Unpacking the Protests in Cuba

Recent events compel me to post sooner than I otherwise might. First, I’ve received so many questions, including in my professional capacity as a journalist, about what’s happening in Cuba that for efficiency’s sake, it’s easier to condense my thoughts here. Part I is What You Need to Know.

Second, just as many people or more, have contacted me asking how they can help. And while some may be abashed to say it, I’m not: Cubans need help. So for everyone wishing to act in solidarity with Cuba and the more than 11 million people on the island, I’ve put together Part II: What You Can Do. If anyone has other (serious, verifiable) leads for donation, support, lobbying, etc., please feel free to drop me a line or comment.

By way of preface, transparency, and cred: I have built this blog and my not-altogether-smooth writing reputation through a golden rule of only reporting what I’ve seen or experienced first-hand. As a (distant second, seldom-used) alternative, I’ll report what close friends and clear-eyed colleagues have experienced. What follows employs both these mechanisms.

I’m not there now, but I was in Cuba for the November 27 sit/sing-in at the Ministry of Culture and ensuing events through March 2021. Different from what’s happening now, but useful as a baseline for how different things can look when you’re on the ground actually living it, from when you’re watching from afar, observing virtually. I’ve also been in constant, expensive and difficult contact with my friends and loved ones, young and old, in Havana and the countryside.

Obviously, there’s much more to be understood and written about these events, but this is what I’ve got for you right now.  I’ve used numbered, bold sections for ease of reading.  

What You Need to Know

1. Anything on the internet should be considered suspect, false, or doctored until proven otherwise. Cuba and COVID-19 have a lot in common: a perfect storm of historic and novel circumstances converge, fueled by an infodemic and all hell breaks loose. In Cuba’s case, we have 60 years of brewing animosity and policies—on both sides—exacerbated by a pandemic lockdown and four, going on five, years of Trump sanctions. Throw in a rabid, militarized diaspora with some internet savvy (and coaching, I’m sure) and the shit is bound to hit the fan. Oh! Plus the weather.

First time someone has mentioned the weather in relation to recent events? No surprise there. Unless you’ve lived it, weather severity of the type we have in Cuba and how it affects people has probably never occurred to you. But it’s real: two consecutive summers without a beach or pool for cooling off (they were closed both this and last year) , combined with no air conditioning  when there’s a blackout (most Cubans can’t afford it anyway), plus the shortages, plus the lines, plus the economic crisis, plus the MLC stores—of course it’s driving some to extreme lengths.

Conclusion: If it weren’t for COVID-19, we would not be seeing protests in Cuba.  

2. The US and their shills in the exile community are complicit in fueling the violence (and goddamn it: would all of you just stop? You are destroying people and families). We know violence begets violence in a vicious cycle where there are no winners. Think US involvement is some wacky leftist conspiracy theory? This is old hat for Uncle Sam. Just follow the money—to whom it’s distributed and how it’s spent. These are US tax dollars paying for this, which should nauseate you as it does me.

Conclusion: Cuba’s right to sovereignty and self-determination is violated by US sanctions. Obviously, events in Cuba cannot be laid entirely at the door of foreign intervention, but without the money and cage rattling by the US government and exile groups (to mention nothing of the media’s role), I wouldn’t be writing this post.  

3. Too many of us have too short a historic memory and we, as a human race, suffer greatly for it.  Several factors at play today put me specifically in mind of the violent act of war at Girón. Remember Girón? To recap: President Kennedy authorized a military invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained and equipped Cuban exiles, promising air cover once they reached the beachhead. That cover never came and many people died as a result. A tactical oopsie daisy from which I would have hoped policymakers had learned. Wishful thinking. Whatever policy analysis is being done in the US continues to underestimate the will of the Cuban majority to defend their right to sovereignty while overestimating the power and sway of people of Cuban descent off-island.

Conclusion: US Cuba policy continues to depend on counsel from partisan factions and people who are too far removed from what is happening on the ground to make an accurate assessment. This has had fatal consequences like the Bay of Pigs, Brothers to the Rescue and others still classified.                  

4. Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain as he works furiously to distract us from the fact that since the 19th century to right this second, Cuba is a US domestic issue, rather than a foreign policy concern. We need only look at last week: Haiti sinks deeper into chaos and violence, openly requesting US assistance to stabilize the situation and all we’re hearing about is Cuba. Why? And why has President Biden, despite having a ringside seat during the normalization process, despite Dr Jill Biden’s visit to the island, despite his campaign pledges, despite urgent calls to lift sanctions from BLM, Oxfam, the UN and others, refused to change Trump’s policy towards Cuba? Because congresspeople in New Jersey and Florida have his ass over a barrel, posing a threat to his power and the Democrats’ future in mid-term elections. Haiti? Who cares. Cubans? Expendable. Cuba? Capitulate to elected bullies to consolidate power in the Beltway—using florid and moving language, evoking democracy, freedom, and human rights. But only when it fits US interests and narrative.

Conclusion: US policy towards Cuba is about the US, not Cuba or Cubans on the island. As a friend put it recently: the US is ready to sacrifice 11 million Cubans at the Bob Menéndez altar.

5. Too many, including Cuban policy makers, continue to meter todo el mundo en el mismo saco (lump everyone together, ignoring nuance and circumstance). All societies are an organism—a living, breathing, often amorphous and contradictory conglomeration of personalities, individual situations, philosophy, and history. Just like every New Yorker is not a rushed neurotic mess in a perpetual rat race, not every Cuban who has been to the United States is against their own government. Just like not every Floridian is a gin and tonic swilling fogie, not every young Cuban wants to emigrate. Not every Cuban on an overseas scholarship is under the thumb of a foreign government and not every child of Operation Peter Pan is working to destabilize their birth home.

Conclusion: Beware of anything you read that says ‘the Cuban people are doing or feeling X’; such generalizations can’t be applied to any nation and is a blatant tip off that your source is biased. Instead, look for nuance and breaking down of stereotypes—something sorely needed to move us closer to mutual understanding.

6. The limits of Cuban resiliency and creativity are being tested in ways heretofore unseen. Sure, for certain generations and to a certain extent, the Special Period and Bush aggressions were a test. But younger Cubans didn’t live that, they don’t want to live like that and they shouldn’t have to. Their resiliency and creativity are being forged now, during COVID-19. While the pandemic shares some commonalities with the shortages and exposed inequities that typified the 1990s, Cuban youth can’t be expected to channel the same flavor of resilience their parents and grandparents did. They have different sources of resiliency and are as creative, in their own way, but they need a real seat the table and need to be heard—and not only members of the UJC, señores.   

I’ve been writing and talking about waning resiliency for a while. Most Cubans I know are tired, hungry, hot and let me underscore: sad. Everyone I’ve talked to in these past few days—Cubans on the island and off—are crying themselves to sleep at night (when they can sleep) and bone/soul depressed about what is happening. They aren’t in the streets or trolling hate on the internet; they are desperately trying to maintain communication with their loved ones, find food, and keep their mental health from further fraying.

Conclusion: Anyone against violence, anyone wishing to see a peaceful, long-term and sovereign solution, anyone who cares about the health and well being of Cubans and their families, wherever they choose to live, should be promoting resiliency and creativity. How do we avert violence while promulgating respectful, sane dialogue even though we disagree? How do we engage disaffected, disenfranchised or apathetic youth? In some cases is doing nothing better than doing something? Just some preliminary questions that can help inform the road map out of this morass.

7. COVID. COVID. COVID. As a public health journalist, as someone who has lived the pandemic in Cuba and now for the past four months in the United States, the A #1 priority right now is controlling the spread of COVID-19 and treating those that have it.

Conclusion: What is killing Cubans is COVID-19. Not the Cuban armed forces. Not the police. Not the lack of internet or freedom of speech. Not even the hunger, kept at bay via the ration card, as threadbare as it is. It’s the SARS-CoV-2 virus and anything that keeps jabs from people’s arms, medicines from their reach, and food from their table is complicit.

***NOTE: I was not aware when I wrote this that 36-year old Diubis Laurencio Tejeda died during the protests. I regret the omission.***

What You Can Do

1. Promote non-violence. If not, the current shit show could erupt into a blood bath.

2. Don’t be a dot com dolt. Do not share, like or otherwise promote posts, tweets, videos or photos without first verifying the source, date, author and veracity of claims made therein. And see What You Can Do #1 before hitting send.

3. Recharge the phones of your loved ones. This allows you to keep in touch and know they’re safe. Also, phone saldo is used as an ersatz currency that can be sold and traded. I’ve used ding and Fonoma, but there are many others.

4. Encourage critical thinking. Pay attention and actively listen. Dig deeper. Be conscious of subtext including hidden agendas, axe-grinding and hypocrisy. Look for nuance.in

5. Don’t fight on the internet. This is akin to pissing in the wind or fucking drunk: useless, frustrating and messy. Your energy and time are better spent hounding your elected officials for a humanitarian Cuban policy during this traumatic pandemic.  

6. Send money to loved ones. This is more difficult than ever since Trump shut down Western Union to the island but I’ve successfully used Duales which has the option of depositing into a bank account or delivering the money straight to the recipient’s door.  

7. Send food to your loved ones. There has been an explosion of services delivering fresh, canned and prepared food door-to-door in Cuba (side benefit of COVID-19). The ones I’ve used with no problem whatsoever are MallHabana and Katapulk. Not cheap, but assured.

8. Send medicines and syringes to Cuba. Already there are several global campaigns to send urgently needed supplies to Cuba to help control COVID-19, including 30 million syringes so every Cuban can be vaccinated. They have the vaccines because they produced them but they don’t have the syringes. Other options for sending essential medicines and supplies are through the Cuban embassy in your country (except the USA, natch) and now, in your suitcase.

That’s it for now folks. I will update as necessary. Thanks for reading and a huge, grateful hug  to everyone who has reached out with emotional, financial and moral support.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Busting myths about Cuba, Communications, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Party in the U.S.A.?

Eight-hour blackouts roll through Havana, a bottle of cooking oil costs $12 on the black market, and everything from salt and cigarettes to laundry detergent and sugar is becoming more difficult to procure. And as I type this, a tropical storm is gathering steam and heading towards my family.

Meanwhile, I’m stuck in El Norte, with no real notion of when—or how—I’ll return. I’ve been here now or over three months when an unplanned odyssey dumped me back in the United States. Even after 20 years of straddling the divide, with family aquí y allá, the separation is unsettling—a discomfiting heartbreak by degrees. I’m guessing most of us with ties to both places share similar feelings.

‘Leaning into it’ helps keep the rage and frustration at bay, if only temporarily. Leaning in has never been my strong suit, and it’s getting harder, not easier, being stuck here—the longest I’ve been off-island ever. The double downward spiral created by the pandemic and economic recession continues to suck us dry like a tick burrowing into our communal psyche. Keeping afloat, treading water furiously, is what we do, but it’s exhausting. Emotionally. Financially.

To alleviate my emotional and spiritual fatigue, I try to shift my perspective from ‘stuck in the United States,’ to ‘mercifully unable to return at the moment.’ Like a 12-step mantra you repeat to keep yourself sober and (passably) sane, I tell myself to enjoy the unexpected time with my family. I congratulate myself on my continued weight gain. I work hard envisioning a viable future for Cuba Libro.  Even as I admonish myself to be grateful (goddamn it!) for this time, I beat back feelings of guilt and hopelessness, my survivor syndrome in constant conflict with my goal for practical optimism and self-preservation.

Today my mental and physical health status is: mostly nauseous.

Two things keep me on the right side of the asylum doors and dirt: the unflagging support of my family here and there, and the irrefutable and mounting evidence that Cuba provides a superior quality of life than the United States (cue the trolls).

It began to dawn on me—like so many of my realizations—in a bathroom.

“He’s in jail again, for fuck’s sake,” I heard from the stall adjacent. “I don’t know what to do.”

‘Leave him to rot,’ I thought.

“You need to get out of there,” her friend responded on speaker phone.

I concurred. ‘Now tell her to take you off speaker so the whole women’s room isn’t privy.’

“I know. He’s violent. He’s high. I can’t be there when he gets out, but I can’t get in. He changed the locks.”

Her friend didn’t miss a beat: “get over there, jimmy a window, grab you shit and get out.”

I wiped in a hurry, eager to put a face to the drama. Dyed blond and overly tan, her face was crevassed by the wrinkles and sag typical to sun-soaked drunks and junkies. The contents of her purse were splayed across the bathroom counter. “I can’t do this anymore!” she shouted at her phone, a whistle escaping through broken teeth.

Welcome to Florida.

_____

I was in this southern swamp for my cousin’s wedding. I adore this cousin. I enjoy cavorting with this side of my family that I hadn’t seen in decades—to the extent I was braving Florida for the chance. I vowed to harness that practical optimism, remain open-minded, and practice leaning in, to this first, happy reunion since COVID started raging. I tried to lay aside my Florida bias—as understandable and defensible as it is.  

Just off the plane in Jacksonville, the hot mess of a stranger in the bathroom did nothing to help my resolve.

Nor did the inordinate amount of people violating CDC rules for masking up in airports. Or the stringy-haired, grime-encrusted tweaker trying to rent a car—no credit card, only a couple of teeth—at the next window over.

I dialed back my toxiciciy, tried to check my judgement (hard nut: we’re close to Disney and Daytona after all) and focus on the joyous occasion that brought me here. I counseled myself not to condemn an entire state and nation after a few brief encounters with Darwin’s disadvantaged.

Early the next morning I took a walk on the beach, confident that nature and negative air ions, plus the presence of Yemayá out there, somewhere, would help smooth my bent, twisted feathers. I forcibly shut down my snark watching monster trucks kick up sand within feet of virgin turtle nests, the eggs buried just the night before. Instead, I switched focus to dads making sandcastles with their daughters, the wedding party doing yoga, the grizzlied men fishing from shore. I bid good morning to strangers and passersby.

‘Kill a Commie for Mommy.’

The 12-year old’s t-shirt stopped me in the sand, ‘good morning’ curdling on my lips.

It wasn’t the political statement tripping me up and out (I’m quite sure this tween product of the Florida education system would be seriously hard-pressed to elucidate even one tenet of communism—or democracy for that matter). It was the violence of it. Slot in Christian, QAnon quack or douchebag billionaires for Commie and my reaction would be (almost) the same.

“That’s a pretty aggressive shirt, don’t you think?”

I don’t like to play the shame game but…I will when pressed.  

_____

With just 24 hours in Florida, some rotten realities about the USA started snapping into place.

At any time, any place, you will be subjected to personal, traumatic conversations between strangers.

Apparently, here, folks like my bathroom buddy, think having a cell phone engenders some sort of privacy (do Europeans act like this? Canadians? Or just entitled Amerikans?*). In CVS, the grocery store, the subway—I’ve overheard divorces, mom’s ripping the nanny/gardener/maid a new asshole, and abusive bosses dressing down employees. What’s the empathy rule for when you inadvertently learn of cancer diagnoses or in flagrante affairs? Do I hug the sobbing widower as he crumples beside the reduced-for-quick-sale end cap? Check that. I don’t know you, your help, your cheating husband or aunt with carcinoma. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Real grief is another story (of which I wish I knew little, but alas, at 52, it comes with the territory) and I can understand ‘getting that call’ or being triggered in public, but otherwise? Get a room. Ghost. Use headphones. Whisper. Anything, but stop contaminating the rest of us. Same goes for people who pick their noses in traffic or clip fingernails in the airport lounge. Just stop, ok?   

The USA is a violent, violent country.   

Not everyone, everywhere or always pre-meditated, but the general tenor here is ‘I will fuck you up!’ if we don’t share values, views, skin color or background. You want me to stop clipping my nails in public? Talk to my Glock. Black dad in a community of Karens? Meet my assault rifle. Or maybe I’m just a little more pissed off and alienated than usual today, so I’ll strafe a school. It’s an environment and culture that accepts children wearing t-shirts advocating murder for political-philosophical concepts they don’t understand. No thank you. I ain’t down. And when will Donald Trump be put in jail? He’s not wholly responsible, but does he share blame? Why, yes, he does and we, the people, want a reckoning.

The imperialistic, entitled outlook is deeply, deeply ingrained in the Amerikan psyche.

The average person here truly believes. Lives and breathes the concepts of US superiority, eminent domain, Manifest Destiny and the like.  Of course they do: the average person here may not ever travel beyond their home state in their lifetime. These are the same people who tried to cancel the French by renaming them Freedom Fries (file under: Fucking Idiots, pardon my French. Cross ref: Republican Congress/North Carolina Crackers). While entitlement is a saw used for generations to flog the rest of us (file under: Conner Says Nothing New), now the stakes are just too high. Climate change; science denying, global pandemic (hello?!); income inequality; world exploitation—let’s drop the posturing and politicizing because these crises will brook no bullshit, nor wait for the ignorant or unwoke to get with it. I said as much, in the nicest way possible, when a family member at the wedding suggested we attend the colonial reenactment of the “settling” of St Augustine. Oh, hell no!

And I encourage everyone to Just Say No to states that don’t recycle. Just Say No to politicians advancing an imperialistic agenda against sovereign nations (at the expense of constituents to boot—this means YOU Bob Menéndez, who as this link shows, has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to today’s Cuba, and Marco Rubio, who has been vocal about his goal to hurt Cuban families and starve the nation as indicated in this legislation he co-sponsored). Just Say No to anti-vaxxers and any other manifestation of this misplaced and false sense of US exceptionalism and superiority. The other tactic is to give them enough rope to hang themselves with—maybe too dicey considering the competing global emergencies in which we find ourselves. Or we can just hang on a little longer: given how disappointing the Biden administration is turning out to be, coupled with the pandemic, I predict this exceptionalism bubble is going to pop in 3, 2, 1…

Systemic racism is a killer and not going anywhere, anytime soon.

It, like colonialism and exceptionalism, is so deeply ingrained, I’m glad I’ll be dead in 20 or so years and not have to witness the final countdown. This was rammed home as I sat on the beach watching this beautiful, inspiring union of two people in love unfold. I’m white, my soon-to-be-hitched cousin is white, my family is white and though there were a few Asian, gay and differently-abled folks at the wedding, diversity in my clan tends towards slugging shots of Bushmill’s instead of Jameson for a little variety. Don’t get me wrong: the happy couple is super woke and evolved, as are many of my family members—precisely why I choked on my mocktail when I heard the priest boom: “and just like the Pharaohs were buried with all their worldly possessions they might need in the afterlife—food, clothing, slaves…”

‘Oh, no he didn’t,’ I thought.

But the looks on the faces to my left and right told me: yes, he did. He most certainly did. But it gets better. After the whoopsie daisy with the slaves, he asked us to raise our arms heavenward to receive the blessing of god, whereupon 80 people stood on that beach making what a bystander could only interpret as the heil Hitler sign.

So yeah. There are people and places I love here—I had a tremendous week in LA, eye-opening experiences in Minneapolis and am calmly (kind of) waiting out my return in my beloved Maine woods. But Party in the USA? Not for me, thanks. No matter how potent or pretty the favors

*I spell it this way to distinguish between the dozens of other countries making up the Americas, all of whose inhabitants are also Americans.    

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Filed under Americans in cuba, environment, Expat life, Living Abroad

Surviving Cuba with FE*

(*Familia en el Exterior)

I used to tell people when I’d be traveling—give them a head’s up in case they needed something from a fuera. That was when I first got here, green and eager. It took just a few trips hauling back motherboards, tires, cologne and all manner of sordid (vibrators/lube) and sundry (Dremels/extension cords) cargo to learn to keep my travel plans private. The responsibility became a burden, literally and figuratively, my luggage loaded down with encargos.

Everyone wanted something. But not everyone needed something. It took me awhile and hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned to distinguish between the two.

Some people talk a really good, sweet game. Others take straight up advantage. Often, priorities and similar levels of need compete. Triage is hard—especially in disaster times. The night before I left our tent camp after weeks of living with the Henry Reeve Brigade in post-quake Pakistan, I offered to mule gifts to the doctors’ families back in Cuba. Within a few hours, I had tank tops and underwear, flip flops, dolls, razors, makeup, toy cars and soap—an entire extra bag accompanying me on the long trip home.

As I’m sure/hope you’ve heard, we are squarely in disaster times on the island right now. It’s heartbreaking (Alfredo making chicken foot soup; Elena fashioning her own soap) and there’s blame to lay, but what substantive, long-term good does that do? Not enough, I’m afraid. Does it ease our aching hearts? It does not, I am proof. So this time I’m bringing back as much as my skinny arms, wallet and airline will allow. But I’ve had to set—and stick to—a strict prioritization method.

For me, like most people (most of my people anyway), it’s always family first. I’m talking beyond blood: I’m talking Family, capital F. Cuban-type, capital F type Family, which is broader, more blended, sometimes even including mistresses, bastard children and ex-husbands. Have I been burned? You betcha. Swindled. Double crossed and tricked, by people I thought were family. What a crappy feeling that is, eh? These days I’m studiously careful about whom I consider Family. Because these days, more than most days, all Cubans need FE to survive. And I can’t be a surrogate FE for all these people in need.  

The need is great indeed. Everyone is suffering from the COVID-induced paralysis of disastrous proportions, the reunification of the currency and attendant runaway inflation, plus the US blockade which is right now at its most Draconian since its imposition 60 years ago. So for this (unplanned and bittersweet) trip, I told no one but my Family—this includes my closest neighbors, the Cuba Libro team of course, and my MEDICC Review colleagues. But you know what happens once la bola está en la calle: word starts getting around.

It fast became evident I would need a solidarity hierarchy to complement my regular prioritization mechanism:

  • Family: Within this category I prioritize the sick, elderly, children and new moms. Our pets are also Family (there is so much need for veterinary meds and supplies). Among the items I’ll be bringing back: a cane, shoes, razors, wheels for angle grinders, printer cartridges, a couple of cell phones, bras, toothpaste and brushes, shoes and seeds for home gardens…Just last night my sister-in-law fairly begged for seeds and spices. I’ve got her covered.
  • Medicine: Certain non-family folks jump to the front due to health problems, like the 3-month old with leukemia who lives next door to an old friend and a colleague’s mom who recently had a cerebral hemorrhage. Medications I’ll be bringing back for them, family and friends: children’s cough syrup, Omega 3, glaucoma eye drops, multi-vitamins, B complex, blood pressure, cholesterol, anti-anxiety and Parkinson’s meds, antihistamines. burn cream and lidocaine patches.  
  • Food: You’ve seen how skinny I am? It’s not an eating disorder: that’s stress and food scarcity pure and simple. Smoking doesn’t help and I surely have parasites glomming off my gut, but I love to eat. So much so my Cuban friends dubbed me La Yuma Jamaliche.  But this whole COVID thing combined with the teetering Cuban economy means there ain’t enough to go around. Me and almost everyone else is not getting enough to eat, period. It was annoying enough when every last person was saying how flaca I’d become but it was downright alarming when one of my scientific, vaccine expert colleagues told me the same thing, advising me to eat more (as if it were that easy in Havana, Spring 2021).  I always chow down hard when I’m in the States, aiming to gain 10 pounds, but this trip I’m going for a baker’s dozen (only 2 pounds to go!) by the time I return. And you know I’ll be returning with a valise full of food including: industrial amounts of cumin, cinnamon and garlic powder, nuts and grains of various types, energy bars, rice, pasta, dried fruit, parmesan cheese, tuna and more (RAMEN is my savior!).
  • Gifts, fun and ephemera: A well-known food and social justice activist taught me an important lesson: for years, she was rabidly opposed to any cut flowers, arguing that this and all fertile land should be dedicated to food production. Bouquet flowers were frivolous, ephemeral and perishable—and criminal when people were starving. Then one fine day, someone pointed out to her that flowers feed the soul.

And our soul needs feeding. More than ever these days. Soul burn out is real and lethal. This is especially true for those of us fighting the good fight and dedicating ourselves to helping others. And while cut flowers are still kind of iffy in my mind (better to plant your own), the point is, we all need fun, pretty stuff in our lives. This isn’t an easy lesson for me. My epigenetic code yells Suffer! Deny comfort! Work hard! Form follows function! Not a lot of wriggle room for pretty things within my particular neurosis, but I’m learning and this trip I’ll be going back with: scented candles, two of mom’s ceramic bowls from my childhood, a psychedelic spinning thing for my balcony, all kinds of chocolate/cool magnets/earrings for my family and friends, and a bit of makeup for me ‘cuz you know: I’m getting old and burnt out and it’s beginning to show.

As I hunt furiously for a way to return, people continue to write me asking to bring: belt drives, nutritional yeast, cell phone cases, mouse pads, and more. The need never ends. There’s never enough room or money or time. I’m learning to say no when all I want to say is: ‘hell yes!’ Now if only I could get my body and bags on a plane headed to Havana…

NB: The term FE (Familia en el Exterior) was copped from Peter, my brother from another mother.

Also: These travel gymnastics and luggage nightmares would be fewer and far between if Biden would get OFF HIS ASS and restart the normalization process.

And: For those who got all the way to the end of this post and are left wondering…yes. I mule in money for every family, friend or colleague who asks.

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

Cuban Dumpster Fires #42-46: COVID & The Blockade

Things aren’t going well in Cuba In fact, the situation is peor que nunca. Rolling blackouts, the antiquated aqueduct system busted, leaving huge swaths of Havana without water, the country is posting record numbers of COVID infections and there’s no pork, rice, coffee, salt…

In short, our world is rocking.

Which means my world—this inconsequential space-time blip I occupy with friends, family and a few random undesirables—is also rocking. Upside down and sideways. It’s COVID. It’s the embargo. It’s the forced separation the combination engenders. If you’ve got any Cuba connection, you know we’re in a long-running, island-set shit show with dumpster fires peppering the stage. The flames rage while bystanders burn.

And I’m sidelined, unable to dowse or dampen the conflagration: I was obligated to leave Cuba two months ago.

My passport sat in a drawer for the whole of 2020 while I faced other calamities and grief. Discovering it a few weeks before expiration was a fluke—like when you look at your lover’s phone for the time to see their gym partner sexting. A fluke that makes you want to puke, that is to say.

Panicking, I turned to the US Embassy in Havana. Por gusto: it was closed in 2017, thanks to You Know Who (in Cuba, consular services were cancelled before COVID-19—a petty and pathetic maneuver, even for this day and age). I called the Embassy and got a recorded message. I sent an email as directed. I received a boiler plate email repeating what was on the phone message and website. For the first—and only—time in my 19-year stay, I presented myself before the Embassy’s 20-foot steel gate. The nice Cuban guard told me to send an email. The bureaucratic loop—call, email, wait, repeat—triggered rage, tears, and feelings of helplessness tinged with entitlement (‘I’m a US citizen god damn it! How dare they strand me like this!’). From her solitary lockdown in Minnesota, my sister called the State Department in DC. No dice. She called the passport office. Ditto.

Dumpster Fire #42 starts smoldering…

And please stop screaming ‘mail it in!’ at your screen: direct mail services between the USA and Cuba, normalized under Obama, are also reeling from the COVID/Humpty Trumpty one-two punch. Besides, would you trust your passport with a foreign mail service during a global pandemic? Or with the gutted, beleaguered US Postal Service?

No Embassy and no mail left me two choices: let my passport lapse or get off the island. I opted for the latter.

Cue Dumpster Fire #44 (I’m choosing to elide over #43 which saw me sobbing on the floor, Toby sniffing at my snot-encrusted face)…

The problem? Cuba was (and is still) closed to almost all air traffic due to an explosion of post-holiday COVID infections; just two flights a week have been flying between our two countries for months now. And they’re booked through August. With mere days left on my passport, my sister (who has a knack for travel), scored me a seat on the oversold, once-a-week JetBlue flight. With a festering case of gastritis, plus sleeper case of hypertension, a panicked clinic visit for a PCR test, and harried kisses for my guy and dog, I left.

_____

Being on far away shores after fighting tirelessly, surviving heroically, and loving fiercely sucks and hurts, giving rise to a toxic cocktail of guilt, relief, nostalgia, and yearning. Not to mention an unhealthy dose of frustration-laced anger. Some of you know of what I write.  

But to hell with the guilt and pain, and idealized nostalgia: I keep on fighting. Unless I’m curled up in a ball bawling (AKA Dumpster Fire #45 & #46), I keep on fighting—to honor mom’s memory, to help my Cuban friends and family, to remain on the side of the just. I keep fighting to maintain sanity, to keep money coming in and out of trouble/jail, to make sure my loved ones stay fed, housed and connected to the Internet. I fight, uncurl myself from that ball, and clear away the tears to face a new day.

Today.

One day at a time.

Fakin’ it till I make it.

I take solace in 12-Step mantras—not because they helped me get (and stay) sober, but because they keep me off the Cuba/COVID/Conner-at-51 ledge. I’m still an addict, but to other things, like work and cigarettes and coffee (the introvert trifecta!) and these have kept me alive and as-well-as-can-be considering the circumstances. As I contain my conflicting emotions and try not to lash out at loved ones, this is what that looks like: 

*Writing ad nauseum about COVID: I often counsel a news blackout or media vacation as a mental health tool for our modern world. But there’s no rest for a health reporter during a global pandemic. Just in the past few months (to say nothing of 2020), I’ve been neck deep editing and re-writing manuscripts about Cuban kids with long COVID and related cardiovascular problems; neuropsychological effects of COVID; and the sickening politics, inequities and egoism of our pandemic-plagued planet. And the hits kept on coming after I was assigned two interviews on the “mono-topic:” with the directors of Cuba’s Center for Clinical Trials and the Molecular Immunology Center, which produces the recombinant RBD for Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines

As I clocked a week of 14-hour days wrapping my aching head around pandemic-related issues, I was asked to revise the English-language insert for SOBERANA Plus, Cuba’s vaccine for convalescent COVID patients.

Important? Yes. Fun? Not at all.   

*Going deep on the US blockade: Many big and little things are crumbling as a consequence of COVID-19: marriages, mom and pop stores, traditional greetings like our customary kiss on the cheek. Unless these macro and micro implosions affect us personally, they go unnoticed. So it goes with OXFAM, which closed 18 offices around the world, including in Cuba. After 27 years of bolstering food security and sovereignty, strengthening gender justice, fighting climate change, and reducing disaster-related risks, this is a huge blow to the innumerable Cubans who’ve benefitted from OXFAM support and programs the past three decades. OXFAM Cuba’s parting salvo is The Right to Live Without a Blockade, a report on how US sanctions hamstring Cubans’ right to live, learn, grow, develop and dream on their own terms. The report was co-written by moi, along with a multi-talented team. The official release date—in Spanish and English—is May 27. Please help us spread the word!

*Conner says what?!: I was red tagged and sent to detention for my big mouth as a kid. Nowadays, folks are bombarding my socials with all manner of Cuba-related interview requests: women’s issues, LGBTQI+ rights, how my reed-like figure doesn’t excite Cubans, and the embargo, of course. I was reluctant to talk about my expiring passport situation with the New York Times but despite these misgivings, I did—it’s about the message, after all, not me.  The message? The State Department doesn’t give a flying one about US citizens living abroad—rich business people excepted, of course.

***BREAKING NEWS: The NY Times article by Debra Kamin referenced above got the State Department off their duff and (some) US citizens with expired passports can now travel back to the US. Better late than never! Not for nothing: Cuba started it’s paperwork/passport/visa deferral plan at the beginning of COVID-19.

*Popping my Zoom cherry: Living in Cuba, where Zoom is blocked by the US embargo, I skated through 2020 with nary a video meeting, interview or webinar. But as the pandemic drags on and we all struggle not to be dragged down with it, the invitations are pouring in. Despite my technological struggles (VPNs, expensive data, blackouts), I popped my Zoom cherry as a speaker on the Canadian Network on Cuba’s panel to raise funds for medical donations to the island. I found it enjoyable, uplifting even (it was my first one, after all!). If you’re looking for a concrete way to help Cuba confront COVID, I suggest donating to this initiative or the multi-organizational drive to send 3 million syringes to the island for the whole population vaccination effort now underway.

Next up was a webinar series among health experts and virologists from Cuba and the University of Minnesota to share experiences and ideas about effective COVID strategies and policies. Thankfully, US scientific and academic communities are open to collaboration and exchange: another webinar series launches on June 8 between Cuba and the University of Alabama.

*Struggling to be a “real” writer: Pop culture, slang, evolving vocabulary and concepts: a lot of it passes you by when you live abroad for long periods of time, when you’re not on the ground, watching things unfold and taking part. Being woke, Karens and Beckys, the drip, Tuca & Bertie – I didn’t know jack about any of this until I researched or was schooled by friends. So it was with Imposter Syndrome, a term I’d never before heard but from which I definitely suffer (though I’ve always called it good old-fashioned self-hatred). I don’t consider my blog “real” writing. It may be thoughtful and well-crafted, but it doesn’t pay (that dogged yardstick by which too many of us measure worth and success), hasn’t led to any assignments or gigs as far as I know, and doesn’t have a broad audience. It has value, of course, mostly in helping me maintain a semblance of sanity and breaking down myths about Cuba, but it ain’t great literature, investigative reporting, or emotive memoir—the type of writing I dream of publishing.  

And then I wrote a blog post that sent readers swooning; friends, strangers and writers I admire wrote in with accolades and support. They urged me to add a bit of context, flesh it out some, and submit it to major publications, the likes of which triggered some real imposter doubts. The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the New York Times—other level shit for a not-very-real writer. ‘Possible?’ the imposter in me wondered. And what about my tendency to “punt,” as a wildly accomplished writer observed of my tendency to stick to safe terrain and retreat in the face of rejection? Criticize me and I recoil like a set of testes in an Icelandic lake, but once I regroup, I double down. So I rewrote, restructured and retitled that post and am making my way down the list of possible outlets. I’m only two rejections in…stay tuned!

*Saving Cuba Libro:  Something else I’ll have to write about in a “real” way sometime are the last eight years of my life, consumed by this community project I founded. Our philosophy and programming have touched so many, altered life trajectories, and improved well-being. Mine included, though it’s such a struggle it often feels like keeping Cuba Libro alive just might kill me. At no time has this been truer than 2020-2021.  Over the past 14 months, we’ve been able to operate for just two. That’s 14 months of rent and utilities, 14 months of buying overpriced coffee, milk, fruit, syrups and sugar and nearly 14 months of maintaining salaries for our seven full-time staff. To keep busy, we’ve redesigned our space for social distancing, developed new recipes and a new menu, installed a freezer, implemented a reservation system, improved our garden, forged new collaborations, and stepped up our digital image and game.  

None of this would be possible without our seat-of-the-pants fundraising and the generous, unflagging support of our global community. I remember when we were redesigning the space for social distancing in May 2020, we discussed this “temporary” situation, that in three months we’d be able to go back to the “old” café design and earning model. Ha! Here we are over a year later, still closed, still begging for support. It’s depressing, debilitating and deflating, but we soldier on. We sally forth. In that vein, we’ve launched two new initiatives—tax-deductible monetary donations to our 501(c)3 non-profit Friends of Cuba Libro and 100% original, Cuban-designed merch in our Red Bubble store. And on June 3, Dr William Ross (voted Favorite Customer by Team Cuba Libro in 2019) is hosting a fundraising webinar with me (and whomever can connect from Havana), En la Lucha: The Cuba Libro Story. Please tune in/share if you’re able.

Times are terrible in Cuba, I can’t lie. Empty stomachs, limited horizons and broken hearts are foisted upon us thanks to US sanctions, the global pandemic and the island’s inability to withstand the current context for much longer. Our safety net is dangerously frayed. Friends and loved ones plot escape. Indeed, by the time you read this, one of our dearest friends and most ardent supporters will have emigrated. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.

I’ve got my new passport, but thanks to the embargo, pandemic and politics, I’m stuck in the Estamos Jodidos until further notice. Coño.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban economy, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

Nuestro Vino es Amargo…

I’m baaaack! Not that I went anywhere. Not physically, anyway. In fact, I haven’t ventured farther than 30km from my apartment in a year. But mentally—spiritually—I’ve traveled some long, dark roads in that time. Who hasn’t? The collective trauma caused by COVID makes 9/11 look like a bad hair day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fortunate. Privileged even. I’ve been able to make rent. I still have my highly-rewarding (albeit low-paying) job. Various old age ailments have beset my better half and me, but otherwise we’re healthy. Plus, I live in a place where the science is sound, people retain a keen sense of humor, and healthcare is free. What’s more, thanks to good planning and foresight, not to mention political will and a superlative biotech industry dating back over 30 years, Cuba has four COVID-19 candidates in clinical trials; whole population immunization begins next month.

It can’t happen soon enough. I’m sure you understand. If you don’t, I’ll go ahead and assume you’re a COVID denier, anti-vaxxer or selfish bastard unfazed by the prospect of infecting innocent people. If one of these applies, let me break it to you not-so-gently: Darwin was right and your days are numbered.

But you didn’t come here to listen to me whine and lecture (although this is kinda my bread and butter; deal with it). Rather, you want to know what’s happening here in Havana. For the short attention spanners among you, it boils down to the old saying ‘nuestro vino es amargo pero es nuestro,’ which basically means: it’s a shit show, but it’s OUR shit show.

What that looks like circa February 2021:

Almost everyone is broke, in debt and gasping for air at across-the-board, sky-high prices – Without going into a macro-economic muela about the why of this category 5 economic storm (for which I’m professionally and intellectually ill-equipped regardless), let’s just say it’s multifactorial and transcends COVID-19.

Certain factors are historical, like the blockade/embargo, combined with inherent inefficiencies in the Cuban system, funny accounting, and the informal economy feeding off them. Other factors are cultural, including farmers and middlemen who’d rather the produce rot than drop their prices and a cannibalistic capitalism coursing through many a Cuban vein (provided the chance to make a nickel, these folks snap to action faster than a homely jinetera espying a group of rich Russians).

One thing is clear: the global recession is rocking everyone’s world. And in no way, shape or form is Cuba exempt from this downward spiral. But just to add a little spice to the party—as Cubans, love ‘em dearly, always do—we are currently undergoing the painful, laborious, decades-in-the-making, unification of the currency here and all that entails.

Many of you may remember the late 90s-early aughts when the US dollar, Cuban peso (CUP) and Cuban convertible peso (CUC) circulated concurrently. I do: it was happening when I moved here in 2002. Oh how gloriously naïve I was! Stumbling along in my so-so Spanish, relying on my energetic husband to shield me from the sausage making, and marveling at how Cubans pivot and resolve! I now realize it was like dining at a fine restaurant when things go sideways: it takes forever for your meal to arrive (the first plating slid to the floor), potatoes were substituted for polenta (the sous chef was snorting a line while it burned), and the coulis tastes more like raspberry than pomegranate (the purveyor couldn’t deliver and was subsequently canned). Nevertheless, it’s beautifully presented, delicious even! But you, the diner, are none the wiser to the mayhem and stress going on in the kitchen.

That was then.

Nearly 20 years on, I am no longer unwitting. I am no longer shielded. And things are much, much tougher this go ‘round. This time it really is sink or swim (or at least tread water like your life depends on it). Cartons of eggs have more than tripled in price. The same with powdered milk—the only kind available. Not that these things are necessary available, no matter how much money you have. Cheese—oh beloved cheese!—is another lost cause. People tell me it’s sold in the dollar stores but I wouldn’t know; I haven’t had cheese since August 2020. So we go without. We go vegan. Shouldn’t that be a choice? I mean, forced veganism: how dystopian.

Lines are long, salaries fall short – So we tread water and stay afloat. How? Anticipating this all-too-predictable inflation, the state has raised salaries in an effort to offset the shortfall. Are the higher salaries enough? No. Are they equitable? They are not. Consider the fact that under the new salary structure, a university professor with a PhD earns less than a parole officer with a ninth grade education and you start to see the dynamic. Again, I’m no economist (thank the dear lord), but this new system smarts of the old—in short: same dog, different fleas and making ends meet is a real hardship, a day-in-day-out struggle.

The hard truth is, most months the ends won’t meet. And you’re truly up shit’s creek if a pipe bursts, a stove part breaks or your kid needs new shoes. But we keep on treading.

Barter is a major player in the COVID-19, post-CUC economy. Toothpaste for cooking oil; coffee for mechanical work; cowboy boots for gas—Cuba is on the cutting edge of the in-kind economy. Just yesterday I traded ibuprofen for onions in a marvelous win-win swap.

Solidarity, now as always, is a complementary survival strategy. Alfredo pedals 25km into the countryside to buy fresh yogurt for our Cuba Libro family. First Dailyn and then Jacqueline gave me kibble when Toby’s food was running dangerously low. Kristen and Abel share their abundant harvest with friends, family, neighbors, and the local old folks’ home; I can’t tell you how many people have enjoyed their organic arugula during COVID! There’s another saying here: ‘quien tiene amigos, tiene un central’ which loosely translates as ‘we get by with a little help from our friends.’ Shock froze my family doctor’s face last week when I told him I completed the 14-day, triple pill treatment he prescribed for my gastritis. During the consultation, he warned me that pharmacy stocks were low and I probably wouldn’t be able to get the medicines. ‘I have a central,’ I told him—it was entirely thanks to my friends that I was able to procure the treatment I needed.

And when all else fails, we stand in line. We’re talking 4 hours in line for bread, the butcher, to enter a store or the bank. Entire WhatsApp and Telegram groups, Facebook pages and word-of-mouth networks are active 24-7 letting people know what store has which products and how long the line is. “Café Guantanamera, 23 y 26. Two kilos per customer. Not many people on line,” is one recent message. “Store on 15 y 26 is taking names for tomorrow’s chicken line,” reads another. “Amiga! Chopped meat at 11 y 4. No line!!!” says the one that literally just came in.

Can’t or won’t stand in line? These groups can help out there, too. “Chicken just arrived at the casa del pollo, 5ta y 42. If anyone is coming down, I’m here on line” (meaning, you can scoot on line with your friend). Alternatively, you can throw money at the problem by paying someone to stand in line for you—recent rates were $1CUC/hour during the day, $5CUC before sunrise—or sidle up and buy the numbered ticket from someone who has already been standing on line for hours ($5CUC/ticket). Or, if you’re really in the money, you can rely on black market resellers who provide door-to-door service selling meat, coffee, oil, soap, sponges, detergent—you name it. Probably the best strategy however, is to have someone ‘on the inside’ of the store. They will call you when certain goods come in, meet you ‘round back and load up your bag away from all lines and prying eyes. You pay for your goods, include a nice tip and away you go, stocked and stoked.

Health measures are changing rapidly and there are no ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards – Maybe it’s just me, but things seemed more organized during last year’s first wave. Adding to the confusion are new measures that are announced and then rescinded or altered, sometimes even before implementation. Does public transport stop at 7pm or 9pm? Can we shop in stores outside of our home municipality? Are they really putting physical barriers in highly trafficked places to improve distancing on line as announced? Can we travel between provinces in private transport or not?

In January, a friend of mine was driving home from her dad’s house across town. It was about 9:30pm. The cops pulled her over informing her that she couldn’t be driving past 9 (this was weeks before the current 9pm-5am curfew, implemented on February 5). ‘What?’ she asked. ‘That’s one of the new measures?’ They skirted the question (typical) and repeated that she could not be driving at this hour. This friend of mine is young, especially bubbly and possesses the most striking sage green eyes, which she employs to great effect. She talked her way out of the ticket.

Last week, Mary—neither bubbly, nor as young, and certainly not as deferential—wasn’t so lucky. Masked up and jogging with her dog in the local park, she was stopped by the police who told her exercising in public is prohibited. She pushed back, gently. Mary isn’t deferential, but she isn’t stupid either: police are a touchy breed anywhere, regardless of the times or troubles afoot and need to be engaged with caution. They repeated: no running in public. They proceeded to put her in the squad car, take her down to the station and put her in a cell where she spent several hours. It was crowded, physical distancing was impossible and everyone had a tale to tell. There was the guy who pulled down his mask to use his asthma inhaler. There was the couple at the hospital trying to get their second PCR test and were taken in for…being in public without having a second PCR test. Everyone behind bars has a story and who knows if they’re true, but I know Mary’s is. She was taken in for exercising in public, spent hours in close quarters with many strangers during a global pandemic and was issued a 2000 CUP fine—half her monthly salary.

Speaking of jail, my good buddy Miguel called yesterday. You may remember him—he’s serving 6 years on a ridiculous charge. If it’s tense out here, you can imagine how it is on the inside. Total lockdown for almost a year and only a few physically-distanced visits from loved ones in all that time. Not being able to hug or kiss or get horizontal with his wife Esther is taking a mighty toll. Food is scarce—most days it’s rice and split peas, maybe an egg but never two. There’s little soap, no toothpaste, razors or deodorant and without the monthly visits and sacks of provisions hauled out to the campo by family and friends, prison commerce has largely ground to a halt. Parole hearings are still held—on paper—but no one is getting it. At least Miguel has periodic access to a phone; thanks to Cuba’s ongoing tech revolution, I was able to recharge his phone card electronically.

Small businesses are screwed – This is a global phenomenon, we are all well aware, proving that COVID-19 is deadly in more ways than one. But for us, it’s not just about COVID: Trumpty Dumpty and his anti-Cuban puppet masters also tightened the screws precisely as the pandemic worsened. They fined financial institutions helping Cuba weather the storm. They turned back planes of medical supplies. And they shut down Western Union, drastically affecting remittances to families on the island. For years, these regime change hawks harped: ‘Cuba needs a middle class. Cuba needs a thriving private sector. We need to support the Cuban people.’ So we’ll just go ahead and cut them off at the knees and sever all sorts of lifelines during a global pandemic. The fucking hypocrisy. Sickening.

Throw in hyper inflation, reduced purchasing power for consumers, zero tourists, no goods coming in via mulas and you have a perfect storm for sabotaging the private sector and the individuals that have shed blood, sweat and tears building small businesses.

But they will not break us. We have our in-kind economy, our solidarity, our central. We have creativity and community and values. This is how Cuba Libro has survived from March 20, 2020 until today, during which we were open two short (but fabulous!) months. Thanks to donations and unwavering support from people who came for our coffee, volunteered, bought books, gifted books, left tips and helped lift our spirits, we were able to pay rent, maintain minimum salaries of our 7 employees, and keep them connected to the Internet while closed.

These are people who believe in our mission and vision. Who believe that good coffee and music, excellent literature and a tranquil garden can build community and contribute to a better future. That together and by example, we can strengthen commitment to others and the environment, build mutual respect despite differences, and create a safe space for all regardless of gender, race, religion, financial possibilities, sexual orientation, age or ability. These are people who believe that doing good for the collective is more important in the long run than doing well individually. Who believe we all have things worth teaching and worth learning and that great things can be accomplished with few resources combined with collaborative action. Who believe that maintaining our donation programs and book sales during the pandemic is more needed than ever.

Some say I’m naïve, a fool, a dumbass for structuring a small business thusly—where some days (bad days!) I take home less pay than the rest of the team. Still others accuse me of having a ‘white savior complex.’ These detractors are at best confused and at worst so ‘woke’ their insomnia is affecting their analytical skills. To these folks I say: lead, follow or get the fuck out of our way.

Certain people say I’m an idiot, moreover, for maintaining minimum salaries for our 7-member team while we’re closed. We don’t have time for these kinds of people – the ‘not our people’ people. The precious time we have we spend working at our side hustles; sharing and pooling resources and making sure they get to those most needing them; keeping ourselves as balanced as we can and away from the deep, dark psychological hole into which each of us, at one time or another, has plunged in the past year. Just today my friend Anita said to me: ‘girl, ever forward. And whenever one of us is down in the depths, we gotta pick each other up and push each other forward.’ Anita is our kind of people, the ones who know that the worthy things in life have to be built, nurtured, fed and shared. The other ones? Those who say it’s foolish to maintain minimum salaries? They’re the ones who think you can buy commitment and community. And love. You can’t. Beatles, 1964. Hello?!

We’re surviving, but it’s wearing thin. Even with their archetypical sense of humor, tendency to not sweat the small stuff, outlook that tomorrow is another day and let’s live today like there’s no tomorrow, Cubans are stressing. The tension is palpable, audible: ubiquitous sirens at night, parents yelling at their cooped-up kids, and dogs barking (more than usual) at anything that moves; granted, not much is moving these days. Even the silence is tense. No music wafts from windows, no kids laughing or skipping along. No dominoes being shuffled and played under the milky light of a street lamp.

But we keep on keepin’ on. And to all who have helped us, helped Cubans, helped anyone, during COVID-19: we thank you deeply, as our barrista extraordinaire Gaby would say in her so-so English. This is the way forward. The only way. In the meantime, we tread.

PS – The day after I wrote the first draft of this post, my friend Ivan gifted me a wedge of blue cheese. There is something to that ‘put it out in the universe’ stuff!

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

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.
_____
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