How to Cope Like A Cuban

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]I’ve got a friend – I’ll call her Lucia. Life has been a bitch for Lucia in that special Cuban kind of way with family torn asunder by bi-lateralpolar politics; dramatic affairs of the heart and all the ardor and betrayal that implies; and the exhaustion inherent in raising three kids – the oldest two during those hard, indelible times known as the Periodo Especial, when stomachs growled and cramped with hunger and entire days were spent in blackout. The Special Period was also when mobs of people cast their fate to the wind, water, and sharks on slap-dash rafts with a 50/50 chance of making it across the Straits.

Many of those poor souls failed in their attempt to escape, dying outright en route or otherwise kept from stumbling into the open arms of Uncle Sam (see note 1). With a forced smile exemplifying the Cuban dicho ‘mal tiempo, buena cara,’ Lucia waved goodbye to friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances as they emigrated north. Due to circumstances financial and otherwise, many of Lucia’s people – including her only sister and two childhood friends – can’t return to visit Cuba. Like so many people I know, Lucia dreams of sharing a Cristal wet with sweat in the honeyed Havana light with her loved ones.

Paddling away on a raft or zipping off in a lancha (regular weekly departures for $10,000 a head) is the most dramatic and dangerous means of escape, but there are others: marrying a foreigner is perennially popular, as is the slower (but somehow less tedious) application for the bombo (see note 2); securing a Spanish passport if your family descends from those parts; or quedándose on a trip abroad. That is: going overseas for work or as a tourist (yes, some Cubans do travel for shopping pleasure) and neglecting to get on the plane back. To give you an idea of how profoundly the emigration question touches Cubans, consider ‘La Visa,’ the latest schoolyard game whereby a ball is thrown in the air and a country shouted out – Yuma! Mexico! España! The kid who catches the ball ‘gets’ the corresponding visa.

But contrary to what the world has been led to believe, there are more Cubans who don’t want to leave than do. Like Lucia. Like my husband and his family. Like many of my co-workers. But just because they aren’t scheming their great escape doesn’t mean they don’t feel trapped now and again. Hemmed in by water, but also bureaucracy, Third World economics, politics and other factors quite beyond one’s control – who wouldn’t be? It’s trying at times and requires figurative escapes – coping mechanisms to mollify the madness and loosen the psychological pretzel island living engenders.

In no particular order:

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll: The Cuban penchant (and talent) for sex is legendary and sexual freedom in the form of multiple partners and the pursuit and conquest of same is part and parcel of our daily landscape. Not only is hooking up freeing in the personal sovereignty sense in that it affirms (however hollowly), one’s individual choice and control, but it’s also free entertainment. The flirting and dancing and piropos (pick up lines and compliments) and foreplay help keep boredom (however temporarily) at bay and serve as an escape from all those factors beyond our control.

Drugs – illicit or not – serve the same purpose and despite Granma’s assertion that drogas aren’t a health problem here, 10 years of living in Havana paints a different picture. I know more than a handful of hardcore drunks for example, and prescription pills are in such high demand family doctors have been trained how to handle patients angling for scripts. Marijuana and cocaine can be had at no small risk and price (see note 3) and I’ve heard about Cuban acid trips and X adventures. Rock ‘n roll (coupled with rolls in the hay) is my personal drug of choice and in this, I’m largely up shit’s creek here since Cuba has crappy rock, though regular gigs by accomplished cover bands like Los Kents provide certain succor.

The Novela: Soap operas are addicting, which you well know if you’ve spent any amount of time in Cuba, where ‘round about nine o’clock the city quietly retreats inside to catch the next installment. Brazilian, Argentine, Cuban – it doesn’t matter the origin, as long as the cast is beautiful, the food abundant and the tragedia delicious. These fantasy worlds provide needed escape for islanders of all stripes, from housewives to priests, cowboys to convicts. On December 31st, a hallowed night spent with family here, the clan licked pork fat from their fingers and waited to pop the cider that stands in for champagne here when all the women mysteriously melted away. ‘La novela,’ someone said when I asked after them. Even Fidel has interrupted one of his televised speeches to assure viewers he wouldn’t run over into the soap opera. If you think I’m kidding about soaps as serious escape, consider that two TV households aren’t uncommon here: one for those who want to watch the novela, another for watching pelota. Homes with just one set become divided and bicker-ridden when the soaps and baseball are simulcast.

DVDs: Even before the explosion of private entrepreneurs selling pirated DVDs descended upon us, Cubans habitually rented and copied movies (or entire seasons of their favorite soap), on VHS and now on DVD and in digital formats. Last week as I looked to buy a 5 movie combo from my neighborhood pirate, the saleswoman nodded knowingly when I told her I was looking for something to ‘desconectarme,’ to ‘saca el plug.’ Whether at home or in the theater, cinematic escape is familiar to all Cubans and the saleswoman had no trouble plucking a DVD from the rack with Moneyball, New Year’s Eve, and three other recent releases.

Sports: Technically (and for all the old timers), baseball may be the national sport, but football/soccer is making a play for the title. Every day in the park near my house, local kids field two full teams and kick up the dirt in bare feet as they drive towards the goal. When Barça or Real Madrid play, the bars are packed with fans wearing their colors who unleash a fury once reserved for the Industriales baseball club and national volleyball team. I’m not surprised that booting a little black and white ball about for millions of dollars while having all the super models, fast cars, and sprawling properties your heart desires is the escape-cum-dream package for so many Cubans.

And that’s what it’s all about, friends: the dream. Not the American one or the European one. Nor the dream of fame and fortune those places symbolize (but rarely actualize) for so many from points south. Just the dream, in and of itself regardless of time, space or place. This is what’s essential. We all have them. We all have the right to them. I encourage everyone, everywhere to embrace, as I have, my mom’s sage advice: ‘live your dreams.’ No matter what they are or where they may take you.

In the words of Blondie: “I’ll build a road in gold just to have some dreaming. Dreaming is free.”


1. The USA has an extra special immigration policy for Cubans known as ‘wet foot/dry foot’ whereby any Cubano who is able to touch toe to hallowed US ground is granted automatic residency in the Land o’ the Free. This ‘advance to Go, collect $200’ dangled before Cubans (and only Cubans) means would-be immigrants from this island are even more reckless than their nothing-left-to-lose brethren from other latitudes, risking life and limb to reach the USA. Again and again, it has proven fatal (Elián González ring a bell?).

2. Other extra special Cuban immigration rules coming from the USA include this emigration visa, 20,000 of which are pledged under current accords (Obama re-instated this old policy suspended by Bush Hijo).

3. I strongly advise everyone reading this against trying to procure illicit drugs here; see Locked Up Abroad.



Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

20 responses to “How to Cope Like A Cuban

  1. swgorry

    Admire your ability to be so perceptive….i.e. the real issues….nicely done!

  2. Speaking of dreams! Rock ‘n roll in Cuba, baby!!! Nice work, Conner!

  3. johnabbotsford

    So “Yuma” is in this context being used specifically for USA rather than foreigner generically?

    And don’t forget Karl’s opium of the people – in this context the resurgence of Catholicism (and sadly probably even more so after the Pope’s imminent visit to Cuba) and of course Santería.

    • Yo got it John. When I first got to Cuba, Yuma meant the US (and people from the US). I only ever heard it used in that way. Spaniards were Pepes and Yanquis were Yuma. Now it seems to have become more widely applied to all foreigners.

      Resurgence of Catholicism? This is news to me…Also Afro Cuban religions (much more than just Santeria happening here which scholars will tell you is a misnomer) are not so much a coping mechanism as a way of life.

  4. johnabbotsford

    Well some would argue that all religions are an avoidance of dealing with day to day life!

    • alsdally

      Well isn’t that cliched crap. How the hell does anyone avoid day to day life, regardless of their personal belief system, unless they’re dead. If anything, religion helps many to jump more fully into day to day life because it can give people a sense of being part of something bigger than their own insignificant selves. Communism got rid of religion but replaced it with a new religion. We all have to believe in something, whatever that may be. May we believe in something that gives us hope, fills us with peace, and helps us to love others.

  5. johnabbotsford

    So why if Yuma now has a wider meaning does the LATEST schoolyard game use it in the former more narrow sense?

  6. Alcohol and tobacco, both of which are legal here, are the sources of serious health problems.

    A considerable literature about alcoholism, and the presence of Alcoholics Anonymous meetings here in Cuba are testimony to that. While I rarely see people drunk here in Cuba, perhaps because many Cubans think they can hold their liquor, it’s obvious that heavy drinking is widespread. I often see people walking around, usually men, with those little white boxes with a straw in which wine may be found. And early in the morning, too.

    Tobacco is also starting to be recognized here as a problem. I just picked up a new book ESPACIOS SIN HUMO where that is taken up. On the other hand, I know sometimes Cuban smoke even in hospitals.

    May I say here that I really appreciate your reports.

    • Hi Walter. Thanks for writing in.

      Yes, tobacco is a huge problem (and that comes from a cigar smoker!). I have seen many people smoking in hospitals (incl a woman huge with child at the Materna Obrera maternity hospital) but thats nothing compared to my first gynecological exam here in Havana. But for that tale, you’ll have to wait for the book (coming along swimmingly, dear readers, thanks for asking).

      For anyone interested in Cuba, I highly recd you check out Walters CubaNews group – it will keep you abreast of all types of news being made on the island.

  7. johnabbotsford

    “Well isn’t that cliched crap”
    LOL – and you then proceed to a complete paragraph of cliches including the following:
    “personal belief system”
    “bigger than their own insignificant selves”
    “Communism got rid of religion but replaced it with a new religion” !!

    Good luck with “avoiding day to day life” and overcoming your “insignificance” but I prefer to deal with life here and now.
    Each to their own of course.
    But I readily endorse your ultimate sentence.

  8. This is really interesting. 🙂

    I’m actually looking at a way to watch Locked Up Abroad online now too. 🙂

  9. Candysita

    “While I rarely see people drunk here in Cuba”.
    Things truly must be different in La Habana and area than in the Oriente. There is rarely a day that passes that I do not see some one staggering drunk. Two weeks ago one chap clunked another over the noggin with a wrench in a drunken argument …at ten o’clock in the morning! All one has to do is pass by the local “morpherina” (home made liquor) stand at any time of day to watch the drunken gong show of poor souls falling over and in some cases, sustaining broken bones or concussions.

    Things truly are different in my neck of the woods. Unfortunately

  10. Pingback: My New Cuban Love Affair | Here is Havana

  11. Pingback: My New Cuban Love Affair | connergo's Blog

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