I’m writing this on February 14th (see note 1), which down this way is known as Día de Amor y Amistad – Day of Love and Friendship. In Conner-speak, it’s the Day to Stay Indoors since Cubans embrace St Valentine with the frenetic enthusiasm of a nine year old screeching a speech on high revolutionary holy days. (If you haven’t been subjected, count yourself lucky – it can be pretty disturbing). Interminably long lines at restaurants, theaters, clubs and shoddy bars are the norm here every February 14th. My advice? Stay close to home.
This fury for the Day of Love is the perfect opportunity for me to tackle the sticky issue of how absurd this place can be. Love, absurd? Indeed, but even more so here, where it’s as scarce as an honest butcher. Lust? It’s everywhere, a veritable epidemic of Eros we’ve got going on. Lasciviousness and overworked libidos? Cubans take the concepts to new heights (or lows, depending on how you look at/do it). But love? Love is something else entirely and aside from parental love for a child and elderly couples with decades of dedication, it’s not much in evidence as far as I can tell.
And I’m not referring to what Cubans say – they talk a huge and charismatic love game – but rather what they do. Blackmail and brujería, lying (by omission or otherwise), cheating, unwillingness to compromise and difficulties/resistance to communicating are how many back up their grand claims of love, making the emphasis on Valentines look pretty absurd. And a lot of things other than love are looking this way lately – where folks walk the walk, but don’t talk the talk; where there’s a great and spreading maw between theory and reality; and where the policy contradicts the practice, resulting in paradoxes no one can wrap their heads around.
Some of Havana’s absurdities are simple (and simply ridiculous) like alarmingly long fingernails (which make picking up coins and masturbating problematic) and impractically high heels (which render women unable to walk). Personally, I find these killer nails and come-fuck-me-shoes (as Mom always calls them) absurd. Some other absurdities happening around here lately include:
$200,000 cars: The liberalization of car sales ‘no tiene nombre’ as we say in Cuba. Liberating car sales essentially means the authorities corrected one absurdity (i.e. buyers no longer need to navigate the onerous bureaucratic approval process to buy a car) by introducing another (i.e. cars would now be sold “freely” at prices set by the state). The logic goes that pricing cars high would bring in sorely-needed revenue to create a good, functional public transportation system. But who’s going to buy a car – and a French or Chinese one at that – for 900 times the sticker price? What sounded doable and looked good on paper (and whoever drafted, edited and approved that policy isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer), bombed fantastically in practice. The new car sales scheme kicked up a firestorm of critical foreign press and dealt a low blow to the Cuban people, many of whom had been saving for years to buy a (normally-priced) car. Now they couldn’t even dream of it. People railed publically, loudly against the measure, creating new jokes to channel their frustration (see note 2). For instance, a cartoon popped up of the classic Cuban animated character Cucarachita Martina pondering whether she should spend a $200,000 windfall on a new car or Manhattan penthouse. Thinking she could buy more than a closet with 200 grand in New York is almost as absurd as the policy she’s lampooning.
Televisión Cubana: I love TV in Cuba – there are only 4 channels (5 in Havana), which makes choosing what to watch much easier than where you live (see note 3). There are also no commercials, just public service announcements explaining the importance of sharing; why parents need to spend quality time with their kids; and how to keep bacteria at bay through proper food handling (not that it always works). To boot, something like 50% of all programming is pirated from the USA. This has its good parts (August: Osage County; Inside The Actor’s Studio) and bad (Malcolm in the Middle; Royal Pains) but means I can get my English fix any day of the week.
Not surprisingly, TV Cubana can also be poignantly absurd. Recently, the national sports channel TeleRebelde was showing figure skating, giant slalom and bobsledding every night. This isn’t absurd in and of itself, but rather a welcome change from the usual baseball/futbol fare we’re fed. What is absurd, however, are the Cuban commentators calling the action from a booth in Vedado. Needless to say, they don’t know fuck all about winter sports. Still, I was heartened that they were sharpening their skills in the lead up to Sochi. Except Televisión Cubana isn’t showing the winter Olympic games. Other TV absurdities include an hour-long midnight aerobics program and a detailed segment on Japanese stationary stores with long, lingering shots of well-stocked aisles of papers and pens, chalk, crayons, ink, paints and markers – mountains of them in all colors and weights and manner of applications. This may accurately be called torture, as well as absurd.
Pirates of the Caribbean: When I moved here in 2002 (to say nothing of my virgin voyage in 1993), DVD players were the stuff dreams were made of: only the most worldly and wealthy Cubans had one of these new-fangled gadgets. Indeed, most of us only had VCR players (many still do) and ‘videotecas’ – libraries stocked with movies and soap operas did a brisk business. Oh, how things have changed. Today, you can buy five blockbuster movies for a buck, including those still in theaters near you, like Gravity and 12 Years a Slave. Most of these are decent copies, dubbed directly from those provided to festival and awards juries. Sure, there are some, like the version of Last Vegas I watched yesterday, filmed in movie theaters – you can see a head every time someone goes for popcorn or a pee and hear the audience laughing at the funny bits, but these are the exception. Havana is peppered with mom-and-pop shops selling these 5-movie ‘combos.’ There are also more technologically advanced options, like the service whereby a young buck comes to your house and copies whatever you fancy on to your computer – anti-virus software and updates provided free of charge. The newest innovation is a service where for $2, the young buck installs a potpourri of 250 gigabytes on your machine, with the bundle of movies, shows, and computer programs changing each week. Need the latest version of iTunes or the season finale of Breaking Bad? These are your gente.
What’s so absurd about this is multi-factorial. First, Cuba is signatory to international anti-pirating conventions. Second, it hurts Cuban artists as much as Hollywood and the rest since copyright infringement knows no nationality and you can just as easily procure pirated versions of the hot new Cuban movie Conducta as The Hobbit. Last, many of the movies and shows come with that threatening FBI anti-piracy warning. Very ironic. But what chaps my ass most and takes the absurdity to new, personal heights is the availability of pirated versions of my Havana Good Time app. You can’t download it legally from iTunes in Cuba (the site is blocked by the US government embargo; when you try to access the site, you’re informed of such) but you can easily get a bootleg copy. I don’t know how much it costs or what version they’re offering, but if you come across it, drop me a line – I’d love to know just how absurd this place can get.
1. But it probably won’t go live for weeks due to my crappy internet connection – which is so crappy, it conspires to make a quitter of me.
2. One notable change over the past 3 years has been the dearth of new jokes around town. Cubans are incredible jokers and love a good pun and humor serves as necessary catharsis here. I’ve been worried about the lack of new jokes recently – people are too anxious, stressed or depressed to devise and enjoy new jokes, until things take a turn for the really absurd, like we’re seeing with the state’s car prices.
3. Lack of Netflix and any other streaming video limits choice even more.