Laugh, Shrug, Cry, Struggle: Cuba, Spring 2022

Yesterday some friends and I were talking about banking in Cuba; the (in)famous “ordenamiento” of the economy and “re-ordenamiento of the ordenamiento” (I can’t make this stuff up); and the general business climate on the island. What business folks find here, sadly, is 500% inflation, Titón-esque bureaucracy, scarcity, a fierce blockade, and a deep-seeded, decades-in-the-making model that is impractical at best.   

Me: That company pulled out when the bank made them convert their $200,000 hard currency deposits into pesos cubanos.

Andrés: Of course! They get fed up with the uncertainty, bureaucracy and bullshit and take their business elsewhere.

Me: Right. What’s to keep them around? A market of 11 million Cubans?

Diana: 8 million. A market of 8 million Cubans.

We laughed. We shrugged. We sipped our espresso.

Unless you’re intimate with island doings 2020-2022, you might not get the joke. Or the one about shutting off the Morro’s light.

We joke, we laugh and shrug, but it’s no laughing matter and still, after 20 years in residence (this month; I’m a glutton for punishment), I can’t shrug it off. Or shake this discomfiting feeling, the sadness and sense of abandonment (Daddy trauma runs deep) that pierces me with each ‘¿sabes quién brincó?’

_____

A few days will go by without seeing or hearing from someone. Have they contracted COVID? Slipped into a hot new love affair? Stolen away for a long weekend at Varadero or Canasí? As I consider writing them to check in, my phone pings with a WhatsApp message. The unrecognizable number begins with a +.

“Sorry I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. I was running around crazy those last days…”

Every single goddamn week. Oftentimes more than once, someone—a dear friend, ex-lover, work colleague, loyal customer, neighbor—writes to say they’ve left the country. That they’re not going to be the last one out, charged with extinguishing the Morro’s light.

The fleeing are now a flood, with legal and illegal emigration reaching record highs not seen since the Mariel boatlift. We are no longer 11 million on the island and while Diana was exaggerating with her 8 million joke, she’s probably not far off. Cuba is hemorrhaging people, few on the island are having babies, and one of the world’s grayest populations continues to die apace, leaving what? Your tired. Your poor. Your huddled masses. Your wretched refuse. And me. Conflicted, frustrated, stubborn old me.

In the past year alone, we’ve lost (and yes: when Cubans leave, you lose them, physically, spiritually):

Jessica

Marcel

Ivan

Omar

Lazarito

Yenlis

El Chino

María Teresa & Olivia

Asol

Cristiano & Connie

Dario

Vázquez & Marlen

Thais & Claudia

Denis

I always wish them well and offer my support. I tell them, like my mom told me: ‘follow your dreams.’ But oh, the irony! Following my dreams landed me in Cuba, while my sorely-needed-now-more-than-ever support network follows their dreams of ‘anywhere but here.’

I try remaining positive. I struggle to maintain perspective, but some leave-takings cut deep, years of friendship truncated, obliterated, our connection thinning with each well-meaning text, awkward call, and ghosted video chat I just can’t rally to answer.

I’m writing this raw because I´ve failed to find a way to deal with my conflicting emotions. Of course I want my tribe to live life to its fullest, dive into different cultures, experience new places and have great adventures, to grow, learn, and earn. But is that all there is? What about years of working and laughing and loving together shoulder to shoulder? What about our memories, your debt, our future plans and unfinished chapters?

It saddens me so profoundly, I hold back tears writing this, hoping my neighbor who just stopped by won’t notice.

I study Cubans to see how they deal with it. To a one, they roll with the leave-taking, extend well wishes, and accept the loss in stride, view it as a fait accompli.

‘Of course they left. What’s worth sticking around for?’ is a common refrain.

This defeatism is new – that there really is no good reason to stick it out here, especially when all of your friends have come to the same conclusion. New too, are the elderly emigrating: 80-year olds casting their fate with coyotes to reach the US-Mexican border; retirees being pulled out by adult children who can better care for them in Miami or Madrid; emotionally blackmailing grandparents, coercing them to emigrate for the future of their grandkids.

Other new twists in the age-old Cuban emigration problem include gay couples who are still (absurdly, cruelly) prohibited from marrying here but who are granted fiancé visas by countries where same sex unions are legal, and farewell gatherings at Cuba Libro—the last stop for their last hurrah.

New, also, is my reaction: I’m shutting down to avert new hurt. If I was wary of admitting people into my inner circle before, now I’m more skittish than a goat in a gauntlet of horny campesinos. What’s the point of making new friends if they’re just going to split? Planning their departure as I type this?

Keeping my distance only becomes tricky when a special person crosses my path. No matter where you live, under whatever circumstances, this is rare—as rare as a horny campesino who hasn’t had their way with a goat. It’s the exception rather than the rule.

I think we only get a certain allotment of special people crossing our path in this life. And we have to honor that—dive in and swim, even when those waters are deep and about to be tested by those same special people following their dreams. No wonder I fight, and fail, to remain distant.

To whit: I have to stop here to try and track down Josue—a new friend I haven’t heard from in a while. I hope it’s because he’s fallen in love or is writing verses for the ages, or is on a camping odyssey, but fear it’s because he has left us. Nothing much I can do but wait for that message from an unrecognizable number beginning with +.  

18 Comments

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18 responses to “Laugh, Shrug, Cry, Struggle: Cuba, Spring 2022

  1. Brenda Durdle

    Oh Conner! So much loss; so much sadness. I am so sorry that this is your experience and the experience of so many Cubans. It is hard to know what to say. This is chronic trauma. While shutting down your emotions may help in the moment, it is important that you look after yourself. As difficult as it might be, taking time away (yes, because you can) can do something to renew your energy. I imagine you have heard countless times that “if you don’t care for yourself, you are not going to be of help to anyone”. Please give yourself permission to take time away, ideally, outside Cuba. Please don’t hurt yourself by burning out. You do great things and you need to remain healthy to continue or, if need be, pass on the torch. Ok. That’s my mama/ therapist rant. Save yourself first. Salud

    • You said it, Brenda. I’m definitely focusing more on self care. This includes writing more and steadily. Lofty goals, but doable. The Cuba Libro team supports this 100% thankfully (the customers? Not so much — they would have us open 24/7/365 if they had their druthers!) and Im finding better ways to cope, asking for help/relief, trying to keep toxic folks and situations at bay, and making time for those “special people” mentioned in the post. The sticky wicket seems to be carving out alone time: I’m an introvert and without time alone, I burn out fast. Cuba is not particularly comfortable for introverts and I still haven’t succeeded in striking this balance or convincing (some) close to me that it really is better to leave me alone for a day or two! Thanks so much for reaching out. “Save yourself first” is now my morning mantra 🙂

      • There is a good rreason Airlines give the advise to put your own oxygen mask on before attempting to aid others. Sounds like it may be time to look after Conner for a little while..
        Best of Luck in healing the pain you must feel at each ‘abandonment pa la Yuma’

  2. Melissa

    Maybe you don’t need one, Conner, but I want to send you a big, virtual hug. Besitos

  3. David Norman

    Yenlis left?

  4. Sally

    Conner ! .. I found resonance in your frank account of the emotional impact of repeated loss it touched me .. thanks for your courage in writing it in the raw .. & .. as always your posts keep me connected to La Habana (no hay otra) 🇨🇺 Cuídate !

    • Thanks Sally. It’s a sad reality but my prediction that people will start coming back once the economy improves is already bearing fruit. Much faster than I expected, but it seems some folks are realizing quickly that the grass is indeed, not greener.

      Promise my next post will be more uplifting, with more of the things that we love about La Habana.

  5. Julie

    I do not know you, but I have been following your blog for years. I think I read about it in a magazine many years ago and then subscribed to your email list. This post really moved me and I just wanted to say thank you for sharing it. I hope that you find a way to overcome these hurdles. As a fellow introvert, I would find it very difficult too.

    • Thank YOU for taking the time to let me know how you found me and that this post had an impact. I appreciate it as a writer and as an introvert. It is extraordinarily difficult (and increasingly so which perhaps is due to COVID lockdowns which rocked Cubans in a way that is hard to grasp — they are such social beings on the whole) for me to get alone time. I’ve taken to getting public transportation even when I don’t have to just to have some time with my thoughts. Strange times these!!!

  6. Pingback: Laugh, Shrug, Cry, Struggle: Cuba, Spring 2022 – Noticias viejas para usté

  7. Conner—many empathetic feelings from us, those who know you and know Cuba through you. I cannot imagine going through what you are experiencing with loved ones departing the island. I so want to come back and bring another group. We will. Hopefully in 2023. We miss you. We miss Cuba Libro and we miss all of our Cuban friends. Abrazos siempre, Benjamin & Myo. Small Footprint Travels.

    • Hello Benjamin and Myo! Thanks for reading and keeping us in your thoughts. We await to see what Biden’s latest announcement holds in the practical, concrete (and not just political) sense. Educational groups have started returning. It’s a trickle but it helps. Every little bit helps. Hope you’re are able to make it back next year and that in the meantime you are both in good health. Cheers!

  8. Linda

    You bought into a lie 20 years ago, deal with it,Cuba is going no where and not because of the embargo propaganda, the Castros destroyed Cuban society, not even their bs can cover up their massive failures.I have been traveling to Cuba for 20 years and the only time things seem to be turning around economically, which made Cubans their very happy were when Obama and American tourists were there in large numbers, casa owner’s said their houses were booked solid restaurants crowded every night, otherwise Cuba is nothing more than a turd circling the bowl full of cheap tourists from cold climates
    You got taken, deal with it.

  9. I hear you. Ditto. The joke amongst some of my friends is that the crazy Australiana will still be here, in Trinidad, when everyone else has gone. A very sad time for those left behind and those who feel they have no choice but to go.

    • I hear YOU. And ditto. It is very grim here in Havana. Tension in the streets. Traffic accidents on the rise. Hot as Hades. And now cigarros fuerte se han perdido. I mean when the country is in a crisis of sugar, pork, tobacco — we can’t even find coconut here in the capital!! — it starts to become really troubling.

      Don’t know what’s happening these days in Trindad — apagones? Hows the fresh food situation? Even in good times it isn’t easy to get fruit and veg there (unless of course you are earning divisa and can pay insane prices). Bottled water? Not something I ever buy but foreign visitors are having a hard time finding it….

      Hang in there. Hope the summer is somewhat less….tragic? Cheers

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