Trending, Cuba, April 2013

Young/old, foreign/Cuban, gay/straight (and variations in between), black/white (and shades in between) – the crew gracing my living room lately is varied and invigorating. They’re a veritable cross section of Havana in evolution, the friends stopping by, sipping coffee, and smoking Criollos in my crib.

I’m indebted to them, my network of family and friends who help keep me dreaming and steady the ground beneath my feet so those dreams can be seeded, sown, and reaped into reality. This has always been a place of shifting sands and I marvel at the Cuban capacity to maintain balance and mirth in the face of it.

Even under normal circumstances, steady ground is as scarce around here as spare change in a junkie’s pocket. These days however, terra firma is still harder to locate as Havana lurches along its path of economic reform, testing the capitalistic waters about which there is much phobia. And with good reason: capitalism is inequitable at its core, which contradicts many principles and practices for which Cuba has long been admired.

Truth be told, it’s a bit scary these changes we’re experiencing, and not just for their tenor, but also their pace – glacial or breakneck, depending on your perspective. Regardless, all the transformations happening in this corner of the world (see note 1) mean it’s trickier than ever to maintain our balance as we crawl, walk, and run in the nascent Cuban rat race.

As a barometer of what’s afoot here in Havana, I thought I’d invite readers into my living room to eavesdrop on some recent conversations.

“I want to start my own company, but can’t” – This came from my friend Fidel (see note 2) who dreams of having his own software development firm. As a bright, young graduate of the UCI (Cuba’s IT university, churning out brilliant computer wonks for over a decade), he’s got the chops to do it, but contends he can’t. I should mention here that I’m in “can’t” recovery: by age 13 or so, I was using the word regularly until an adult I admired upbraided me about the weakness and defeat the word embodies. She was right, of course, even Obama proved that, so when Fidel says he can’t, I bristle and parry.

‘But that’s one of the permissible businesses under the economic reforms. The licensing is easy. Get a few friends together and make it happen,’ I tell him.

He almost snickered, detailing connectivity nightmares, difficulty in accessing the latest programs, lack of marketing and publicity tools, etc, etc. Valid points all, but my recovering ‘can’t persona’ kicked in.

‘I hear you, but you’re talking to someone who wants it all. I know that’s not possible, no one can have it all, but if I get just half…’ He looked at me as if to say: ‘that and a token will get me on the subway,’ as we used to say back in the day.

“Collateral damage from the Special Period” – This observation can be applied to much of Cuban reality today – breakups, emigration, encasing homes in iron bars – but I hardly expected it in reply to my question: ‘how did you get carpal tunnel?’ It was difficult to imagine how a family doctor could suffer from such a condition unless he was a computer solitaire addict or moonlighted as a guitar player (neither, in this case) and I would have never guessed it was somehow related to the dire economic times known as the Special Period in Time of Peace. Turns out he got carpal tunnel after so many years riding a bicycle between home, work, play, and errands – seems the hand brakes worked a number on his wrists for which he’s now being operated.

We laughed (because if you don’t, you’ll cry), and it was funny, in a tragic sort of way. Some categorize the Special Period as a heinous blip on the Cuban psyche, but that economic crash that befell the country when the Socialist Bloc fell is still deeply felt, and those that contend otherwise are either in denial or haven’t been paying attention. Meanwhile, my people are talking a lot about it lately.

Some of the conversation turns on Chavez’ death since the agreements with Venezuela and other ALBA member countries signed in the early naughts, were the first light at the end of the economic-strapped tunnel. Now, with Venezuelan presidential succession hanging in the balance, folks here fear a return to those dire times could be in the cards. In my estimation, Cubans are praying more for Maduro’s victory than during both Popes’ visits combined.

“Tía, what’s vaginoplasty?” – From the Special Period to (re)constructed vaginas: this is what we call in Cuba “hablando como los locos,” and my living room does see its share of crazy folks, I’ll admit. The question is: how exactly do you explain vaginoplasty to a 12-year old? When she’s Cuban, you stick to the science. And when she asks why someone would need it, you stick to accidents and physical deformities, leaving the transsexual conversation for a later date.

I mention this living room chatter because what was most interesting to me what that the topic was broached twice, by different people, in the span of a few days. What are the odds? Pretty good, I guess, here in Havana anyway.

“Don’t tell me he’s a metrosexual!” – In case you haven’t been here in a while, this is the latest fad (and I do hope it’s a fad because unlike transsexuals, metrosexuals actually choose this state of being) among young Cuban guys. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, it’s essentially an androgynous look adopted by urban males to what advantage I’m not sure. And these aren’t men who have sex with men in large part, but het boys adopting a super meticulously primped style that requires shaving/waxing/lasering their entire bodies to a hairless sheen, including their eyebrows. Just the maintenance required chafes (really – isn’t there something better you could be doing with your time and money?) and I personally find it a real turnoff.

So when a swarthy friend admitted his 18-year old son was a metrosexual, I offered my condolences. We both chalked it up to “youth today,” that tired refrain of all older generations everywhere, but I find it intriguing that in such a macho society, this particular global trend should catch on. Is it a statement against the patriarchal construct? I’d like to think so, but what if young women did the same and started going all KD Lang androgynous? Would parents have the same “they’ll grow out of it/youth today” attitude? I’m not so sure. If you have any insight on metrosexuality in Cuba or general, bring it on.

(And you thought this post was going to be all about Yoani and Bey-Jay.)


1. Periodically (like now) I hasten to remind readers that when I say “this corner of the world,” I’m referring to Havana only. I don’t get out of the city nearly often enough to have a bead on what’s going on in the rest of the country. And Havana is a world unto itself. I think it’s dangerous to generalize or draw conclusions about Cuba as a whole from what’s happening and being said in the capital.

2. Like all names at Here is Havana, this is not his real name. In this case, however, it’s close.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad

8 responses to “Trending, Cuba, April 2013

  1. Dan

    Hi Conner- in looking over your discussion of metrosexuality, I remember being in Cuba some years ago and there was a pop song on the telly named “Punta de Vida” or some such, sung by a male but pretty hard to tell, I wondered at the time if this was a trend or an anomaly. Remember that song? and please tell me it WAS sung by a male…..

  2. day

    What makes me smile are all the “rockeros” that are metrosexual. It can kind of suit the guys into reggaeton and salsa, but for me it’s just a silly look for the guys banging their heads to Linkin Park, Korn and Metallica. Positive note: At least it’s an all-black with the odd chain metrosexual look.

    Re Special Period: I noticed more talk even before Chavez died, although his death certainly ramped it up. However, in my case it could be that more Cubans are just more comfortable talking to me about such things and want to make sure that I’m “educated.” One thing that has bothered me since I first started to wiggle my way into the community is the large number of young people (born in mid-80’s and in growing years during Special Period) that had cardiovascular problems (lots of high blood pressure) by the age of 20. I know of 5 that died of heart attack or stroke with 24 or less years. I’ve noticed some other health issues in this group as as well such as ectopic pregnancy, infertility in women and brain tumours. I wonder if this is related to poor diet in early years. Of course nothing scientific, just my observation.

    • Hi there.

      We’ve covered chronic diseases quite extensively in MEDICC Review but I don’t remember any stats or analysis showing that this age group suffers from these conditions in a significantly (statistically-speaking) way more than other groups. Also, I was here in the height of the special period and infants, children, and adolescents always ate while their parents went to bed hungry.

      As an aside: Day, from cougar-lovers to young adult hypertensives, you seem to know a completely different cuba from me. Interesting…

      • day

        I just read my post and realized that I should have read it before posting. Just to clear up, the comparison that I was making regarding Cubans being comfortable talking with me was, of course, not a comparison to you or anybody else – it was a personal reflection on the fact that, naturally, the longer I’m around the more tend to Cubans share with me.

        I guess that when I referred to poor diet, I was thinking about it not being an optimal diet. Certainly, many people including my parents-in-law have told me how the children always ate during the Special Period. My husband says that he can’t ever remember going to bed hungry, but certainly remembers times that his parents didn’t eat. However, from what I’ve been told, the children’s diets were far from balanced. I do know that my husband had an “adult” health problem as a child due to lack of fat in his diet.

        It certainly would be of interest to me if you ever do come across any information on unusual chronic illnesses in this group. Years ago, I worked in cardiovascular research in Canada. The investigator that I worked with now collaborates with Cuban researchers so is somewhat familiar with Cuba. I recently mentioned my observations to him and he dismissed them fairly quickly, so perhaps I’m stretching. Still, I find this quite interesting. It could be that there was an environmental cause and perhaps it is related to a specific geographical area, however, it would have to coincide with more or less the same years as the Special Period and not affect other age groups. I’m not sure if I’m making any sense with this, but thanks for giving me the chance to write in and postulate/speculate.

        By the way, usually when I read Cuba forums, I feel like everybody is writing about a completely different country from that which I know. I’m not sure why this is… I do appreciate your blog because it actually sounds more familiar to me and I check it a bazillion times a day when I’m back in Canada because I’m homesick for Cuba and need to catch every tweet and comment to get my Havana buzz on! Thanks!

  3. dany

    Interesting about the metrosexuales. Maybe it is related to the innate primping and preening so common in many Cuban males (not my husband thank God) and taken to the nth degree.

    Sigh, sometimes I feel so disconnected to my own country after a few years of not being there, things are changing and I’m not there to see it.

    After 5 years of not visiting, I want to go this year probably after September. I’m quite sure I will have to “ponerme al dia”, my sisters can help with that 🙂

    • Hola Dany

      Five years is a long time! You’re do a visit – I don’t think you’ll recognize the place.

      On the primping – you may be on to something there. When my mom was here in March (first time in 10 years; SHE didn’t recognize the place!) one of the things she found most annoying noteworthy was how Cubans apply perfume and cologne by the bucket. De verdad, I can smell people walking by from my balcony three floors up!

      Thanks for reading/commenting

  4. Pingback: Habana Brats | Here is Havana

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