Party in the U.S.A.?

Eight-hour blackouts roll through Havana, a bottle of cooking oil costs $12 on the black market, and everything from salt and cigarettes to laundry detergent and sugar is becoming more difficult to procure. And as I type this, a tropical storm is gathering steam and heading towards my family.

Meanwhile, I’m stuck in El Norte, with no real notion of when—or how—I’ll return. I’ve been here now or over three months when an unplanned odyssey dumped me back in the United States. Even after 20 years of straddling the divide, with family aquí y allá, the separation is unsettling—a discomfiting heartbreak by degrees. I’m guessing most of us with ties to both places share similar feelings.

‘Leaning into it’ helps keep the rage and frustration at bay, if only temporarily. Leaning in has never been my strong suit, and it’s getting harder, not easier, being stuck here—the longest I’ve been off-island ever. The double downward spiral created by the pandemic and economic recession continues to suck us dry like a tick burrowing into our communal psyche. Keeping afloat, treading water furiously, is what we do, but it’s exhausting. Emotionally. Financially.

To alleviate my emotional and spiritual fatigue, I try to shift my perspective from ‘stuck in the United States,’ to ‘mercifully unable to return at the moment.’ Like a 12-step mantra you repeat to keep yourself sober and (passably) sane, I tell myself to enjoy the unexpected time with my family. I congratulate myself on my continued weight gain. I work hard envisioning a viable future for Cuba Libro.  Even as I admonish myself to be grateful (goddamn it!) for this time, I beat back feelings of guilt and hopelessness, my survivor syndrome in constant conflict with my goal for practical optimism and self-preservation.

Today my mental and physical health status is: mostly nauseous.

Two things keep me on the right side of the asylum doors and dirt: the unflagging support of my family here and there, and the irrefutable and mounting evidence that Cuba provides a superior quality of life than the United States (cue the trolls).

It began to dawn on me—like so many of my realizations—in a bathroom.

“He’s in jail again, for fuck’s sake,” I heard from the stall adjacent. “I don’t know what to do.”

‘Leave him to rot,’ I thought.

“You need to get out of there,” her friend responded on speaker phone.

I concurred. ‘Now tell her to take you off speaker so the whole women’s room isn’t privy.’

“I know. He’s violent. He’s high. I can’t be there when he gets out, but I can’t get in. He changed the locks.”

Her friend didn’t miss a beat: “get over there, jimmy a window, grab you shit and get out.”

I wiped in a hurry, eager to put a face to the drama. Dyed blond and overly tan, her face was crevassed by the wrinkles and sag typical to sun-soaked drunks and junkies. The contents of her purse were splayed across the bathroom counter. “I can’t do this anymore!” she shouted at her phone, a whistle escaping through broken teeth.

Welcome to Florida.

_____

I was in this southern swamp for my cousin’s wedding. I adore this cousin. I enjoy cavorting with this side of my family that I hadn’t seen in decades—to the extent I was braving Florida for the chance. I vowed to harness that practical optimism, remain open-minded, and practice leaning in, to this first, happy reunion since COVID started raging. I tried to lay aside my Florida bias—as understandable and defensible as it is.  

Just off the plane in Jacksonville, the hot mess of a stranger in the bathroom did nothing to help my resolve.

Nor did the inordinate amount of people violating CDC rules for masking up in airports. Or the stringy-haired, grime-encrusted tweaker trying to rent a car—no credit card, only a couple of teeth—at the next window over.

I dialed back my toxiciciy, tried to check my judgement (hard nut: we’re close to Disney and Daytona after all) and focus on the joyous occasion that brought me here. I counseled myself not to condemn an entire state and nation after a few brief encounters with Darwin’s disadvantaged.

Early the next morning I took a walk on the beach, confident that nature and negative air ions, plus the presence of Yemayá out there, somewhere, would help smooth my bent, twisted feathers. I forcibly shut down my snark watching monster trucks kick up sand within feet of virgin turtle nests, the eggs buried just the night before. Instead, I switched focus to dads making sandcastles with their daughters, the wedding party doing yoga, the grizzlied men fishing from shore. I bid good morning to strangers and passersby.

‘Kill a Commie for Mommy.’

The 12-year old’s t-shirt stopped me in the sand, ‘good morning’ curdling on my lips.

It wasn’t the political statement tripping me up and out (I’m quite sure this tween product of the Florida education system would be seriously hard-pressed to elucidate even one tenet of communism—or democracy for that matter). It was the violence of it. Slot in Christian, QAnon quack or douchebag billionaires for Commie and my reaction would be (almost) the same.

“That’s a pretty aggressive shirt, don’t you think?”

I don’t like to play the shame game but…I will when pressed.  

_____

With just 24 hours in Florida, some rotten realities about the USA started snapping into place.

At any time, any place, you will be subjected to personal, traumatic conversations between strangers.

Apparently, here, folks like my bathroom buddy, think having a cell phone engenders some sort of privacy (do Europeans act like this? Canadians? Or just entitled Amerikans?*). In CVS, the grocery store, the subway—I’ve overheard divorces, mom’s ripping the nanny/gardener/maid a new asshole, and abusive bosses dressing down employees. What’s the empathy rule for when you inadvertently learn of cancer diagnoses or in flagrante affairs? Do I hug the sobbing widower as he crumples beside the reduced-for-quick-sale end cap? Check that. I don’t know you, your help, your cheating husband or aunt with carcinoma. Not my circus, not my monkeys. Real grief is another story (of which I wish I knew little, but alas, at 52, it comes with the territory) and I can understand ‘getting that call’ or being triggered in public, but otherwise? Get a room. Ghost. Use headphones. Whisper. Anything, but stop contaminating the rest of us. Same goes for people who pick their noses in traffic or clip fingernails in the airport lounge. Just stop, ok?   

The USA is a violent, violent country.   

Not everyone, everywhere or always pre-meditated, but the general tenor here is ‘I will fuck you up!’ if we don’t share values, views, skin color or background. You want me to stop clipping my nails in public? Talk to my Glock. Black dad in a community of Karens? Meet my assault rifle. Or maybe I’m just a little more pissed off and alienated than usual today, so I’ll strafe a school. It’s an environment and culture that accepts children wearing t-shirts advocating murder for political-philosophical concepts they don’t understand. No thank you. I ain’t down. And when will Donald Trump be put in jail? He’s not wholly responsible, but does he share blame? Why, yes, he does and we, the people, want a reckoning.

The imperialistic, entitled outlook is deeply, deeply ingrained in the Amerikan psyche.

The average person here truly believes. Lives and breathes the concepts of US superiority, eminent domain, Manifest Destiny and the like.  Of course they do: the average person here may not ever travel beyond their home state in their lifetime. These are the same people who tried to cancel the French by renaming them Freedom Fries (file under: Fucking Idiots, pardon my French. Cross ref: Republican Congress/North Carolina Crackers). While entitlement is a saw used for generations to flog the rest of us (file under: Conner Says Nothing New), now the stakes are just too high. Climate change; science denying, global pandemic (hello?!); income inequality; world exploitation—let’s drop the posturing and politicizing because these crises will brook no bullshit, nor wait for the ignorant or unwoke to get with it. I said as much, in the nicest way possible, when a family member at the wedding suggested we attend the colonial reenactment of the “settling” of St Augustine. Oh, hell no!

And I encourage everyone to Just Say No to states that don’t recycle. Just Say No to politicians advancing an imperialistic agenda against sovereign nations (at the expense of constituents to boot—this means YOU Bob Menéndez, who as this link shows, has no idea what he’s talking about when it comes to today’s Cuba, and Marco Rubio, who has been vocal about his goal to hurt Cuban families and starve the nation as indicated in this legislation he co-sponsored). Just Say No to anti-vaxxers and any other manifestation of this misplaced and false sense of US exceptionalism and superiority. The other tactic is to give them enough rope to hang themselves with—maybe too dicey considering the competing global emergencies in which we find ourselves. Or we can just hang on a little longer: given how disappointing the Biden administration is turning out to be, coupled with the pandemic, I predict this exceptionalism bubble is going to pop in 3, 2, 1…

Systemic racism is a killer and not going anywhere, anytime soon.

It, like colonialism and exceptionalism, is so deeply ingrained, I’m glad I’ll be dead in 20 or so years and not have to witness the final countdown. This was rammed home as I sat on the beach watching this beautiful, inspiring union of two people in love unfold. I’m white, my soon-to-be-hitched cousin is white, my family is white and though there were a few Asian, gay and differently-abled folks at the wedding, diversity in my clan tends towards slugging shots of Bushmill’s instead of Jameson for a little variety. Don’t get me wrong: the happy couple is super woke and evolved, as are many of my family members—precisely why I choked on my mocktail when I heard the priest boom: “and just like the Pharaohs were buried with all their worldly possessions they might need in the afterlife—food, clothing, slaves…”

‘Oh, no he didn’t,’ I thought.

But the looks on the faces to my left and right told me: yes, he did. He most certainly did. But it gets better. After the whoopsie daisy with the slaves, he asked us to raise our arms heavenward to receive the blessing of god, whereupon 80 people stood on that beach making what a bystander could only interpret as the heil Hitler sign.

So yeah. There are people and places I love here—I had a tremendous week in LA, eye-opening experiences in Minneapolis and am calmly (kind of) waiting out my return in my beloved Maine woods. But Party in the USA? Not for me, thanks. No matter how potent or pretty the favors

*I spell it this way to distinguish between the dozens of other countries making up the Americas, all of whose inhabitants are also Americans.    

24 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, environment, Expat life, Living Abroad

24 responses to “Party in the U.S.A.?

  1. Casimiro Sotelo

    I look forward to meeting you in person one day at Cuba Libro. I wish it wasn’t so far off on the horizon. Cuidate y bendiciones

    Casimiro

    • Assuming we survive the worst……fingers crossed, and working hard to keep the dream alive!

      • IngaC

        Brilliant – a pleasure to read! Thank you for your insights and honesty. A lot could be applied to Canada and Canadians as well, e.g.
        “ The average person here truly believes. Lives and breathes the concepts of superiority, eminent domain, Manifest Destiny and the like. Of course they do: the average person here may not ever travel beyond their home state in their lifetime”. Ask Canadians about their healthcare system and they will proudly claim it to be the best in the world! (Sad and absolutely false)…
        Also, I think one needs to have experienced living in countries with very different socioeconomic, political systems in order to have a broader view, insight, and understanding of how things really are, beyond the cliches of governmental proclamations to the contrary.
        Oh, and the ability of critical thinking – and I applaud you for that!!!

      • Hi Inga. You touch on something dear to my heart: the inherent worth of travel. Whether its international (or not), at any age, living abroad or just experiential, intentional travel, this is something that broadens horizons, offers different perspectives and understanding of our wider world, and creates empathy–not to mention memories. I think staying in one’s socio-economic/political/cultural bubble is a real limitation. We would have less ignorance in this world if more people struck out to discover realities beyond their comfort zone.

        I have my moments of critical thinking! thanks for the piropo!

  2. Stephanie

    Just wanted to say I’ve been reading your posts for years, I never miss a single one. I love them! I’m a gringa living in Uruguay for the past 30 years, a translator and editor. Keep them coming! Thanks so much, they’re just wonderful!

  3. Earl L. Kerr

    Take a few deep breaths often. Listen to your self-talk. Then think of windmills, the kind you can challenge with a Lance, and those of today that give decentralized energy. Sylvia’s son and family just left for Spain. Will be there until school begins back in NYC. William teaches Spanish Lit. At Brooklyn College; and has written a treatise on Cervantes entitled: “TRANSNATIONAL CERVANTES” by William Childers. A bit heavy; however, thinking of you and Cuba Libros, you may find this interesting. CUBA needs this, especially those who Love it. Wishing you Love and Wellness, Sylvia and Earl

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  4. tourleaderstales

    A total joy to read your post as always. I hope you manage to get back soon, I cycle past Cuba Libro often and think of you stuck up there. Though, as you know, you aren’t missing too much right now. The lines and fights over the coleros, getting up at 5am to be first in line only to make 150 if you’re lucky, the daily Covid numbers rising while everyone races to get their jabs, the hospitals where even sheets are something you have to bring with you. You paint a dismal picture of the US right now, and I totally get it, but make the most of being Stateside while you have to be. Good luck getting back!

    • It’s hard for people to understand what you/everyone is enduring right now. Mi guajiro got the call from a friend at 530am yesterday they’re selling cooking oil!!! Get over here ASAP for your ticket; they’re distributing at 8am. At 1030am, they finally distributed 100 tickets, he was #4 (woohoo!!). Sometime after noon, he was able to buy one box of tomato paste (oil and the rumored chicken, which neighbors saw unloaded into the warehouse the day prior) were nowhere to be seen. 33MN. And we have a bit of money. And we don’t have kids. And our roof doesn’t leak, no one in the family is in the hospital right now (thank god! though I do have friends desperately looking for antibiotics), our elders are doing ok…..

      Sheets. Folks don’t realize how sorely needed sheets are. Im in my own sheet crisis but that’s another story.

      Hang in there!!

  5. j Szarka

    Why did you Torcher yourself to go to the USA when you could have enjoyed the glory of Cuba during the Pandemic. Surely you are not to bright, SI
    For sure there is a longer line of Cubans wishing to take your place in the USA, then there are Americans in line for Cuba. Do you think???

    • J – a more careful read would reveal:
      a) I was more than a year in Cuba during the pandemic
      b) I had NO CHOICE but to leave

      Yes I am tortured. And yes, I wish I were smarter and more bright! Working on it, but at my age….hahahaha.

  6. Diane Barnet

    Wow, this is so over the top! It’s sad that you can’t find anything to love in the USA. As a Canadian-American I’ve visited Cuba several times, going back to 1978, from Banes to Vinales, and like its culture and people.
    But, hey–at least in the USA we don’t subject artists and writers to arbitrary house arrest without charges (cue San Isidro.) We don’t arrest people for “pre-criminal tendencies.” Nor do we embrace the inept central planning by a thoroughly corrupt government that has led to economic chaos, while blaming it all on the embargo. (Yes, I know the pandemic has killed tourism.)
    Most Cuban-Americans are far more prosperous and–dare I suggest–happier in la Yuma than they were in Castrolandia. Basta ya!

    • HI Diane. Lots to parse in your note. Never said I didn’t love anything about the USA–on the contrary, mentioned much I love here: my people, the Maine woods, the cheese (not in this post but in previous ones).

      Criminal justice and policing in both systems are dysfunctional, for different reasons obviously. Embracing central planning and corruption? All Cubans? By that logic then, you as a US person, embrace say, heartbeat bills, anti-science, tax cheats and misogynism at the highest levels, the systemic racism, and all that recent years has wrought?

      I hope not!!

      Cuba has not “blamed everything on the embargo” for a long time. Are there problems? Huge ones. Is change afoot? Yes it is. Is there dissent? Yup, that too. Do Cubans have the right to decide their fate as they see fit, without interference? I believe they do. My point.

      Most Cuban Americans are far more prosperous…Cant they be prosperous AND have the right to send money to and visit their families?

      But hey, what do I know? Ive only got 2 decades of on-the-ground experience, reporting and building an inter-generational, inter-racial, inter-species (Tobito! Tokio! Kobe!), diverse community. And still listening and learning…stay tuned!

      • Patti

        Feeling down on this 4th of July. Youmade me feel better. Thank you. You were so close in LA.. would have loved to see you in Northern California.

      • So close yet so far…..Glad to have helped with a little pick me up. Hang in there!

  7. John

    Hi Conner ,
    You are one tough cookie . Not many of us could endure the constant dissapointments and elusive peace of mind that should and could be yours if not for the insane foreign policy of the United States . After the optimism of the Obama , Pope and Stones Cuba visits it’s a kick in the teeth . At the same time one only has to leave the Island for a short time to realize something really fundamental is missing in first world society . I’m not sure what it is but I feel it .

    • Yeah. That Pope-Obama-Stones era was one sweet spot eh? I just read an article in the most recent NYer about co-housing, co-ops and intentional communities. Fast fast fast on the rise in the US of A. I figure a lot of what is missing (and what is one of Cuba’s strong suits) is community. One of the reasons we have had such luck/success/traction since founding Cuba Libro 8 years ago is that we have tried to bottle this lightening and grow and strengthen that human need for community. Maybe we are on to something?

  8. Karlos

    Beautiful epic rant Conner. What Inga C says, goes for us Canucks. Sadly we also have a lacklustre leader with no promise of sun on the horizon. Florida has long been known as a….. remedial? state. The leaders in that corner of Amerika are a fuckin disaster, sadly many more in other states as well

  9. Juan Valdez

    Judging the collective psyche of the American people through superficial observations of members on the lower rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, is much like judging the collective moral fiber of the Cuban people based on a tourist’s singular interaction with a Havana resident that began with “ Hey my frien, first time en La Habana ?”

  10. Leslie Gold

    Conner what are you hearing about the protests today? Hoping to see some posts from you on Twitter. Anything you can add would be super helpful!!

  11. Joseph

    Not sure what to make of your recent post. I’ve found many of your blogs interesting over the years. This one gives me mixed messages. The theme seems America sucks, all Americans are the same, mostly negative vibes. You chose to live in not only one of the most fucked up regimes and still cling on to your US passport and all the trimmings that allow you the opportunity to come and do your thing here.
    I understand the US has problems. We are about 250 years old and have a lot to square out. The Trump era was quite eye opening (scary!!)and will linger for many years.
    I know you are very intelligent and worldly but when you mention things like you wish you were Canadian …it makes me wonder what your message is. Canada does have problems (indigenous issues, homelessness etc) Europe is no utopia. It took them a good 60 years to work out lots of issues and still this weekend British black footballers are dealing with racism.

    It would have been nice to hear about any connections you sought to make on this long trip to the US with Americans that are on your level ….intelligent, open minded, projects to connect Cubans and Americans. Every country has a segment of the population that lives in their bubble. The us has so many but there are many good people here that might have lifted you out of your misery.
    Life is complicated, you are with family which always has its positives and negatives (being home) reflection. But I still question your underlying message with posts like you did.
    Anyway I truly wish you well and hope things get better for all.

    • Thanks for writing in Joseph. The “US privilege” of having a passport to be able to travel in and out is not lost on me. However, since the Trump regulations (still in place), this passport is pretty much useless when it comes to Cuba. That I am a fully accredited journalist is what permits me access still. I feel deeply for all the people with loved ones on the island and in the States (or el exterior en general) who do not have this same kind of access.

      I really appreciate your taking the time to offer a more positive perspective viz what I might have written about. This post was a rant and me raging against things beyond my control. Frustrating and heartbreaking as it is, I always welcome respectful, positive dialogue.

      To your point; Ive been making connections, organizing and building projects/bridges bw here and there. During my time here I’ve been: reconfiguring and building a strong board for our nonprofit; helping write, coordinate and launch Oxfam’s report on how US embargo violates rights of Cubans (esp the most vulnerable); participating in various webinars and panels on how US sanctions violate rights of Cubans, how Cuba Libro is surviving COVID, collaborations between US and Cuban COVID experts; participating in lift the embargo caravans; fundraising for Cuba Libro so staff has minimum salaries and charged cell phones and the owners of the property still receive rent; writing on Cuban COVID vaccines, clinical trials, and vaccination campaign for MEDICC Review (www.mediccreview.org). and more.

      And that leads us to mixed messages. Im mixed up, that’s for sure!! And this post reflects that. Stay tuned for my next post, where the message will be crystal clear.

  12. Pingback: Unpacking the Protests in Cuba | Here is Havana

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