Cuban Marriage Counseling

Not a few consider me an odd bird for putting down stakes in Cuba. Indeed, I’m often asked what it is about this place that has kept me engaged all these years. It’s a fair question and one prudence and sanity obligate me to consider every so often.

Several readers have noticed that my posts have been somewhat bleak of late. I won’t deny or defend it, but instead will resort to metaphor: imagine yourself 13 years deep into a marriage with all the passionate delirium, grief and troubles, challenges and negotiating such a commitment commands. You’re both sagging, energy is flagging and while others would have thrown in the towel already, you remain steadfast, perhaps impractically so. Determined, to put a good spin on it. Dedicated. To make this veteran partnership work in its unlucky 13th year, you mix things up, change routine, get creative. And it helps evolve, even resolve, (if things go well), the situation.

In my effort to shake things up and goose my situation into evolution, I recently spent six weeks off-island – my longest hiatus since my last Lonely Planet assignment in 2008. It was a month and a half of memorable adventures in both space and time and spirit. I played a lot. I learned more. And wrote very little. It was, (to take the metaphor too far), my Cuban marriage counseling.

Lo and behold, my time a fuera was not for naught because it snapped some things into sharp focus about how this place intoxicates and charms. It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, granted, and even some of my dearest loved ones on the other side have confessed to not understanding the attraction. For them, but most importantly for me and you, here are some of the reasons I’ve been toughing it out here all this time. These aren’t the big picture principles – humanism, solidarity, romance, equity – that brought me here, but rather snapshots of why I like this place better than most others on a day-to-day basis.

Drunkenness here is laughter & dance, not morose & violent – I know more than a little about alcoholism; when I moved here way back when, I was convinced I’d encounter a fair amount of rum-fueled violence. It was a valid assumption given my boozy (but not floozy, eh?!) background and the drunken squabbles and brawls I’d witnessed up North. But like many assumptions (especially where Cuba is concerned), this has been disproven by direct experience. Sloppiness, raised voices and lowered inhibitions – all these are markers here. But violence? Not so much; crimes of passion, which are definitely part of the Cuban script, excepted. On the whole, drinking is a happy affair here, accompanied by music and dance, which is much groovier than the stress, angst and escapism I see among my drunk friends and family in New York.

Sexuality is celebrated rather than castigated or repressed – You see it in the clothing styles, hear it in the piropos, and fairly feel it in the air. How else can I explain that my all-time most popular post is The Cuban Love Doctor and that there are entire websites dedicated to Cuban amor? Just hours back from my six week hiatus, I witnessed this exchange at my local agropecuario:

– Hey chula! You’re looking real good! Ven acá, chica. ¡Ven acá! I know you like black guys, but give me a chance. You won’t regret it!

The young woman in question smiled and demurred, but that this kind of come-on would be brandished in public, for everyone in the market to hear, and that the woman would be amused, even flattered, says a lot about the Cuban approach to sexuality (and interracial relations, as well, it should be noted). Also, that the guy who sells boniato knows your preference in partners speaks volumes about the tightly-knit nature of Cuban neighborhoods.

After such a long (for me) stint in the US, I realized one of the things I don’t cotton to is the hypocritical Puritanism. Men who regularly consume porn but are prudish in their own beds; women who deny their own pleasure by adhering to oppressive societal paradigms and expectations; and the application of sexual dogma generally, have created a country (or at least several generations) of sexual neurotics. Sex is supposed to be fun and playful and shame-free, if you ask me and as long as you’re not hurting anyone, what’s the problem?

Bawdy, unabashed gab – Cubans’ capacity to discuss bodily functions openly and clinically is tangentially related to the abovementioned point on sexuality. In the past week, I’ve talked to male friends about their urinary tract infections; pre-mature ejaculation; and constipation. Female friends, meanwhile, have offered opinions on big breastedness vs. flat-chestedness; faking vs multiple orgasms; and menstrual flow.

Irreverent humor – I’ve written previously about how I appreciate Cubans’ sense of humor. It’s a George Carlin or Chris Rock approach: no one here is off limits and the humor tends towards social commentary and catharsis. Just a few days ago, I was waiting for my order at Havana’s version of Kentucky Fried Chicken (yes, times are a-changin’!) when I overheard the following:

– ‘I’m not sure what I want,’ said the customer. ‘What’s on the Cuban sandwich?’

– ‘It’s a baguette, with slices of pork loin,’ began the waiter…

– ‘Alternated with slices of Fidel, Raúl, and Antonio Mella,’ chimed in another.

This elicited a guffaw on the part of the jokester and nervous, but enthusiastic laughter by those within ear shot. Whether or not you find it funny, it illustrates how there are no sacred cows in Cuba – except actual cows, which is another story (and common joke).

Reusing, repurposing and resourcefulness – Sure, my life would be a helluva lot easier were it filled with Swiffers and paper towels, Windex, Tupperware, and Home Depot. But a broom is a functional, age-old tool; linen napkins and cloth cleaning rags are more environmentally-friendly;  vinegar and newspaper clean glass well; and a plate-covered bowl or cajita is as good as a plastic container with a lid (and probably healthier in the long run). If I had a Home Depot, I would have never met Eduardo the carpenter or Carlos who sells screws and light switches por la izquierda. Nor would I have occasion to call up Laura and Roly to lend me their ladder. Just today, a friendly fellow entered the bookshop selling rose bushes. We struck up a conversation, I bought a gorgeous yellow number for $3 CUC; he gave me pest-control advice. So the Cuban reality is not only more economical and ecological, it’s also more social. I point this out only to point up that easier does not necessarily mean better – something I have to remind myself of now and then. Just like I have to remind myself that Cuba is still a great place to be and grow. For now, anyway.




Cuban Love Doctor –

Clothing styles –





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

13 responses to “Cuban Marriage Counseling

  1. Ole

    Your talent to cut right to the nugget of wisdom to be found in any subject concerning the Cuban way of Life is unequaled. Very nicely said.

    I missed paper towels more than any other thing-so bulky to pack, so indispensible. To me anyway.

    • Thanks. I have LOTS more to say. I havent been able to update my blog for months and had to send this off-island to post. But Ive been writing, oh, have I been writing and will post more soon.

  2. Colin

    Thanks Conner for another fantastic and open post.
    I have to admit to getting a tad over enthusiast than I should when I see a new posting (I probably need to get out more).
    They ALWAYS make me laugh and it makes me appreciate how easy it is living in the UK but that doesn’t necessarily make it better.
    The Cubans could definitely teach the English a few good ways to chill out, loosen up and stop being so anxious (not me of course..hah)
    I loved my trip to Cuba, I met some wonderful friends who I am still in touch with and your posts somehow make me feel like I could be there.
    Keep up the good work, its very much appreciated.
    Best Wishes

    • Gracias for the nice comment Colin. We’ve got a good English friend hanging out almost daily at Cuba Libro and Im sure she’d agree: most of us from the north could learn some chilling/anti-anxiety/loosening up techniques! It always makes my day when a reader opines that HIH helps them feel connected and transports them here. Means Im doing something right! Happy travels

  3. It was worth the wait. I’m glad you said what I have felt for so long. I thought maybe I was wrong since every time I tell someone that Cuba is different and better in many ways, I am given strange looks.
    I was even accused of having a “Noble savage fetish” can you imagine how insulting that would be to a Cuban.
    In the end it’s inexplicable and that in my opinion is what always draws me back.

    • Quite right – it’s the inexplicable, the preposterous, the humor, the contradictions, the evolution of an island society who has flipped the bird to Tio Sam for decades that keeps the intrigue coming.

      Noble savage fetish?! The only part of that applicable to Cubans is the fetish part (and the noble part – for a large portion). Thanks for the comment.

  4. By way of follow up on the bawdy, unabashed gab, I offer these anecdotes (both 100% true):
    A German fellow, married to a Cubana, accompanied his wife back to the island. It was his first visit. He has a birth defect and his left arm is only a third of the length of his right. He was used to stares and titters, kids pointing and the like. But then he came to Cuba. “Man,” he told our mutual friend. “I’ve had this condition all my life. I thought Id seen it all. But you guys….I cant go into the street but some Cuban gets all curious and asks: Hey! What happened to your arm?! Your arm, there. What’s going on? Brother! What’s up with your little arm?
    He admitted with a laugh that he liked the Cuban approach. Straight and to the point. Curious, but not judgemental.

    At the after party for Yo Yo Ma earlier this month: a Cuban goes up to the world famous cellist and asks: “Asere, what’s that cello cost, anyway?” Im quite sure Master Ma has never been approached in this way, by the hoi polloi.

  5. John corbett

    Thank you for another wonderful post . You are living my dream that I’m pretty sure will never be realized and I have to be content with short visits .
    I often wonder how I would cope in a long term situation . I’m pretty sure I’d be happy as a clam . In the meantime I’ll look forward to you’re next dispatch. Just looked out the window snowing in Calgary bummer .

  6. Funny that I left a positive comment on another post of yours but this one, especially your observations on Cuban sexuality, made me do a double take.

    Whilst you’re mostly right about the puritanism that engulfs western society (it’s the same here in the UK) I will say this about my country of birth: our sexuality is a mess. Cut through the layers and you will find a deep-seated misogyny which is masked by the (sexist) “piropos” you so well describe. By the way, I’m not attacking piropos because I have lived in the UK for seventeen years and now I’m more “British” than Cuban. Even in Cuba my way of thinking changed gradually from my teenage years to my young adulthood.

    Behind the descriptions of bodily functions and open talk about sex there lies a fear of going too deep and coming across one’s own prejudices. It’s not difficult to explain why. Who ruled Cuba for 49 years? Who is rulling it now? Who are at the top? In whose image was my country cretaed? Men is the answer. When we mention women it’s usually in the same patronising tone we reserve for Africans, Latin Americans and Asias (poor souls, they never had a revolution like ours).

    13 years is more than most people manage. I have to commend you on that. Plastic socialists don’t even want to spend more than a fortnight on the island for fear that their long-held views on my country might evaporate in the air. But, I do dispute your assertion of our sexuality. As for drinking, I was born and grew up opposite a “barcito”. Sorry, but we do have a drinking problem in Cuba and it’s a violence-related problem. I saw it with my very own eyes. Knives, punch-ups, the lot.

    Thanks for the post.

    Greetings from London.

    • Agree totally: Cuba is MACHISTA pero con cojones. I did not mean to imply that it’s all rosy and healthy and fun in the cuban bed. I have written pretty extensively (here and in my job as journalist) about the societal-wide effects and implications of the macho, homophobia that plagues this place. It has health (mental and physical) implications, can affect employment, etc etc. Its not only the machismo, but the lack of gender perspective in many sectors; its even worse on an individual level. Thanks for pointing this out in your comment.

      I dont think all piropos are sexist, however. Thanks for reading/writing in.

  7. mariakharris

    I absolutely adore your writing style Connergo and this post! thanks so much for sharing. You capture Cuba so perfectly.

    • gracias!! This post was actually written under some very bizarre and unique circumstances where the conclusion was: at least I got a decent piece of writing out of it (metaphor for my life?). Maybe Ill reveal the details in my memoir!!

  8. Daniel

    I agree with the above quote. It seems there are a lot of women and men yumas who wear rose tinted spectacles or leave their brains at the departure lounge when they visit Cuba.

    I have seen too many disaster stories here in Canada. women and men who have been bankrupted by cunning Cubans who used them for a visa out of poverty and who disappeared as soon as acquired permanent residency.

    To call these Canadians and in some cases Europeans naive is an understatement. It seems as soon as they touch down on Cuban tarmac they are swept up in this fantasy cliche of exotic socialism fuelled by rum and romance and rumba, and they believe the b.s. spun by these romeo initeras and the ministry of tourism.

    I have seen 70 year old men holding hands with 20 year old jiniteras in resorts. I’ve also seen 200 lb women book 23 year Cuban prostitutes to hotels in Varadero. They arrive laden with regalos, laptops iphones etc, no doubt all of which are sold to feed his family.

    I have seen a 200 lb 45 year old indulge a gardener at a small hotel in Guardalavaca. She has been pursuing him for years, he clearly is not interested but plays along since she showers him with expensive gifts and in her mnd sees him as her man. He has been happily married to his Cuban wife for 17 years and has three children with her.

    I have seen gringas making enormous compromises to keep worthless Jiniteras in their lives. Guys who would not stand a chance if they lived in Canada where you work or you pretty much starve.Some even marry in order to obtain residency there. So in effect for these jiniteros it’s a profession. why work when some yuma will marryu you provide for you keep you in the lazy manner which you’ve become used to all of your life. Why work for 20 cuc when some naive yuma will maintain you so you can sit in the park central bitching about mujers, and planning the next scam, how to con her into paying for that extention to the hovel he is living in, get her to buy him a car.

    Yet these women fund maintain these workshy losers and call them their ‘novio’ their ‘marito’ They defend these losers. They are deluding themselves.

    In that point I agree with the above very honest post. Until yumas stop indulging machista lasy losers in Cuba little will change.

    The foreign governments can clamp down and legislate but there is legislation for the legions of naive men and women who fool themselves that they ‘in love’ and that their novio’ truly loves them and not the moneda and regalos and chance of a visa out of poverty that she is providing him/her with.

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