Uruguay

Friday, November 18, 2016

Latin American Cities at the Forefront of Fight Against Climate Change

 By Sabrina Hernández
The Nov. 2 issue of SourceMex reported on the upcoming Mayors’ Global Climate Conference organized by the C40 Cities Climate Leadership Group on Nov. 30–Dec. 2 in Mexico City. This initiative supports other actions taken by some of Latin America’s biggest cities to curtail the effects of global climate change. Six large Latin American cities are involved in the Climate Adaptation Santiago (CAS) project. The CAS aims to gather information on the impact of climate change experienced in the six cities that participated in  workshops set up through the project. Below is information drawn from the CAS project on the climate changes experienced and the unique paths these cities will take to ameliorate the adverse manifestations of climate change within their borders.
In Bogotá, the most notable effect of climate change thus far has been the change in precipitation levels within the city and throughout the country as a whole. With a background in coffee, I can assert that in this, a country renowned for its production of specialty coffee, the change in water patterns dramatically impacts the viability of its historically prolific coffee production. With 90% of climate change impact related to hydroclimatological phenomena, the creation of a National Climate Change Adaptation Plan (PNACC) was initiated in 2012 in Bogotá. The goal of this initiative is to reduce the vulnerability of the population to the effects of climate change through promoting awareness and incorporation of climate risk management into future developments.

 Buenos Aires
The Argentine capital has experienced an increase in extreme precipitation, but a more prominent trend is the dramatic fluctuation of temperatures in recent decades, and records show an average temperature increase of 0.20 C per decade. At a national level, Argentina created the Federal Environment Council (Consejo Federal de Medio Ambiente, COFEMA) in 2010. The general objective is to identify, promote, and implement climate change adaptation measures. At a more local level, Buenos Aires implemented the Buenos Aires Plan of Action 2030 which is primarily concerned with mitigation of climate change given that larger government tendency to focus on large-scale infrastructure projects. These mitigation measures include things such as switching to low-energy light bulbs, small-scale tree planting, proposing greater energy efficiency in buildings, and prioritizing pedestrian, bicycle, and public transport oriented initiatives.

A city noted for its desert climate, experiences very little rainfall and is prone to water shortage. Given the limited water reserves available to Lima, the observed trend of fewer cold days in conjunction with the a rising maximum temperature is alarming as it has translated to declining rainfall. Because Lima is prone to threats such as flooding and droughts, the primary focus of Limeño initiatives is adaptation to reduce vulnerability. In Peru, the Ministry of Environment (MINAM) is responsible for the creation of policies and plans that will address climate change and adaptation strategies. While Lima faces a great deal of obstacles -- limited financing, limited information on climate hazards, lack of inter-governmental collaboration -- the National Climate Change Strategy (Estrategia Nacional de Cambio Climático, ENCC) “aims to provide guidance and information on climate change for national, sectoral and regional development plans and projects.”

 Mexico City
The Mexican capital alternates between droughts and flooding and an increase and climate change has exacerbated the extremes experienced in the city. The changes make changes to city infrastructure increasingly more necessary as impacts have caused “the drying of the lake system, the loss of rivers and springs, and more intense and destructive rainfall.” In 2008, Mexico City created the Climate Action program (Proyecto de Adaptación al Cambio Climático, PACC) which established concrete goals and deadlines to be met for annual progress reports. Mexico City, a city notorious for its dangerously high levels of pollution, not only succeeded in meeting the stringent carbon reduction goal set forth by the PACC, but surpassed the goal by 10.2%, said the C40 website.

An increase in average temperatures and decrease in rainfall are the primary effects of climate change in Santiago. This decrease in rainfall, which allows for pollution to escape, has resulted in alarming levels of air pollution that even caused authorities to declare an environmental emergency. One initiative launched in 1998, the city’s Atmospheric Decontamination and Prevention Plan, aims to remove thousands of old buses and vehicles from the road in order to curb pollution. This plan also pushed to pave roads that sent dirt flying into the air as well as restricted open burning and implemented tighter control of industry emissions.

São Paulo 
Records show that São Paulo has experienced an increase in+ extreme precipitation. “The frequency of days with precipitation exceeding 300mm/day has increased by almost 40% in the decade of 2000-2009, compared to the decade of 1930-1940,” said a summary of a workshop related to this trend.  A related concern is the location of many homes in in areas  susceptible to landslides and floods. In 2009,  the São Paulo city council approved law 14.933 which aims to reduce city greenhouse gas emissions. Here is a comprehensive overview of the law. In 2015, Brazil, under former president Dilma Rousseff, announced a joint effort with the United States to address climate change and move toward the use of more renewable energy.

Friday, November 4, 2016

Yerba Mate: Argentina's Conversation Beverage

  “Mate is exactly the opposite of television. It makes you talk if you’re with someone and think when you’re alone. When someone comes to your house, the first thing you say is ‘hi’ followed by ‘should we drink a few mates?’
Photo: Wikimedia Commons
 By Sabrina Hernández

Yerba Mate, an infusion beverage touted as having the strength of coffee, the health benefits of tea, and the euphoria of chocolate, is a drink ubiquitous in Argentina and as of late, embroiled in controversy because of the labor law violations in the almost slave-like conditions workers are subjected to in its harvest and production. An article in the Oct. 7 edition of NotiSur drew new attention to labor law violations in Argentina and to the persistence of child labor in almost slave-like conditions, especially in rural areas.

The labor violations resonate with Argentine citizens in a way that other similar situations have not. This is perhaps because these violations are centered around yerba mate. It is important to understand that yerba mate is an inextricable part of Argentine culture.

Yerba mate and the gourds they are served in are as quintessentially Argentinian as soccer, gauchos, flamenco, and Pope Francis. Mate consumption is Argentina’s favorite pastime and is a social tradition that foments togetherness through the custom where a a group of people enjoy the same mate cup and filtered straw. The deeply entrenched aversion to “cooties” and thus, straw sharing, would inhibit this practice here in the United States.

Photo:  Sabrina Hernández
Yerba mate at a Mexican hostel
My own travel experiences have confirmed that Argentines are never being too far from their mate. Just this last April, I checked into a hostel in Puebla, Mexico, and upon arriving I was shown to my room where a woman was seated on the couch in the common area. She had in front of her a mate cup and straw. Without knowing anything about her, I made a very low risk gamble and began conversation by asking if she was from Argentina. “How did you know?” she responded, her genuine curiosity apparent. I told her that it was by her mate, of course, to which she smiled and asked if I wanted to share her mate.

Another example of the importance of yerba mate is the 2011 critically acclaimed Argentine drama film "Las Acacias" directed by Pablo Giorgelli.The film follows a lonely Argentine truck driver named Rubén,who has been taking the motorway from Asunción, Paraguay, to Buenos Aires, Argentina for years, carrying wood. Even though the movie focuses on the relationship between the trucker and a passenger, yerba mate becomes a powerful symbol. Throughout the film, the viewer sees Rubén sipping the mate, which he is able to prepare quickly with the water he keeps in a large thermos. In a film that accentuates the loneliness of Ruben’s daily life, his mate is personified as the only reprieve from his solitude.

 In a 2005 Radio Mitre interview, Lalo Mir captured the cultural significance of mate. “Mate is exactly the opposite of television. It makes you talk if you’re with someone and think when you’re alone. When someone comes to your house, the first thing you say is ‘hi’ followed by ‘should we drink a few mates?’ Keyboards in Argentina are full of little pieces of yerba mate. Mate is the only thing that every house has all the time. Always. Amidst inflation, when there´s hunger, under a military regime, with democracy, during whichever of our eternal curses we are suffering. If one day you run out of yerba mate, a neighbor will give you some. Nobody is ever denied mate.”

The campaign against child labor
It is this prominence and importance of mate that caused these labor violations to strike a chord among Argentines. An NGO, Un Sueño Para Misiones, is working to raise visibility and pressure the Argentine government to take action against the labor violations that are occurring in the harvesting of Argentina’s culturally ubiquitous yerba mate in Misiones. Here is a 30-minute documentary about the work of the NGO to combat child labor in the yerba mate fields.  The documentary is  entitled “Me Gusta el Mate Sin Trabajo Infantil. (I like it Without Child Labor)."

Friday, October 14, 2016

The World's Best Cross-Border Investigative Team

"Globalization and development have placed extraordinary pressures on human societies, posing unprecedented threats from polluting industries, transnational crime networks, rogue states, and the actions of powerful figures in business and government. The news media, hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources, are even less of a match for those who would harm the public interest. Broadcast networks and major newspapers have closed foreign bureaus, cut travel budgets, and disbanded investigative teams. We are losing our eyes and ears around the world precisely when we need them most. Our aim is to bring journalists from different countries together in teams - eliminating rivalry and promoting collaboration. Together, we aim to be the world’s best cross-border investigative team. 
By Sabrina Hernández
The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists is a global network of more than 190 investigative journalists in more than 65 countries who collaborate on in-depth investigative stories. More than three dozen of those journalists work in Latin American countries, shedding light on matters of public interest that political and business leaders would rather not come to light. 

Founded in 1997 by the respected US journalist Chuck Lewis, ICIJ was launched as a project of the Center for Public Integrity , focusing on issues that do not stop at national frontiers: cross-border crime, corruption, and the accountability of power.  Supported by the center its computer-assisted reporting specialists, public records experts, fact-checkers and lawyers, ICIJ reporters and editors provide real-time resources and state-of-the-art tools and techniques to journalists around the world.”

ICIJ Image for Bahamas Secrets Coverage
The LADB News Service covered two recent investigations by the ICIJ involving the release of previously hidden documents suggesting that powerful individuals might have used tax havens in Panama and the Bahamas to avoid paying taxes to their own governments. We covered the Panama Papers case in SourceMex and NotiSur in April and May, and the Bahamas Leak case in SourceMex in September.  In both cases, the documents were released via the German newspaper Suddeutsche Zeitung,

The ICIJ functions as a collective set of eyes around the world in a time when media, “hobbled by short attention spans and lack of resources,” is inadequately positioned to take on those cross-national industries, networks, and powerful figures who harm public well-being. Since our coverage is focused on Latin America, we take this opportunity to recognize the journalists from the region who are participating in the ICIJ as part of the "cross-border investigative team."

Hugo Alconada Mon, Argentina, editor of newspaper La Nación
Daniel Santoro, Argentina, political editor at Argentina’s largest newspaper, Clarín
Ernesto Tenembaum, Argentina, managing editor of political magazine VEINTIUNO
Horacio Verbitsky, Argentina, political columnist/editorial writer at Página 12
Rosental Calmon Alves, Brazil, journalism professor at University of Texas at Austin
Angelina Nunes, Brazil, assistant editor at O Globo newspaper
Fernando Rodrigues, Brazil, news portal UOL
Marcelo Soares, Brazil, digital reporter at Folha de S.Paulo
Claudio Tognolli, Brazil, investigative reporter for Yahoo! Brazil
Monica Gonzalez, Chile, founder and executive director of Chile’s Centro de Investigacion Periodistica (CIPER)
Francisca Skoknic, Chile, editor CIPER 
Maria Cristina Caballero, Colombia, journalist known for her coverage of organized crime, corruption, and paramilitary forces
Map: Wikimedia Commons
Ignacio Gomez, Colombia, subdirector of Noticias Uno
Carlos Eduardo Huertas, Colombia, investigations editor at Semana magazine and founder of Consejo de Radaccion
Ginna Morelo, Colombia, investigative journalist, editor for El Tiempo’s Data Unit, and a professor of journalism and general coordinator for the Consejo de Redacción
Gerardo Reyes, United States/Colombia, investigations editor for Univisión
Maria Teresa Ronderos, Colombia, founder and editor-in-chief of
Ernesto Rivera, Costa Rica, staff writer for investigative unit at La Nación
Giannina Segnini, Costa Rica and United States, Director of the Master of Science Data Concentration Program at the Journalism School at Columbia University
Arturo Torres Ramirez, Ecuador, research editor at El Comercio
Carlos Dada, El Salvador, founder and director of the news website El Faro
Julio Godoy, France/Guatemala, lives in Paris and does daily reporting mostly for German radio stations after being forced to flee Guatemala because of government pressure to silence his investigative reporting
Paola Hurtado, Guatemala, chief of the investigative reporting team at ElPeriodico
Pedro Enrique Armendares, Mexico, executive director of Centro de Periodistas de Investigación
Alfredo Corchado, Mexico, is the Mexico Bureau Chief for The Dallas Morning News
Carlos Marín, Mexico, editorial director of Milenio
Alfredo Quijano Hernández, Mexico, was the chief of the special investigations unit and news editor of the newspaper El Norte de Ciudad Juarez until his unexpected death in December, 2013
Leonarda Reyes, Mexico, Executive Director of the Center for journalism and Public Ethics
Marcela Turati Muñoz, Mexico, reporter for the magazine Proceso
Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab Wilhelm, Mexico, freelance journalist
Carlos Fernando Chamorro, Nicaragua, founder and editor of Confidencial
Mabel Rehnfeldt, Paraguay, investigative reporter and editor of ABC Digital-ABC Color
Gustavo Gorriti, Peru, leads the investigative center at the IDL-Reporteros
Angel Paez, Peru, founder of Peru’s first investigative reporting team and has been working as director at La Repúbllica
Milagros Salazar, Peru, reporter with IDL-Reporteros
Emilia Diaz-Struck, Venezuela, lead researcher for ICIJ’s cross-border investigations
Joseph Poliszuk, Venezuela, editor of the site
Carlos Subero, Venezuela, currently chief of the Editorial Committee of Telecaribe-Notiminuto