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“You must be a very patient person,” my friend said in reference to living in Cuba.
He doesn’t know the half of it. Standing in line for bread, the bus, ice cream, hard currency, hats or whatever other random thing appears on the shelves. Or losing my youth waiting for my 50k dial-up to giddy up and connect me (see note 1). These things don’t require patience. They demand resignation. Quite simply, we have no choice (see note 2).
Most days I can live with that. Most of the time I’ve got the trade offs in perspective.
In my previous life, I had to step around mother and son sleeping on the sidewalk and was awoken by gunshots. I watched and worried as friends got hooked on heroin or tried to recover from sexual assault or a nasty crack habit (now that’s redundant!). Waiting for a bus? A small price to pay for peace of mind and the freedom to wander the streets without all that armor urban America requires.
I’m not patient. I’m resigned. And relieved. But tucked into that chasm between relief and resignation lies frustration. I believe frustration is one of the truly equitable things in Cuba and while it may manifest itself differently for different people, anyone who tells you otherwise is apathetic, inattentive, or both. (Incidentally, denial is another wholly human trait that finds firm foothold on the island and is also in this mix).
So what’s so frustrating? There are innumerable little things like lack of red meat and tedious Friends re-runs, but some people can afford steaks and others adore the antics of Phoebe and Ross. So instead of ranting about the picayune or personal, I’d like to cast the net wide and look at the top 5 frustrations I see contributing to the Cuban Psyche 2010. In no particular order:
1. Bureaucracy, capital B. Exit permits, house papers, customs processes, and entrepreneurial permission slips: it’s getting people down. Not just the paperwork and hoop jumping – after all, every society has them. No, it’s not simply the bureaucratic bloat, but rather the informational black hole that is so frustrating. Not knowing where to go to get the right form or who to approach to hold the right hoop is time consuming and irritating as hell. There are no 800 numbers or customer service representatives in Cuba. Many times there isn’t even a low level pencil pusher willing to answer the phone (see note 3). No websites walking you through all the bureaucratic bullshit or a handy ‘contact us’ button as last resort.
Finding out how to get something done in Cuba is often more laborious and time consuming than actually doing it. To give you an idea of just how wildly out of control Cuban bureaucratic bloat is, consider the fact that China, population 1.3 billion, has nine governmental ministries while Cuba, population 11.2 million, has some two dozen (see note 4). Bottom line: you’ll go gray and flabby trying to navigate Cuba’s too big bureaucracy populated by people exercising the little power they have.
2. Economic hardship. Owners of $250/night casas particulares notwithstanding, almost all Cubans experience this in one way or another. We’re not talking about the distended bellies and death-by-diarrhea misery that plagues other developing nations, but rather lentils and rice six days running and no new shoes for baby. There are so many different and complex reasons (from without and within) the Cuban economy is on the skids but regardless, no mother wants to deny her daughter a new bra if she needs it and psychological hunger runs a close second to the physical variety. Bottom line: low salaries are eroding goodwill and commitment. People want to earn what they’re worth and live a little.
3. Inadequate/insufficient/inappropriate housing. Chronic and fairly widespread, the housing problem in Cuba is like the health care problem in the US: intractable and inequitably harsh (see note 5). Again, there are many complex reasons for this, from the weather (hurricanes knock down hundreds of homes a year) to shortages of supplies (blame the embargo, the Cuban government, or the guys “helping” cement fall off the truck, the end result is the same: building materials in Cuba are in absurdly short and expensive supply). This housing crunch translates into five generations living in a two-bedroom apartment, 10 people crammed into a one-room solar, generations being raised in albergues (what are supposed to be temporary, post-hurricane shelters), and lovers who can’t find any privacy to get jiggy (see note 6). Bottom line: Major housing problem needs major fixing.
4. The embargo. It costs my sister more than a dollar a minute to call me in Havana, yet she can shoot the shit with Esteban in Brazil for three cents that same minute. But it’s not only the price. In this case, financial frustration is compounded by technical frustration since calls from the USA to Cuba get routed through third countries (the base at Guantánamo Bay excepted of course). This means that sometimes we’re sharing the line with a Korean housewife or an Argentinean carpenter. But at least we have that – it can take a dozen attempts over half an hour or more to place a call to Cuba from the United States. Bottom line: politics preventing families from communicating is frustrating (and cruel).
5. Good old-fashioned exhaustion. Cubans have fought, worked, and withstood. They have suffered and struggled. They have also triumphed, but they are, quite frankly, pooped. Ironically, one of the most divisive decisions in recent years didn’t get much press – the raising of the retirement age (funny how foreign correspondents jumped on Cuba’s liberalization of cell phones like a Beagle does a bitch in heat, but gave short shrift to this big story affecting millions of Cubans countrywide). In early 2009, the government held spirited debates across the country regarding the idea and despite some dissent, raised the retirement age by 5 years for men and women (to 65 for men and 60 for women). These would-be retirees are the same folks that built the Revolution from Day 1 and they are, in large part, pissed. Retirement in Cuba isn’t only a time to kick back a bit and hang with the grandkids. It’s a time to finally make some money. Those aforementioned perpetually low salaries are rivaled only by perpetually low pensions and folks of retirement age often work in parallel markets to augment their meager earnings. Bottom line: it’s great there are pensions, but people want them like, yesterday, not five years from now.
I don’t have any answers, but I know 2010 is going to require a lot of patience, on everyone’s part.
1. Anyone who doubts there’s a digital divide in today’s iPad/YouTube/Twittering world should come to Cuba where the scintillating beeps and squeaks of dial-up are just enough to keep us connected (sort of – it’s so slow even streaming audio is impossible). More than once in the past 8 years, I’ve had young ‘uns up north give me a blank stare when I tell them my connection is measured in kbps. ‘What’s that?’ they ask me.
2. Like anywhere and everywhere, moneyed people in Cuba can create choice. Pay double the price for a loaf and there’s no waiting in line for bread. Shell out ten times the bus fare and you can ride downtown swiftly and comfortably in a 1956 Chevy. And yes, $7 an hour will get you a (slightly faster) WiFi connection in the fanciest hotels. Alas, while that choice is available to some Cuban bloggers, I’m not one of them.
3. In all my travels, I have never seen a people more able to ignore a ringing phone than Cubans.
4. Ongoing consolidation of ministries should help, but it’s causing other types of frustration not limited to job losses.
5. Housing in Cuba and healthcare in the US share another parallel in that neither problem is black and white but rather an awkward shade of gray. True, there is no one sleeping on the streets in Cuba. Likewise, no one in the US will be turned away from an ER for lack of insurance. This does not mean, however that this type of housing and that type of care is good or desirable.
6. This last is particularly hard on gay folks. While parents typically allow their grown (or nearly) breeder children to bring home their honeys for some loving, queer kids/adults usually don’t have that luxury. Since it’s extraordinarily difficult for Cubans of any age to get their own apartment, if Mama don’t like homos, you ain’t getting any in your own bed. I personally believe overcrowded housing and lack of privacy have tangible knock-on effects elsewhere in the Cuban reality from HIV prevalence (it’s hard to negotiate condom use during a back alley quickie) to divorce rates. Over 50% of marriages on the island fail (60% in Havana), giving Cuba one of the world’s highest divorce rates. Not surprising: what would you do if you had to live with your in-laws?!
18 responses to “Cuban Psyche 2010”
Perhaps it’s because in her other lives Conner Gorry writes travel books and articles about Cuban medicine, this commentary is particularly helpful.
She writes about things which every Cuban knows and most Cubans complain about – constantly – but which often just sound like despairing negativity when they are posted without any context. She provides meaningful context for what are some of the grinding nuisances of daily living on the island.
Since Conner isn’t a Cuban, but lives with and is married to one, and has been there for – I don’t know, maybe ten years – and because she’s writing for an English-speaking audience (duh!), she really helps make these things meaningful without being hostile. She doesn’t make excuses for these things, just tries to lay them out for the reader with sufficient time and interest.
Though the Cuban government is responsible for its own mistakes and screw-ups, this blogger doesn’t blame everything wrong in Cuba on the government and on the Revolution as some others do.
Mil gracias, chica.
thanks should really go to walter, the brain behind Cuba News, a fanastic source for all sorts of news, politics, and opinion from the island. Oh! plus the most comprehensive Cuban LGBT-related info. check it out here:
PS – did you hear that people?! I’m not hostile! love it!! guess the NYer really is getting juiced out of me down here across the straits!
Love the post. Have you gotten any mail yet? AND I’d like to purchase a Conner Gorry Travel Guide, how does one go about doing that? Thnaks for writing, I love to read, and learning something is the icing on the cake!
Alas, dear readers, still no mail, but I haven’t been to the PO in a couple of weeks, so there’s still hope (and someone told me yesterday that they sent a package! Oh, what surprises await…hopefully!)
And mil gracias de verdad for asking about where to get my latest guide. It’s called Guatemala Great Destinations and last time I checked, there were only 2 copies left on amazon, so click click click away!
Has your sister tried having “Credo” as her long distance server? If you sign up for their international plan ($2/month), calls to Cuba cost .98/min. That’s still outlandish, but you can get through immediately — never a wait. Hope this helps.
oooooh Sally. great tip! unfortunately, she has no land line, so this option isn’t available to her (or my mom or my three best friends)! Can you sign up for Credo anywhere in the US? Have you used it yourself to Cuba?
thanks for reading and participating.
Hi. I take it your sister, etc., have cell phones. Credo does cell phones. In fact they will buy out your old plan & give you 2 free political progresive calls to D.C. each month. And free ice cream. Can you beat that? I believe you can sign up for Credo anywhere in the U.S. I’ve used it in Ohio and California. Good luck! If you want to give me your Cuba phone # I’ll call you whenever I get down there. Chao. Sally
You should tell your sister to also check out vonage they have a iPhone and blackberry ap that works over wifi.
Hmmm….Interesting Clareawasw. What kind of app? Im pretty new to all this new fangled technology, but have been contracted to write an iApp for Havana, so am way motivated to learn more!
I really appreciate how honest this post is. Totally debunks the starry-eyed romantization of Cuba, but gets down to, what for me, is the meat of the issue: there’s plenty of hardships, but the kind of urban decay you experience in the US is minimal. “A small price to pay for peace of mind and the freedom to wander the streets without all that armor urban America requires.” Word.
What?! You mean Ive successfully shed my starry-eyed romantic persona? Rockin!!
Thanks for visiting!
Another excellant post, Conner. You’ve even got the old Marxist lippman’s approval! There is hope for us to have reasonable discourse yet. After spending a million dollars on phone calls, and a continual search for the Best rate, I have settled on la Cubanita card for .73 cents per minute, and good service from Union Telecard.com. You can recharge online or from your cell phone. Keep up the Good work. You are very perceptive, and all your posts transport me back to la Lisa instantaneously. Thanks
I know this is an old post…but I use comwave and skype. Comwave is 79cents/min from the US and skype is $1.08…but the skype connection is amazing ! More expensive…but worth not having to deal with bad connections.
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Well everything in live has it ups and downs been true 9 south American countries and it truly opened my eyes.despite all the downs I loved it and looking forward to Cuba. I could do with some travel advice.
Hola Horst! Was Brazil on your list of countries visited? If not, I guarantee that Cuba will be so completely different from what you’ve seen/experienced so far (Brazil and Cuba are remarkably similar in many ways: the steaminess, the strong national culture, afro cuban influence/religion)
Ive written many travel advice pieces: check Virgin American blog, Lonely Planet, BBC Travel. Also, you might like my posts on independent travel, Rules to follow here I & II, plus this on Cuba-specific Spanish and how you will be visiting a country of know-it-alls!
HAve a great trip!