Your Live Donkey, Reporting from Havana

Remember the good ole days of the ‘coronacoaster,’ riding the ups and downs of 2020-2021 and looking forward to better times ahead? That was some aspirational thinking. Delusional even. Now, rather than breathing a little easier, it feels like we’re hanging on for dear life, hoping the coaster correctly banks that terrorizing turn. If it doesn’t? We’ll soon be careening off the rails, flying into the abyss.   

Ringing in 2021, we had vaccines rolling out (or rather, some of us did—vaccine inequity is genocidal, but that’s another story). We reunited with our loved ones (or rather, some of us did). We had some hope, false hope, but still: false hope is better than no hope I’ve come to realize.

Last year we talked about “after the pandemic.” How foolish. How grammatically incorrect. That whole time we were using the wrong preposition. There is no life “after” the pandemic, only life with the pandemic. And just when you think it can’t get any worse, hang on baby because it certainly can.

Enter Omicron. Por díos. Redact “false hope” for “no hope.” Too cynical? Perhaps. Too dramatic? I am known to skew cynical and dramatic (ahem), but these past two years have been stranger than fiction…

Here’s a quick list (quick because each entry warrants its own post), of what is adding fodder to the dumpster fire. These are arranged in no particular order save for progressing from the collective to the personal,.

For all of you hoping for good news from Havana, you’ve come to the right place at the wrong time. I promise to share all kinds of uplifting (and exclusive) information related to my passion project, but that will have to wait. The silver linings, the Cuban vaccines, the possibility (finally) of the country legalizing gay marriage—all of this will have to wait because the past two years have been especially shitty in Cuba. And not just due to SARS-CoV-2.

Reordering of the Cuban economy: File under: Disaster, Possibly Fatal.  Official reports from end-of-year analysis show 70% inflation in the formal market, and more than triple that in the informal (AKA black) market. It’s a total shit show.

N27, J11, N15 and any other letter/number combination I may have missed: I’ve written about ‘the troubles’ (to borrow the Irish euphemism) here previously and I don’t feel the need (nor the desire, frankly) to re-visit at the moment. But trust me: we haven’t heard the end of this.

Me Too: Not yet a movement, but thanks to 5 very courageous women who went public in December about a known, repeat sex offender, the long-overdue reckoning about sexual harassment, violence and abuse in Cuba is (nearly) upon us. Heads will—and damn well should—roll. Can’t happen soon enough.

Death, hunger and disillusionment: It’s pretty well generalized no matter where you live, but the combination of COVID and Biden with his sanctions against the island (see descarado/comemierda/hijo de puta in the dictionary of Cuban slang) is inhumane. Not to mention insane: the idea that the blockade hurts the government and not the people is demonstrably false. I tire of such idiocy.

Now for the personal part…

Death, hunger and disillusionment: In the latter half of December 2019, my mother died suddenly, unexpectedly. We suspect COVID, not yet detected in the USA, but late 2019, in NYC, in a woman who regularly attended the movies, live theater and ate out? Entirely possible. Regardless, her death ripped my family asunder. Anyone who has lost a parent, child or loved one suddenly knows the lingering sadness and loss of true north this signifies. To all of you: my deepest, most sincere condolences.

I’m an infamously hangry person—it goes back to food insecurity suffered as a child. And while I’m seriously privileged compared to others in the food department, that’s not saying much these days here.  Food insecurity suffered in one’s formative years is similar to profound grief in that it lingers and ghosts; anyone who survived the Special Period can relate.

Disillusionment is new for me and many people here, too. Cuba is in terribly deep waters—economically, socially, spiritually. Créeme: we are feeling it. I’m feeling it. If I can muster the motivation and rally the energy, I might write more about collective/personal disillusionment. But don’t hold your breath.

Keeping Cuba Libro afloat: The only people who can truly understand the frustrating, infuriating and constant struggle it takes to keep a small business alive during the triumvirate of Trump/Biden sanctions, COVID and the reordenamiento, are other Cuban small business owners and workers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve considered closing shop over the past two years. But the Team can. My partner can. Without them, and without the support (financial, spiritual) from our friends abroad, we would already be history. And we aren’t out of the woods yet.

Toby is sick and isn’t getting better: Although childless by choice, when we rescued Tobito in 2014, he became the hijo I never had. In October, he started breaking out in nasty, bloody pustules. We went to the vet (this is another disastrous dirty secret here, often unethical too, about which I will rant later), did the labs, procured the medicine through sheer solidarity, applied the method religiously…and he continues to worsen. Getting a second opinion has proven impossible. I’m distraught and desperate and don’t want to talk about it.  Until (and unless) the story has a happy ending.

Job insecurity: Thankfully I still have my day job as a health reporter and editor for MEDICC Review, but that too is a double-edged sword: every day I wake to an inbox full of COVID-related news—local, regional, national and global. My livelihood depends on keeping up-to-date and writing about the pandemic. Given these circumstances, it’s hard to shield myself from the hard realities. And it’s part of the reason I haven’t written anything else in nearly two years. I tried to pitch. I’ve tried to write, but my muse is dead or on life support. I’ve considered issuing a DNR, considered giving it up altogether. It’s not a good scenario.

I could go on. I could tell you about the anxiety of living here amongst overly socialized Cubans without having a COVID booster or the dear friends who’ve left the country, leaving gaping holes in my support system. I’ll spare you the details of a friend who died in a tragic motorcycle accident one month ago today and the marital discordance 2020/2021 has engendered. The health issues. The shortages. The short fuses. It’s all a tinder box.

I feel my bravery waning and my defenses grow weak. My resiliency went the way of the 10 peso pizza. I’m reminded of Ernest Shackleton who said it’s better to be a live donkey than a dead lion. I would be lying if I told you it hasn’t crossed my mind to pack up and leave, to embark on a new adventure, in different latitudes. If things continue to deteriorate, I just might, preferring to be that donkey than that lion.   

23 Comments

Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

23 responses to “Your Live Donkey, Reporting from Havana

  1. Brenda Durdle

    Oh Conner. Thank you for your openness. I am so sorry that it is as bad. I would never have imagined you considering leaving. What the fuck is wrong with the world (rhetorical)? How can we leave Cuba in such a state? Sending love and gratitude for the work you have done there. A hug, Brenda Durdle

    • Hola Brenda and Happy New Year

      Its really a bad time all around, I realize. But to have the United States so rabidly, unceasingly attack this island and its people is shameful and disgraceful, not to mention extraordinarily unbecoming. I do feel a comeuppance is in store.

      I send gratitude for folks like you who have supported what we are trying to do here — construct a healthy, prosperous and enjoyable life in the face of incredible odds. Thank you so much for your words.

      Ever forward in 2022….hopefully.

  2. Cas Sotelo

    Conner,

    I’m so sorry to hear about your losses and constant challenges. I wish there was something I could say to lift your spirits or to at least stoke those embers of false hope. Stay strong as I know you’ll always be the lion that admires the zebra, who will never change it’s stripes.

    I wish you and yours, health, happiness, and a better 2022!!!

    When I do finally come to Cuba again, I will come by and more formally introduce myself.

    Abrazos

    Cas

    • Hi Cas. Even those stripes get me down these days, but hell. I yam what I yam. Do people even remember Popeye? No matter.

      That people are still reading and taking the time to write in lifts my spirits so thank you! To take the animal metaphor farther (oh must you? my haters and hating self say), Im stubborn like a mule and keep trying to improve life for myself and those around me despite it all. I will go into 2022 with this attitude. And try and maintain it.

      A healthy 2022 is something we all need. Hopefully you will make it back here some day and we can share something hot, cold, healthy at Cuba Libro. Take care.

  3. Hello from Ottawa, Canada. Thank you for finding the strength to write this post.

    Just a few days ago I wondered what happened to you? So I am glad that you posted!

    I look forward to your news of beloved Cuba. We have been visiting the island for 20+ years and we love it so. We were in Cuba in February 2020 when we first heard of COVID. My our world has changed. I hope it is not permanent, but fear that it is.

    We go into lockdown, for the fifth time, tomorrow. So another year without a trip to your adopted country.

    I am sorry for the loss of your Mother and I am especially sad to hear your dog is ill. There is no fairness in life.

    Please care for yourself and please, keep writing. Sue

    Sent from my iPhone

    • Hola Sue. It must be mighty cold where you are and now another lockdown. I bet you’re a master puzzler/cook/knitter/musician/potter/life coach or other indoor activity/hobby/job.

      Oh, February 2020. Things weren’t rosy for me back then but they certainly weren’t like….THIS. I returned to Cuba in February of that year and intended to go back to the States a month later to help my family sort things out. We all know how that ended…..

      I know personally how hard it is to be unable to return to this wonderful island (with all its problems and contradictions and sadness, there is a lot of joy and amazement here, thanks to Cubans themselves and they help keep me tethered), and I’m sorry you haven’t been able to make it back. I fear the changes in our world are permanent too but it’s not ALL bad. There are some silver linings.

      Thanks for your condolences. It doesn’t get easier, only a bit less acute. Some very caring, considerate people have reached out (many Canadian, of course!) to help with Toby so Im feeling supported on that end and we’ve just begun new treatment.

      I will try to keep writing. If only to put food on our plates!!

      Hope you have a healthy 2022 and emerge from winter and lockdown renewed come spring.

  4. Conner, this post sent an arrow to my heart.

    I’m a big believer in the AA saying: “The only way out is through.” I do hope that writing it all out provided at least some cathartic release.

    My main reason for coming here to comment, however, is that my dog gets horrible pustules that break open and leave crusty sores, too. He loses his fur in sizable patches and looks like a leper. Some kind of allergy according to the vet. He’s gone through this cycle – itchy scratchy, sores and fur loss, vet and healing – two or three times. We don’t really know what causes it. The sores usually require antibiotics. I have always opted for prednisone to treat the allergy and itching. It works fast. If I can be helpful procuring vet meds, just say the word.

    Sending you love,
    Lynn

    • Hi Lynn.
      How are you?! Thanks so much for reading and writing in. I often resort to AA maxims but this is a new one for me. Grateful! It will take a lot more writing for me to feel the effects but every little bit helps and that people are still willing to read in this day and age (especially about dark stuff) puts gas in my tank.

      This post has generated a lot of reactions–one being that people have contacted vets here in Cuba to give me a hand getting a handle on what afflicts Toby and getting ahold of meds. I’m so sorry you know this problem intimately! Although Toby is as enthusiastic a pooper, eater, jumper and tail wagger as ever, the poor guy looks like hell and scratches the devil out of himself. We started antibiotic injections 2 days ago and are starting w prednisone today. Fingers crossed.

      Sending love back. I often think of the place I would live if it weren’t here (hint: 207 is heaven!!)

      Happy new year and happy new home!!!

  5. DavidWBerner

    I love getting the updates from Havana. But this one pains me as I read the struggles you and Cuba Libro are facing. Several years ago, I came to Havana with my sons. One afternoon I visited the bookstore to drop off some of my books as a donation, as you had graciously accepted. The store was officially closed at the time, but one of the staff was there. They were gracious. I was so pleased to meet them. I was disappointed that I wasn’t able to meet you. I would love to send more books. Am I able to do that? Will you accept? Does it make sense? Does it help? Please let me know. All the best to you. Stay strong.

    • Hola David. Thanks for your generous offer and sorry we didn’t get to meet.

      The funny thing is: during these past two years, our entire clientele has been Cuban (well, almost) and we have sold A LOT of books. Our collection dwindles. We have young Cubans asking every day for certain titles and a copy of our title list. Yesterday a young man who bought a Nabokov collection and Crying of Lot 49 (heady stuff!) also asked after a biography of Napoleaon and anything on the Rolling Stones. This is just one young fellow but is representative of the varied interests of our Cuban readers.

      We are always looking for books, which can be sent through the mail to our PO box. But please: no murders/mysteries or romance and titles in English please. Email me and I will send you the address (someone has been attacking me personally on TripAdvisor over this and other posts and I do not feel comfortable posting the address here)

      Take care and have a healthy 2022

      • DavidWBerner

        Great to hear from you. Will do. Sorry about the attacks. Terrible. All of my authored books are memoir or literary fiction. No romance. No mystery, etc. I’ll drop you a note on email and we’ll do it!

  6. Peter Clough

    Conner,
    Sorry it’s so bad. The boycott is idiotic and cruel and useless, and it is one of the things about Biden I don’t like (as well as Guantanamo). Unfortunately politics has come to prevail over everything here, and while there are Cuban Battista expats here, US relations with Cuba will be subject to idiots like Marco Rubio (who has never set foot in Cuba). But as you know and have written there is a lot wrong on the Cuban side as well, including some pretty non-sensical regulations and economic moves. Like others I wish you better times and send positive energy to the extent this old geezer has any left.
    So sorry about Toby.

    • Thanks Peter. Receiving that positive energy and Toby is, like his mom, a fighter. Plus he’s 100% Cuban so I’d say his odds are pretty good for better health ahead. Hope you are having a healthy new year.

  7. Conner,

    It is hard to be honest when many on both sides of a decades old (centuries old?) conflict between intimately connected neighbors don’t really want honesty. My effort to wrestle with reality was in our New Year newsletter published yesterday https://conta.cc/3sSBUfM

    Condolences for your mom, empathy for your dog.

    We need to convince everyone who can to come to Cuba in the next three or four months. Hopefully MinTur will agree to cuenta propista status for tour guides and provide a new channel for deeper experiences for folks not ready to do it on their own.

    But a warning. When I left in November, aduanas seized virtually all my CUP because there is a regulation only they know about with no obvious purpose limiting the amount of currency one can take out to 2,000 CUP, less than $100 at the official exchange rate. They promised a friend could retrieve it but now are refusing to give it back. Because of their process to count and record it ostensibly to hold under customs seal, I also missed my flight.

    I don’t know where the challenge is harder, there or here on the eve of the January 6 anniversary assault on the Capitol and the Constitution denied by a third of the country.

    Hope you are able to wrestle through and stay for the better days that are sure to come.

    abrazos

    John

    • Hi John.
      Thanks for reading and writing in. I will check out your latest newsletter.

      There is a lot of arbitrariness here which drives me and many I know quite mad. Sounds like you got a taste of that in November.

      For people comfortable traveling right now, Cuba is a great destination but (there’s always a but as my friend Douglas likes to say!) anyone arriving or falling ill while here is attended by the health system which is struggling after almost two long years of pandemic. So there’s that. Also, anyone traveling or thinking of traveling here: we have a MANDATORY MASK MANDATE. anywhere outside your home, you must be masked. Too many tourists are not observing this countrywide rule and it really rankles Cubans and others who live here (like me!) who will be fined 2000MN on the spot for not wearing a mask and wearing it correctly. This type of double standard is not becoming.

      I was stuck in the USA for 5 months (march-July 2021) with an expired passport issue, something I wrote about here, plus appeared in the NYT, and I know things are difficult there as well. Nevertheless, I would not compare the internal situation in the USA with what Cuba is subjected to at the hands of the USA, nor the shortages and privation in the middle of a pandemic that afflicts the overwhelming part of the Cuban population.

      Better days sure to come: I hope you are right!! Just today, the “run run” is that we are headed for another lockdown/curfew situation and that bars will soon be ordered to close. Only time will tell

      Stay well

  8. Cuba is a place out of time and will never be destroyed despite the on-going ill will and terrorist actions by the US. Where else could you go that would begin to measure up? Kia Kaha

    • Hi Kia. There are a couple of places that while different, would begin to measure up…The Big Island and Maine, two places where I’ve lived temporarily and where I feel very much at home.

  9. tourleaderstales

    Conner, I am so sorry to hear about your mother. I lost mine years ago, unexpectedly too, but she was pretty senior by then. I hope things improve for Toby too.
    I am glad to read your news though, it’s always the closest I get to the really concise and thorough round-up of the Cuban scene. I left Cuba in the summer, after a wonderful 10 years living there, and it’s been hard resettling in Spain (honestly!) because my husband and daughter’s family are all still there, in Camaguey and Havana. We miss them terribly. We have no family and few friends here yet. We talk to them as they line up for hours for food or celebrate birthdays with whatever they can find to make a celebration. One after another is leaving the island, even those I never imagined would or could.
    I don’t want to imagine not living again in Cuba, but until I can go to a market and buy food at a decent price and not get up at 4am to do so, I’m not interested. I have a 4 year old to raise, and for her, life right now is definitely better here.
    Sending your strength and resilience (of which I know you’ve always had plenty). Please keep writing this blog, however often you can. I hope it still helps.

    • Hola hola.
      Unless you have family here and are “stuck” somewhere else, it’s very hard to understand how sad and difficult this is. Ive been there. No es nada facil. I, too, have friends with toddlers who have left. On the one hand its a great place for wee ones, but under current (and worsening for the time being) conditions, Im betting most people with kids and the option of being outside would take it.

      Thanks for your kind words and trying to build my resilience back up. Writing helps. Focusing on the positive here helps (did an interview today w director of clinical investigations at CIGB, responsible for 2 of the 5 cuban covid vaccines) and seeing very small but important improvements in Toby also helps.

      Cheers

  10. AnaBarral

    Hi Conner,
    So sorry to hear. I lived there when the Periodo especial and I still cannot eat split pea soup- chicharos night and day does this to you. Myself and all my friends who lived through it and left, we had probably 2 years of nightmares afterward. It is PTSD all right.
    Friends helped. Ir al Malecon y mirar el mar. A friend told me her way of coping was to imagine she was in a movie and this was the bad part, but we will get to the better part eventually. I know it is so much harder this time. Think about all the people who want to read your reports.
    Palante y palante. Cuidate mucho.

    • Hola Ana.

      I definitely worry about PTSD – here and everywhere, but since I work so closely with the health system here, I’m seeing burnout and stress among friends and colleagues. And kids too.

      Friends and the Malecon are definitely healing! I absolutely adore the movie strategy. Brilliant!

      Take care

  11. Dear Conner
    This latest newsletter of yours has been so sad to read, I realise why we hadn’t heard from you for such a while. It seems like you’re fighting on every front, as well as grieving and worrying about your furry friend. As said above by someone else, I would love to send you some books, if you don’t mind my buying them 2nd hand, in a charity shop – spreads the good will even further, (except for the pockets of the publisher…). Please email me your address and also our phone re-charge agreement, Fonoma has a special deal on till 15th Jan. ( rothwellr@sky.com )
    Maybe one day I’ll make it back to Cuba and make a bee-line for your cafe and give you a hug,
    With best wishes from the Uk, Roni

    • Thanks so much for your encouraging words, Roni. Im sending you an email!! Toby is getting better but we’ve had various workers and food providers for the cafe w COVID. So we’ve got a hitch in our giddy up but we keep on keeping on. Take care

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