Leah Garchik

Features Columnist San Francisco Chronicle

28th August, 2018

In 1967, while the war in Vietnam was raging, Tom Miller, who was practicing law in New York, read a report by MarthaGellhorn about the effects of napalm on the Vietnamese, especially children. He left his New York law practice to become a founder of Children’s Medical Relief International, a nonprofit with the aim of establishing a hospital in Vietnam.

By 1969, after two years of operation in temporary headquarters, Miller and physician and Abraham Lincoln Brigade veteran Arthur Barsky had overseen the construction of the Center for Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, a modern medical facility that treated victims of bombing and napalm, as well as children born with birth defects as a result of the use of Agent Orange. It was that center that treated Kim Phuc, the girl pictured running from her burning village during the war.

In 1973, Miller was working with victims in Vietnam when he met Tran Tuong Nhu. They were married that year. (And she later became press secretary to Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown.) They’re planning to travel to Vietnam next spring to mark the 50th anniversary of the center, and are raising money through Green Cities Fund (greencitiesfund.org) to buy equipment and support for what’s become a national teaching hospital.

The facility recently expanded from two floors to 11, one of which will be dedicated in honor of Miller and Dr. Barsky.

PLANTING SEEDS “COCINA ABIERTA” PROJECT

View this on Campaign Archive

Cocina Abierta
HAVANA, CUBA

Urgent Message From Varun Mehra*I am writing to ask for your help to raise some money and skills for a very special project in Cuba, where I first traveled in early 2012 on an invitation from Tom & Nhu Miller of Green Cities Fund (greencitiesfund.org). In December 2012, we traveled to Havana organized a delegation of  40 U.S. chefs and friends for two weeks of programming to highlight the beautiful organic ingredients available within Havana city limits and from farms within a short driving distance. With Imogene Tondre and several other coordinators, we organized four major events: a dinner for 50 major Cuban paladar owners, a workshop for students and prominent Cuban food activists at a small culinary school in Havana, a Cuban state dinner for ministers and diplomats, and an impromptu street party where U.S. chefs cooked for neighborhood residents in Vedado, Havana.

Since December of 2012, Imogene has continued the work in Havana with Cuban chefs through various workshops, events, and culinary collaborations—including a recent visit from chef Narsai David of Berkeley, CA. We hope to soon find a permanent space in Havana, run by a collective of Cubans with collaboration from U.S. chefs–a diplomatic exchange of ideas centered around food. In addition to being open to the public, our team will workshop traditional recipes for Cuban citizens, implement outreach to Cuban schools and communities, and provide internships to young Cuban chefs.

In August 2014, through major assistance from Congresswoman Barbara Lee, we received an unprecedented license from OFAC (the Office of Foreign Assets Control) within the U.S. Treasury Department. We are able to spend up to U.S. $2 million toward the continuation of the project—one of the largest approvals ever given by OFAC since the embargo began.

We need to raise some money! For two things — to fund research into traditional Cuban recipes, culinary traditions and agricultural practices from around the island. And to establish a permanent space. In order to get this off the ground, we need to raise $50k in the next two months and about $400k total to secure a space in Havana.

HERE IS HOW YOU CAN HELP!

1. Donate to http://greencitiesfund.org/donations/. If you are thinking of making a tax deductible donation of larger than $100 or so, please consider mailing a check. If that would deter you, then just use PayPal. Checks should be payable to “Green Cities Fund” and designated “Cocina Albierta”.  They can be mailed to: Green Cities Fund,  725 Washington Street, #300, Oakland, CA 94607.

2. If you are interested in offering your specialized skills, let’s see if we can creatively make a plan to utilize them! We could certainly use donated time from website designers, video editors, chefs, restaurateurs, accountants and wizard generalists. If you would like to devote time to fundraising and formally become part of this cultural exchange, I am interested in setting up a development board for the project.

3. TRIPS TO CUBA! As a special offer, I will lead up to three (fully licensed) five-night customized trips to Havana for up to six people at a mutually agreeable date in the next two years (but no hard deadline!). Meet excellent friends in Havana, see farms, drink mojitos, and dance it out. Donation of $5k/person + flight/hotel expenses. Please e-mail me to inquire. (If you don’t want me to come, and would prefer to ask me upwards of 100 questions about your potential trip to Cuba, please consider making a donation of $1k/person.)

4. Finally, if you are interested in making a larger, more “investment”-like donation to the project, there is a lot more to know about real estate, new laws, and more; and it’s an extremely interesting opportunity for the right person. Please set up a time to talk to me!

________________________

Thank you so much, amigos! For more detailed information about the project, please click the following MailChimp link to download a PDF.

https://gallery.mailchimp.com/dfb360667987c56aa621304a9/files/Cocina_Abierta.pdf

Sincerely yours,
Varun*

Email: newvam84@gmail.com
Cell: 510.566.7604

*Personal assistant to Alice Waters 2008 to 2015.

Cooperatives in Cuba – Christian Science Monitor 7/2/14

The new realities of running a business in Cuba

Editors’ Picks

In an attempt to jumpstart Cuba’s economy and shed unprofitable state enterprises, the government is converting select businesses into cooperatives. It’s an adjustment for many Cuban workers.

ByJonathan Wolfe, ContributorJULY 2, 2014

Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor/File
View Caption

HAVANA, CUBA — The stakes were high when Café Nautico lost electricity during its grand reopening here last month. Losing power is commonplace in Cuba, but this occasion was different: It was the first time restaurant employees would be paid based on the day’s earnings. The chef scrambled to keep the kitchen running by candlelight while the wait staff assured the handful of customers that the lights would be back shortly.

Café Nautico used to be a state-run restaurant, which meant reliable – albeit low – wages for the staff of 12 whether or not anyone came to dine. But the Cuban government recently transferred management of the location to its employees, now called “associates,” to be run as a cooperative.

“We are making a lot of changes and we will try anything that can be useful,” says Jorge Cercera Montes, the president of the cooperative who got his start as a cook. He’s opening the restaurant for business earlier in the day, hosting parties and weddings, and renting out the back room for private events. “Our objective is to grow so that this place can provide more income for us as cooperative members.”

The Cuban government is strapped for cash as it works to keep its economic vision alive, more than five decades after the US implemented its economically isolating trade embargo. In an attempt to jumpstart the economy and shed unprofitable state enterprises, the government is now converting select businesses into cooperatives and allowing others to pop up in the Cuban market.

The move is part of a broader attempt by President Raúl Castro to update Cuba’s economic model, while maintaining its socialist principles. But the nearly 250 cooperatives operating here exist without constitutional protection, and will only be legally incorporated into the economy if the experiment is deemed a success. This leaves many Cuban entrepreneurs excited, yet skeptical of the viability of projects like Café Nautico in the volatile Cuban marketplace.

“The Cuban government is afraid of losing subsidies from Venezuela and they are … turning to cooperatives to help fill the gap the state can’t provide,” says Christopher Sabatini, the senior director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.

“Decentralizing the economy will allow the government to earn money from taxes [from cooperatives], inject productivity into the lumbering, inefficient government, and sop up some of the thousands of employees that were recently let go by the state,” Mr. Sabatini says.

‘A little imposing’

In contrast to businesses run by the government, cooperatives allow their members to take home a portion of the business’ earnings, and give their workers democratic control over operations and management, including electing their own president. The state is also giving them a leg up on their private competitors by offering them perks like a 20 percent discount on products bought from the state in the case of Café Nautico, and subsidizing their utility bills.

“The old system was a little imposing,” says Tania Lourdes Ortiz Fernández, an esthetician at the Bellall Health and Beauty Institute in the Vedado neighborhood. She says she’s “more happy with this system than the one we had before.”

For example, she makes more money – about $42 a month compared to $15 when her “boss” was the Cuban government. Ms. Ortiz says that although she lost clients when the beauty center became a cooperative (the associates voted to raise their prices), she now has access to better products and has more time to dedicate to services.

Although many cooperative members say they receive higher wages, there are complaints.

“The largest obstacle right now is the bureaucratic process of approving new cooperatives,” says Eric Leenson, president of Sol Economics, a company that promotes socially responsible development in Cuba.

Additionally, cooperative employees complain they don’t have access to wholesale markets, and that importing materials or products from outside the country is almost impossible.

Even convincing the Cuban workforce that they could benefit from working in a cooperative has been a challenge, says Adriana Cervantes, the president of the Bellall Health and Beauty Institute. She lost more than a quarter of her workers when the business converted to a cooperative eight months ago, and has had trouble convincing others to invest the one-time payment of 500 Cuban pesos ($22) required to join.

“Right now I need a manicurist … we have so much demand,” says Ms. Cervantes. “For months I have tried to hire more associates but people tell me that they don’t understand why they have to invest in order to become a member of the cooperative,” she says as dozens of clients pass her on their way to an aerobics class at the institute.

Mr. Leenson believes that, despite these initial problems, the cooperative project in Cuba is here to stay.

“This change in Cuba is broad enough and strong enough that there is no going back.”