COVID in Cuba: Havana Monkey Wrench

Let’s talk more about coronavirus!…No one said ever.

Personally, I’m fucking sick of it and I’m guessing you are too. In addition to the ad nauseam data, studies, news (and “news”), conspiracies theories, spin, and chatter around the mono-topic, as my friend Rose likes to call it, I’m a working health journalist.

As you might imagine (though I advise against it), 2020 for me has been all COVID almost all the time.

Perhaps you, like me, are holding a ticket to ride on the coronacoaster. On a good day, you’re able to clean a little, catch up with some family or friends, or just shower and make the bed. Win! On these kind of days, you’re able to crack a book, start watching an entertaining series, or cook something appetizing. Win! On good days, you might even have an appetite. Win! Maybe you slog through your errands and only see a handful of mask-less idiots. Win! You got out of bed today? Count that as a win, baby!

And then it’s back to the mono-topic, with a dose of Trump or systemic racism or Saharan dust storms and locust swarms thrown in to make sure you don’t get your hopes too high or even up.

Here in Havana, like wherever you are, we’re on the same horrible ride—but different. And while not fun by any stretch, we always felt that flicker of hope. Even on the worst days standing in line for five hours under a blazing tropical sun to buy ketchup or toilet paper if we were very, very lucky, we hoped. Even on those days when our rice and beans were running low and the eggs had run out long ago, hope simmered. Because Cuba had a plan. Cuba had experience with contagious disease. Cuba flattened its curve early and effectively. Cuba was keeping COVID at bay.

April. May. June. One by one, all the provinces succeeded in hitting the five epidemiological targets needed to pass from recovery Phase 1, to Phase 2 and at last to Phase 3. Except Havana, which lagged, entering Phase 1 on July 3. Still, the simmering coals of hope flickered, caught and burned brighter. Thousands of RT-PCR tests were being processed daily revealing only a handful of cases. Contacts were traced and isolated, in their homes or centers for this purpose. Treatments developed in Cuba meant we suffered few COVID-related fatalities, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. Win!

After being shuttered for nearly five months, Cuba Libro finally re-opened—a huge sigh of relief for the seven team members and their families who depend on this income, but also our community who more than ever, needed a good coffee or smoothie while swinging in a hammock. We were in Phase 1; we were on our way. Win! Win!

We started calculating: based on the experience around the country, Havana would be able to reach Phase 2 within a few weeks and then the coveted Phase 3, when commercial flights and tourism and cultural activities and all the rest—with the proper sanitary measures in place—could resume. Cuba had COVID under control.

If there’s one takeaway from this pandemic, it’s that control is an illusion, self-delusion. None of us are in control. And self-control? COVID has shown that too many of us ain’t got it. And Havana? It definitely ain’t got it.

I know. I know. Self-control has never been a Cuban strong suit. Asking Cubans to self-regulate is like expecting a frisky cat not to pounce on a twitchy mouse. Sure, most Cubans can exhibit extreme discipline when called upon. And they do….until they don’t.

Fumigating against mosquitoes carrying dengue happens furiously for a few days and then poof! You never see the fumigation brigades again. Taxis caught overcharging are fined for a couple of weeks, then it’s back to price gouging passengers. To hell with official fixed prices! Market scales are inspected and recalibrated with comprehensive press coverage and at revolutionary speed until some days pass and we return to the same old fixed scales and sticking it to hungry customers. When the new garbage pick up schedule is announced, citizens dutifully haul their dripping bags of coffee grounds, rotting fruit peels and egg shells to the corner dumpster between 6 and 10pm. By the next week? They’re chucking stinking bags into—or near—those same dumpsters whenever they damn please.

In common parlance, this compliance followed by slack and apathetic disregard is known as relajo. And Havana, after entering into Phase 1 and trucking towards Phase 2, slipped into a state of tremendo relajo.

For months, we masked up whenever outside the house. We hand washed and sanitized and disinfected, the bleach wreaking havoc on our clothes, hands, shoes. We didn’t go to the beach, we didn’t picnic in the park, most of us didn’t even glimpse the sea. We physically distanced as best we could among the (non) huddled masses yearning to get food or into the bank. Active screeners came to our doors every day to check our health status. Confirmed cases dropped—from the mid-30s, to 19, to single digits.

The flame of hope blazed.

Havana entered Phase 1 and while there were still restrictions, certain businesses were allowed to reopen, with new physical distancing and other health requirements. Limited transportation resumed, with reduced capacity. Some beaches were opened, with measures and hours designed to reduce crowds.

For our part, we had five blissful, laughter-filled days at Cuba Libro. We were back! We were better than ever! We didn’t raise prices and had even more delicious offerings on our menu! We were recouping a tiny fraction of the losses we incurred during the nearly five months we were shuttered! We were PSYCHED.

And then the coronacoaster derailed.

Mistakes were made. Limiting beach access, with 2.2 million hot, sweaty, pent-up Habaneros aching to cool off? In July? Who thought that would ever work?! Requiring bus drivers to say: ‘sorry, I know you’ve been waiting for over an hour to get on a bus home but we’re at 50% capacity so I can’t take anymore passengers?’ That would be cruel and unusual. No hot, sweaty, pent-up and underpaid driver can be expected to do this. Playgrounds re-opened. Coppelia re-opened. Bars and restaurants re-opened.

As might be expected, some Habaneros could not, would not, observe the Phase 1 restrictions.

The country reeled with news of the outbreaks. After weeks of single digit cases, Havana alone suddenly had 30, 44, then 76 confirmed cases—a concentration of numbers we hadn’t seen throughout the entire pandemic in any province. Contact tracing revealed three main sources of transmission: bars, buses and beaches.

Dozens of cases were traced to Bar Q Bolá in Playa. Apparently, a singer performed to a packed, drunken crowd one night (reader alert: this is second-hand information; I wouldn’t step foot in Q Bolá even in normal times) and the bar became a superspreader event. Did they not know that live music performances, being open until dawn, and large gatherings were verboten in Phase 1? They knew. Besides, anyone who has had a sloppy, nameless one night stand while wearing beer goggles knows alcohol and self-restraint/good judgment do not mix. Duh. (NB: although national health authorities and media have repeatedly cited Q Bolá as a superspreader event, owners deny it).

Even more cases were traced to a toque de santo, an Afro-Cuban religious ritual, held in Bauta (Artemisa province, adjacent to Havana). If you have no knowledge of these types of events, lets just say the liquor is flowing, physical distancing is not possible, and the celebratory atmosphere attracts a lot of people. People attending the toque also frequented a nearby bar and then went to the beach at Baracoa. The religious practitioner being feted, by the way, was from Havana. So now you have inter-provincial transmission.

Both Havana and Bauta have been forced to open and equip more isolation centers due to the widespread contacts generated by these two events alone.

And just like that, Havana got wrenched from Phase 1, dropping down, down, down, back into the local transmission phase. Transportation is severely cut back to essential workers only and stops at 11pm. There is a citywide curfew: no one can be on the streets after that hour either. Beaches, bars, pools and playgrounds are closed. Private taxis and minibuses cannot operate. And businesses like ours can only do take out (we wish we could; more on that in a later post). Sadly, Cuba Libro had to close again.

So we’re back to isolation, anxiety over food insecurity, our four walls (lucky those with balconies or yards or even a room to call their own), being broke, being sad, being hot and nurturing some flicker of hope.

We are back to riding the coronacoaster. Full speed ahead…

 

***Anyone interested in daily COVID stats from Cuba, searchable by province and municipality, with detailed information including gender, age, source of transmission and numbers of contacts being traced of each confirmed case should visit the COVID-19 Cuba Dashboard. 

 

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COVID-19 & Cuba: The Good

Greetings readers. I hope you’re as well as you can be given the shit show that is Planet Earth, 2020.

In my first chronicle about the coronavirus in Cuba, I led off with a (necessarily short) paragraph about some of the positive aspects of the ‘new normal’ here in Havana, followed by an all out rant about the negative. This time, I’m flipping the script, leading off with what is chapping my ass these days, before launching into the rays of light I’m witnessing in these otherwise deep, dark times.

Physical distancing is still—and always will be—a challenge in Cuba. The factors are multiple and varied, from cultural and historical to practical and meteorological. Yesterday’s meat hunt is illustrative. For those out of the loop: pandemic food procurement is one of the biggest stressors and threats to physical and mental health here.

We were out the door by 6:30am, already late by today’s standards: only the earliest birds get any worms in these COVID-19 times. Lines at stores where meat (usually chopped in a tube or pressed in a can) might be available but not guaranteed, begin forming at 4am. Folks on the hustle camp out at stores likely to release some kind of protein—canned sardines, corned beef loaf, hot dogs or the insanely coveted chicken—to be the first in line…and sell their spot to later comers. Typically, several friends and family members do this as a group so they can sell their turns in line, plus make their own purchases. Many of these items end up on the ‘informal market’ at a 100%, 200% or even 300% markup. Today, a tube of Colgate toothpaste is between $10 and $12CUC (up from $5) and 36 eggs cost $7CUC (up from $3). When you can find them.

The same dynamic is at play at carnecerías (open-air butchers) all over Havana.

Yesterday, instead of braving the crapshoot that is the stores, we opted for the butcher’s. This is more about Toby than us: we’re happy eating vegetarian, he is not. And the tubed/canned meat wreaks havoc on his health (for those not in the know: kibble in Cuba is reserved for the 1% who can source and afford it; the rest of us have to cook for our pets). When we arrived at 6:45 and asked for el ultimo, the line looked manageable. This was an illusion: the young man in front of us had marked in line for himself and three cousins, the woman before him was holding place for four neighbors and when meat finally went on sale at 9:15am, the line magically trebled as people cut in, jockeyed for position and called in favors with the meat purveyors.

During our four-hour, successful odyssey (we got some pork chops for us and bones with bits of meat for Toby), some of us maintained physical distance, but many more did not. Securing your place in line while keeping the cutters at bay, arguing with those who tried, theorizing about what meat might be for sale and when, all conspired to violate the two-meter distancing rule. And then it started to rain. Cue bunches of people huddled under a narrow awning trying to stay dry. COVID-driven anxieties notwithstanding, this scenario kicked off all my deep-seeded food insecurities bred during a childhood where too many mouths to feed and too little money had us arguing over who had more ramen noodles in their bowl and cruising the refrigerator or pantry for food was strictly verboten…

Although I miss my family horribly and there are days when people improperly using masks (obligatory here since late March) or my husband crowding me in the kitchen engenders thoughts of violence, I feel very safe in Havana. And there are some very good things happening.

If you’ve stayed with this post for this long, THANK YOU! Here goes:

  • Air quality and noise pollution: While we don’t have jutía frolicking in front yards or manatees sidling up to the Malecón, the air quality has become noticeably better. A fraction of cars, trucks and buses plying the streets, reduced work hours, and telecommuting, all contribute to improved air quality. In Havana, a lot of heavy industry is located within residential neighborhoods: I lived my first six years here directly behind the cigarette factory at 100 & Boyeros and this was (and is) a toxic environment. Even a slight reduction in the work day at pollution-spewing factories like this one helps the environment. Noise pollution—from vehicles, loud-mouthed neighbors and passersby, construction, and speaker-toting reggaetoneros—has also diminished considerably. For me, this is an extraordinarily welcomed increase in quality of life.

 

  • Bicycle boom: Bicycles and cycling culture are more complicated than you might think due to stigma from the economic crash (AKA Special Period) when pedal power was transport of last resort. But make no mistake: there is a small, but strong and growing, cycling movement afoot which predates COVID-19. Nevertheless, since the pandemic and attendant health measures limiting public transportation, bikes are coming out of garages, being rescued from backyard weeds, and off walls—yes, some people use them as décor which is absurd and makes me vomit in my mouth a little every time I see this. But the resurgence in cycling is wonderful to witness. Anyone with a bike knows these two wheels are a ticket to freedom. You can get anywhere your two legs will take you, plus it’s great exercise! Private businesses, including Cuba Libro, which enjoys and supports a large cycling community, are putting in bike racks and lobbying for bike-friendlier cities; hopefully this COVID-19 experience will stimulate more government support for cycling in general (ie not just for tourists). On the downside, if you want to buy a bike in Havana these days, it will cost 30%-50% more than it did pre-pandemic.

 

  • Kitchen creativity: This global phenomenon is taken to new heights in Cuba where the only items you might have on hand are rice, an egg and some tomatoes (if you’re lucky!). To keep things interesting, I’ve had to master Cuban classics like red bean potaje and ropa vieja, plus find new ways to prepare eggplant, bok choy, cabbage, carrots and more. I have to give a huge shout out to the Cuba Libro family in this regard for two very specific reasons: 1) someone very generously donated Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian a while back. My mom and sister have long been Bittman fans, but I didn’t know what I was missing; his books are such fantastic tools and well-written to boot and 2) our regulars at the café are creating their own coffee drinks at home, leading us to launch our CUBA LIBRO EN DA HOUSE competition—enter to win by June 6.

 

  • Better veggies, more sustainability: There are some silver linings to the food nightmare we’re living. First, in my experience, the fruit and vegetable markets here in Havana have been pretty well stocked the past two and a half months. Although I have to head out early, walk a half an hour and stand on line once I arrive, I’m almost sure to find watermelon, pineapple or mango; carrots, eggplant, peppers and onions; yucca or plantains (sweet potato has become a rare commodity for reasons still not understood); sesame and sunflower seeds, guava paste and peanuts; and with a little luck, basil and parsley. You never know what you’ll find, but even in smaller markets tucked along the Playa/Marianao border, I’ve found gorgeous bell peppers and tomatoes of unusual size. Chatting up the veggie seller, he told me this is ‘tourist produce,’ grown specifically for hotels and resorts, but made available to the public since Cuba’s borders were closed at the end of March. I glanced at the small, sad limones, with the bumpy skin that means they have no juice. ‘Tourists don’t eat lemons,’ he said laughing.

 

  • Growing your own: Here, like elsewhere, Cubans have started planting on balconies, along the small patches of dirt between sidewalk and street, on windowsills and roofs. Even me, with my notorious brown thumb, has a made a go of it. My garlic and bell peppers died in typically spectacular fashion, but…the pineapple I planted is going strong! I don’t expect a harvest, but it makes for a nice ornamental. Thankfully, my very forward-thinking friends in Guanabo started a community garden last year and are now harvesting like mad. Every week or so they drop off (mask in place, physically distanced) overflowing bags of fresh organic produce to friends, family, neighbors and community centers. Yesterday they popped by with fennel, arugula, parsley and wait for it…broccoli!! All of this conspires to help us eat healthier—the plate of chicharrones I put away last night notwithstanding.

 

  • Diversifying suppliers: I see a lot of this going on in the USA (bravo!) as people realize that megaliths like Amazon, although efficient and cheap and sometimes a necessary evil, are making a fortune off of us and their workers, and pursuing inhumane labor practices while ringing the death knoll for smaller mom and pop places. Here, we have had to pivot on suppliers, not for social justice considerations but because store supplies have constricted so drastically. Suppliers have also had to pivot since there are no tourists and private restaurants, previously their bread and butter, can only do takeout or delivery. As a result, we just ordered 2 kilos of artisanal goat cheese—a kilo of basil goat cheese and another kilo of oregano/garlic/black pepper goat cheese. This will be shared among several families and we’ll have to wait two weeks for it to be delivered to our door, but still! I am doing a serious dance of joy (cheese is another nearly impossible item to find these days). While not cheap, there are few things in this life for which I will pay whatever it takes. Cheese is one of them. And presented with the choice between meat or cheese, I choose cheese. Every. Single. Time. Some people won’t understand, but if you know, you know.

 

  • Solid solidarity: The willingness to help others, extend a hand, share what’s on hand and pull together, is very much a Cuban trait and vividly on display right now—globally and locally. Despite or because of all the very serious problems with the food supply (compounded by the cruel and failed US embargo), sharing and bartering is deeply woven into the fabric of Cuban culture. Let’s say the store where you’re on line has oil. You don’t need oil, but you buy your two allotted bottles anyway, to share with neighbors, give to friends or trade for tubed meat with the stranger you met on the four-hour line you stood on to buy it. In the past two weeks alone, I’ve traded: rice for flour, coffee for chicken, even soy sauce for chocolate! I’ve gifted banana muffins, coconut-mango bread and toothpaste (Note to self: take mother-in-law’s country wisdom to heart: ‘there are times when you don’t even share your water with your oxen.’).
  • Then there’s the Henry Reeve Contingent, Cuba’s specialized medical team now fighting COVID-19 in two dozen countries. I love when internet dissenters flaunt their ignorance, flaming me about Henry Reeve. I lived with this team in their tent hospitals in post-quake Pakistan in 2005 (they year the Contingent was founded, in direct response to Hurricane Katrina) and again for a month in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti. Covering their work in the field is one of the highlights of my career as a health journalist. Signatures are now being collected to nominate the Contingent for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Solidarity is also pulsing through Cuba’s younger generations who are participating in volunteer movements to care for the most vulnerable—particularly the elderly and disabled people who live alone and can’t navigate the store-food situation. This is their moment: they missed the triumph of the Revolution, the Literacy Campaign and the Special Period (for the most part, the worst part). What we’re facing with COVID-19 is terrifying, horrifying, but it’s also motivating young people to pitch in and help out in ways heretofore largely unknown. We will need this moving forward.

And last, but certainly not least:

  • Nooners, booty calls & other carnal activities: Here we talk a lot about sex and bodily functions. These are things that distinguish my birth culture from my adopted culture and Reason #69 why I groove to Cuba. It’s all natural! What’s to be ashamed of? So we’ve been talking quite a bit about coronavirus sex. Conclusion? Whether you’re in a new, long-term, open, multi-partner or casual relationship, everyone’s action has dropped off. Some single people I know have stopped screwing altogether. Meanwhile, other people I know are now pregnant. So it’s a mixed bag. And when you’re greeting your booty call with an elbow bump, you know the main act is going to be different (no kissing or oral, for starters). Front-to-back positions are surging in popularity and encouraged. Cuba Libro is distributing a lot of free condoms. Since we’re in this at-home-all-the-time loop, there has been a happy uptick in nooners and daytime sex in general, plus the opportunity for multiple sessions. Creativity is another bonus with toys, role playing, and moving things out of the bedroom for variety having their moment. This is when we have the energy to actually get it up; this isn’t all days by any stretch of the imagination. But the carnal act is more intentional now, and that’s another good thing.

 

I should wrap this up—my guy just sauntered by wearing something sexy—but the whole point is: some of these positive elements of COVID-19 won’t have staying power, some may linger and fade (a la NYC post-9-11), and a few might stay as we realize how important they are for our collective health and well-being. It really is up to us to recognize, embrace, and multiply the good. You in?

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

COVID-19 & Cuba: The Not-So-Good

Some of you have noticed that I’ve taken a long hiatus from here. The reasons are tragic and painful and pre-date this pandemic de mierda. For those readers looking for something upbeat, you get the following paragraph. After that? Buckle up babies, because I feel a rant coming on.

Cuba – the nation – is doing a bang-up job of getting a handle on this beast. Early, effective measures adapted from decades of successful infectious disease control; clear, comprehensive, daily communication from the highest ups; active screening of over 6 million and counting; treatment and tests for everyone needing them; isolation and quarantine centers throughout the island; and all manner of steps to assure food supply, defer taxes and licensing costs for private businesses, guarantee salaries (at least in part), and prioritizing the most vulnerable, including those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly – these measures are making an impact.

It’s a paradigm worth emulating and I am extraordinarily proud of how national authorities are handling things and particularly of the health professionals on the frontlines (many of whom I’ve had the honor to cover in my work as a health journalist for MEDICC Review).

Unfortunately, Cubans, as a nation of people, have the potential to royally fuck it all up.

First, we have ‘stay at home’ and ‘social distancing’ – two key components to allowing infectious disease control measures to take effect. As I write this, we are not in official lockdown (though all performances and large gatherings were cancelled long ago, schools have been closed for a couple of weeks and tele-commuting is now obligatory for those who are able. Cafeterias and bars are still allowed to operate (though many have shut voluntarily and those that remain open must follow strict protocols and are inspected by epidemiological teams) and of course, the paquete is doing a huge business since only the Cuban 1% has enough disposable income to live stream Tiger King and PornHub.

Nevertheless, we get constant public health messaging – on TV, the radio, in the newspaper, on Instagram and Facebook, from the med students doing active screening, from famous musicians and artists, from neighbors, our family doctors, and cops patrolling neighborhoods – to stay at home, retain a distance of a meter-and-a-half (or better 2 meters) from anyone, and wear a protective mask any time you must leave your home. This is for your protection and the protection of others. There is not a single Cuban who does not now know this.

And yet.

And yet.

Every day the guy slowly pedals by selling ice cream sandwiches, surgical mask dangling around his sweaty neck. Every morning, our habitual flower seller is wheeling her wares block to block to block touching neighbors and money and fences. And then her face – to re-position the face mask as the cruiser rolls by. Today, a fellow yelled up to windows: ‘I buy bicycle parts!’ with such operatic projection, he surely wore no mask, I didn’t even have to roust myself to check.

While I’m sobbing over reports about my fellow New Yorkers who are being bagged, tagged and fork-lifted into refrigerated trucks by the dozens because the cadavers are piling up, my neighbors are buying flowers and ice cream.

‘OVER 40,000 DEAD!!!’ I want to shout from my balcony.

‘THIS ISN’T A MOVIE FROM THE FUCKING PAQUETE, YOU COVID-IOTS!!!’ I urge to reprimand each and every one of them.

Not all of my neighbors are irresponsible; not all Cubans, but still. But still.

I get it. People have to work. You can’t live on bread, rum and good humor alone (though sometimes it seems like it here!). We shut Cuba Libro two weeks ago and there are seven people, myself included, who are now trying to figure out how to pay rent and put food on the table. You can imagine the enormous amount of stress and angst this causes me as founder of a socially- and ethically-responsible business who always puts the team and community first (which is why we closed so long ago).

And I know the economic reality of this is hitting everyone, everywhere hard. But at least here, you will never be put out of your home (note to self: ask both landlords at home and the cafe, for rent relief). At least here, food, medicine, and utilities are subsidized, plus health care is free. This isn’t to say that jungle rules don’t apply, they’re just different rules. So: do you really need to put yourself, your family and your community at risk peddling or buying ice cream.

If you’ve ever been here, you know that Cubans are social beasts. Our daily information sessions from the National Director of Epidemiology, the President and the Minister of Public Health all recognize how hard it is not to kiss people hello and to maintain two meters between each other. They talk about it openly, cajole people to social distance because they know, personally, how hard it is here. They hammer home the message because they also know how critical a step this is in containing COVID.

Which brings me to spitting and chicken.

Each morning, I wake to this nightmare that is our new “normal”, don mask, pick out my pandemic-designated clothing for the day, change to my outdoor shoes and walk Toby. Luckily I live in a neighborhood that allows me to just cross the street whenever I see someone coming my way. Little did I know that today, there was a brigade of street cleaners sent to our neighborhood. I spied them from a block away, about ten of them, masks dangling around their fleshy, prison-tatted necks, smoking and joking. Not social distancing. Spread as they were among the four corners, avoidance became tricky. I began to dodge and weave like a drunkard navigating the grease-slicked streets of Chinatown, trying to figure out which way they were going to move before I made mine. I miscalculated and crossed to a corner just as one of the guys stepped off the curb, let out a couple hacking coughs and then hurled a loogie within my COVID safety zone (note to self: outdoor shoes SHOULD NOT be flip flops).

I’d never given much thought to the widespread practice of public spitting here until this virus attacked. Although faithful readers will remember my post on the disgusting farmer hanky practice (quick recap: close off one nostril with a finger, tilt head, blow hard until phlegm flies out). Public spitting or airborne snot via the farmer hanky – I will open a can of NY whup ass on the next person that does it in my vicinity.

Luckily there are no firearms in the mix. I can only imagine how you are coping with that up there.

And if you Google “cola pollo Habana” you will get all sorts of nasty images replete with zero social distancing, cop presence and maybe a bit of name calling among locals who just cannot do quarantine without chicken. Throngs. THRONGS of people all crowded up against one another, bumping backs and elbows and boobs to get their coveted chicken. I often tell visitors that after 18 years of full-time, year-round living here, I still don’t understand a lot about Cubans; even Cubans don’t get Cubans, I’ll say. To whit: “there are tons of other protein options,” observed my next door neighbor. “There are eggs and fish and all cuts of pork. Why the furious scrum for chicken?!”

And this despite the fact that a) we have a line organizing mechanism here know as el último so that you don’t even have to physically stand in the goddamn line! And b) only 3 to five people are allowed in the store at one time. So, you mark your place in line, step away (far, far away!) and then hustle up to the door when your group is permitted entry.

For such an educated populace, sometimes Cubans can be so stupid.

And sometimes they’re just a little too smart for their own good. Witness the six people who successfully escaped from an isolation center (a re-purposed hotel, mind you), only to be detained by authorities within 24 hours and returned to isolation. Now the COVID-6 (my nickname) are subject to prosecution under a statute that makes it illegal to propagate disease and epidemics (a hefty fine or three months to one year jail time). Then there are those who just can’t let go of the visita. A cultural touchstone, this is where you visit friends, family, and your favorite house-bound little old lady for a cup of coffee and some gossip. It’s one of the things I love about Cuba, but not today, not April 2020 where we’re living this dystopian super flu clusterfuck. The Health Minister, the President, the National Director of Epidemiology have all underscored the importance of suspending the visita for now. Do the people heed? THEY DO NOT HEED.

Lastly, we have the hiding. The highest authorities have also mentioned this specifically. Since we have active screening, designed to identify each and every case walking around these borders and since the treatment for COVID is essentially mom’s age-old advice (stay home, lots of fluids), symptomatic people are going into hiding. They get a family member or friend to lend them an apartment, an Air BnB perhaps (with all the remaining tourists here in quarantine, these remain vacant) or an empty room in their house so they can’t be contact traced or screened. And then they head out to buy flowers or ice cream or chicken or to visit their favorite little old lady friend.

Give me the Kool-Aid, I’m ready to drink it – the Jim Jones kind, not the Ken Kesey kind – this is already too much of a bad acid trip.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

The Not-So-Slow Leak

Almost 18 years living here and to some things I cannot adapt. The Farmer Hanky. Public zit popping. The heat. Other things I’ve been forced into accepting and conceding. The tedious bureaucracy. The piropos. And the leave-takings.

Emigration is complicated. It’s never easy and often terribly trying. Painful. Dangerous even. Different people handle it differently – and I refer to the emigrants and those they leave behind. Regardless of the promises and desire, intentions and proclamations, we are left behind. It just happens. Emails start arriving less frequently or cease altogether. Phone calls, rare in the best of times, become a once or twice annual surprise – around New Year’s usually or Mother’s Day. Valentine’s Day maybe, depending on the person and your relationship. Even with new technologies (for us) like roaming data and WhatsApp, communication drops off after a few months. It’s as if Cuba and the emigrant are Velcro – together they compose a strong, useful bond, something capable of changing the world. Separate them and you’re left with something senseless, not living up to its potential.

Emigration plays powerfully and violently with identity – it can shred it, dilute it, confuse it, strengthen it (temporarily anyway: distance in space and time, plus acculturation and adaptation to a new country and culture, erodes an emigrant’s grip on their homeland and grasp of its evolution). This is one of the reasons Cuban artists, regardless of genre, lose relevance if they continue creating island/revolution-themed works without returning periodically to recharge and reboot with “Cubaness.” I’m an immigrant and often wonder ‘what am I?!’ as I commit social faux pas in New York – sitting too close, inviting more people into an almost-full elevator, making casual conversation with strangers and eye contact with passersby. Stateside, I catch raised eyebrows as I kiss people hello and goodbye at parties and functions. I suppose similar awkward moments beset Cubans living off-island.

As for keeping friendships whole and strengthening them across miles and years, I’ve worked very hard (‘not hard enough!’ I hear some clamoring) to not leave my people behind – or be left behind. It’s a two-way street after all. I write letters infrequently, but postcards when I can and make phone calls when I can afford it. I run around visiting people when I’m in the States, just like Cubans do when they return. There’s never enough time and someone is always left unvisited and upset.

For my first 15 or so years here, only a few people I love left. But now, my friends and family are slowly leaking out.

“I have a dentist appointment tomorrow and the gynecologist the day after. I have to get it all done now, you know.”

“Caballeros…”

“I’m going to wipe old peoples’ asses, spoon-feed them pablum – anything, I don’t care.”

Jenry. Alejandro. Carla. Jose. Eduardo. Ray. Frances. Daisy. Julio.

A dancer, a dentist, a writer, an actor, two filmmakers, a bartender, a pianist, a photographer.

The slow leak is now a deluge.

Some are tired. All are broke. Some are gay or trans and suffer for it. All have professional ambitions beyond what they can achieve on a blockaded island.

Some are leaving with their small children. Just as I get close to the little ones, just as they let me in, they’re leaving. That’s the shittiest part of emigration, I think. Choices are made, decisions are taken, in which the kids have no say. And BAM! They’re gone. It’s like an ice cream brain freeze on my heart. Kids are adaptable and I know they’ll do all right wherever they land, but I do miss the little buggers and lament that such weighty change is thrust upon them without their consent or consult.

How Cubans leave varies. Some marry foreigners. Others overstay tourist visas. A few never return from work contracts abroad. There are those who claim political asylum (some valid, some not). Some take advantage of family reunification programs. This is a resourceful, creative people, emigrants and otherwise. ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way,’ is an axiom particularly Cuban.

Mexico City. Miami. Moscow. Stockholm. Berlin. Quito. Buenos Aires. Munich. Merida. Brussels.

My friends are strewn around the world. They’re marrying and having children. Letting their queer flag fly. Landing great jobs, studying for second careers, and buying property (both Here and There, wherever ‘There’ may be). They’re converting dreams into reality.

So why do I feel this ache in my heart? I know the moment I land in any of these cities (except Miami; I avoid that cesspool at all costs. Sorry Carla, Max, Leo, Yanelys, Yarelis, Yoanna), I will find home, hearth and hugs with my people. I’ll meet their spouses and children. They’ll take me to see their office/screening/exhibit. We’ll laugh and catch up. Most of them will be friends for life. Despite the distance and day-to-day disconnect.

Is this heartache I feel because I still don’t fit in here, even after so long, and know they’re going through the same? Or is it because I choose to stay here when I don’t have to? This is a question I’ve fielded from curious Cubans for decades and I’ve recently started asking it myself (and I’m not alone in this – a trio of long-term resident foreigner friends are considering leaving and another has already left). Is it because they’re changing without me? Or because I’m changing without them? Is it because I have a few, fierce friends and I feel our bond and intimacy slipping away? Maybe it’s because I feel robbed of the energy, time and affection I’ve spent strengthening friendships and then pfft! Like that, they’re gone (but not gone)?

I can’t pinpoint the source and reason for the heartache but it’s making me skittish – like a cat in the dog pound. There’s definitely a fear factor involved. ‘Who’s next?’ is constantly at the back of my mind and bottom of my heart. Jenny’s had a lot of doctors appointments lately and Delio just had his eyes checked and new glasses made (one thing all future emigrants do is complete checkups and medical, including dental, care before leaving – Cuba’s free universal health coverage is something they ain’t gonna find abroad and they know it). Roxana asked if we had a spare suitcase and Raul wants to know how much the paperwork costs to marry a foreigner.

Some people deal with their impending departure by saying nothing, others throw bon voyage parties. I can understand both approaches but the former makes me sad and a little mad sometimes. Sure, if the exit is illegal, you’re not going to broadcast it, but a couple of very near and dear friends just disappeared and I didn’t know they had emigrated until they sent me an email from allá. As if I’m not discreet. As if I can’t keep a secret. It feels like when very good friends don’t come out of the closet to me. If you think I’m capable of outing someone or shaming them for their sexual orientation you don’t know me at all.

Who’s next? I shudder to think. I’m anxious about the next departure, the next person to join the drain. I fear it’s going to be someone I just truly do not want to live without. I’ve survived these types of leave-takings fairly unscathed (one as recently as last month), but a couple of them – Berlin, Stockholm – still leave a stone in my gut and furrow my brow. It hasn’t changed my behavior – I’m still supportive of their (difficult) decision and offer any help I can – within reason, within the letter of the law. I wish them success. Genuinely and respectfully, with my heart behind it.

But damn it hurts. I’ve provided succor and a shoulder to several people left behind who are facing life here without their nearest and dearest – sons and daughters, lovers and husbands. I fear I’ll be needing succor and a shoulder next. But those I typically lean on in these situations are fewer and fewer by the year.

Indeed: as my close friend Miguel and I shared coffee the other day during one of his weekend passes, he told me he can’t take it anymore and he’ll be leaving as soon as he’s able. I’m ashamed to say my first thought was ‘at least we’ll still have some time together.’ Miguel has two years remaining on his sentence and can’t leave during parole. I don’t know how long he’ll be with us after being sprung, but the selfish part of me knows it won’t be long enough.

Any immigrant reading this: call someone you love on the island today. Write them an email. Pen a letter. We miss you and love you and wish you were here (the selfish part of us anyway).

UPDATE: Since crafting the first draft of this post a couple of weeks ago, I’ve learned that another very close friend will soon be leaving. Cue more heartache.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life

Travel to Cuba, Trump Style

I’ve got some shit to get off my chest so best buckle up. Pour a stiff one, bust out the vape or tuck in with a nice, hot chai – whatever helps you chill and focus.

A lot has been written about Trump’s “new” regulations regarding “legal” travel to Cuba for US citizens and residents. The long and short of it? ALL of you can still come to Cuba. Please share this link; together we might be able to cut through the scare tactics and “alternative facts” floating about. Unfortunately, the scare tactics work, no matter that – I repeat – ALL of you can still come to Cuba.

And while for many of you this may be an abstract policy affecting a faraway land, for us, it’s human suffering on a national scale. It’s small businesses, once thriving, now shuttered. It’s families going hungry(ier). It’s hopes and horizons dashed. It’s exposure to new ideas (on both sides) now censored.

Some people are still coming to Cuba, but often, it ain’t pretty. What follows are all recent experiences we’ve had at Cuba Libro:

The “Influencers”: You know who you are. Perhaps you don’t know what you are, so I’m here to “bell the cat” as we say. Vapid. Banal. Opportunistic. You’ve heard about Cuba Libro on the news; you’ve seen our scene on social media; you’ve verified that we’re among the top 5 things to do on TripAdvisor; and you realize we’re one of the most authentic, chill places in town. So you come in, talk to no one, rebuff our friendly staff and snap some photos. You exit. You’ve experienced nothing. You’ve contributed nothing (your influence isn’t quite what you’ve been led to believe). You’ve missed the point – of Cuba Libro specifically and Cuba in general. Uncool.

The Cheapskates: We see it every day. You lounge in our garden, reading, drawing, meeting new people, petting Toby. You’ve pumped us for useful information – where to eat, where to dance, how to connect, how to get around. You’ve enjoyed the best/cheapest cortadito in town, while swinging in a hammock with the dulcet tones of Billie Holiday or the deep grooves of Cimafunk as soundtrack. After a couple of hours, you request the check, are charged 90 cents and pay with 1 CUC (or a 20 bill – happens all the time. We’re not a bank people.) That 10 cents change? It goes right into your pocket. As one of our veteran barristas observed: Do they think Tip is a town in China? Also uncool.

The Insulters: You are cousins to The Cheapskates, but take it to a new level. Witness a Certain US Tourist from Last Week: she rolled up in a classic car and nary looked askance at our friendly server’s offer of a menu (in this case, me).

‘I have my driver waiting,’ she said with a wave of her hand. Instead of relaxing with a refreshment, she asked if we sold ‘knick knacks.’

I explained that our strength is coffee and literature, but I showed her the pins made by a local artist that we have for sale. Something you can’t find anywhere else and made with creativity and care. I told her the price for each pin – $3CUC. She looked them over. She hemmed. She hawed.

‘We have some others in the office. I can get them if you like.’ I offered her a seat and spread out the other pins. She looked them over. Some had become rusted and spotted, victims of our oppressive humidity.

‘If you like one of those, I can sell them to you at cost – $2CUC. This is what we pay the artist.’

She fingered several. She hemmed. She hawed. ‘I like these,’ she said, indicating two. ‘Can’t you sell them to me cheaper?’

‘?!?!?!?!’

‘I’m sorry but $2CUC is what they cost us.’

She left in a huff.

The Abhorrent/Entitled: She strode in, butt cheeks peeking out from her too-short denim shorts and made a beeline for the living room couch.

‘How many CUC should I get for US dollars?’ she asked in rapid-fire Stateside English.

The four young Cubans enjoying their coffee exchanged glances during the ensuing awkward silence.

‘Eh, ah….’ one said, no one with sufficient English to answer.

I turned from shelving books to help out, quoting the official USD-CUC rate.

‘Oh! You speak English! Where can we get beef here? Or chicken? It’s all pork, pork, pork.’

I directed LaTonya (my pseudonym for this fauna) to the fried chicken joint around the corner. She thanked me but not before asking me about ‘that alley where there’s all kind of art and religion and stuff;’ this is Latonya’s second trip to Cuba to ‘buy cheap art and sell it for a lot of money in Amerika.’

Before heading off for some pollo chifla’o and Callejón de Hamel, she decided to sit in our little copse at the entrance – ‘the jungle’ in Cuba Libro parlance – to have a cool something to drink. I asked Alfredo to give her a menu and resumed my conversation with Maria Teresa at the dining room table. After a beat or three, Alfredo walks in, throws the menus down in front of us and declares: ‘I’m not serving her. Sorry, but that’s just disgusting!’

‘?!?!?!?!’

Maria Teresa and I give him the ‘WTF happened?’ look.

‘That girl just hawked up a ball of phlegm, leaned over and spit it at the entrance to the café. Not in the bushes or a plant – she’s only surrounded by them! – but right where people walk in. Not once, but twice. Who DOES that? I’m not serving people like that.’

‘All right. I’ll handle it. Not to worry.’

‘You’re so Zen right now!’ Maria Teresa, who knows me well, observed.

‘Yeah. I don’t know what’s come over me today.’ In reality, what was I going to do? To clean up that public health threat, I had to bust out the bucket and broom and swab down the entire entrance, right where she was sitting. I’d do it once she left.

Maria Teresa and I continued our conversation while Charlie whipped up LaTonya’s frappuccino. I served the drink and returned to the table. Talking to Maria Teresa about our next special event (Cafe Trivia Thursdays, she’s the Coordinator), I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye.

It’s LaTonya exiting the bathroom and cutting through the kitchen where Charlie is preparing another frappuccino.

If you’ve never been to Cuba Libro, let me explain that the kitchen shortcut is a) totally verboten – do you waltz into kitchens in other establishments? and b) really uncomfortable since there’s only room for two people (or three, if you’re like us, like family) in the very narrow NYC-style galley kitchen. But this lacra walks right in, grabs a cup off the drying rack, jams her hand into the bag of ice Charlie is manipulating to make the next order and grabs a fistful of ice. This is a person, you’ll recall, who has no compunction about spitting balls of phlegm inside a business and right in the path of patrons – AND has just exited the bathroom. We’re guessing she’s not a meticulous post-piss hand washer…He immediately threw out that bag of ice.

More ‘WTF?!’ looks go ‘round, this time with Charlie joining in.

Before finally departing, LaTonya shattered the frappuccino glass (accidents happen, but hell, girl) and paid for her beverage in US quarters – totally useless here since they can’t be changed in banks. And just our luck! She’s staying right up the block. Fortunately, on subsequent visits, she took her drinks to go. We were more than happy to oblige.
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Let me be clear that not all visitors are like these –we recently hosted an amazing quintet from Dallas (thanks for the donations and the tip, Randy and crew!); a family from Oregon in the care of Soltura Travel; some kindly queer folk from Canada; and more. And we need people coming to Cuba, no doubt about it. I commend those that do.

But to all the Influencers, Insulters, Cheapskates, and Abhorrent/Entitled travelers out there, here’s some advice for when you come to Cuba/Cuba Libro:

– Treat people you meet with respect;
– Experiential travel is much richer and more rewarding than its voyeuristic counterpart;
– When you’re hosted at someone’s home or business, treat it as you would your own; and
– Tip your servers, damnit! We don’t live on air and good humor alone.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban economy, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Twisters & Twinks: Mobile Data Mobilizes Cuba

Confession time. I’m something of a Luddite. If you know me, you know I was one of the last to relinquish my flip phone. I still rely on a pocket digital camera to document my frequent adventures and I’ve only connected once – unsuccessfully – at a Wifi park. I’ve never, ever, read an E-book and, all my writing, including this post, is crafted old school style – with pen and paper.

In short, I’m an analog kind of gal. Except when it comes to earning my living and putting frijol en el plato as we say here. And one thing greatly handicapping me, which regularly prevents me from landing paid gigs, is my lousy internet connection. If I had a nickel for every assignment I’ve lost because I couldn’t upload a PDF, download writing guidelines or respond quickly enough to an editor’s inquiry, I could take a sabbatical, write my memoir and make some real money. So when it became possible to access mobile data here, I jumped at the chance – no more missed pitch deadlines! No more blind pitching! No more $2/minute phone calls to Mom; now it’d be pennies a piece with WhatsApp!

It took me three phone “upgrades” and several sit downs with my tech savior Ivan before I was finally able to get data (thank God Ivan came along; since our buddy and IT guru Miguel landed in jail, we’ve been even more technologically challenged than usual). Heady, I sprang for the second-most expensive package – 1GB of data for $10CUC, good for a month. No longer would editors assign pieces to those quicker with the reply. Gone were the days where I’d pitch without reading recent issues. I could even keep the Cuba Libro website current! Well, maybe. But Instagram! Yes!

Since December, anyone with the proper device and money (or Yuma sugar Mama/Papa providing said tools), jumped on the bandwagon. Including my husband – the man who doesn’t have email, had never been on the internet and with whom I rack up $200 phone bills when I travel off island (money much better spent on rent.) Finally! An alternative. I’ll never forget our first video chat – he beaming smiles from his sister’s porch in Playa, Toby at his side, me laughing out loud as my sister and I squeezed into the frame from the music-filled streets of Memphis.

Suddenly, a video chat with Granny from your living room or crystal clear, cheap phone calls to your jevito in Toronto, are possible. Of course, the rest of the Internet is also accessible but even with the infinite cultural, comic, educational, and edifying benefits of the World Wide Web just a click away, I know countless Cubans who don’t access it. No, many folks here prefer All Facebook, All the Time. Untold throngs, including my husband, are addicted, considering Facebook the end-all-be-all in connectivity.

Unfortunately, Cubans’ “pliable privacy” and wholesale lack of discretion combine with the steep digital learning curve to create a whole lot of FB bullshit and mini scandals. Tagging people in compromising situations (ie stinking drunk, pegando tarro, in salacious postures not meant for posterity); taking private messages public; and revealing racist, homophobic and misogynistic tendencies – it’s all happening on the ‘Facebu.’ Plus chain mail madness and phishing expeditions, por dios! All of this is mere annoyance. What really gets my panties in a twist is the proliferation of fake news. Cubans on the whole are savvy at parsing propaganda, reading between the lines and filling in the blanks – in traditional media and milieu. But the format and minute-by-minute nature of social media causes them to lose all sense and sensibility. When you throw angry exiles and recent immigrants seething with enmity and rancor into the mix, it makes for a toxic combination. I know: I’ve been on the receiving end of these bellicose keyboard cowboys.

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For those rushed readers or those with a short attention span (tsk, tsk), here’s a quick rundown of the good, bad and questionable developments since we’ve had this in-your-pocket internet access

The Good:

 The Bad:

  • Bootie calls are now accompanied by live video – should your would-be fuck buddy need some live-action enticement. You’ll live to regret it m’ijo. Sexting is one thing; providing explicit images is quite another.
  • Sexual harassment of the sort now rampant in other parts of the world is now happening in Cuba, with bosses sending nude photos to underlings demanding employment perks and promotions in exchange for sexual favors (in the specific case to which I’m privy, the boss is a woman).

The Debatable:

  • Recent food scarcity has driven Cubans to apply their enviable pragmatism to the digital realm, starting the WhatsApp group known as Donde Hay. Launched a couple of weeks ago, users upload photos of food and goods with the price, length of line to buy said products (we’re just shaking free of two hour – or longer – lines to get chicken) and at which store they’re being sold. People dissimulating and trying to send the thousands of users to different stores with their “fake” food sightings are booted off the group. I call this a debatable development because while I admire the practicality, my little old lady neighbors and favorite grandmas, can’t take advantage of this. So while they’re tottering over to their local mercadito, Donde Hay users (many of whom are private restaurant owners, no doubt) are already picking those shelves clean.

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We’ve had nearly five months of mobile data now, making it a good time to drill down and look at how this is manifesting. Most importantly, my husband no longer has to be cajoled to ‘get off the Facebu’ to make our morning coffee (I walk Toby, he brews the espresso – le toca mango bajito, eh?). Beyond our four walls, the impact of mobile data really hit home when the tornado struck Havana on January 27th. The government responded immediately and concerned citizens followed suit, taking to social media to organize relief efforts. Cars and trucks laden with clothes and shoes, potable water, non-perishable food and hygiene products started rolling into Regla, Guanabacoa and 10 de Octubre. Throngs of young people stuffed backpacks and bags full of donations, hefting them into the hardest-hit areas.

If you’re reading this and have post-disaster relief experience (either on the giving or receiving end), you can guess what ensued: chaos and confusion. In Cuba, recovery and relief is designed, implemented and coordinated by the government’s civil defense arm. International aid is requested, received, and distributed by them and only them. It has always been this way – until now. In short, the overwhelmingly quick, coordinated response by civil society, private individuals and business people – almost all of it through social media – was neither anticipated nor accounted for.

In the first days, the videos, photos and interviews depicting the confusion and trauma flooded the Internet and shot around the world. The Cuban diaspora weighed in, worried about their families. Criticisms flew. Trucks of relief, organized by reggueton stars and symphonic orchestras, rolled into damaged areas and were turned back. And social media documented it all; for the first time, those Cubans with the means followed the drama on their phones and devices.

It’s hard to get out ahead of a story – especially with Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook newly in the mix. With my personal post-disaster relief experience, in Cuba and elsewhere, and Cuba Libro’s years of targeted donation programming, we got involved quickly. We provided a sorting and packaging site for donations, teamed up with volunteers and drivers and participated in deliveries with CENESEX and others. We acted as an information clearing house and sent donors to other distribution sites including the Fabrica de Arte, Historian’s Office and Jesus de Monte Church.

We also calmed critics. Many people with big hearts and time on their hands, couldn’t understand the problem presented by appearing amidst crowds of traumatized, desperate people, including children and elders, with loads of donations. But this approach is rife with problems. Who was the most in need? Who had already received donations? Who was truly a tornado victim and who was just posing as such for personal gain? What happens if (ie when), strong, young men elbow their way to donation trucks, pushing past grandmothers and mothers with babes in arms?

We talked to people, explaining certain realities and complexities. For instance, in the first week, there were entire neighborhoods which hadn’t received donations – one reason why coordination is key – plus we outlined ethical relief and donation programs. One of the young, (socially-media coordinated) organizers convened volunteers for a meeting prior to a donation delivery, during which he explained the fatigue they would encounter among the victims, their possible hostility towards interview requests, the ethics of photographing the scene, and the importance of following all instructions and orientations of the coordinating authorities. In the end, Cuba Libro sent out over a dozen large donations, almost all of them using social media.

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More recently, we’ve had the IDAHO kerfuffle, still simmering on the Internet. The short version goes like this: after 11 years of active, enthusiastic celebrations here on and around May 17 (International Day Against Homo- Trans and Biphobia), the “Conga,” an all-inclusive diversity parade and one of the highlights of the event, was unexpectedly cancelled. The cancellation was announced via an official note by the coordinating organization, CENESEX (published on Facebook, natch). I’ve been involved in anti-homophobia efforts for decades and many, like me, were stunned and confused, not to mention pissed. Enter social media, that efficient organizing tool, but also the bastion of passive bitching, vapid dissent and hollow valor. Cue the organizing of an “unofficial” parade in a different part of Havana and with different agendas not limited to LGBTIQ rights. CENESEX reacted with another official note, which only served to muddy the waters and fuel the extrapolatory fire. Mariela Castro, Director of CENESEX and other activists took to the national airways to explain further…

The unofficial parade – convened for one of the most touristed part of the city, with a healthy international press presence – was set for the same Saturday as the cancelled Conga. Not surprisingly, the shit hit the fan. I was working a special event at Cuba Libro that day so couldn’t participate, and regular readers know I don’t write about “bola”, ‘run run’ or any other fourth, fifth, or sixth hand accounts. Cuban friends where there, however, and texted us as things unfolded. After allowing the march to proceed along the Prado, the Rainbow Army (oops, bad word choice), was told by the police they could not continue along the Malecon for reasons of traffic and safety. Some pushed through and onward nonetheless and that’s when a handful of folks were hauled off. I don’t know how long they were detained (some of the arresting officers were plain clothed cops), but at least one of them – a known provocateur red flagged by the government for previous bouts of civil disobedience unrelated to queer issues, was released shortly thereafter.

 

Beyond this, I cannot say what happened or what ensued but I’m entirely confident in reporting that some people participated precisely to cause a ruckus and that the parade was infiltrated by folks not fond of – or in direct opposition – to the government; folks who previously had not participated in related LGBTQI events. I can also say that the whole clusterf*ck went viral on the Internet, with digital jockies on and off island putting in their two cents. Like everything in Cuba and social media, this will blow over but the fact remains that LGBTQI Cubans do not enjoy the same rights as their straight or CIS gender counterparts and what was it that Marti said? “Rights are to be taken, not requested; seized, not begged for.”

 

 

In a general sense, mobile data has Cuba looking and reacting more like the “real world” with flamers, viral fake news, out-of-context photos, and acrimonious finger pointing wherever you click. From an anthropological view, it’s fascinating to have a ringside seat for this digital learning curve and spectacle. In practical terms, this access and its effects mirror what happens in other latitudes: the potential for knowledge and horizon broadening of digital access is incalculable but unfortunately, it more often results in the spread of hate and disinformation. It divides rather than unites. And once again, Cuba finds itself in deep, troubled waters. Someone send me a life raft, please!!

 

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Periodo Especial: The Sequel?!

I don’t know how the Special Period felt coming on, but I do know how it manifested once in full swing. Transport was so scarce and overcrowded, passengers lunged from bus windows at their stop or simply rode on the roof, hung from the door frame or clung to the back bumper.

Each and every day, the entire island was plunged into darkness; blackouts were so long and common, Cubans, plumbing their deep well of ironic optimism, began referring to ‘light ups,’ those times when there actually was electricity. So few and far between were those electrified hours, neighborhood block parties were held in the street, around a bonfire with a jug of rum (or more often moonshine known as ‘chispa‘e tren/baja tus bloomers’).

Toilet paper was non-existent – we used water or more often, pages ripped from the Granma newspaper. In many homes, squares the size of real TP were cut from the paper and stacked neatly atop the toilet tank. I wasn’t too put off by this. As a life-long camper, I’ve wiped my butt with all manner of material. Nevertheless, I do remember my shock at seeing Che’s face, shit-stained and crumpled, staring up at me from the bathroom wastebasket. It seemed blasphemous then but practical and normal thereafter – in dire/adverse circumstances, you do what you gotta do to survive.

And Cubans did.

They pedaled the 1 million Chinese bikes imported as transport of last resort. They fried “steaks” from grapefruit rinds, they fanned infants for hours with a piece of cardboard during stagnant summer nights. They lost weight, some suffering a neuropathy epidemic for lack of nutritious food. They rigged up kerosene burners for cooking and fashioned homemade matches. They struggled and suffered, finding solace in family, days swimming at El Espigon and nights stretching out on the Malecon. They danced, sang and fucked. They persevered and survived…

Flash forward to 2019. We’re in a different historical moment, a different context than the one I experienced in 1993, but the effects of the Special Period linger, if you know where to look. Not wanting their kids to ever go hungry like they did, parents indulge appetites to the point where child obesity and overweight are current health problems. Bicycles and cycling are stigmatized, reminding people too viscerally of those hard times. Today, hoarding happens and some still prefer newspaper to toilet paper.

The cleverness of Cubans and their deep stores of creativity and inventiveness honed during the Special Period are constantly on display. You see it in the 70-year old Harley-Davidsons zooming down the road, parts hand-hewn in cluttered, greasy garages across the island. You see it in the Russian washing machines cannibalized to make lawn mowers, blenders and coconut shredders. You see it in the burgeoning upcycle movement where the experience of struggle is translated into décor and dollars.

But no one, I mean no one wants to go through that again. And I highly doubt as many Cubans who tolerated it then would now – at least not in Havana. Make no mistake: Cuba learned its lesson from the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which sent the dependent island economy into a tailspin. It diversified, it liberalized, and it looked for and forged alternatives. But we’re seeing signs, folks. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. And it’s worrying.

Indeed, the most violent factor was – and is – beyond Cuban control: the nearly 60-year old US embargo cripples all economic and social development in one way or another. And last week the Trump Administration announced it’s considering enacting Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. I’ll leave a full explanation to the economists and wonks, but the important point is: as in 1996, during the deepest days of the Special Period, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton pounced on Cuba’s vulnerability and pushed this Act through Congress “to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.” Sensing that same vulnerability like a lioness stalking the weakest of the pack, Marco Rubio is exacting his quid pro quo with Donald Trump via Cuba and Title III.

It’s abominable how this administration is destroying lives at home and abroad. It’s no less shameful how supposed political detractors enable this cabal. Please, anyone in a policy/decision-making position reading this: do the world (and yourselves) a favor and grow some balls/ovaries; history will judge you and you will NOT be absolved.

Unfortunately, I doubt anyone reading this is making US policy. I also doubt that many people reading this realize just how vulnerable right now feels. Major trading partners and allies including Venezuela and Brazil are on the ropes. Trump rhetoric is scaring away investors and tourists. The embargo is still in place and we’ve suffered Hurricane Irma, Sub Tropical Storm Alberto, a devastating plane crash and a tornado, all in the past 18 months.

And we’re feeling it.

There was a massive flour shortage and though we are once again enjoying flour and pizza, there is neither milk (terrible for Cuba Libro) nor eggs. These latter were dubbed salvavidas in the Special Period days because eggs are a cheap, easy-to-prepare source of protein. They were, and are, ‘lifesavers.’ In the past three months, I’ve eaten a total of half a dozen eggs; it used to be a daily (or even twice a day) affair. Monthly egg rations have been cut in half to five per person, per month and when they do appear in stores, customers are limited to two cartons of 36 eggs each. But this is Cuba…

This week, my friend Camilo got word that eggs were being sold at the Plaza de Marianao. He made the trek across town and took his place in the long line. He watched people carting away 6, 7, 10 or more cartons of eggs. The stack for sale behind the crumbling counter shrank. He surmised the egg sellers were paid off to ignore the two-carton rule. The sun beat down, the stack shrank, Camilo was sweating from the heat and attendant low-level panic. Would the eggs hold out until his turn came around? He had waited in line already for two hours. The stack shrank. He asked one of the customers pulling a dolly away with over 400 eggs if he would sell a carton?

‘!Hombre no! This is for my private cafeteria. I need every last one.’

The eggs ran out and Camilo left empty handed. Mad and desperate, he went to a cafeteria near his house to order two egg sandwiches, hold the bread, hold the oil, hold the making of it. When he discovered that same sandwich which used to cost 35 cents, now costs 75, he slumped home egg-less. Today we’re scrambling to procure eggs for Jenny’s grandmother who, ailing and frail, has been prescribed a special diet by her doctor, including two eggs a day. So far we’ve been unsuccessful.

Then there’s the cooking oil situation. Shortages nationwide mean customers are only allowed two bottles per person. To procure those two precious bottles, you have to travel to the store that has it (lucky you if it’s actually in your neighborhood) and spend hours on line under a blistering sun just like my egg-less friend Camilo. As a result, many people I know spent this past weekend rendering chicken and pork fat so they won’t get caught (too) short.

Shortages of flour, eggs, oil – this post was simmering in my overworked brain for a bit but didn’t come to fruition until last night when the smell of gasoline permeated my living room. I emerged from the egg-less, flour-less kitchen (we don’t fry much and our current bottle of oil is a month old and still half-full) to see what was up. Twenty liters of premium gas now sits in a tank in said living room because people see the writing on the wall: gas hoarding has officially begun.

Blackouts are happening too – not as long or as often as I experienced in 1993, but worrisome still. And the economy overall is showing signs of serious distress. Last year the national economy grew a meager 1% and projections for this year are similar.

We may not be headed for a Second Special Period, but things feel tense as we plod through this year, Havana’s 500th anniversary.

Happy Birthday, ciudad querida. I hope smoother sailing awaits.

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Jail, Cafe Closure & Strawberries?!

Usual excuses aside (overworked; procrastination; writer’s block), the transition from 2018 to 2019 was, as we say here, ‘de pinga’ – and not in a good way. I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say I’ve been waiting for some positive news, from whatever corner, to revitalize Here is Havana. Luckily, living in Cuba obligates me to develop an inhumane amount (for me, a native New Yorker after all) of patience…But I tire of waiting for the bad news blues to lift and need to write for sanity’s sake. So I thought I’d provide ya’ll with an update of some doings in my corner of Havana (and there is some good news, despite my whining).
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Miguel has been sprung! For a weekend anyway. We celebrated his first three-day pass from Havana’s largest prison a short time ago and the tears flowed, believe me. If you’ve been following the story, you know our dear friend was sentenced to six years in the Combinado del Este for fewer than two dozen tabs of Ritalin. According to Cuban jail math, where 10 months inside equals a year in real-world time, he’s served a third of his sentence already. Several months ago he was ‘stepped down’ to the minimum security ‘campamento.’ On bad days he professes he’d rather be back in the Combinado’s maximum security section, but really, life is much better for him in the campamento, comparatively. He has regular, monthly conjugal visits and much more phone time, plus he has been released from machete duty, now spending his days in an office (Miguel The Bureaucrat!) – except when there are high-level visits, of which there are many, by comandantes and the like. At these times, it’s all hands on deck to paint, sweep, clean and perform whatever other tasks are necessary to prettify the place. A tall order.

Those prisoners who’ve earned their chits and kept their heads down, like Miguel, are rewarded three days on the outside. A family member (or friend) has to trek out to the Combinando for ‘orientation’ and to escort the prisoner home. There are five rules of the weekend pass:
1. They must check in, before settling in at home, with their local police station.
2. They cannot go to parties or clubs or bars – any place selling alcohol is verboten.
3. They cannot frequent parks or anywhere else with a “bad element.”
4. They must not be out, anywhere, after midnight.
5. They must report back to the jail no later than 9am sharp on the appointed day.

A local police officer may stop by their home during the weekend pass to ensure they are complying. This didn’t happen during Miguel’s three free days, but another prisoner failed to return and the whole place went on lock down.

When Miguel walked into Cuba Libro, a giant cheer went up – the kind you hear when the lights blast back after a 10-hour blackout. He and Esther’s coffees were on the house (as they have been since he was imprisoned and will remain so until he’s released) and we all wore those goofy ear-to-ear grins brought on by happy reunions and unbridled joy. Old friends dropped by once word got out that Miguel was in the house and seeing him – clean shaven, his raven locks a distant memory, his teeth fixed – surprised many. Diana, who didn’t know he was out for the weekend, greeted everyone around the garden table with the customary kiss on the cheek. When she reached Miguel, with whom she has been friends for years, she said ‘Hi. Nice to meet you.” As Diana took a step back, everyone burst out laughing.

“MIGUEL!!!” she shouted and jumped into his arms.

He flushed red and flashed his fixed-on-the-inside smile. Diana is one of our prettiest, most exotic regulars and Miguel had probably never before received such a shower of affection from her. The scene repeated itself when Amanda, another regular and friend, didn’t recognize him. Head shaved, the dimple on his chin, his filled-out body: Laritza, another friend, said “whoa! You’ve become a tall drink of water locked up!”

It was beautiful to be a part of the reunion and share with Miguel and Esther (who couldn’t keep their hands off each other; we almost shooed them into the bathroom for a quickie, but house rules hold that only the owner has that right). I’m just sorry we didn’t have more time together. But he has another pass in 45 days. The countdown begins!
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Switching gears, I wanted to give a short update about my rebuttal to that story that went viral saying Cuba Libro was being forced to close – this did damage, believe me, coming at the end of a very tough year where hurricanes and Trump absurdities took their toll. I promised we would find a way to stay open and true to our mission and vision, while remaining 100% legal (an important element in our ethically- and socially-responsible business model). The article didn’t mention any of this but I was (mostly) confident that we would prevail. Lo and behold: two days before new regulations for private business were due to take effect, the one that was most problematic for us – that you can only have one license – was struck from the plan. !Pa’lante!

My phone went berserk with messages and incoming calls as friends and supporters shared the news. Relief from constant, low-level stress caused by circumstances beyond one’s control doesn’t wash over you suddenly once the danger and adrenaline pass. It’s not like a near car crash. Rather, it releases slowly, like the pressure cookers steaming black beans in every Cuban home. Several trustworthy sources had counseled us to sit tight and wait and see, but when you’ve shed volumes of blood, sweat and tears for over five years to convert idea/dream into reality, it’s challenging internalizing such advice – however well-informed.

Complicating Cuba Libro’s particular situation (beyond that our business model is founded on selling affordable coffee and books – hence the two licenses) is that we rent our space. No one here is a property owner. Cuenta propistas who own their property enjoy more latitude with the one-license rule since each person on the deed is permitted a license. But all that is water under the bridge. When we learned that logic had prevailed and two or more licenses were permitted – after all, we’d been operating continuously for five years, with all the attendant inspections, required permits, work papers and the rest – we were ecstatic. And vindicated.

Of course, the changes that did take effect obligate us to confront tiresome, tedious levels of bureaucracy and these are causing all manner of frustration across Havana. For instance, because the name of our cafe activity has been changed from ‘cafeteria de alimentos ligeros en punto fijo’ to ‘servicio gastronomico en cafeteria’, we have to change all our paperwork: our health certificate, all the working papers of each of our team members, and inscription of the business with urban planning. Sounds not too taxing, writing here in this beautiful, tranquil garden with an espresso at hand, but believe me – this will take weeks and require a heroic amount of patience on our part.

And then there’s the ‘cuenta fiscal’ – the bank account that every private entrepreneur has to open. The good news is once you have the account, you receive a 5% discount on purchases made with the bank card. You also have to maintain three months of your licensing fee in the account (in Cuba Libro’s case, $45CUC), plus a percentage of profits – not ideal for a cash-poor business like ours. Nevertheless, this means the government is guaranteed their payments and can be more on top of tax scams – a major problem in the all-cash private sector. The bad news is many (if not most) of the banks aren’t prepared: they don’t have the personnel, they don’t have the magnetic ATM cards and nerves are fraying. Tussles and arguments have broken out in banks over this and really, I haven’t the energy these days to face a bureaucratic scrum. Like a pap smear, it’s something that has to be done, but no one looks forward to it.

AND THIS JUST IN!!!

I ran into my friend and cafe regular Adonis during my four days of rest and relaxation with my Harley-Davidson family. This was well-earned and sorely-needed after several 70-hour work weeks punctuated with daily donations to tornado victims. My phone was turned off, I didn’t connect to the internet and checked in on Toby once a day because in this, I have no choice: I’m head over heels for that terrier mutt. Chatting with Adonis about his 7-year old daughter and the upcoming concert over smoked pork ribs, reality came crashing down…

“Conner! I forgot to tell you. Did you know that someone opened a Cuba Libro in Havana Vieja?”

“What?! Where? What do they do there?” I asked, calmly, because there was absolutely nothing I could do about it at the moment, plus I was loath to let this dose of unsettling news ruin my mini-vacation.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “It was closed when I walked by.”

I gnawed on my pork ribs as the idea of someone profiting off our six years of tireless work gnawed at me. We aren’t among TripAdvisor’s Top 5 Things to Do in Havana by chance and this bit of trickery was just the type of thing that makes me hate the human race sometimes. Alas, there wasn’t much I could at the moment, but I could consult our most trusted regulars and mine the hive for ideas on how to proceed. I sent out a quick message to half a dozen friends and returned my phone to airplane mode.

Back in Havana, with several ideas in hand ranging from industrial espionage and legal recourse to tactics much more…guerilla, I began lining up our ducks to stop what I was convinced was a straight up case of identity theft. Adonis did some legwork taking photos of “Cuba Libros…Bookstore” in a prime Habana Vieja location. Seeing the images of books and magazines in English, with some of the same artists adorning the walls, my blood boiled and my brain roiled. We’re still gathering intel on this place but I wanted to put the word out that there is no relation or link whatsoever between us (the “real” Cuba Libro) and these Habana Vieja poseurs. Stay tuned…
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And one last thing by way of update for those diehard fans who have stuck this long with my ramblings: remember my post Stupid Shit People Ask Me about Cuba? Incredibly, those examples were surpassed this week at our little oasis. Before the big reveal of what our Kitchen Captain and Donations Coordinator called ‘the stupidest thing I’ve heard yet,’ let me be fair and say that Cubans ask me some stupid questions as well.

From this week’s annals: since we are in the midst of the very palatable, but very short strawberry season, we’ve been offering an elixir of all-natural strawberry and pineapple juice for $1.25 and made a sign to advertise this and our strawberry fruit smoothies ($1.75). If you’ve been to Cuba, I’d wager a month’s salary that you didn’t see a fresh strawberry during your stay – they’re that rare (if you did, don’t get excited: my monthly salary wouldn’t buy a bushel of strawberries where you live!). As two neighborhood women studied the sign, I asked if they had any questions and invited them into the cafe.

“Are those prices in pesos cubanos or CUC?”

Absurd: that would make our exotic (for Cuba) juice four cents. We’re fair, not crazy.

Now to the pollo of the arroz con pollo: A young woman doing a Master’s thesis on Cuba (topic still undefined) came in and offered to pay me to answer her many and varied questions.

“Make yourself at home and I’ll be happy to answer whatever I’m able. And you don’t have to pay me.”

“Oh. I thought that’s how things are done down here.”

“Not at Cuba Libro they’re not.”

The first question from this post-graduate, non-Spanish speaking “researcher” who has been walking up to people on the street and in parks (very scientific, her methodology) asking them varied, vague questions, which should have raised red flags. But really, nothing prepared me for what was coming:

“Cubans tell me the reason crime is so low here is because people are afraid to go to jail. Is that true?”

Not knowing where to begin, I offered her a copy of Crime and Punishment on the house.

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Cuba Libro – In Peril?

I’ve always had an inkling, but now I know up close and personally why people shun and malign journalists. This new knowledge is particularly ironic given the fact that I’ve been a full-time, accredited journalist here in my adopted home for more than 15 years. I would say my recent experience was also particularly instructive if it hadn’t been so damaging – I have to douse smoldering fires before I can fully learn the lesson provided by recent events.
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One Cuba Libro phenomenon (among many!) which taxes our team and especially me personally, is the random, drop-in journalist. Normally, these are foreign correspondents, some with exceptional, deep experience around the world, in war zones even, who come to me in a panic, behind schedule, deadline looming, fairly pleading with me to provide story ideas, contacts, leads and the like. More often than not, they don’t speak Spanish, further complicating matters. Always they underestimate the difficulties of reporting from Cuba. They may or may not have the proper visa. These types of unexpected visitors spike when there’s a major news story like Fidel’s illness/death; a papal visit; or constitutional referendums (happening right now, as I write this).

A flood of such reporters descended upon us when the normalization process with the US was announced in December 2014, followed by the Obama visit a few months later. To the drop-ins must be added the phone calls, emails and Facebook messages I receive requesting contacts and/or interviews with me. It saps too much time and energy truth be told.
To handle this efficiently and with a modicum of aplomb, I’ve developed filters and a triage system for these folks. The ones without journalist visas make it easy – I don’t talk to them. They’re breaking local laws. Those with an axe to grind also don’t make the cut (I’m still quite old school, believing in objectivity, accuracy and the Fourth Estate when it comes to reporting. How antiquated, right?), nor those who haven’t properly prepared. That leaves those who have the authorization, a clear idea of their angle, and the maturity and organization/preparation to warrant my help. Sounds haughty, I know, but I’ve clocked a decade and a half of in-the-trenches experience – I’m not giving that away free to just anyone.

Then there are the Cuban journalists…

The filters still apply to them but I must admit I have a soft spot for the young cub reporters with bright ideas and insatiable drive. Everyone needs a hand when starting out and unless they’re really off the rails or egregiously misrepresenting reality (including by omission), I will sit down and talk to them.

Which brings me to the subject of this post.

It wasn’t the first interview I granted to El Toque. Staffed by young Cuban journalists, this is a locally-produced, non-state news site. It has its flaws. And it’s on a learning curve. A steep one. But when they approached me to talk about Cuba Libro’s green initiatives for a series on the environment they were publishing, I was game. Encouraged even – Cuba has made strides in environmental protection since I moved here, though I see egregious digressions every day still. If you’ve been here, you’ve seen them too. So I sat down with fulana (Cuban for Jane Doe – I honestly don’t know her name) and gave her an overview of our policies and practices promoting environmental protection.

I never saw the resulting article. Along with thousands of Cubans, my internet connection is via 28.8 dial up. I don’t have the time (or inclination) to spend an hour accessing everything written about me, my writing, or Cuba Libro.

My bad.

When fulana crossed our threshold last month requesting an interview about the new regulations for private business here, I acceded. I spent an hour talking to her about how we’ll comply and how it’s likely to affect our business model.
This time I didn’t need to tax my paltry dial-up looking for the article.

The Cuba Libros Literary Café [sic] (at least its essence) will disappear on December 7, 2018, when a “series” of new regulations for private business owners come into effect.”

This was the lede, mind you. The piece, published in Spanish, picked up by other outlets and translated into English, went viral. I was bombarded by messages, Facebook queries, phone calls and walk-ins lamenting our closure.

The “journalist” (yes, the quotes are necessary) or editors cut everything I said about long, official meetings to figure out how to remain true and legal to our mission. She cut the explanation about exploring alternatives with the Ministry of Culture and related entities to keep offering superior coffee and English-language literature – what Cuba Libro has been doing since 2013. She failed to mention our community-building and robust, free cultural programming and how we intended to not just maintain it, but grow it. Nor did she include our donation programs, our free condom initiative (17,000+ given away to date), or our ethically- and socially-responsible philosophy which includes profit sharing and collective decision making. She did, however, include a damning quote from a supposed regular who opined that without books, Cuba Libro would be just another generic cafe. No one who works at or frequents the cafe recognized the guy quoted and calling him a regular? Puhlease: all our regulars know about our social mission because they are participants – joining us on our periodic volunteer days, taking advantage of our free English classes, spontaneously planting trees and donating plants as part of our environmental stewardship, or receiving donations of pre-natal vitamins, menstrual cups or cold and flu medicine.

It was impossible for me to contain the damage while the article was posted and re-posted across the World Wide Web in both languages. My internet is too slow, my real work too pressing. Nevertheless, little by little I responded to emails questioning the impending closure of Cuba Libro. Again, I employed triage, posting a response on the most trafficked websites. I clarified the situation on our Facebook page. But weeks on, we’re still experiencing the adverse effects. Our book donations have slowed to a trickle. A customer came in the other day and in a disrespectful manner not uncommon to men (mostly) of a certain age from the developed north, ranted at me, asking me offensive, invasive questions about the economics of Cuba Libro, about why we were closing, about my origins, about my personal life.

“Are you a LESBIAN?!” he fairly shouted, standing so close I could see his nose hair needed a good trimming.
“Are you bi-polar?!” I should have responded, but didn’t, instead opting to hold my tongue.

He interrupted the documentary being filmed in the living room, ignoring our whispered requests to maintain his distance. He was so insistent and disruptive that the person being interviewed had to shoo him away. He got on my last nerve, that guy.

But apparently, there was more in store. At 6pm, on my birthday, mind you, a call came in with a 305 area code. Florida. My biological father (or as my friend Peter says of his: The Sperm Donor) lives in that hell state. It crossed my mind that it might be him, but unlikely – I can’t remember the last time he recognized my birthday. But no, it was worse: a journalist from Radio Martí wanting comments about the new private enterprise regulations. Where did she get my cell phone number I wonder? Fucking El Toque, probably. I wished her a good day and hung up.

In case there remains any doubt: Cuba Libro is neither closing nor getting rid of our wonderful books. See you there one day soon.

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Inside a Cuban Prison: Part IV

It’s dark, a bit damp, the birds aren’t awake or even singing, let alone my neighbors. I rush to make coffee and walk Toby before the horizon lightens over Vedado way. It’s 5am – too early for me, except on May Day when I shuffle to the Plaza de la Revolución with 500,000 or so others in the pre-dawn calm. But today isn’t May 1st. Today I’m returning to the Combinado to visit Miguel.

I’ve been to Havana’s biggest prison several times with Miguel’s wife Esther, but today is different: today, we’re taking their 7-year old nephew. It will be the first glimpse the kid gets of his uncle since he was put behind bars over a year and a half ago.
Today is different too because it isn’t February 12, 2014, but it feels like it. That was the day my sister was moved from the ICU to the “step down” unit. A happy, relief of a day, when she could sense release from the oppressive whoosh of machines keeping people alive, the perfunctory and invasive rounds by strange doctors and students, the tests and needle jabs and jabbering nurses. She could smell freedom but couldn’t have it – not yet. Today feels similar because after 18 months in prison, Miguel has been transferred to his own step down unit, Area Zero or el campamento, as it’s known in Cuban prison-speak.

Two days after his 34th birthday he got word. He was bullied into quickly gathering his personal effects – other convicts immediately called dibs on anything left behind, snatching at them. Suddenly, Miguel couldn’t find his flip flops or lighter, undershirts or extra pens. ‘Hurry up man! You’re going home!’ As if drinking parasite-infested water in minimum security, bent double hacking grass with a machete, torpid day after torpid day held any semblance of home. But it was closer than the hard timers would ever get and besides, the more Miguel rushed, the more he was likely to forget, which would be divvied up faster than you can say ‘life sentence.’

When he called with his ‘step down’ news, we immediately began to see flashes of the old Miguel – a discernible familiarity we’d been missing. He had much more phone time for starters, and was as loquacious as ever, talking to everyone at Cuba Libro for such long periods he would ask us to hold on while he greeted prisoner friends walking by. Now, we were the ones who said we had to go rather than in his maximum security days when he’d hang up with a brusque, heavy click followed by a hollow silence. In classic Miguel style, he was also complaining: the sun was brutal; he had open, nearly oozing sores on his machete hand; and other prisoners got five day passes – he was only due to get three, sometime in November. Coño mi hermano, we said: three whole days on the outside, sleeping in his own bed, in his wife’s arms, pissing in a bathroom with a door. It was like talking to the Miguel we knew and loved, defects and all.
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So here I am on visiting day, up before dawn making coffee for me and Miguel and walking Toby. I dress appropriately (no shorts or tank tops) and head to Esther’s house to pick her up, 7-year old Junior in tow. He’s got ants in his pants, anxious to see Miguel. He’s chipper, flashing his gap-toothed smile at the sleepy adults. It’s the same long drive to the verdant outskirts of the jail, followed by two hours waiting while they check our IDs and go through the sack of sardines, hot dogs, crackers, puffed wheat and more, item by item.

“The campamento is different, mi amor,” the guard says to Esther. “You don’t need all this food and really: you should be eating it yourself.” Esther is still woefully thin – her hip bones push sharply through her dress and as a fellow flaca, I know how grating these well-intended comments from strangers can be.

“You also shouldn’t bring it in the huge rice sack. It’s almost a kilometer to the visiting area.”

Esther looks at me and I know we’ll be sweating and flushed once they herd us onto the blazing hot road, the heavy sack sagging between us. Junior is jittery and asks us when we’re going to see Miguel as we wait in the last holding area before the long walk. There are more kids than on visiting days for the max unit, several babies in arms and a couple of very pregnant women. I assume their bulging bellies are the product of the monthly conjugal visits granted well- behaved prisoners. One mother nurses, another changes a diaper, her infant son cradled on her lap and many people chuff on filterless cigarettes. I offer my seat to an elderly woman here with multiple sons – the genetic lineage is so clear, I’m sure I’ll recognize their prisoner when we enter the visiting area. Suddenly there’s movement and everyone is crowding around the single door leading to the outside, wondering why they don’t open both.

‘TIC,’ I think. ‘This is Cuba,’ where things are often harder than they need be.

After a few hundred meters under the ferocious sun, it’s obvious we can’t carry the sack, the other big bag packed with lunch for the four of us, our purses and hold Junior’s hand all at the same time. To our relief, a stalwart visitor with a wrestler’s physique offers to carry the sack. He hefts it on his shoulder, we wipe our brows and Junior wants to know if we’re almost there. We’re not…
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Junior is doing the too-hot, too-tired two step as we approach a pavilion with a roof, crowded with prisoners lingering outside in street clothes hugging their loved ones, cuddling their babies and squinting against the sun to see if their people are making their way towards the anticipated union. And there’s Miguel, just like the old days on the outside; he’s wearing brick red Bermuda shorts, a white t-shirt and grey Vans. The only difference (besides the mental/spiritual one; more on that later) is both his head and face are shaved close – gone is his ass-length mane and goatee. Miguel was the first Havana hipster, sporting a man bun and facial hair before it was all the rage, before he was busted.

We hug fiercely (I always give Esther first dibs, of course) and Junior is wearing that blank look of non-recognition – the same face I wore when I first saw Miguel behind bars.

“It’s me Junior! It’s me!”

The kid looked up at him like, ‘you can’t fool me cowboy. You aren’t Miguel.’

But after a few more words of cariño and a full-on laugh that was unmistakably Miguel, Junior’s face lit up with that million dollar gap-toothed smile.

The street clothes make an incredible difference –here is the Miguel we know and love! I don’t know who that other guy was I visited repeatedly in his prison greys, but I was glad to be sitting across from my old friend again. As Esther dished out congrís and fried pork steaks, I took in the scene. The pavilion was open on two sides, the palm trees and some pines providing green relief and I could see straight into the prisoners’ dormitory – two long lines of bunk beds, two tiers tall. Towels and flip flops, shirts and shorts are draped and strewn about; it reminded me of summer camp. There are no guards here, only prisoners serving as guards and they too, are in street clothes. In the campamento visiting area, men and women are allowed to sit next to each other, caressing, gently cavorting. I catch more than one couple out from the corner of my eye making out, the prisoners slipping hands under skirts.

We dig into our lunch with plastic forks (another bonus of Area Zero: prisoners are allowed real cutlery, something we didn’t know that until this visit) while Miguel catches us up. He has more friends from the outside, here in the campamento – three who are serving a year sentence for having a joint. While the bathroom has a door, it’s always propped open. The food is the same (ie: shitty) but there’s more of it thanks to the prisoners here working in the kitchen. Medical care is still sporadic and getting medicines to prisoners not systematized.

Miguel is on grounds detail, meaning he wields a machete a few hours a day, beaten tired by the sun and exertion. He’s a machete virgin and has never done manual labor before. He shows us a quarter-sized patch of raw skin between his thumb and forefinger. Despite the large straw hat we’d given him the week before, he is now the technical definition of a redneck, with freckles splashed across his cheeks. He complains about the beastly sun after having been deprived of it for a year and a half. He’s upbeat and laughing, hugging and cuddling and kissing Esther and I revel being in their aura of love. More than once I avert my gaze and am ashamed to admit I didn’t leave the table and take a stroll outside; I’m sure they would have appreciated the semblance of privacy. Prison etiquette isn’t my strong suit, but I’m learning.

I do a double take at the elderly prisoner trailing a three-month old puppy doing that adorable trot-cum-dance they do. Street clothes; metal utensils; a bathroom door; a puppy – semblances of real, outside life. It was intoxicating.

It was also exhausting. At one point Miguel says: ‘let’s slow the roll on this conversation. All the information overwhelms me a little.’ It’s true we’ve covered a lot of ground – details of the penal and sentencing systems; proposed constitutional reforms; and plans for his first weekend pass in November. I change the subject.

“Hey! Let me see your tattoo!”

When Esther told me he got his body inked for the first time, I fairly gasped. It wasn’t so much the design that worried me – prison tats can be decent and besides, we know several kick ass ink artists who could resolve any bad tattoo. What worried me were the health and hygiene implications. I especially wanted to know what they used for ink. It wasn’t pretty: Miguel’s tattoo (and many others happening right now, as I type this) was done with the melted plastic handles of blue disposable razors, the plastic burnt to liquid onto a piece of paper, scraped up and mixed to the right consistency with I don’t remember what; I stopped listening at ‘melted plastic.’ He raises his arm, palm up to show me his inner bicep. It was surprisingly well-lettered, spaced and placed. I stare at it a beat longer than normal.

“Is it right?”

YOU HAVE ONLY ONE LIFE TO LIVE. DON’T LET THEM BREACK YOU.

I loved the message, but the writer in me cringed. Or as my friend Peter says: it made my eyes bleed.

My gift to Miguel on his weekend pass? A trip to Zenit Tattoo.

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