Usual excuses aside (overworked; procrastination; writer’s block), the transition from 2018 to 2019 was, as we say here, ‘de pinga’ – and not in a good way. I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say I’ve been waiting for some positive news, from whatever corner, to revitalize Here is Havana. Luckily, living in Cuba obligates me to develop an inhumane amount (for me, a native New Yorker after all) of patience…But I tire of waiting for the bad news blues to lift and need to write for sanity’s sake. So I thought I’d provide ya’ll with an update of some doings in my corner of Havana (and there is some good news, despite my whining).
Miguel has been sprung! For a weekend anyway. We celebrated his first three-day pass from Havana’s largest prison a short time ago and the tears flowed, believe me. If you’ve been following the story, you know our dear friend was sentenced to six years in the Combinado del Este for fewer than two dozen tabs of Ritalin. According to Cuban jail math, where 10 months inside equals a year in real-world time, he’s served a third of his sentence already. Several months ago he was ‘stepped down’ to the minimum security ‘campamento.’ On bad days he professes he’d rather be back in the Combinado’s maximum security section, but really, life is much better for him in the campamento, comparatively. He has regular, monthly conjugal visits and much more phone time, plus he has been released from machete duty, now spending his days in an office (Miguel The Bureaucrat!) – except when there are high-level visits, of which there are many, by comandantes and the like. At these times, it’s all hands on deck to paint, sweep, clean and perform whatever other tasks are necessary to prettify the place. A tall order.
Those prisoners who’ve earned their chits and kept their heads down, like Miguel, are rewarded three days on the outside. A family member (or friend) has to trek out to the Combinando for ‘orientation’ and to escort the prisoner home. There are five rules of the weekend pass:
1. They must check in, before settling in at home, with their local police station.
2. They cannot go to parties or clubs or bars – any place selling alcohol is verboten.
3. They cannot frequent parks or anywhere else with a “bad element.”
4. They must not be out, anywhere, after midnight.
5. They must report back to the jail no later than 9am sharp on the appointed day.
A local police officer may stop by their home during the weekend pass to ensure they are complying. This didn’t happen during Miguel’s three free days, but another prisoner failed to return and the whole place went on lock down.
When Miguel walked into Cuba Libro, a giant cheer went up – the kind you hear when the lights blast back after a 10-hour blackout. He and Esther’s coffees were on the house (as they have been since he was imprisoned and will remain so until he’s released) and we all wore those goofy ear-to-ear grins brought on by happy reunions and unbridled joy. Old friends dropped by once word got out that Miguel was in the house and seeing him – clean shaven, his raven locks a distant memory, his teeth fixed – surprised many. Diana, who didn’t know he was out for the weekend, greeted everyone around the garden table with the customary kiss on the cheek. When she reached Miguel, with whom she has been friends for years, she said ‘Hi. Nice to meet you.” As Diana took a step back, everyone burst out laughing.
“MIGUEL!!!” she shouted and jumped into his arms.
He flushed red and flashed his fixed-on-the-inside smile. Diana is one of our prettiest, most exotic regulars and Miguel had probably never before received such a shower of affection from her. The scene repeated itself when Amanda, another regular and friend, didn’t recognize him. Head shaved, the dimple on his chin, his filled-out body: Laritza, another friend, said “whoa! You’ve become a tall drink of water locked up!”
It was beautiful to be a part of the reunion and share with Miguel and Esther (who couldn’t keep their hands off each other; we almost shooed them into the bathroom for a quickie, but house rules hold that only the owner has that right). I’m just sorry we didn’t have more time together. But he has another pass in 45 days. The countdown begins!
Switching gears, I wanted to give a short update about my rebuttal to that story that went viral saying Cuba Libro was being forced to close – this did damage, believe me, coming at the end of a very tough year where hurricanes and Trump absurdities took their toll. I promised we would find a way to stay open and true to our mission and vision, while remaining 100% legal (an important element in our ethically- and socially-responsible business model). The article didn’t mention any of this but I was (mostly) confident that we would prevail. Lo and behold: two days before new regulations for private business were due to take effect, the one that was most problematic for us – that you can only have one license – was struck from the plan. !Pa’lante!
My phone went berserk with messages and incoming calls as friends and supporters shared the news. Relief from constant, low-level stress caused by circumstances beyond one’s control doesn’t wash over you suddenly once the danger and adrenaline pass. It’s not like a near car crash. Rather, it releases slowly, like the pressure cookers steaming black beans in every Cuban home. Several trustworthy sources had counseled us to sit tight and wait and see, but when you’ve shed volumes of blood, sweat and tears for over five years to convert idea/dream into reality, it’s challenging internalizing such advice – however well-informed.
Complicating Cuba Libro’s particular situation (beyond that our business model is founded on selling affordable coffee and books – hence the two licenses) is that we rent our space. No one here is a property owner. Cuenta propistas who own their property enjoy more latitude with the one-license rule since each person on the deed is permitted a license. But all that is water under the bridge. When we learned that logic had prevailed and two or more licenses were permitted – after all, we’d been operating continuously for five years, with all the attendant inspections, required permits, work papers and the rest – we were ecstatic. And vindicated.
Of course, the changes that did take effect obligate us to confront tiresome, tedious levels of bureaucracy and these are causing all manner of frustration across Havana. For instance, because the name of our cafe activity has been changed from ‘cafeteria de alimentos ligeros en punto fijo’ to ‘servicio gastronomico en cafeteria’, we have to change all our paperwork: our health certificate, all the working papers of each of our team members, and inscription of the business with urban planning. Sounds not too taxing, writing here in this beautiful, tranquil garden with an espresso at hand, but believe me – this will take weeks and require a heroic amount of patience on our part.
And then there’s the ‘cuenta fiscal’ – the bank account that every private entrepreneur has to open. The good news is once you have the account, you receive a 5% discount on purchases made with the bank card. You also have to maintain three months of your licensing fee in the account (in Cuba Libro’s case, $45CUC), plus a percentage of profits – not ideal for a cash-poor business like ours. Nevertheless, this means the government is guaranteed their payments and can be more on top of tax scams – a major problem in the all-cash private sector. The bad news is many (if not most) of the banks aren’t prepared: they don’t have the personnel, they don’t have the magnetic ATM cards and nerves are fraying. Tussles and arguments have broken out in banks over this and really, I haven’t the energy these days to face a bureaucratic scrum. Like a pap smear, it’s something that has to be done, but no one looks forward to it.
AND THIS JUST IN!!!
I ran into my friend and cafe regular Adonis during my four days of rest and relaxation with my Harley-Davidson family. This was well-earned and sorely-needed after several 70-hour work weeks punctuated with daily donations to tornado victims. My phone was turned off, I didn’t connect to the internet and checked in on Toby once a day because in this, I have no choice: I’m head over heels for that terrier mutt. Chatting with Adonis about his 7-year old daughter and the upcoming concert over smoked pork ribs, reality came crashing down…
“Conner! I forgot to tell you. Did you know that someone opened a Cuba Libro in Havana Vieja?”
“What?! Where? What do they do there?” I asked, calmly, because there was absolutely nothing I could do about it at the moment, plus I was loath to let this dose of unsettling news ruin my mini-vacation.
“I’m not sure,” he said. “It was closed when I walked by.”
I gnawed on my pork ribs as the idea of someone profiting off our six years of tireless work gnawed at me. We aren’t among TripAdvisor’s Top 5 Things to Do in Havana by chance and this bit of trickery was just the type of thing that makes me hate the human race sometimes. Alas, there wasn’t much I could at the moment, but I could consult our most trusted regulars and mine the hive for ideas on how to proceed. I sent out a quick message to half a dozen friends and returned my phone to airplane mode.
Back in Havana, with several ideas in hand ranging from industrial espionage and legal recourse to tactics much more…guerilla, I began lining up our ducks to stop what I was convinced was a straight up case of identity theft. Adonis did some legwork taking photos of “Cuba Libros…Bookstore” in a prime Habana Vieja location. Seeing the images of books and magazines in English, with some of the same artists adorning the walls, my blood boiled and my brain roiled. We’re still gathering intel on this place but I wanted to put the word out that there is no relation or link whatsoever between us (the “real” Cuba Libro) and these Habana Vieja poseurs. Stay tuned…
And one last thing by way of update for those diehard fans who have stuck this long with my ramblings: remember my post Stupid Shit People Ask Me about Cuba? Incredibly, those examples were surpassed this week at our little oasis. Before the big reveal of what our Kitchen Captain and Donations Coordinator called ‘the stupidest thing I’ve heard yet,’ let me be fair and say that Cubans ask me some stupid questions as well.
From this week’s annals: since we are in the midst of the very palatable, but very short strawberry season, we’ve been offering an elixir of all-natural strawberry and pineapple juice for $1.25 and made a sign to advertise this and our strawberry fruit smoothies ($1.75). If you’ve been to Cuba, I’d wager a month’s salary that you didn’t see a fresh strawberry during your stay – they’re that rare (if you did, don’t get excited: my monthly salary wouldn’t buy a bushel of strawberries where you live!). As two neighborhood women studied the sign, I asked if they had any questions and invited them into the cafe.
“Are those prices in pesos cubanos or CUC?”
Absurd: that would make our exotic (for Cuba) juice four cents. We’re fair, not crazy.
Now to the pollo of the arroz con pollo: A young woman doing a Master’s thesis on Cuba (topic still undefined) came in and offered to pay me to answer her many and varied questions.
“Make yourself at home and I’ll be happy to answer whatever I’m able. And you don’t have to pay me.”
“Oh. I thought that’s how things are done down here.”
“Not at Cuba Libro they’re not.”
The first question from this post-graduate, non-Spanish speaking “researcher” who has been walking up to people on the street and in parks (very scientific, her methodology) asking them varied, vague questions, which should have raised red flags. But really, nothing prepared me for what was coming:
“Cubans tell me the reason crime is so low here is because people are afraid to go to jail. Is that true?”
Not knowing where to begin, I offered her a copy of Crime and Punishment on the house.