Me Too: Gender Violence in Havana

I’ve been physically assaulted twice. Both times I was walking home alone at night. And both times I was compromising my safety. In the first instance, circa 1993 in Monterey, California, I was drunk. In the second instance, I had earbuds in, music blasting, as I walked down Calle 23 in Havana. While in theory every person has the right to drink, listen to music and walk home alone, life experience – especially mine, growing up in violent, drug-riddled New York – teaches girls something wholly different. All women reading this have certainly suffered objectification, harassment, assault or been grossly propositioned in their lifetimes.

Between the first and second instance, I did two things which completely transformed my life: I quit drinking entirely and I took self-defense classes for women. When the nearly 6-foot tall man came upon me from behind as I walked down Vedado’s main thoroughfare – one of Havana’s busiest neighborhoods – I knew exactly what to do. And I did it, sending that guy running like a cheap pair of stockings.

I’m telling you all of this because several friends and acquaintances here have been assaulted lately. My friend Veronica, a beautiful, buxom young woman who reaches 5-feet tall in heels (which she never wears), was walking to a friend’s house one afternoon when a man on a bicycle tried to rip away her purse. She fought back and he sped off. Simply a botched robbery? Perhaps. An opportunistic crime gone awry? Maybe. But then the same thing happened a couple of weeks later as she walked home from work. It was barely dark and she was just a block from her house. When she told me about the first incident and then the second, it reminded me of her bus story. Some years ago, when Veronica was 20, she and her friend Luna were riding the 69 bus on their way to an art show. The bus, in typical Cuban style, was packed to the gills and kept cramming people in. If you’ve ever suffered a ride on a Cuban bus, you know there isn’t room to slip a shim the bodies are squeezed in so tight. Normally (and normal) people accommodate the crush by angling away sensitive, erotic parts or by strategically holding a bag or knapsack over said parts. But there are others who treat a bus or subway ride as a golden opportunity for some free frisson. As the two friends gossiped and laughed, a nasty old dude started pressing his nasty old cock against Veronica. Luna launched into a story about her ex, oblivious. “Chica. We’re getting out at the next stop,” Veronica said, metal glinting off her voice. “But we’re not there yet!” Luna responded. “We are getting off!” Veronica said staring hard at Luna. Right before making their move, Veronica turned on a dime and nailed the guy in the balls, hard, with a well-placed knee. This petite young woman is not the easy target she appears – to thieves or molesters.

But not every woman and girl has the same wherewithal as Veronica. A US college student studying here for the semester quickly mastered the fixed-route taxis known as ‘almendrones.’ Hold out your hand, ascertain if they’re cruising the route you want and climb aboard these old Detroit hulks with half a dozen Cubans; 35 cents later, you’ve arrived at (or close to) your destination. It’s customary to sit two up front with the driver – when those seats are available. This college student, I’ll call her Laura, rode shotgun until another passenger stopped the car and opened the front door. Laura scooted over towards the driver, as you do. After a couple of blocks, the driver pushed his hand up her skirt and parked it on her inner thigh. Terrified, appalled, she froze and issued no response, instead just willing the ride and indecency to end as soon as possible. Laura didn’t know what to do or what she could do or maybe she feared a reaction would put her in further danger.

This isn’t uncommon, especially in cross-cultural situations where the code of conduct and norms, consequences and sensibilities are confusing or unknown. In another episode – for want of a better word – a group of young people (again, from the United States) were at a guateque replete with music, dancing, a roasted pig, and free-flowing rum. As the night grew darker and boozier, one of the locals who was too-well lubricated at this point, started dragging one young foreign women after another on to the dance floor. He was literally grabbing at them, laying hands on them, virtually obligating the party guests to dance with him. Uncomfortable to a one, they didn’t know how to deal with the guy and were afraid of doing something inappropriate. While I know exactly what I would do if someone manhandled me or stuck his hand up my skirt, the cultural context and local sensitivities are factors worth considering: my Cuban friends were unanimous in their opinion that most Cubanas – but not all – would tell the driver to stick his hand where the sun don’t shine and tell the drunk to get lost (or worse) as soon as he laid hands on her.

No matter where you’re from, sometimes we don’t have the resources or reserves to confront these situations as we’d like. Case in point are two Cubanas I know. Both are in their early 20s and both were recently raped – one in Centro Habana, the other in Vedado. The woman in Vedado went home, tried to scrub the violence away, a stream of tears mixing with the shower’s spray and called a friend. He ran to her house to provide succor and a momentary sense of safety. The other woman, I’ll call her Lucía, was attacked just a few blocks from her house as she walked home from work. Lucía, a beautiful, stylish brunette, has an Adele-type body – tall, strong, and solid. Still, her attacker overpowered her and had his way. Although quite near her house, she went straight to the police and reported the attack. They applied the standard rape kit, took her statement and a description of her attacker. They quickly caught the repeat offender who was on parole and sent him back up the river.

Maria Elena, Esther, Iris, me and probably you – we’ve all known gender violence of one type or another. My question is: what are we going to do about it? What can we do about it? Raising awareness is key of course. Showing solidarity for other women is also necessary – now more than ever, that’s clear. What does that mean? For one, don’t judge or criticize other women’s reactions (or non-actions) in the face of this violence. Not everyone has the will or tools or strength to fight back. Many women are taught – indeed, society consistently reinforces the ‘women as polite and submissive’ paradigm – and so we swallow and withstand all kinds of repressive bullshit so as not to be labeled a ball-buster. How extremist! Over time and across history, women have been reduced to one of two polar opposites: pussy or bitch, Madonna or whore, if you will. Any women CEOs reading this (and bringing down smaller salaries than their male counterparts) surely know what I’m talking about.

To break this paradigm and increase our personal security, we need to support each other. If you’re out with friends and see a woman being harassed or made uncomfortable by unwanted attention, extend a hand, invite her to your table, pull her into your dance circle, safeguard her drink while she goes to the bathroom. The same holds for when you’re in the street at night. If you come across a woman walking alone, offer to accompany her. There is safety in numbers.

One thing every woman and girl can do to marshal and augment their inner strength and confidently protect themselves is to take a self-defense class. These classes changed my life and I have seen it change others’ as well. I’m determined to begin offering a course at Cuba Libro so more women can tap into their power. The problem is, I haven’t yet found a qualified instructor who can impart the necessary techniques, concepts and strategies, while at the same time creating a safe space for women to share their stories, tears, fears, and traumas – an important element in the empowerment dynamic. If you know anyone who fits the bill (maybe yourself?!), please get in touch. Fluent Spanish is a must.

In the meantime, anyone anxious to jump start their safety skills should immediately get a copy of Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. Or rather, get three: one for you, one for a friend and one for Cuba Libro. It will make a difference.

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Cuba Travel from US – Legal and with RESPECT

For the past two days, I’ve been participating in the US-Cuba congress RESPECT (Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel) in Havana. This is the largest US-based organization (150 members from travel service providers and airlines to lawyers and non-profits) dedicated to promoting responsible travel to the island. The 17 founding principles incorporate standard responsible/ethical travel suggestions based on Cuban priorities for sustainable development in tourism. While I’m not in agreement with all the policies being pursued here as regards tourism (golf courses, really?!), RESPECT co-founder Bob Guild explained at Day Two of the congress that RESPECT is not a policing organization, but aims to get all the players on the same page and encourage others to put into practice as many of the principles as possible.

There must have been over two centuries of US travel to Cuba experience in that conference room when the news broke about the Trump administration’s decision to cease issuing visas for Cubans, effective immediately and until further notice, which is going to incense Cuban families everywhere and cripple academic-scientific exchange between the two countries. The Donald’s knees must be sore from so much gratuitous blowing of Marco Rubio. At the same time, the State Department issued a travel warning for US citizens and residents to Cuba based on health issues that some diplomats are having of undetermined origin, and that the press and Rex Tillerson have called “acoustic attacks.” The FBI found there was absolutely NO BASIS for this accusation after an extensive investigation with full cooperation on the ground from Cuban authorities. Over 500,000 US people have traveled to Cuba in the past couple of years and there is not one reported case of this auditory illness among visitors. End result? US travel to Cuba is still fully legal under the categories established by President Obama (these cannot be changed again with an executive order) and Cuba is not hazardous to your health. Here is the official press release from RESPECT:

For Immediate Release
Contact: Bob Guild, 1-201-755-0217
respect@respectassociation.org
US Travel Association Opposes Trump Administration’s Cuba Travel Warning and Pullout of Embassy Staff
September 30, 2017, Havana, Cuba – Meeting here, RESPECT, the largest association of US organizers of travel to Cuba unanimously rejected the Trump Administration’s Cuba travel warning and its decision to withdraw diplomatic staff from its Havana embassy.
The reaction came in response to Washington’s announcement that it is withdrawing 60 percent of non-emergency staff from the US Embassy in Havana and is warning US citizens to avoid travel to Cuba. The justification for both is unexplained health problems that 21 Havana-based US diplomats have reported.
In addition, unidentified US officials said the US Consulate in Havana would suspend issuing US visas to Cubans, indefinitely. The US Embassy will continue to provide emergency services to US citizens in Cuba.
“Based on the evidence thus far and the fact that the State Department says no other US citizens have been affected, we believe that its decision is unwarranted, and are continuing to organize travel to Cuba and encourage others to do so,” said Bob Guild, RESPECT Co-Coordinator and Vice President of Marazul Charters. He also stressed that US citizens and residents can legally travel to Cuba under US law, and that the State Department advisory in no way prohibits US persons from traveling to the island.
RESPECT is joined by US commercial airlines and others in the travel industry who have publically expressed their intention to continue Cuba travel. Gail Reed, RESPECT Co-Coordinator and MEDICC Founder, noted
“Cuba remains a very safe destination for US travelers.”
The US Foreign Service Association, the powerful union that represents US diplomats around the world, also opposes any decision to withdraw US diplomats from Cuba. Association President Barbara Stephenson says “We have to remain on the field and in the game.”
The US complaint about the health issues originated almost a year ago during the Obama Administration when the two governments were working toward rapprochement. As acknowledged by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Cuban government responded immediately and initiated an investigation, inviting the US government to cooperate.
At the invitation of Cuban authorities, the FBI went to Havana seeking evidence of what the US described as “sonic attacks” resulting in hearing loss and other symptoms. However, its agents found no devices or other evidence to explain the mystery.
None of the 500,000 US visitors to Cuba this year have reported similar health issues. Tillerson said this week, “We have no reports that private US citizens have been affected…”.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, speaking at the UN this month, reiterated that Cuba takes very seriously the protection of all diplomats in its country and would never cause them harm or allow others to do so, in accordance with the 1961 Vienna Convention. He also urged the US authorities to work more closely and effectively with the ongoing Cuban investigation, a point he raised again during his meeting with Tillerson this week.
Replying to the US move to reduce its diplomatic personnel in Havana, Josefina Vidal, Director General for US Affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, called the decision precipitous and said it will affect bilateral relations and cooperation in areas of mutual interest. She noted that Cuba had urged the US not to politicize the matter and insisted that Cuba needed the active cooperation of US authorities to arrive at a definitive conclusion.
“We fear that such hasty action by the Trump Administration, independent of scientific evidence, may be motivated by politics rather than concerns for health and wellbeing,” said Walter Turner, RESPECT Co-Coordinator and President of Global Exchange. “Thus, once again we encourage all US visitors to continue to travel to Cuba.”
—————————————————————————————————————————————————————-
RESPECT (Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel) is a 150-member US professional association of non-profit entities, travel agencies, tour operators and other travel service providers dedicated to practicing and promoting ethical and socially responsible travel to Cuba. Founded in December 2016 on the anniversary of the opening announced by the US and Cuban presidents, RESPECT held a two-day meeting at the Meliá Cohíba Hotel in Havana this week, where its members hammered out a 2017 Action Plan to implement its 17 principles. These include ways US travel organizations and travelers can contribute to protecting Cuba’s environment as it adapts to climate change, commit to non-exploitative relations with all Cubans and respect the country’s cultural heritage and expressions. The Association also defends the right of all US citizens and residents to travel to Cuba, and advocates lifting all US government travel restrictions to the island.

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A Quick Note on Irma

Havana September 14, 2017

Time for thanks giving.

Among the many (well documented) reasons Cuba does hurricane preparation and post-recovery/survival so well is the ability of the populace to pull together, help each other and and sweat it out as one. It’s one of the intangibles of resiliency which if we bottled, would make this a better planet and us a more evolved race. To all the supporters of Cuba Libro who generously donated batteries, candles, flashlights, headlamps, and crank radios over the years: you directly supported resiliency in our community. These items were distributed to families in preparation for and in the wake of Irma. So thanks for that.

To the folks who helped batten down the hatches and clean up afterwards, including the entire Cuba Libro Team who, I say it to them and I’ll say it to you: is in a league of their own. What great, giving people. Regulars and neighbors pitched in too, while Salgado – I can’t remember the 52 things this Renaissance guy did to help us get ready and bounce back. So thanks for that ya’ll. Then there’s Toby who went on walkabout just shy of 8pm the night before Irma hit as we were hauling everything in. He chooses his escape window carefully, that wily pooch. So no thanks due there, but he’s awfully cute and keeps our spirits up (except when he’s on unauthorized walkabout).

To my neighbors in Playa who shared food, rum, water, conversation, information, companionship, volunteer time, and solace, a heartfelt thanks is also due. My block didn’t pool food supplies – a couple of plátanos from Isabel, a chunk of pork from Gaby, some puré from Ramón – to make a caldosa like those where Mary and Yen live, but just short of it. We passed hours and hours talking to our neighbors, sweating out the long hot days and nights when Irma moved out and we were left in entire blackout. Havana, Holguin, the nation. Our lights just came back on after more than four days (CROWD ROARS). As I type this, a text comes in from my friend M who still has no lights. I picture her house and sigh: she definitely won’t have lights any time soon; M lives steps from Colón Cemetery. As soon as the lights came back on at Cuba Libro, we let M and other friends know so they could at least charge their devices and drink some ice cold water. We became a meeting point for support and catharsis.

The flooding, the destruction and the deaths: it’s intense and real. I saw old-growth trees, trunks bigger than tractors, ripped with the chunk of sidewalk where they grew, straight from their roots. Some blocks had so many of these grand stands down you couldn’t even see the street. Most ripped out electricity posts or hung suspended on thick cables. Although these trees – in Playa and Vedado – choked off entire streets, I can’t remember one that hit a house straight on. Crushed an iron fence, sure, glanced off a corner of a roof before crashing to the ground, definitely. But crushing a house outright? I didn’t see that. I’m sure Havana had its share of damaged houses and that is awful. I also saw traffic lights and concrete utility poles snapped in half, heard a dog get electrocuted, watched as blond, laughing tourists cruised damaged neighborhoods in classic convertibles, and listened as my friend D, described her sofa, refrigerator, furniture, books and savings floating in her living room as the sea crashed through her front door. Anyone living on the ground floor within three blocks of the Malecón has a similar story; flooding from the sea also contaminated all the cisterns in these buildings.

As I write this, half the Cuba Libro team still doesn’t have electricity – along with most of the country. This presents so many practical problems it’s hard to transmit the difficulties if you haven’t lived through something like this; the way the planet and Mother Nature are protesting lately (hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis), many readers, friends and family sadly, know all too well what I’m talking about. Instead of presenting the laundry list of problems a developing, blockaded, island nation faces in a post-disaster situation such as we find ourselves, I’ll limit to just one aspect which in my estimation and experience is overlooked and under-reported: sleep deprivation. When it’s a hundred degrees, with 90% humidity and not a leaf blows in the non-existent breeze, you haven’t had a drink of cold anything in days, nor a shower during that time, sleep is more elusive than a straight priest (if this last offends you, sorry: PC this blog ain’t). In these days, we’ve dragged mattresses into living rooms and on to balconies, hefted them up to roofs – NY, black tar beach style – and tried to catch a few winks in rocking chairs. It rarely works and we wake in pools of sweat, no shower possible. Babies are fanned with squares of cardboard or collapsible hand fans all night long. It makes people tense and cranky, a bit awkward and torpid, slow to answer or react. And lovemaking? Por díos, no.

But we’re muddling through with characteristic cheer and chistes, with the occasional attack of hysteria. When that happens, friends and neighbors intercede, commiserate and return us to a laughing state. But this is no laughing matter: the island is reeling from Irma and needs help. If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, come. If you’re coming to Cuba, bring donations – targeted, well-needed donations. I can’t tell you how many tubes of expired Neosporin and four-year old bottles of ibuprofen we’ve received. And please: keep your half-used trial size Pantene. I’d be happy to provide ideas of what, and importantly, where to donate while on the island. If you’re reading this anywhere in the world and would like to support recovery efforts of the health system, MEDICC and Global Links, with over 30 years combined experience in supporting Cuban health, have partnered with PAHO. If you know of other worthy, transparent and experienced organizations with a track record in Cuba, please comment or get in touch.

I’ve gotta go freeze more water for my friends still without electricity.

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Inside a Cuban Prison

Maybe you read my recent post Inside a Cuban Posada, where I sneak a peek (cockroaches and combs included) into the island’s love hotel business. This post follows in that same vein – providing readers a first-hand, behind the scenes look into things wild and weirdly Cuban – though this one doesn’t contain photos for reasons too obvious to state.

To be clear: I’ve never been arrested, in any country (knock on wood). Rather, pulling back this veil on Cuban jail is possible due to some very unfortunate events that unfolded like this:

My friend – let’s call him ‘Miguelito’ – was hanging out on the Malecón one torpid Thursday night. A fight broke out nearby having nothing to do with, nor involving, Miguelito and his piquete, who were just sharing a bottle of rum on Havana’s seawall. But when the cops arrived to break it up, they detained everyone in the vicinity and patted them down. Miguelito froze like a deer in the proverbial headlights and remained paralyzed while six or so of his friends were searched, each one anxiously, surreptitiously tossing anything incriminating over the wall and into the bay. But not Miguelito. The police found a blister of Ritalin in one pocket and $7CUC in the other. Ritalin, known as ‘titi’ among the Cuban pill popping crowd, is produced domestically and taken by prescription, but also recreationally. Maybe it’s a popular rave/party drug were you live too. I wouldn’t know. I left the States even before the Special K craze and the strongest pills I take are ibuprofen. Anyway: major problem for Miguelito.

He was taken to the police station in Havana Vieja for booking. Word hit the street the next day. His girlfriend – let’s call her ‘Esther’ – and those in his inner circle tried to keep his imprisonment on the Q.T., but Miguelito is a super social guy, with lots of friends of different ages, from different neighborhoods. And besides, this type of information – Miguelito’s in jail! – fuels Cubans’ vice for gossip and drama. Miguelito is a close friend of mine and I bristle at random people hitting me up for the skinny. They don’t care how Miguelito and Esther are doing, they just want a piece of hot gossip. One of Migue’s supposed friends – one of those who was there went it all went down – had the chutzpah to say to me: ‘he’s an idiot. He should have ditched the pills. He had the chance.’ Passing 20-20 hindsight judgement on your buddy who is now sweating his balls off in an overcrowded jail while you’re drinking a Bucanero at noon and sweet-talking a foreigner? Classy, dude. Similar conversations and scenarios unfolded in the ensuing weeks while we collected money to contract a lawyer and tried to keep Esther from falling over a psychological or emotional cliff. Working full-time, navigating the penal and judicial systems, separated suddenly from her partner of four years – she lost weight, grew pale, took up smoking and got increasingly pissed at Miguelito’s so-called friends. ‘Not one of them! Not a single one has called me to ask how he’s doing. Let alone me. The shitheads!’

Esther is one feisty muchacha.

She kept us informed: ‘he was transferred to the Combinado del Este.’ This was bad news. About a 30-minute drive from Habana Vieja, it’s a bitch to get there and is known as the roughest prison around. ‘They cut off all his hair.’ This was expected news, but it was a shock, still. Miguelito had beautiful tresses down to his ass. I used to let out a small squeal every time he came into the café with his hair loose. In this heat, it wasn’t that often that we got to see Miguelito’s mane. Esther fought to keep his hair. ‘It’s totally against regulations,’ they told her. She fought on. They said ‘No’. She kept fighting and they finally relented, bunching it into a ball and shoving it into a plastic bag. When Esther got home, it stank, having been stuffed, damp, into a bag. She untangled it the best she could and saved some for when he’s released. Who knows why, but I would have done the same. The rest she sold – to someone who wanted long hair for their ‘Santería Barbie.’ This is not a Real Barbie, but a doll used in Afro-Cuban religions. They gave her $10CUC. ‘I could have gotten $40 for extensions from my hairdresser if it hadn’t been so tangled and smelly,’ she told me. We learned that Miguelito wouldn’t give up the name of the person who sold him the pills – the guy’s no rat. We also learned that he hadn’t been sentenced yet, but the worst case scenario was eight years. Miguelito won’t last eight days in prison, I thought, my heart dropping. He’s a smart, articulate guy, a nerd who’s prone to wax eloquent about the new Samsung phone and The Big Bang Theory.

About this time, he started showing up in my dreams. Nothing untoward mind you, he just began making cameos with all his hair, in all its glory.

Last week, Esther, another close friend and I had the chance to visit Miguelito. He’s allowed three visitors maximum, every 15 days; names of visitors have to be submitted at least a week before his authorized visiting day. We contracted a rickety Dodge to take us out there for $10CUC (that Barbie money came in handy). We would have to make our own way back. Exiting the tunnel under a summer sherbet sunrise, we followed signs to the beaches – Playas del Este and Varadero. But we weren’t going to the beach. The long, tree-lined drive to the entrance was more like a lead in to a botanical garden or country club than Havana’s notorious hoosegow. But we weren’t going to a garden; we weren’t going to the club. The framboyans were afire with orange blooms and the grass neatly clipped (not surprising giving the surfeit of manual labor on hand). We helped Esther drag out everything she’d brought for Miguelito: his lunch; a small duffel stuffed with razors, soap, a towel, washcloths, and other personal items; a five gallon jug of purified water; and a giant white sack in which Cuba imports rice (from Brazil or Vietnam). Every visitor had a sack like this, cinched with a piece of rope, and crammed with toilet paper, powdered fruit drink, crackers, cookies, bags of puffed wheat, hot dogs, and lots and lots of cigarettes – a valuable coin in the incarcerated realm. Each pack had to be stripped of its plastic casing, the silver foil removed. Menthol Hollywoods are the most coveted, but there were also Populares, H Upmanns, and Criollos, the uncut black tobacco cigarettes which taste sweet, like cancer candy. People in the breezy waiting room unwrapped cigarette packs furiously as we waited for Miguelito’s name to be called.

The grim looking guy on a raised platform at the front of the room was barking into his microphone. We didn’t understand half of what he was saying, but once in a while he’d shout sternly: ‘sit down! Wait for the name to be called!!’ He wore olive green and owned his authority. ‘MIGUEL ÁLVAREZ!’ We rushed to the platform. He checked our ID cards against Miguelito’s approved visitor list. When he saw my ID, he paused. I held my breath. Everyone said that foreigners can visit prisoners, but like much in Cuba, I wouldn’t believe it until I actually saw it, until it actually happened. ‘When you get to the next checkpoint, tell the officer that Peña Blanca said you can enter. He’s probably never seen one of these ID cards before.’ I exhaled. First hurdle cleared. We waited to pass to the next checkpoint and I looked around at all the women and children – they outnumbered adult male visitors four to one – coming to see their husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, and sons – it dawned on me that this was the first time in 15 years that not one Cuban here cared that I was Yuma. There must have been 150 people waiting for their person’s name to be called and I received not one double take, nary a sidelong glance or raised eyebrow silently saying ‘yuma?! What is she doing here?’ It was a revelation – I’m so used to being a sore thumb, an odd combination of welcomed and singled out, accepted, but different. In short, I’m accustomed to being constantly reminded of my otherness, my non-Cuban-ness. But not here. People couldn’t care less – they had more pressing issues. If only the reality outside these four walls could be as natural and laidback. Oh, the irony.

We passed in groups of 15 to the next checkpoint where all the duffels and sacks, satchels and purses passed through an X-ray machine. We walked through the metal detector to the next checkpoint where each bag, bundle and Tupperware was individually searched. The white rice sacks were opened and their contents inspected. Esther had brought olives, whole wheat crackers, chocolate, cookies and a ton of other stuff which looked more like a Parque Almendares picnic than a prison visit. Once receiving the green light, the sacks were sealed with a bright blue zip tie and stacked behind the inspection counter. The visitor receives a numbered claim tag (a ‘chapita’ in Cuban Spanish) corresponding to their loved one’s sack which they give to the prisoner during the visit, the convict claiming their sack once the truck transports them to the cell blocks.

It was now going on 11am – we’d arrived just shy of eight. Those with experience brought full lunches to share during the visit. There were pork steaks and sweet potato, congris and avocadoes. I watched as guards dug to the bottom of tubs of rice and beans, stabbing into the depths with a fork, looking for hidden contraband. The avocadoes were cut in half. Afterwards I learn that avocados, bananas, and guava can be injected with a syringe, with what I don’t know. Can you smoke a banana? Snort an avocado? Someone brought a sheet cake, decorated with electric blue icing. Cuban cake can leave a lot to be desired, but this one would be appreciated, horded, traded piece by treacly piece, I was sure. We passed through one last checkpoint where we handed over our ID cards, got a chapita to claim our cards upon leaving and headed to what’s called the ‘sterile area’ to wait for the long walk to the visitors block. The view through the breeze blocks was spectacular, a panacea – rolling green hills and towering palms, flowering trees hosting songbirds who darted in and out of the waiting room. Finally the door was unlocked and we walked about a half kilometer, outside, to pass through two giant steel gates to the visitor room.

The guard barked Miguelito’s name. I didn’t recognize him when he emerged. Shaved close to the skull and without his signature goatee, he looked edgier, angrier, and without his easy smile. He had a dimple on his chin I’d never seen all the years I’d known him. The room had a couple of dozen concrete tables arranged in two rows, with enough bench space for four people. Men had to sit on one side, women on another. It was prohibited to mix genders, so Miguelito and Esther had to reach across the table to hold hands. Everyone was chain smoking – including Esther. She updated him on progress made by the lawyer – none. She updated him on permission for conjugal visits – she was still waiting for the paperwork on her obligatory HIV test. We shared plastic cups of orange soda and crackers smeared with mayonnaise Esther had packed. We couldn’t stretch our legs; the concrete extended from tabletop to floor, to prohibit any footsie or passing of items below. We gave Miguelito the books and magazines we’d brought. ‘Conner, this is hell. Every move, every conversation is cause for ribbing and abuse. I told Esther not to bring the pink Tupperware,’ he said motioning to the container with his dessert. ‘I’m going to take a lot of shit for it.’ He was tormented, worried about Esther (‘please don’t smoke, amor. It’s bad for you’), worried about his sentencing, worried about his sanity. He had to fit in enough to not get the beat down, but was terrified of acculturating. ‘I can feel myself changing,’ he told us. ‘Using slang I’ve never used before and swearing like a sailor’ (or a criminal, I thought). He was having problems in his cell block, which housed 50 bunks. His bottom bunk mate wet his bed every night. The other prisoners taunted the guy, and sometimes hit him. Miguelito defended him once – he’s that kind of guy. Then the abusers turned on Miguelito. He put in for a bunk transfer that had yet to come through. He described the bathroom scene – 16 urinals, 16 sinks and a couple of stalls. There was no room to maneuver between them without making physical contact. He applied for a job in the accounting department but was afraid to get it – jail isn’t a good place to be the Smart Guy.

All the prisoners wore grey vests, white t-shirts and grey pants. They were surprisingly fashionable like cargo pants without the pockets, but the vests were fitted, showing off the muscles of some, the sinewy wrinkled arms of the old timers. Miguelito had fast figured out the hierarchy – he’d been inside a little over a month at this point – and had some budding alliances with the over 60 crowd. They had prison cred for time served and were decent at holding up their end of a conversation. Esther and Miguelito talked about his case; me and my other friend fell silent. We wanted to be upbeat. We tried. We successfully stemmed tears. I didn’t mention the collection we took up to defray legal costs – some lawyers, including Miguelito’s, are now private sector workers for hire. I encouraged him to put pen to paper; he had a bookful of experiences now. He told us how he traded two cartons of cigarettes and a bag of crackers for a pair of boots; a pair of socks set him back 13 packs of Hollywood menthol. If socks cost just 13 packs, the boot guy must have been jonesing something fierce.

The guard blew his whistle and started shouting. Visiting hour was over. We hugged hard and promised to come back soon.

Miguelito still shows up in my dreams and the lawyer still hasn’t done shit, but Esther and Miguelito have a conjugal visit in the ‘Pabellón’ next week. We’re sending condoms. And all our good thoughts. Miguelito still hasn’t been sentenced, but we hope he’ll be out soon.

UPDATE #1: I saw Esther last night. She looks skinnier, more stressed, and a bit run down. And she is a beautiful young woman. The update is not good news: the lawyer whom we’d raised funds to contract and which Esther is working her ass off to pay, split the country, taking the money. He had done NOTHING regarding Miguelito’s case: he just strung her along, told her he had done A, B, and C and kept taking money. He had several cases which he was handling and did the same to the rest of his clients. Please, let karma rain down hard on this DB.

UPDATE #2: Miguelito called me after Hurricane Irma. They are all ok, but the prison was five days without WATER. A nightmare, but they lived through it. Miguelito and Esther now have a new lawyer who is actually doing his job, but Miguelito is depressed: he celebrates his birthday next week, behind bars, still.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track

Trump: The Laughingstock of Cuba

Let’s get this out of the way – US travelers can still come to Cuba. Nothing has changed, despite what that fool-tool of a President (and his minions) want you to believe.

New regulations for travel to Cuba have yet to be written (they’ll be released on September 15) and won’t be actionable until sometime thereafter. Until then, they’re the same Draconian, out-dated travel restrictions as usual. Draconian because even though President Obama relaxed rules for travel to Cuba (a step in the right direction, without a doubt), it’s still the only country where people from the USA are prohibited from traveling freely. For those keeping count, we’re going on 60 years of attempts by Washington to control Cuba and if that’s not the definition of failure (not to mention stupid and a violation of rights), you need a dictionary, a foreign policy course or both. Never mind that all public opinion polls show that a majority in the USA want full, free, and open travel with Cuba. Another detail: Cuba doesn’t prohibit US people from visiting. On the contrary. They love folks from the US here. The restrictions are all on that end.

But here’s the kicker: though nothing has changed, people are already cancelling trips to Cuba. They write me on this blog, my website, Cuba Libro’s website, and Facebook. Tour group operators, independent guides, semester abroad coordinators: they’ve contacted me virtually or in person to lament the cancellations in the wake of Trump’s laughable, but shameful, speech in Miami. So while it’s still status quo as regards traveling here, and will be for the foreseeable future, Trump did do damage – he wound the clock back to the Cold War, reinstating the culture of fear (and dare I say: terror), that then reigned. And fear is a mighty motivator. It makes pussies of the powerful, cows the courageous and intimidates the intrepid. I know. I survived eight long years of George W Bush here, when friends and family were too scared to come. Or too confused – because this is the other card in the stacked deck wielded by anti-Cuban politicians: it takes even specialist lawyers, those with decades of experience interpreting the twists and turns of the embargo, considerable mental gymnastics, and many expensive, billable hours to tease out precisely what’s legal and not, as well as the gaping grey area between. Clearly, some people profit off the politics around Cuba. During his Miami dog-and-pony show, Trump also successfully pissed off Cubans everywhere – including in the swamp state known as Florida.

On the flip side, some US travelers are heading here now, convinced the hammer is about to come down. Literally as I write this, there’s a New Yorker here talking to a Cuban, saying she came to Cuba “before the law changes.” Forget the fact that this isn’t a law. I hear the same thing day in and day out and am truly amazed that so many people are willing to come here in July and August, the absolute worst times to come to this hotter than Hades destination.

Here in Havana, we listened to his speech live, on Cuba Libro’s beloved Sirius radio (though it was also broadcast on Cuban state TV). The dining room was crowded with Cubans who had never heard him before. Nor had I. One of the brilliant things about living in Cuba is the facility the context provides for existing within a bubble, where asshole politicians, Caitlyn Jenner’s ridiculous pronouncements, and the 24-hour fake news cycle is someone else’s problem. Folks are always surprised when they learn I had never heard him before Miami. But if you didn’t have to listen to his bullshit and blather – if you weren’t addicted to Facebook or Twitter or involuntarily subjected to a screen in a bar or airport, would you waste your precious moments on this dying planet listening to that buffoon? Or listening to pundits or talking heads or social media chatter about him? I was quite shocked listening to him ramble on. I was shocked at how infantile he is, how lacking in elegance, not to mention eloquence he is, and how insultingly transparent he is, manipulating facts and history of course, but also his own supporters. They’re as stupid (or opportunistic) as him. It’s hard not to feel just a smidge of schadenfreude for all the racist, misogynist, isolationist white trash who voted him into office and who are getting a wakeup call to just how destructive he is to their interests. Unfortunately, many innocents are also caught in the net of hate, inequity, and cruelty cast wide by the Trump administration.

Cubans are being caught in this net. But Cubans are cockroaches (old news for regular readers). They’ll survive us all. They withstood the Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs. With stomachs empty and vision failing due to lack of nutritious food, they withstood the demise of the USSR. They withstood and reigned triumphant during the Elián crisis. Hurricanes, drought, Zika and dengue, the embargo, two Bushes – they’ve survived it all. And they’ll survive Trump, too. In the meantime, they’re going to hate on him big time (and are losing money because of him, which fuels the cycle of hate and belies his claim that his policies are designed to ‘help the Cuban people.’) As soon as he began rimming the Miami radicals with his smarmy tone, regular Cubans in the street, bars, cafes, and along the Malecón, were making fun of him.

They were laughing at how behind the times and the curve he is, invoking events that happened over half a century ago. ‘Is this guy for real?!’ one Cuban asked aloud during the speech. ‘Dude! Come join us in the 21st century,’ said another. They were laughing at how low class he is. They were laughing at what an inept orator he is. And they were laughing at the shitty musician chosen to play the national anthem. They stopped laughing when they realized the “out of tune” violinist wasn’t going to follow up the US national anthem with the Cuban one. ‘He’s clueless!’ declared a young local. I agreed: no matter where a Cuban resides, they are first and foremost, cubano and loyal to one hymn: theirs. And no one was laughing when they learned from Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez (and my runner-up choice for next Cuban president; my first is Josefina Vidal) that the violinist at Trump’s speech was the son of a killer: his father assassinated Frank País, a young Baptist caught by Batista’s troops in the early days of the revolution and shot dead.

For Cubans, Trump epitomizes bad taste and is devoid of grace. He’s like a bucket of ice water dropped on them after their first-hand experience with Obama. He (and Michelle) charmed the underpants off the place, their visit making history. Trump isn’t making history; he’s making an ass of himself and tarnishing whatever gleam and sparkle remained of the United States. Mulling it over, I think it’s Trump’s shameless douchebag-ery that ruffles Cubans most.

Going with the flow is something Cubans do with aplomb. They also live for the moment – they don’t get hot and bothered about what might happen further down the road. They’re very Zen in this way. They especially don’t get their panties in a twist with political declarations made up north; they’re way over buying into that kind of drama. Once they found out the 5-year multiple entry visas to the USA already granted wouldn’t be revoked, they went back to laughing at Trump, creating hilarious caricatures and tagging walls with graffiti – one, a larger-than-life portrait with the word ‘estúpido’ stenciled beside it, was quickly painted over by authorities. They should have left it if you ask me. And it’s too bad the artists (from a collective known as La Banda) didn’t go with their original design which read ‘singa’o’. Conclusion on this side of the Straits: Trump es un tremendo singa’o! And he’s making a laughing stock of the United States. Quo vadis?!

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Inside a Cuban Posada

Brothels, bordellos, madams and the prostitution profession in general have long intrigued me. Even prior to writing about Heidi Fleiss (the Hollywood Madam), one of my first paid gigs as a scribe, I was a proponent of legalizing and regulating prostitution. For my money this is the best way to protect the health and safety of the providers and to bring the world’s oldest profession out of the shadows. It can never be eradicated – hooking, transactional sex, play for pay, whatever you call it – and if it can’t be wiped out, wouldn’t it be better for all involved if the violence and drug addiction, unsafe and underage sex, human trafficking and other related dangers could be addressed in a systematic way, applying legal and public health frameworks? I know some countries have taken certain steps towards this with mixed results – legal houses in Amsterdam; Sweden penalizes johns instead of prostitutes – and there are no easy answers. I certainly don’t have any, though I’ve thought about this quite a bit.

Prostitution in Cuba doesn’t interest me all that much. Or rather, sex tourism doesn’t interest me, but Cubans paying for sex does: it flows so freely here, it seems like money poorly (or desperately) spent. Some of this carnal action happens in what are known as ‘posadas,’ where rooms are rented by the hour. These fill a very specific need here since homes are overcrowded, while privacy is a luxury reserved for the very privileged. So it’s not all putas and johns that rent rooms by the hour, but also couples who just need a place to screw. Posadas are easy to identify. You know those little blue symbols on Cuban homes which signify that they rent to foreigners? There’s another, identical sign, but in red, which means the house rents rooms to Cubans only, in pesos cubanos. I’ve always wanted to rent a posada room for an hour or two, just to see what it’s all about until a friend said: ‘are you nuts?! All those rooms have holes for peeping or filming.’ That turned me right off to this new Cuban experience I sought.

Fast forward to last week and where do I find myself? In a posada in Santa Clara. My friend José and I went to the city of Che/city gay to celebrate International Day Against Homo/Transphobia, but we had no accommodation lined up. Our budget was tight, we were tired, and José offered to hunt down a house. He found something affordable, a bit outside the city center, but we had transport. The only catch was we had to be out by 10:30 the next morning – “seems like they’ve got a ‘palo programado’ (a scheduled screw).” I was too exhausted to ask. When we entered the room – no window, no toilet paper, no hot water, one pillow, one towel and an Igloo cooler on the floor filled with ice – I collapsed on the double bed, but sleep was elusive. The stench of cheap air freshener permeated everything – the sheets, my hair, our clothes, even the stale air stank. We slept with the door open to provide a shred of relief from the olfactory assault. Luckily the room faced a brick wall – to keep out prying eyes.

We awoke fairly rejuvenated in spite of it all and I was looking forward to getting a glimpse of the pair who had a standing date each Friday morning (escaping from work and/or spouses with a handy excuse I would have loved to hear but there are some things you just don’t ask). At 10:30am sharp, a cherry red Dodge with blacked out windows rolled into the interior patio and out stepped a bleached blonde temba (a woman of my age more or less) in platform heels and a puss on her face. A lover’s spat, perhaps? Her companion looked more upbeat (don’t they always?!), having already doffed his shirt in the mid-morning heat. We rode away and I was ready to get as far from the stench of chemical flowers as fast as possible. Too bad it still stuck to my skin.

Two days later, we got caught in a mountaintop rainstorm, quickly scrapping the idea of camping. Instead, we headed to the closest big town to look for a room. We rolled in to Cumanayagua at about 9pm, wet and tired after an all-day hike and were directed to a corner on the outskirts of this bustling rural berg. The sign said: Hostal, 24 hrs, AC, hot water TV and DVD. José walked through the big steel sliding door which I’m learning is typical of posadas (so cars can enter and the lovers can rent their room without being seen) to talk to the proprietress. Standing on the sidewalk, the smell of urine stinging my eyes, I heard her ask: “you want the room for the whole night?! It’s $4.” Suddenly I knew what we were dealing with, but I didn’t know what we were in for. We rented the ground-floor room and once again were assaulted by the cloying stench of cheap air freshener. Was there some lucrative business selling this shit by the gallon to posadas, I wondered?

The bed was flanked by golden gilded mirrors and even tackier curtains without a purpose; a TV on a retractable arm like they have in hospitals pointed towards said bed. There was a DVD player with a disc in it. I would have bet my life that it was some kind of B-grade porn; if I had, I would be dead. It was actually 172 minutes of C-grade music videos. While I surveyed our $4 surroundings, I overheard the señora say: “Who knows? Her ID card says it’s her, but I have no idea.” As if I would be in the middle of nowhere passing a fake ID at a flophouse that reeks of faux flowers and piss…

We hung our wet shirts and pants and socks on a clothesline we strung across the room and took a cold beer and cola from the fridge. That’s when I saw the first cockroach skitter along the wall – a Lower East Side-type sucker, the size of a Bic lighter. I decided it was time for a shower. My flip flops firmly on my feet, opting for our soap rather than the complimentary – used – cake on the sink, black hairs and all, I tried scrubbing the road grit and posada perfume from my body. I succeeded in ridding myself of the former, the latter not so much. When the soap slipped from my hand and skidded across the shower floor, it picked up a few black hairs in the process. Before getting into bed, I wondered who would actually use the comb provided for guests – obviously someone had.

Our hostess warned us that we had to be out by 8am (another early morning ‘palo programado’) and we were beat besides. We woke to the familiar smell of piss and air ‘freshener’ and packed quickly. Another cockroach sighting later and we were out of there. But as we did our final check around the room, the fan mixed with a breeze and flipped up a corner of the sheet, under which was a condom wrapper. At least they’re practicing safe sex, I thought. Ciao Cumanayagua, it’s been real.

I’ve now had my Cuban posada experience – twice in five days. Believe me, it was plenty.

_____

I need to add a little postscript to this post which has nothing to do with posadas but everything to do with how Cuba continues to puzzle. Besides, I need to exorcise the images swimming around in my head. In the five days we were tooling around the Escambray, I learned of a disturbing fact of local life. My friend José told me of a fellow he knows in the tiny town of Cordobonal who is clinically insane. And his family, rather than commit him, keeps him in a cage. I asked my friend not to share information like this with me; as a writer, I was visualizing his whole miserable existence (and that of his family). Later that night, sitting with José’s family in a similarly tiny town, I learned that his cousin’s wife has a nephew who went insane at the age of 14. For the past 17 years, this young man has been living in a cage as well. I think the worst part of it all is that my friend’s cousin was asked to build that cage – and he did. If I’m having trouble with the image of people living in cages, what about the person who builds them? I shudder to think. What makes it even more difficult for me to process is that Cuba has a national network of psychiatric hospitals – all free. Sure, conditions can be pretty scary, the food is scarce and terrible but is this worse than spending your life in a cage? I was talking to another friend about this yesterday and he told me about another one in the center of Vedado that he can see clearly from his balcony. And last night, I was watching Going Clear: Scientology and the Prison of Belief (a documentary that has gone viral here) and I was left positively speechless when I learned that L Ron Hubbard kidnapped his young daughter as revenge against his wife in the 1950s, took her to Cuba and left her with a mentally disabled Cuban woman – who kept the young Hubbard girl in a cage. WTF people?! This boggles my mind, but it’s got me thinking I should make my own documentary…

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba

Carnal Delights in Cuba

A friend celebrated his 40th birthday a few days ago and invited his closest amigos for a party – one of those blow outs with a guy posted at the door to keep out crashers, a DJ spinning cool sets, and the liquor flowing ‘a full’ as we say. The type of party Cubans call ‘tirando la casa por la ventana.’ When I asked another friend, formally invited, if he was going he said: “yeah, I’ll be there. But it’s bound to be a fiesta de chorizo.” It took me a moment to get what he meant – that the male to female ratio at the party was going to be grossly imbalanced, there would be 10 guys for every woman. It would be, in Cuban argot, ‘a sausage party.’

Later that same day, another friend was telling a tale about a recent liaison, saying it was a ‘palo de cebolla.’ For those around the table who didn’t understand, we explained that an ‘onion shag’ is when the girl has a killer body but a face only a mother could love: you lift her dress above her head, tie a knot, and get down to business, her ugly face hidden from sight. Sausage parties and onion lays got me to thinking about Cuban diversions, including sex, and how so many of the terms and phrases involve food. There’s a certain logic going on here since eating and screwing, food and partying share many of the same senses, are sensuous and fulfilling in equal measure (when done/cooked right).

As the wheels turned, I began recalling all sorts of expressions that mix the bedroom and the kitchen. For example, it’s hard to miss the double entendre in Los Van Van’s popular song ‘don’t bother knocking, the black guy is cooking.’ I started picking the brains of friends and away we went. The most obvious is the classic ‘papaya.’ When you’re in Havana and crave this juicy, coral-colored fruit, you best ask your produce purveyor for ‘fruta bomba’ – because here, papaya means pussy. I remember once a group of tourists invited me to eat at La Guarida, Havana’s most famous and in-demand restaurant and laughing out loud as we perused the dessert menu. The chef’s suggestion was ‘papaya pie’ and I explained to the table of yumas (yes, I used to sing for my supper, but no longer) that it was obvious they put it on the menu just to hear foreigners order ‘pussy pie.’

Terms and turns of phrase for the sex act (and fluids), are almost always referring to foodstuffs. Semen is called ‘leche’ (milk) or – as I’ve just learned, writing this post – sometimes as ‘lágrimas de chorizo’ (sausage tears). When you haven’t been laid in a while, you have ‘queso’ (cheese). It’s a veritable charcuterie around here, I tell ya. Talking to my next door neighbor the other day, I learned another relevant sex act phrase when he told me he was going to ‘jamar una heva’ (devour a chick). No matter that he’s married. A quickie, meanwhile, is known as a ‘palo de conejo,’ rabbit being a popular protein in these parts. There are also derogatory terms that I refuse to use including ‘tortillera’ (egg scrambler), loosely translated as ‘dyke.’

When I have questions like these, I go to the experts. In this case, I consulted Alfredo, a street-smart Casanova and all around good guy. Seems Alfredo is a breast man for all the terms he rattled off the top of his head for different kinds of tits (he also provided illustrations): bananas (with nipples pointing skyward); fried eggs (with large aureoles); and orange piths (saggy and sucked nearly dry). He also provided tons of food-related terms for penises: banana dicks curve up, cucumbers are a catch-all phrase for the male member, and my favorite ‘pene de Pelly.’ For those of you who have never gone searching for food here at midnight, been to a baseball game, or ventured to a Ditu, you probably don’t know Pelly, but it’s our Cheese Doodle. Garlic flavored. You can imagine the rest.

I’m sure there are many more; if you have a favorite, please do drop a line – I’m always anxious to broaden my vocabulary. Regular readers of Here is Havana know I’m a huge fan of Cuban slang and sayings (dichos). One of my recent acquisitions makes an apt close to this post: ‘come pan para no comer más pinga.’ This is a handy phrase for whenever a Cuban is being a douchebag – you only have to say ‘come pan;’ they’ll fill in the blank.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, cuban words without translation, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba