Inside a Cuban Prison: Part III

I was sitting in my usual corner in the cafe when he walked in. It took me a second to recognize him out of context and with a good 25 extra pounds on his frame but his smile was unmistakeable. Miguel!! We were one of his first stops on his first weekend pass from prison. I smelled cafe brewing and I was excited to invite him to his first cortadito after a year behind bars.

“Amor. Time to get up,” my husband jostled me gently.

I opened my eyes and realized it was all a dream – the coffee was brewing in my kitchen, not Cuba Libro.

Before my friend Miguel was picked up for carrying 20 or so tabs of Ritalin, I had absolutely zero experience with the Cuban penal and justice systems. Now I know how to smuggle in instant coffee (just the fact that coffee, a staple of Cuban culture and diet is a prohibited item in jail seems punishment enough, especially for Miguel who is a tremendous ‘cafetera’) and know that inside, nine packs of Criollo cigarettes procures a homemade electrical coil to heat that illicit cafe. I know, too, that Miguel’s haircut cost five packs of Criollos and later learned that in the Cuban clink, different types of cigarettes carry differing values. In ascending order: uncut Criollos (forget bringing Titans or Populares to your loved ones inside – even there, people are loathe to smoke them); H Upmann; Hollywood white, red, green, and the highly sought after black. Seems no one is trafficking imported Lucky Strikes or Dunhills, which cost upwards of $3CUC on the outside.

Since my first visits some nine months ago, I’ve learned that I can leave my cell phone with the parking lot attendant for $1CUC for the duration of the visit and that Miguel and Esther can procure a coveted overnight conjugal visit for $50CUC – what she makes in a week working at a fancy Air B&B. Some families have had success securing their loved ones’ release for $500 to $1000CUC (a small fortune here), but not Miguel; there’s zero tolerance for drug offenses here as of late.

During this most recent visit, Miguel was considerably, visibly depressed. He was resigned, bordering on hopeless.

“Screw the appeal. Four years, six years, it doesn’t matter,” was the tenor of our conversation. His appeal was denied I found out this week: his sentence of six years stands.

His outlook was the opposite of what I expected. I thought Miguel was going to fall apart when first incarcerated. And that as he grew accustomed to his new surroundings and adapted to the criminal element inside, he would settle in for the duration. But it played out in the reverse. He was strong at first, worn down as the months passed. Since his arrest in May 2017, Miguel has been beaten up, contracted giardia and had a tooth pulled – medical conditions for which he was given a total of two pills, neither of which resolved the problem or pain – was put in quarantine during a mumps outbreak, and has suffered daily bullying.

“Amor. Please don’t bring my food in pink Tupperware,” he said to his wife Esther during one visit.

He wasn’t being picky – he was verbally abused every time another inmate got a glimpse of his “maricón” storage containers. In the same visit, he asked our friend Raul to sneak in a pair of shorts (along with coffee, bringing in shorts is verboten). Though the most comfortable option, sleeping in boxers is another cause for bullying and the prison-issued shorts are so hot as to make sleep elusive. Esther just popped in to remind Raul about wearing the shorts under his pants and passing them to Miguel clandestinely in the bathroom during the next visit. This is when I learned that the grey uniforms worn by convicts, of which I’ve written previously for their fairly fashionable cut, is made from the same material used to line caskets here (and I know a bit about caskets in Cuba). This is why inmates are known as the walking dead in these parts. Another fun Cuba fact brought to you by Here is Havana.

The news pertaining to Miguel’s situation is pretty grim. His rejected appeal, for starters. Truth be told, his lawyer is a bit weak. Esther thinks the state law firm appointed their bottom feeder to the case, (this happens frequently with drug convictions since they’re considered lost causes). What’s more, they’ve started moving inmates to the provinces to do agricultural labor. A contingent from Miguel’s unit was shipped off to Pinar del Río recently and word on the cell block is that he could be transferred to Camagüey to cut marabú soon. This isn’t all bad. He’ll be outside for a good part of each day and the living conditions should be a bit better. On the downside, he’ll be far – too far, about seven hours in a good vehicle – from visiting friends and of course, his wife. But even this has its benefits: prisoners moved outside their home province to do agricultural labor are usually rewarded with a reduced sentence.

When Esther came by for a coffee today (another community service provided by Cuba Libro: she drinks free until Miguel is released, a policy she tries to ignore, but we don’t let her get away with it), she had some encouraging news: if all goes as planned, Miguel should be downgraded from the Combinado del Este (Havana’s largest prison), to a campamento in September. This means more personal living space and fresh air, plus more relaxed visits. Then if all goes well, two months later he should receive his first weekend pass. Maybe my dream was prescient after all. I can’t wait to prepare his cortadito.

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Patrulla 122: Protecting, Serving, Discriminating?!

I’m just back from another visit with my friend Miguel, who has been in Havana’s biggest prison for almost a year now. I started writing the update (many readers have reached out to me regarding Miguel and Esther’s plight since my two first posts) but that will have to wait; recent events – still unfolding – obligate me to write about my friend Pedro and what befell him on March 6…

At about 3am on the Tuesday in question, Pedro (not his real name) was leaving a get together with his best friend Gretyl (not her real name). Both of them were with their partners. As they kissed their respective lovers goodbye for the night, they heard a squeal of tires and the ‘woot! woot!’ which strikes fear into the hearts of every person of color in today’s Amerika. But this is Cuba, the couples no estaban en nada, as we say and so they were unconcerned. The cop car, Patrulla 122, rolled up to the two couples and requested the ID cards of the four young Cubans. After calling central dispatch and ascertaining that none of them had any priors, the cops turned to Pedro.

“You’re a disgrace. You need to do that somewhere no one can see you.”

While Pedro stood thunderstruck, smarting from the comments, Gretyl and her partner looked on, bystanders now, of no interest to the police.

By now you’ve probably guessed that Pedro is gay and he was kissing his boyfriend goodbye. Two couples. The same PDA. Two completely different experiences.

If you’ve followed my writing at all, you know that I only transmit first-hand or verifiable experiences. In Cuba, it’s important to consider your source, always, and know how to filter out the chisme (gossip), la bola (rumors), and run run (hearsay). These tendencies distort everything from policy making to ‘who’s zooming who.’ Just so we’re clear: this tale came directly from Pedro, as I read the letter he sent to Police Public Affairs and the Provincial Police Authorities.

Moreover, many of you have read about my involvement with the Cuban LGBTQI community. Maybe you’ve seen with your own eyes everything we do to support the queer community at Cuba Libro, including hosting documentary and debate nights, maintaining and promoting our cafe as a safe space, and distributing free condoms – nearly 14,000 since we opened in 2013. I was at the first Cuban conga against homophobia in 2007 and nearly every one thereafter (including with Toby. Unfortunately he got too excited being amongst all his sexually diverse friends; he stayed home this year).

IDAHO, Cuba-style (2017)

So Pablo’s letter, which he was about to deliver to the legal department of CENESEX which deals with these issues, really upset me. CENESEX is quite aware of the problem – citing same sex couples for public indecency (what Pablo and his boyfriend were cited for) – and has been running workshops to educate the police force about citizen rights and the letter of the law, for years now. In short, it’s 100% illegal to cite anyone for kissing, hugging, walking hand-in-hand and the like, let alone detain or arrest someone based on their sexual orientation. Knowing Pedro as we do, we wondered if it was more than just a kiss goodnight. It wasn’t. We asked.

The fact that the straight couple was not fined or defamed (despite partaking of the same behavior), suggests that this is a clear cut case of discrimination based on sexual orientation. The verbal shaming and threat of going to the station – it’s all pretty ugly.

When the police told the young men to ‘get in the car, we’re going to the police station,’ Pedro paled – his parents don’t know he’s gay. And who do you call when you’re 19 and thrown in the clink? He confessed he was still in the closet and asked the police to not take him downtown. So they fined him and his boyfriend instead, 50 pesos cubanos ($2CUC).

I’m finding it hard to put into words how sad and angry all this makes me – a young man living in a (mostly) homophobic society who can’t or won’t come out to his parents and a police force which (too often) doesn’t understand the law and to boot, harbors a deep, ingrained, fucked up homophobia which they inflict on their fellow citizens…

The only thing I can say is we still have a long way to go and a lot of work to do. Sign me up.

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Who the Hell Am I? A Confession

A Californian passing through Cuba Libro recently asked me if I felt more American or Cuban after 16 years in residence. The question, though common, sort of blindsided me; these types of existential/identity inquiries are interesting, but of little use when you’re a journalist on deadline, finishing two books and keeping a small business afloat. I hadn’t thought about my identity in these terms in a long time.

That was my first clue about how distanced I’ve become from my birth culture: people on that side of the Straits are spending way too much (misdirected) time and energy on identity politics.

But because I have the nagging sense that I’m at some kind of turning point (or point of no return – like if I don’t rein in this Cuban-ness, I soon won’t recognize myself at all), I eked out a moment from my chaotic work schedule to consider her question.

Maybe this is why I didn’t bristle and correct her when she asked if I felt more Cuban or American. Before, I would have quickly observed (with a nearly audible sneer, I confess), that every one of us, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, are ‘Americans’ but I let it slide. Before, I would have delivered one of my pat answers – ‘depends on which day you ask’ or ‘a decent mix of both.’ But when she asked, I stopped to consider her question carefully because I realized I’m feeling pretty confused lately.

How the hell, after 16 years here can I still be confused? If you know something about Cuba, you probably understand.

I think it’s due in part to the recent historic elections here, in which I was invited to vote. It turned out to be a bureaucratic mix-up (I have no right to vote) but it stopped me short. Wait. Elections? Cuba? Electoral college? Veneer of democracy? Where am I? Who am I? Am I experiencing a shift in my core values?

After so much time here, I talk with my mouth full and have zero problem conversing about menstruation in mixed company. The first is an embarrassment and really poor form, I know, but the latter makes me proud. Just today I heard a piece on NPR about birth control and how some US women aren’t comfortable telling their doctors that their birth control is killing their sex drive. This is absurd, counter-productive and one of the many ways in which women are complicit in the misogynist construct: having body shame about completely natural parts and functions (menstruation, vaginas, uteri, orgasms, etc) does us all damage. This type of neurosis I definitely left behind in the US and am glad I did – especially once I had my first pap smear in Cuba. The lovely doctor took a long drag on a filter-less cigarette clamped between her gloved fingertips, flicked the butt expertly out the window and said ‘ok, honey! Feet in the stirrups.’ Sex toys, condom use, hemorrhoids, HIV – it’s all part of the conversation here.

SHOUTING! Through closed doors, from the balcony, across the hall, down the block, over impossibly loud music – Cubans are very loud and I’ve totally adopted the habit. Make no mistake: I arrived here half deaf from too much rock n roll, plus I’m the product of a boisterous NY family where to be heard or get a word in edgewise, interrupting and volume give you an advantage. But there’s loud for practical strategy and there’s loud as rude; I fear I’m entering into Cuban-loud (ie rude) territory.

I’m not talking about when we’re shouting at each other for sport and play, that kind of intellectual sparring and sharing of dubiously sourced facts which is far from fighting here. No, I’m talking rude loud as in shouting across a room to get someone’s attention rather than walking over to them or carrying on a conversation at full volume when someone nearby is trying to study, nap or meditate. Note to self: tone it down.

Time management and punctuality are two US characteristics to which I cling desperately, but try not to inflict on others. Cubans are chronically late and it’s useless to get your knickers in a twist over it. Most Cubans arrive between 15 and 30 minutes late to whatever meeting, event or appointment. Plan accordingly and avoid the frustration. I made the mistake recently of criticizing my hubby for his shitty time management. We had a calm, measured and adult conversation about it. Still, hours later, I was venting to a Catalan friend of mine with many years of Havana living under his belt. “Darling, you can’t get mad at a Cuban for being Cuban. You knew shitty time management came with the package when you bought in.” Note to self: focus on the things you can change.

Sometimes Cuba and Cubans make me want to pull my hair out and I start wandering that dark, dangerous path wondering: “why do I stay here? This isn’t my lucha. These aren’t my people.” And then something like Parkland happens. And a 12-year old from Connecticut visiting Cuba Libro tells me his friend told him to buy a bullet proof vest for his Cuba trip because “they shoot people down there.” And then I realize, why yes, this is indeed my place and Cubans – loud, rude, late and unfaithful – are my people. And no one has a gun. I feel I have to share this information with the misinformed tweens of the world.

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My Havana Valentine

We had a squabble getting ready for Alicia’s party. It was one of those lover tiffs which squalls out of nowhere…but somewhere. It’s that discussion ostensibly about mixed up dinner plans but actually lays bare incompatibility. The writing on the wall? Perhaps for one person in the relationship, anyway. Or maybe it really is about the dinner plans, or where you parked the car, or remembering to buy garlic. In love, I’m slow to see the writing on the wall. I choose to believe it’s about the car or the garlic – until a point.

We kissed in an obligatory, ‘fake-it-‘til-you-make-it’ way before stepping out the door. It’s better this way when you ride together on a motorcycle. Couples can stay mad and steam driving in a car, but two on a Harley is a different story. We had to touch and occasionally huddle against the wind and rain or clutch and lean together to avoid potholes. And when, inevitably, we would hit one of Havana’s classic giant holes in the road, we’d absorb the shock and keep rolling. There was no choice, especially on creepy, dark streets like the backside of Quinta de los Molinos between Centro Habana and Plaza. It was times like these – and taking the curves around the cemetery or dodging asphalt moguls in Playa – that I was glad to have a couple tons of good ‘ole American steel beneath us. I know it’s more Cuban chatarra than US metal, but it’s some sort of comfort still. It helps that my pilot is very experienced, a native Habanero with a mental map of the potholes and other hazards. Still, driving in this city requires the reflexes of a ping pong pro, especially when riding an antique Panhead weighing a ton or two. Centro Habana, where pedestrians rule, is particularly hairy. Indeed, we had to dodge several meandering down the middle of Reina like it was Obispo. Suddenly a loud rumbling came over my left shoulder, shaking me from my nocturnal musings, something Havana’s penumbra and perfume, sinister doings and secret possibilities engender. A garbage truck, light of load, flew by us. The Harley’s speedometer is broken, but they were going over 50 miles an hour.
“Wow. They’re flying,” I yelled into J’s ear.
“And drunk!” he yelled back. “All garbage truck drivers are drunks.”

They barrelled through the red light at Infanta and Carlos III, bearing out his observation. Even under the best, well-lit circumstances, this intersection is extraordinarily dangerous.

We were approaching Alicia’s building – one of those crumbling relics so popular with certain photographers (AKA poverty porn). Our tiff no longer smouldered, but there was a jilted awkwardness between us as we discussed where to park. Alicia yelled down from her postage stamp balcony, underwear drying on the line: “just leave it there! It will be ok.” We were unsure: these old bikes draw crowds from Havana to Gibara and it was Saturday night in the bowels of a rough part of town. But Alicia knows her ‘hood; we left it gleaming under a streetlamp. Someone had scrawled ‘Granma Campeón!’ on a near wall. Dogs barked. A trio of young girls wobbled down the street, their unfortunate fashion choices impeding their progress. I turned to J after two flights up.
“What?” he said, his voice jumping.
I gave him a kiss. ‘Let’s have a good time,’ it said. We entered a house full of friends, more mine than his but not really good ones of either. We danced and joked. He drank wine, I nursed some Cachito. We popped out to the balcony for a smoke and to check on the bike. We were almost double the age of the oldest person there but no matter – this smart, fun Cuban crowd, tight since they were teens, treated us as contemporaries instead of the grandparents we could be.

J was filling his wine glass to the rim, I noticed. I didn’t care, he wasn’t an alcoholic like others I’d fallen for. In fact, he only drank socially, a concept I still can’t wrap my addict head around. But there was only one bottle of red and I noticed all eyes follow his full glass as he made his way across the room. It wasn’t like him to drink much as I mentioned, and he was always thinking of others – to a fault. He needed to take the edge off to deplete that single bottle so dramatically. We took our leave just after midnight, not long after the disco ball was lit. I knew we’d have sex when we got home. We were horny. We loved – and even liked – each other. And more so than the party’s wine and good company, a couple of orgasms would buff out any lingering static between us.

When I next saw Alicia, she told me how everyone at the party was talking about us after we left, saying what a beautiful couple we made. How we were so in sync – healthily, happily. That’s always nice to hear. Especially after a spat. Either it was true or we were really adept at faking it until making it. Maybe it’s a fine line and I’m splitting hairs, but the distinction plagues me: more than once recently I’ve caught myself swaddling my head in scarves, dancing funny with people watching and having existential conversations with my dog. I’m afraid I’m turning into Little Edie, Cuba Libro my Grey Gardens. Perhaps that’s why I believe it’s about forgetting the garlic and not the writing on the wall. Why I choose to believe it’s about fucked up dinner plans and not faking it; I’m choosing to believe if Im partnered up, I won’t end up like the Little Edie’s of the world.

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Inside a Cuban Prison: The Sequel

Miguel has a court date.

Finally.

Regular readers of Here is Havana are likely haunted still by my friend’s unfortunate tale of incarceration in Havana’s roughest prison. Unfortunately, after more than six months behind bars, his – and Esther’s – saga continues its tragic trajectory. It doesn’t help in the slightest that Miguel is still awaiting sentencing for his crime – being caught with 10 tabs of Ritalin, all for personal consumption, but which the cops determined were for sale. I’ve just returned from another visit to the Combinado de Este across the Bay and a certain fatalistic tenor as settled over him. In short, Miguel is caught in a living nightmare, his Locked up Abroad – no matter that he’s Cuban.

Miguel isn’t a drug dealer. He’s a young-ish Cuban who doesn’t drink or smoke or swear, but does enjoy raves and electronic parties which often go deep into the pre-dawn hours. Like many youth the world over, he enjoys a little bump every now and then while getting his groove on. Now he’s looking at six years with Havana’s hardest criminals (worst case scenario) or two if the voodoo we’re working proves to be any good.

Luck has not favored Miguel – or Esther – throughout this torturous process. If it seems like I’m mentioning Esther a lot, I am, and on purpose. For every 10 people who ask her how Miguel is doing, she’s lucky if one asks after her; it’s extraordinarily rare for someone to ask how she’s doing. Miguel told me he wouldn’t be surviving behind bars if it weren’t for his wife of four years. She’s working two jobs to be able to visit him every 15 days (with an additional conjugal romp each month) hauling 20-pound sacks of cigarettes, socks, hot dogs, powdered fruit drink, cookies, olives, and other goods for sustenance and trade on each and every trip. It also falls to Esther to deal with the lawyer and paperwork, track down potential witnesses, and visit her trusted palero so he can work his magic; it’s important not to leave any stone unturned. Esther is fortunate to have sympathetic bosses: the time off and money required to turn over all these stones are not insignificant. Despite the financial support her family, friends, and aforementioned bosses have provided throughout this ordeal, it’s a terrible struggle and Esther has dropped so much weight a day doesn’t go by without a friend or stranger commenting on how rail thin she is. I attributed it to stress but it’s not just that as it turns out – Esther has a thyroid problem. But that’s a different story.

The financial and physical toll of this whole experience is appreciable, but nothing compares to the psychological effects it’s having. The mind games incarceration and the judicial process play is no joke. Miguel’s first lawyer, to give you one example, stopped answering his phone after working on the case for six weeks. Mr Lawyer Who Shall Remain Nameless couldn’t answer his phone. Not because it was lost or broken, but because he fled the country – with all his clients’ money. Worse yet, he never even opened Miguel’s case. My friend had been inside a couple of months already when the treachery came to light. Back to square one. Esther, feeling the financial pain and pinch acutely now, contracted another lawyer. He discovered that Mr Lawyer Who Shall Remain Nameless, in addition to stealing his clients’ money, hadn’t done jack shit and to his chagrin and our horror, Miguel’s second lawyer couldn’t even locate his case file. It was lost in the system, MIA in the Cuban bureaucracy, a place to which you wouldn’t condemn even your worst enemies.

About the time the missing case file came to light, I visited Miguel again. The guards and checkpoints were stricter this time, less relaxed and gregarious, less Cuban, vaya. Seems someone had tried recently, unsuccessfully, to smuggle in some pills in a bag of powdered milk. They had laid a fart in the middle of the fiesta as Cubans say and now the visiting process was more tedious and longer. Worse however, is the fact that they wouldn’t let me enter with the Time magazine dedicated to new technologies (Miguel is a certified nerd) because the advertisement with a woman in a tank top had spank bank possibilities, disqualifying it as appropriate penitentiary reading material. Rather than letting me rip out the offending ad, they stored the magazine for post-visit retrieval. I didn’t really give a whit for the magazine, but I knew it would have occupied Miguel’s overworked brain for hours and kept his day bright long after we concluded the visit. What really grated, however, was the guards also prohibited me from carrying in the most recent B&H catalog, Miguel’s preferred porn with all its new gadgets and high-tech geegaws. They also wouldn’t let me carry in the four-page letter I wrote him the night before. Is there anything more stimulating and stress-relieving for a convict than a personal letter? The conjugal visits, I suppose, but that’s not my job.

This visit was different from those previous and not just for the revision of our provisions. For one thing, I was starting to recognize repeat visitors and their prisoners. There was the dyed blond mulatta with the three inch nails; the guajira in her visiting day dress, the same one she wears every time; and the 72-year old inmate, shrunken and wrinkled, chain smoking uncut Criollos. This time we could have played footsie or passed contraband under the table since the ones in this pavilion were open below rather than blocked off with cement. After initial hugs, kisses and a fair share of ass grabbing, female visitors started setting out tablecloths and Cuban feasts – congris, pork steaks perfectly cooked and seasoned, salads and fritters and flan. Daughters hung on their fathers’ necks, babies nuzzled against chests, and hands were held tenderly across the expanse of table. Voices ricocheted off the cinderblock walls and laughter filled every corner like cobwebs. That room overflowed with love. It was palpable, tinged with sadness of course, but authentic, positive emotion ruled the afternoon.

On the outside, this wasn’t so: Miguel’s central (Cuban for family/support system) was losing energy, our upbeat outlook turning dark. Then by some miracle – or more banal and earthly reasons like money – his case file appeared. Esther snapped into action, amassing documents and paperwork, compiling photographic evidence and contacting potential witnesses. She needed photos of Miguel’s apartment – a nearly condemnable 1-BR affair in Centro Habana – because the investigators accused him of living ‘beyond his means.’ Police-speak for ill-gotten goods or being involved in illicit business. Wait until they see the photos: mildew-stained walls, crumbling counters, doors so termite-infested they’re soft and splintery to the touch, the chipped tiles and floors, and windows so far off true they haven’t shut right in years. Witnesses are an especially important part of the evidence equation – just one person from the group present that night on the Malecón could make all the difference. Any one of the half dozen “friends” who were with Miguel could testify that he wasn’t selling the pills. Bastards. To a one they declined to appear on his behalf. The older I get, the more indignant I am about pussy people – those who refuse to raise their heads above the parapet to defend who or what they believe in.
“Cuba Libro. Buenas tardes.”
“CONNER!!”
“Who’s this?”
“Miguel!”
Say what?! Miguel only gets one 10-minute phone call a week. I couldn’t fathom why he’d call us instead of Esther. But he was phoning with positive news: he got a good jail job, distributing three hots to his cell block. It was a plum job, for which Miguel had to make periodic payments to land and keep, but it improved his life exponentially. Moving between kitchen and cell blocks provide him a freedom enjoyed by few and also gives him regular access to the payphones. He was now calling Esther several times a week, often for 30-minute conversations. The buckets of beans and rice and stew were heavy and his shoulders and arms ached painfully because of them but chow time was a welcome break in the routine and Miguel’s personable, chatty style is making him popular with the other inmates. He told me all of this on the phone, but buried the lead: he finally had a court date for sentencing: more than 7 months after being hauled in, Miguel was going to learn his fate. He warned us: “it’s going to be frightening. I will be in handcuffs and leg shackles. You have to prepare for the worst. Dealing drugs is considered a crime against the state.”

We’re thinking positively, Esther is off to do some intense “work” with the palero and Miguel is hanging tough. About a dozen of us are going to the sentencing. Hopefully I’ll be back here soon with good news.

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Havana Declaration: He’s an Assassin

I thought I’d already written all I had to say about New Year’s Eve in Cuba. Likewise, I figured a couple posts about Donald Trump – the Cuban reaction to his election; his overall ineptitude – were sufficient, more than enough in fact. But 2017 was a particularly difficult year thanks to what the politicians, planet and life in general had wrought; given their wont to let off steam when the going gets tough and daily grind too trying, Cubans were anxious to bid goodbye the past year with a four-day weekend. And hell of a party.

Life-long traditions like eating 12 grapes at midnight; tossing a bucket of water out the door to purge the house of last year’s nastiness; and walking around the block with suitcase in tow to ensure future travels, are part of the national New Year’s script. Fireworks, on this island where fun and spectacle are homemade instead of manufactured, are making inroads, despite this year’s tragedy in Remedios. But 2017 required something more dramatic, more purging, more political, a bigger catharsis and my new-found family from the campo didn’t disappoint.

When Ivan told me over Christmas Eve dinner to come early on the 31st to help build an effigy, I took it as idle talk – the kind of statement Cubans make to fill the silent void, akin to the wishful thinking about what fast food they’ll eat once they reach the Yuma or the car they’d buy if they could.

“We need an old pair of pants!” Ivan told me over the phone as we prepared to make our way to his house in Marianao (or Playa, depending on who you ask). It seemed the effigy business was serious, a tradition in this family of guajiros. When we arrived, the life-sized muñeco was well along, the straw-stuffed torso, legs and head laid out for assembly in the driveway below a Cuban flag (another tradition here heralding Fidel and Co.’s victorious 1959 entry into Havana). The shirt and pants were so tightly packed the thing almost stood on its own, but a fist of tawny straw was saved out to fashion that absurd swoop of a ‘do ridiculed from Rye to Katmandu.

My Cuban family was burning an effigy of Donald Trump to ring out the year.

Mounted on a cross for easy transport to the corner, the tucked-away street was dead quiet leading up to midnight. But long-time neighbors knew the glee which overcame Ivan on New Year’s (the whiskey didn’t hurt) and they began drifting from their houses once Donald made his debut. One of the first was an overweight, dyed blond Cubana-Americana in a motley housecoat: “that’s a real man! That’s my President. You’re burning my President?!” she shrieked as she filmed everything with her iPhone. And then almost to herself: ‘this is going straight to Facebook.’ Her embarrassing revelations were interrupted by my second cousin:

“We should have made it Marco Rubio. He’s the real son of a bitch.”
“Yes! We should have made a Mini Me/Marco to go with Trump and burned them together,” I said.

The neighbors – save the bottle blonde – started weighing in.

“Rubio’s the real asshole. An even bigger imbecile than Trump,” opined Neighbor #1.
“And he’s never even set foot on this island! But he acts like he’s struggled and suffered through the same as us,” said Neighbor #2, spitting on the ground for emphasis.

As Lázaro doused Trump’s feet in black market gas, fireworks popped, shouts of ¡Felicidades! rang out and cascades of water arched from bucket to street. 2017 was history.

We sparked a couple of Cuban matches and tossed them in Trump’s direction. The effigy burst into flames the height of two men, burning fast and hot, temporarily silencing the dozens gathered in the street. As we watched rapt, bottles of ice-cold sparkling cider (used here in lieu of champagne, whether out of tradition or lack, I know not) were uncorked and passed around among neighbors and friends. By now, would-be, wannabe, travelers started making their way around the block with wheelie carts, backpacks and duffels. One couple dressed to the nines, looked ready to alight at Charles de Gaulle, while an entire family, five generations all told, headed down the street with luggage in tow. ‘¡Buen viaje!’ we shouted out.

“See you at Terminal 2!” yelled an older gentleman in response.

The graceful Chinese lanterns containing wishes of wealth and health for the new year drew our eyes skyward as they soared high above the Havana rooftops. We pledged to do that next year – something positive and beautiful to be seen by the whole city. Dreaming of the year to come, we watched Trump go up in flames, his head and silly hair crashing to the ground. Through the revelry and smoke, singed straw and sparks, I caught the eye of my suegra:

“Trump is a bad man. A very bad man. He’s an assassin,” she said softly.

Happy 2018 everyone!

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Humans of Havana

“I’m doing absolutely nothing. I don’t plan on even leaving the house. I want to hang out with you guys, eat as much as I possibly can, sleep and luxuriate in hot water worth its name.”

As you may have guessed, I was excited to go off-island for Thanksgiving and spend some quality time with my family. I needed a rest from my 70-hour work weeks. I needed to escape from Cuban-generated stress. I needed to eat with abandon. I needed a 24-7, seamless Internet connection. I needed to bank.

The only social obligation I had was to re-connect with my oldest friend who cheated death – repeatedly, by a hair – and was now on the road to recovery. The meet-up had potential to be heavy (we were twice a couple over our 30 year friendship and I was intimately involved with his various brushes with death) and I was looking forward to it, but not, if you know what I mean. I really didn’t want to leave the house, much less on Black Friday, but for Jason I’d do it. I took a seat near the dog park at the Museum of Natural History to wait for him.

My head raced with random thoughts – nostalgia for our long-gone youth and those heady days when Jason and I crossed the country in a Ford Econoline; my (possible) complicity in his near death experiences and the day I gave him a final wake-up call; and how amazingly he shreds the electric guitar and viola da gamba. I marveled that the New York winter weather was actually pleasant – the landscaped areas around the Museum of Natural History teemed with families and Upper West Side lifers lightly clad, nary a woolen scarf in evidence, present company excluded, of course.

I looked past the Alfred Nobel monument and across the plaza wondering how late Jason might be – he is a chronic over-scheduler; I think it’s related to his natural state of misplaced optimism. As I mused on the intersection of cheating death and misplaced optimism, I saw a guy in the middle distance walking in my direction.

‘He’s bee-lining for me,’ I thought with no small dose of dread. I wasn’t in the mood for a random encounter. Not today. And I was right – this guy was striding directly towards me.

What the hell does this have to do with Havana you’re wondering? Maybe you’re yelling at the screen: ‘¡Vamos al grano, ya! Get to the point already girl!’…I’m sure I’ve lost readers already. So as not to lose more: the tall guy with a big, pro camera dangling from his wrist rolled up to my bench.

Him: “Hi.”

Me: I responded with what a Cuban friend calls my ‘synchronized swimming smile.’

Him: “Have you heard of Humans of New York?”

Me: “Nope,” looking up the path to see if Jason was coming. No dice.

Him: “I take portraits of New Yorkers and do interviews to go with them. I have two books on the New York Times Best Seller list.”

Me: “Congratulations!” This wasn’t sarcasm: as a writer, I’d be orgasmic if I had two best-selling titles.

Him: “And I have 18 million followers on Facebook.”

Me: 18 million?! I wondered when was the last time he came upon someone who had never heard of his project. Instead I said: “that’s a lot of bored people.” He laughed. Point for brazen camera/writer guy.

Him: “Maybe the content is really good and that’s why there are so many followers?”

Me: “Fair enough. Let’s say half are following for the content. The other half are just bored.”

Him: Earnest laughter.

I agreed to give the interview and have my portrait taken. (Actually he had me at two best-selling titles).

Him: “What’s the biggest challenge in your life right now?”

Great opening question, I thought. But complicated. My imminent meeting with Jason was an immediate and unpredictable challenge. Growing Cuba Libro amidst innumerable, unforeseen bumps in the road was another. I also had career and deadline challenges, others related to my relationship, and still more with my family. But really none of that compared to my greatest problem.

Me: “My biggest challenge? I just quit smoking. And I live in a country where everyone smokes, everywhere – on the bus, at school, in the office, even in hospitals. And a pack of cigarettes costs 70 cents.”
Him: “Where do you live?!”

If you’ve been to Cuba, if you have struggled with the nicotine monkey (according to addiction experts it is the hardest to get off your back), you know down to your bones how hard it is to not smoke here. I ended up talking to Brandon Stanton for over half an hour, covering all kinds of ground and talking about a variety of topics, including his wife’s stellar project Susie’s Senior Dogs. Jason looked momentarily hurt when he finally turned up and found me deep in conversation with this affable guy snapping my photo. Brandon gently asked for 10 more minutes with me.

Alas, I don’t think Brandon knows this monkey of which I spoke. He couldn’t relate to how all-consuming, how incredibly difficult it is to quit smoking. Ex-smoker Brandon was not. Pretend extrovert? Maybe. What he published focussed entirely on my comments about being an introvert in Cuba. Here, there’s obligatory socialization. Having to talk to strangers and greet neighbors by name, take a day out of the weekend for a visit or engaging in a conversation waiting for the bus, bread, the bathroom, whatever – these were significant challenges when I moved here over 15 years ago. But I’ve learned the lesson well, I think. Otherwise I certainly would have blown off the guy with his camera and mad interview skills. Had I not had over a decade of training talking to strangers, I would never have had 70,000 likes and nearly 3,000 comments on my HONY appearance.

Now I’m back in Havana. I resisted valiantly. After 8 hours at court for Miguel’s trial last week, my resistance failed. Each day, with every cigarette, I feel I’ve failed. And each day I feel more a Human of Havana than a Human of New York.

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