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.

Varadero
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, LaHabana.com 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."
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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 Guide.com 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..."