Category Archives: Cuban economy

COVID in Cuba: Havana Monkey Wrench

Let’s talk more about coronavirus!…No one said ever.

Personally, I’m fucking sick of it and I’m guessing you are too. In addition to the ad nauseam data, studies, news (and “news”), conspiracies theories, spin, and chatter around the mono-topic, as my friend Rose likes to call it, I’m a working health journalist.

As you might imagine (though I advise against it), 2020 for me has been all COVID almost all the time.

Perhaps you, like me, are holding a ticket to ride on the coronacoaster. On a good day, you’re able to clean a little, catch up with some family or friends, or just shower and make the bed. Win! On these kind of days, you’re able to crack a book, start watching an entertaining series, or cook something appetizing. Win! On good days, you might even have an appetite. Win! Maybe you slog through your errands and only see a handful of mask-less idiots. Win! You got out of bed today? Count that as a win, baby!

And then it’s back to the mono-topic, with a dose of Trump or systemic racism or Saharan dust storms and locust swarms thrown in to make sure you don’t get your hopes too high or even up.

Here in Havana, like wherever you are, we’re on the same horrible ride—but different. And while not fun by any stretch, we always felt that flicker of hope. Even on the worst days standing in line for five hours under a blazing tropical sun to buy ketchup or toilet paper if we were very, very lucky, we hoped. Even on those days when our rice and beans were running low and the eggs had run out long ago, hope simmered. Because Cuba had a plan. Cuba had experience with contagious disease. Cuba flattened its curve early and effectively. Cuba was keeping COVID at bay.

April. May. June. One by one, all the provinces succeeded in hitting the five epidemiological targets needed to pass from recovery Phase 1, to Phase 2 and at last to Phase 3. Except Havana, which lagged, entering Phase 1 on July 3. Still, the simmering coals of hope flickered, caught and burned brighter. Thousands of RT-PCR tests were being processed daily revealing only a handful of cases. Contacts were traced and isolated, in their homes or centers for this purpose. Treatments developed in Cuba meant we suffered few COVID-related fatalities, sometimes for weeks at a stretch. Win!

After being shuttered for nearly five months, Cuba Libro finally re-opened—a huge sigh of relief for the seven team members and their families who depend on this income, but also our community who more than ever, needed a good coffee or smoothie while swinging in a hammock. We were in Phase 1; we were on our way. Win! Win!

We started calculating: based on the experience around the country, Havana would be able to reach Phase 2 within a few weeks and then the coveted Phase 3, when commercial flights and tourism and cultural activities and all the rest—with the proper sanitary measures in place—could resume. Cuba had COVID under control.

If there’s one takeaway from this pandemic, it’s that control is an illusion, self-delusion. None of us are in control. And self-control? COVID has shown that too many of us ain’t got it. And Havana? It definitely ain’t got it.

I know. I know. Self-control has never been a Cuban strong suit. Asking Cubans to self-regulate is like expecting a frisky cat not to pounce on a twitchy mouse. Sure, most Cubans can exhibit extreme discipline when called upon. And they do….until they don’t.

Fumigating against mosquitoes carrying dengue happens furiously for a few days and then poof! You never see the fumigation brigades again. Taxis caught overcharging are fined for a couple of weeks, then it’s back to price gouging passengers. To hell with official fixed prices! Market scales are inspected and recalibrated with comprehensive press coverage and at revolutionary speed until some days pass and we return to the same old fixed scales and sticking it to hungry customers. When the new garbage pick up schedule is announced, citizens dutifully haul their dripping bags of coffee grounds, rotting fruit peels and egg shells to the corner dumpster between 6 and 10pm. By the next week? They’re chucking stinking bags into—or near—those same dumpsters whenever they damn please.

In common parlance, this compliance followed by slack and apathetic disregard is known as relajo. And Havana, after entering into Phase 1 and trucking towards Phase 2, slipped into a state of tremendo relajo.

For months, we masked up whenever outside the house. We hand washed and sanitized and disinfected, the bleach wreaking havoc on our clothes, hands, shoes. We didn’t go to the beach, we didn’t picnic in the park, most of us didn’t even glimpse the sea. We physically distanced as best we could among the (non) huddled masses yearning to get food or into the bank. Active screeners came to our doors every day to check our health status. Confirmed cases dropped—from the mid-30s, to 19, to single digits.

The flame of hope blazed.

Havana entered Phase 1 and while there were still restrictions, certain businesses were allowed to reopen, with new physical distancing and other health requirements. Limited transportation resumed, with reduced capacity. Some beaches were opened, with measures and hours designed to reduce crowds.

For our part, we had five blissful, laughter-filled days at Cuba Libro. We were back! We were better than ever! We didn’t raise prices and had even more delicious offerings on our menu! We were recouping a tiny fraction of the losses we incurred during the nearly five months we were shuttered! We were PSYCHED.

And then the coronacoaster derailed.

Mistakes were made. Limiting beach access, with 2.2 million hot, sweaty, pent-up Habaneros aching to cool off? In July? Who thought that would ever work?! Requiring bus drivers to say: ‘sorry, I know you’ve been waiting for over an hour to get on a bus home but we’re at 50% capacity so I can’t take anymore passengers?’ That would be cruel and unusual. No hot, sweaty, pent-up and underpaid driver can be expected to do this. Playgrounds re-opened. Coppelia re-opened. Bars and restaurants re-opened.

As might be expected, some Habaneros could not, would not, observe the Phase 1 restrictions.

The country reeled with news of the outbreaks. After weeks of single digit cases, Havana alone suddenly had 30, 44, then 76 confirmed cases—a concentration of numbers we hadn’t seen throughout the entire pandemic in any province. Contact tracing revealed three main sources of transmission: bars, buses and beaches.

Dozens of cases were traced to Bar Q Bolá in Playa. Apparently, a singer performed to a packed, drunken crowd one night (reader alert: this is second-hand information; I wouldn’t step foot in Q Bolá even in normal times) and the bar became a superspreader event. Did they not know that live music performances, being open until dawn, and large gatherings were verboten in Phase 1? They knew. Besides, anyone who has had a sloppy, nameless one night stand while wearing beer goggles knows alcohol and self-restraint/good judgment do not mix. Duh. (NB: although national health authorities and media have repeatedly cited Q Bolá as a superspreader event, owners deny it).

Even more cases were traced to a toque de santo, an Afro-Cuban religious ritual, held in Bauta (Artemisa province, adjacent to Havana). If you have no knowledge of these types of events, lets just say the liquor is flowing, physical distancing is not possible, and the celebratory atmosphere attracts a lot of people. People attending the toque also frequented a nearby bar and then went to the beach at Baracoa. The religious practitioner being feted, by the way, was from Havana. So now you have inter-provincial transmission.

Both Havana and Bauta have been forced to open and equip more isolation centers due to the widespread contacts generated by these two events alone.

And just like that, Havana got wrenched from Phase 1, dropping down, down, down, back into the local transmission phase. Transportation is severely cut back to essential workers only and stops at 11pm. There is a citywide curfew: no one can be on the streets after that hour either. Beaches, bars, pools and playgrounds are closed. Private taxis and minibuses cannot operate. And businesses like ours can only do take out (we wish we could; more on that in a later post). Sadly, Cuba Libro had to close again.

So we’re back to isolation, anxiety over food insecurity, our four walls (lucky those with balconies or yards or even a room to call their own), being broke, being sad, being hot and nurturing some flicker of hope.

We are back to riding the coronacoaster. Full speed ahead…

 

***Anyone interested in daily COVID stats from Cuba, searchable by province and municipality, with detailed information including gender, age, source of transmission and numbers of contacts being traced of each confirmed case should visit the COVID-19 Cuba Dashboard. 

 

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

COVID-19 & Cuba: The Good

Greetings readers. I hope you’re as well as you can be given the shit show that is Planet Earth, 2020.

In my first chronicle about the coronavirus in Cuba, I led off with a (necessarily short) paragraph about some of the positive aspects of the ‘new normal’ here in Havana, followed by an all out rant about the negative. This time, I’m flipping the script, leading off with what is chapping my ass these days, before launching into the rays of light I’m witnessing in these otherwise deep, dark times.

Physical distancing is still—and always will be—a challenge in Cuba. The factors are multiple and varied, from cultural and historical to practical and meteorological. Yesterday’s meat hunt is illustrative. For those out of the loop: pandemic food procurement is one of the biggest stressors and threats to physical and mental health here.

We were out the door by 6:30am, already late by today’s standards: only the earliest birds get any worms in these COVID-19 times. Lines at stores where meat (usually chopped in a tube or pressed in a can) might be available but not guaranteed, begin forming at 4am. Folks on the hustle camp out at stores likely to release some kind of protein—canned sardines, corned beef loaf, hot dogs or the insanely coveted chicken—to be the first in line…and sell their spot to later comers. Typically, several friends and family members do this as a group so they can sell their turns in line, plus make their own purchases. Many of these items end up on the ‘informal market’ at a 100%, 200% or even 300% markup. Today, a tube of Colgate toothpaste is between $10 and $12CUC (up from $5) and 36 eggs cost $7CUC (up from $3). When you can find them.

The same dynamic is at play at carnecerías (open-air butchers) all over Havana.

Yesterday, instead of braving the crapshoot that is the stores, we opted for the butcher’s. This is more about Toby than us: we’re happy eating vegetarian, he is not. And the tubed/canned meat wreaks havoc on his health (for those not in the know: kibble in Cuba is reserved for the 1% who can source and afford it; the rest of us have to cook for our pets). When we arrived at 6:45 and asked for el ultimo, the line looked manageable. This was an illusion: the young man in front of us had marked in line for himself and three cousins, the woman before him was holding place for four neighbors and when meat finally went on sale at 9:15am, the line magically trebled as people cut in, jockeyed for position and called in favors with the meat purveyors.

During our four-hour, successful odyssey (we got some pork chops for us and bones with bits of meat for Toby), some of us maintained physical distance, but many more did not. Securing your place in line while keeping the cutters at bay, arguing with those who tried, theorizing about what meat might be for sale and when, all conspired to violate the two-meter distancing rule. And then it started to rain. Cue bunches of people huddled under a narrow awning trying to stay dry. COVID-driven anxieties notwithstanding, this scenario kicked off all my deep-seeded food insecurities bred during a childhood where too many mouths to feed and too little money had us arguing over who had more ramen noodles in their bowl and cruising the refrigerator or pantry for food was strictly verboten…

Although I miss my family horribly and there are days when people improperly using masks (obligatory here since late March) or my husband crowding me in the kitchen engenders thoughts of violence, I feel very safe in Havana. And there are some very good things happening.

If you’ve stayed with this post for this long, THANK YOU! Here goes:

  • Air quality and noise pollution: While we don’t have jutía frolicking in front yards or manatees sidling up to the Malecón, the air quality has become noticeably better. A fraction of cars, trucks and buses plying the streets, reduced work hours, and telecommuting, all contribute to improved air quality. In Havana, a lot of heavy industry is located within residential neighborhoods: I lived my first six years here directly behind the cigarette factory at 100 & Boyeros and this was (and is) a toxic environment. Even a slight reduction in the work day at pollution-spewing factories like this one helps the environment. Noise pollution—from vehicles, loud-mouthed neighbors and passersby, construction, and speaker-toting reggaetoneros—has also diminished considerably. For me, this is an extraordinarily welcomed increase in quality of life.

 

  • Bicycle boom: Bicycles and cycling culture are more complicated than you might think due to stigma from the economic crash (AKA Special Period) when pedal power was transport of last resort. But make no mistake: there is a small, but strong and growing, cycling movement afoot which predates COVID-19. Nevertheless, since the pandemic and attendant health measures limiting public transportation, bikes are coming out of garages, being rescued from backyard weeds, and off walls—yes, some people use them as décor which is absurd and makes me vomit in my mouth a little every time I see this. But the resurgence in cycling is wonderful to witness. Anyone with a bike knows these two wheels are a ticket to freedom. You can get anywhere your two legs will take you, plus it’s great exercise! Private businesses, including Cuba Libro, which enjoys and supports a large cycling community, are putting in bike racks and lobbying for bike-friendlier cities; hopefully this COVID-19 experience will stimulate more government support for cycling in general (ie not just for tourists). On the downside, if you want to buy a bike in Havana these days, it will cost 30%-50% more than it did pre-pandemic.

 

  • Kitchen creativity: This global phenomenon is taken to new heights in Cuba where the only items you might have on hand are rice, an egg and some tomatoes (if you’re lucky!). To keep things interesting, I’ve had to master Cuban classics like red bean potaje and ropa vieja, plus find new ways to prepare eggplant, bok choy, cabbage, carrots and more. I have to give a huge shout out to the Cuba Libro family in this regard for two very specific reasons: 1) someone very generously donated Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian a while back. My mom and sister have long been Bittman fans, but I didn’t know what I was missing; his books are such fantastic tools and well-written to boot and 2) our regulars at the café are creating their own coffee drinks at home, leading us to launch our CUBA LIBRO EN DA HOUSE competition—enter to win by June 6.

 

  • Better veggies, more sustainability: There are some silver linings to the food nightmare we’re living. First, in my experience, the fruit and vegetable markets here in Havana have been pretty well stocked the past two and a half months. Although I have to head out early, walk a half an hour and stand on line once I arrive, I’m almost sure to find watermelon, pineapple or mango; carrots, eggplant, peppers and onions; yucca or plantains (sweet potato has become a rare commodity for reasons still not understood); sesame and sunflower seeds, guava paste and peanuts; and with a little luck, basil and parsley. You never know what you’ll find, but even in smaller markets tucked along the Playa/Marianao border, I’ve found gorgeous bell peppers and tomatoes of unusual size. Chatting up the veggie seller, he told me this is ‘tourist produce,’ grown specifically for hotels and resorts, but made available to the public since Cuba’s borders were closed at the end of March. I glanced at the small, sad limones, with the bumpy skin that means they have no juice. ‘Tourists don’t eat lemons,’ he said laughing.

 

  • Growing your own: Here, like elsewhere, Cubans have started planting on balconies, along the small patches of dirt between sidewalk and street, on windowsills and roofs. Even me, with my notorious brown thumb, has a made a go of it. My garlic and bell peppers died in typically spectacular fashion, but…the pineapple I planted is going strong! I don’t expect a harvest, but it makes for a nice ornamental. Thankfully, my very forward-thinking friends in Guanabo started a community garden last year and are now harvesting like mad. Every week or so they drop off (mask in place, physically distanced) overflowing bags of fresh organic produce to friends, family, neighbors and community centers. Yesterday they popped by with fennel, arugula, parsley and wait for it…broccoli!! All of this conspires to help us eat healthier—the plate of chicharrones I put away last night notwithstanding.

 

  • Diversifying suppliers: I see a lot of this going on in the USA (bravo!) as people realize that megaliths like Amazon, although efficient and cheap and sometimes a necessary evil, are making a fortune off of us and their workers, and pursuing inhumane labor practices while ringing the death knoll for smaller mom and pop places. Here, we have had to pivot on suppliers, not for social justice considerations but because store supplies have constricted so drastically. Suppliers have also had to pivot since there are no tourists and private restaurants, previously their bread and butter, can only do takeout or delivery. As a result, we just ordered 2 kilos of artisanal goat cheese—a kilo of basil goat cheese and another kilo of oregano/garlic/black pepper goat cheese. This will be shared among several families and we’ll have to wait two weeks for it to be delivered to our door, but still! I am doing a serious dance of joy (cheese is another nearly impossible item to find these days). While not cheap, there are few things in this life for which I will pay whatever it takes. Cheese is one of them. And presented with the choice between meat or cheese, I choose cheese. Every. Single. Time. Some people won’t understand, but if you know, you know.

 

  • Solid solidarity: The willingness to help others, extend a hand, share what’s on hand and pull together, is very much a Cuban trait and vividly on display right now—globally and locally. Despite or because of all the very serious problems with the food supply (compounded by the cruel and failed US embargo), sharing and bartering is deeply woven into the fabric of Cuban culture. Let’s say the store where you’re on line has oil. You don’t need oil, but you buy your two allotted bottles anyway, to share with neighbors, give to friends or trade for tubed meat with the stranger you met on the four-hour line you stood on to buy it. In the past two weeks alone, I’ve traded: rice for flour, coffee for chicken, even soy sauce for chocolate! I’ve gifted banana muffins, coconut-mango bread and toothpaste (Note to self: take mother-in-law’s country wisdom to heart: ‘there are times when you don’t even share your water with your oxen.’).
  • Then there’s the Henry Reeve Contingent, Cuba’s specialized medical team now fighting COVID-19 in two dozen countries. I love when internet dissenters flaunt their ignorance, flaming me about Henry Reeve. I lived with this team in their tent hospitals in post-quake Pakistan in 2005 (they year the Contingent was founded, in direct response to Hurricane Katrina) and again for a month in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti. Covering their work in the field is one of the highlights of my career as a health journalist. Signatures are now being collected to nominate the Contingent for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Solidarity is also pulsing through Cuba’s younger generations who are participating in volunteer movements to care for the most vulnerable—particularly the elderly and disabled people who live alone and can’t navigate the store-food situation. This is their moment: they missed the triumph of the Revolution, the Literacy Campaign and the Special Period (for the most part, the worst part). What we’re facing with COVID-19 is terrifying, horrifying, but it’s also motivating young people to pitch in and help out in ways heretofore largely unknown. We will need this moving forward.

And last, but certainly not least:

  • Nooners, booty calls & other carnal activities: Here we talk a lot about sex and bodily functions. These are things that distinguish my birth culture from my adopted culture and Reason #69 why I groove to Cuba. It’s all natural! What’s to be ashamed of? So we’ve been talking quite a bit about coronavirus sex. Conclusion? Whether you’re in a new, long-term, open, multi-partner or casual relationship, everyone’s action has dropped off. Some single people I know have stopped screwing altogether. Meanwhile, other people I know are now pregnant. So it’s a mixed bag. And when you’re greeting your booty call with an elbow bump, you know the main act is going to be different (no kissing or oral, for starters). Front-to-back positions are surging in popularity and encouraged. Cuba Libro is distributing a lot of free condoms. Since we’re in this at-home-all-the-time loop, there has been a happy uptick in nooners and daytime sex in general, plus the opportunity for multiple sessions. Creativity is another bonus with toys, role playing, and moving things out of the bedroom for variety having their moment. This is when we have the energy to actually get it up; this isn’t all days by any stretch of the imagination. But the carnal act is more intentional now, and that’s another good thing.

 

I should wrap this up—my guy just sauntered by wearing something sexy—but the whole point is: some of these positive elements of COVID-19 won’t have staying power, some may linger and fade (a la NYC post-9-11), and a few might stay as we realize how important they are for our collective health and well-being. It really is up to us to recognize, embrace, and multiply the good. You in?

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

COVID-19 & Cuba: The Not-So-Good

Some of you have noticed that I’ve taken a long hiatus from here. The reasons are tragic and painful and pre-date this pandemic de mierda. For those readers looking for something upbeat, you get the following paragraph. After that? Buckle up babies, because I feel a rant coming on.

Cuba – the nation – is doing a bang-up job of getting a handle on this beast. Early, effective measures adapted from decades of successful infectious disease control; clear, comprehensive, daily communication from the highest ups; active screening of over 6 million and counting; treatment and tests for everyone needing them; isolation and quarantine centers throughout the island; and all manner of steps to assure food supply, defer taxes and licensing costs for private businesses, guarantee salaries (at least in part), and prioritizing the most vulnerable, including those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly – these measures are making an impact.

It’s a paradigm worth emulating and I am extraordinarily proud of how national authorities are handling things and particularly of the health professionals on the frontlines (many of whom I’ve had the honor to cover in my work as a health journalist for MEDICC Review).

Unfortunately, Cubans, as a nation of people, have the potential to royally fuck it all up.

First, we have ‘stay at home’ and ‘social distancing’ – two key components to allowing infectious disease control measures to take effect. As I write this, we are not in official lockdown (though all performances and large gatherings were cancelled long ago, schools have been closed for a couple of weeks and tele-commuting is now obligatory for those who are able. Cafeterias and bars are still allowed to operate (though many have shut voluntarily and those that remain open must follow strict protocols and are inspected by epidemiological teams) and of course, the paquete is doing a huge business since only the Cuban 1% has enough disposable income to live stream Tiger King and PornHub.

Nevertheless, we get constant public health messaging – on TV, the radio, in the newspaper, on Instagram and Facebook, from the med students doing active screening, from famous musicians and artists, from neighbors, our family doctors, and cops patrolling neighborhoods – to stay at home, retain a distance of a meter-and-a-half (or better 2 meters) from anyone, and wear a protective mask any time you must leave your home. This is for your protection and the protection of others. There is not a single Cuban who does not now know this.

And yet.

And yet.

Every day the guy slowly pedals by selling ice cream sandwiches, surgical mask dangling around his sweaty neck. Every morning, our habitual flower seller is wheeling her wares block to block to block touching neighbors and money and fences. And then her face – to re-position the face mask as the cruiser rolls by. Today, a fellow yelled up to windows: ‘I buy bicycle parts!’ with such operatic projection, he surely wore no mask, I didn’t even have to roust myself to check.

While I’m sobbing over reports about my fellow New Yorkers who are being bagged, tagged and fork-lifted into refrigerated trucks by the dozens because the cadavers are piling up, my neighbors are buying flowers and ice cream.

‘OVER 40,000 DEAD!!!’ I want to shout from my balcony.

‘THIS ISN’T A MOVIE FROM THE FUCKING PAQUETE, YOU COVID-IOTS!!!’ I urge to reprimand each and every one of them.

Not all of my neighbors are irresponsible; not all Cubans, but still. But still.

I get it. People have to work. You can’t live on bread, rum and good humor alone (though sometimes it seems like it here!). We shut Cuba Libro two weeks ago and there are seven people, myself included, who are now trying to figure out how to pay rent and put food on the table. You can imagine the enormous amount of stress and angst this causes me as founder of a socially- and ethically-responsible business who always puts the team and community first (which is why we closed so long ago).

And I know the economic reality of this is hitting everyone, everywhere hard. But at least here, you will never be put out of your home (note to self: ask both landlords at home and the cafe, for rent relief). At least here, food, medicine, and utilities are subsidized, plus health care is free. This isn’t to say that jungle rules don’t apply, they’re just different rules. So: do you really need to put yourself, your family and your community at risk peddling or buying ice cream.

If you’ve ever been here, you know that Cubans are social beasts. Our daily information sessions from the National Director of Epidemiology, the President and the Minister of Public Health all recognize how hard it is not to kiss people hello and to maintain two meters between each other. They talk about it openly, cajole people to social distance because they know, personally, how hard it is here. They hammer home the message because they also know how critical a step this is in containing COVID.

Which brings me to spitting and chicken.

Each morning, I wake to this nightmare that is our new “normal”, don mask, pick out my pandemic-designated clothing for the day, change to my outdoor shoes and walk Toby. Luckily I live in a neighborhood that allows me to just cross the street whenever I see someone coming my way. Little did I know that today, there was a brigade of street cleaners sent to our neighborhood. I spied them from a block away, about ten of them, masks dangling around their fleshy, prison-tatted necks, smoking and joking. Not social distancing. Spread as they were among the four corners, avoidance became tricky. I began to dodge and weave like a drunkard navigating the grease-slicked streets of Chinatown, trying to figure out which way they were going to move before I made mine. I miscalculated and crossed to a corner just as one of the guys stepped off the curb, let out a couple hacking coughs and then hurled a loogie within my COVID safety zone (note to self: outdoor shoes SHOULD NOT be flip flops).

I’d never given much thought to the widespread practice of public spitting here until this virus attacked. Although faithful readers will remember my post on the disgusting farmer hanky practice (quick recap: close off one nostril with a finger, tilt head, blow hard until phlegm flies out). Public spitting or airborne snot via the farmer hanky – I will open a can of NY whup ass on the next person that does it in my vicinity.

Luckily there are no firearms in the mix. I can only imagine how you are coping with that up there.

And if you Google “cola pollo Habana” you will get all sorts of nasty images replete with zero social distancing, cop presence and maybe a bit of name calling among locals who just cannot do quarantine without chicken. Throngs. THRONGS of people all crowded up against one another, bumping backs and elbows and boobs to get their coveted chicken. I often tell visitors that after 18 years of full-time, year-round living here, I still don’t understand a lot about Cubans; even Cubans don’t get Cubans, I’ll say. To whit: “there are tons of other protein options,” observed my next door neighbor. “There are eggs and fish and all cuts of pork. Why the furious scrum for chicken?!”

And this despite the fact that a) we have a line organizing mechanism here know as el último so that you don’t even have to physically stand in the goddamn line! And b) only 3 to five people are allowed in the store at one time. So, you mark your place in line, step away (far, far away!) and then hustle up to the door when your group is permitted entry.

For such an educated populace, sometimes Cubans can be so stupid.

And sometimes they’re just a little too smart for their own good. Witness the six people who successfully escaped from an isolation center (a re-purposed hotel, mind you), only to be detained by authorities within 24 hours and returned to isolation. Now the COVID-6 (my nickname) are subject to prosecution under a statute that makes it illegal to propagate disease and epidemics (a hefty fine or three months to one year jail time). Then there are those who just can’t let go of the visita. A cultural touchstone, this is where you visit friends, family, and your favorite house-bound little old lady for a cup of coffee and some gossip. It’s one of the things I love about Cuba, but not today, not April 2020 where we’re living this dystopian super flu clusterfuck. The Health Minister, the President, the National Director of Epidemiology have all underscored the importance of suspending the visita for now. Do the people heed? THEY DO NOT HEED.

Lastly, we have the hiding. The highest authorities have also mentioned this specifically. Since we have active screening, designed to identify each and every case walking around these borders and since the treatment for COVID is essentially mom’s age-old advice (stay home, lots of fluids), symptomatic people are going into hiding. They get a family member or friend to lend them an apartment, an Air BnB perhaps (with all the remaining tourists here in quarantine, these remain vacant) or an empty room in their house so they can’t be contact traced or screened. And then they head out to buy flowers or ice cream or chicken or to visit their favorite little old lady friend.

Give me the Kool-Aid, I’m ready to drink it – the Jim Jones kind, not the Ken Kesey kind – this is already too much of a bad acid trip.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Travel to Cuba, Trump Style

I’ve got some shit to get off my chest so best buckle up. Pour a stiff one, bust out the vape or tuck in with a nice, hot chai – whatever helps you chill and focus.

A lot has been written about Trump’s “new” regulations regarding “legal” travel to Cuba for US citizens and residents. The long and short of it? ALL of you can still come to Cuba. Please share this link; together we might be able to cut through the scare tactics and “alternative facts” floating about. Unfortunately, the scare tactics work, no matter that – I repeat – ALL of you can still come to Cuba.

And while for many of you this may be an abstract policy affecting a faraway land, for us, it’s human suffering on a national scale. It’s small businesses, once thriving, now shuttered. It’s families going hungry(ier). It’s hopes and horizons dashed. It’s exposure to new ideas (on both sides) now censored.

Some people are still coming to Cuba, but often, it ain’t pretty. What follows are all recent experiences we’ve had at Cuba Libro:

The “Influencers”: You know who you are. Perhaps you don’t know what you are, so I’m here to “bell the cat” as we say. Vapid. Banal. Opportunistic. You’ve heard about Cuba Libro on the news; you’ve seen our scene on social media; you’ve verified that we’re among the top 5 things to do on TripAdvisor; and you realize we’re one of the most authentic, chill places in town. So you come in, talk to no one, rebuff our friendly staff and snap some photos. You exit. You’ve experienced nothing. You’ve contributed nothing (your influence isn’t quite what you’ve been led to believe). You’ve missed the point – of Cuba Libro specifically and Cuba in general. Uncool.

The Cheapskates: We see it every day. You lounge in our garden, reading, drawing, meeting new people, petting Toby. You’ve pumped us for useful information – where to eat, where to dance, how to connect, how to get around. You’ve enjoyed the best/cheapest cortadito in town, while swinging in a hammock with the dulcet tones of Billie Holiday or the deep grooves of Cimafunk as soundtrack. After a couple of hours, you request the check, are charged 90 cents and pay with 1 CUC (or a 20 bill – happens all the time. We’re not a bank people.) That 10 cents change? It goes right into your pocket. As one of our veteran barristas observed: Do they think Tip is a town in China? Also uncool.

The Insulters: You are cousins to The Cheapskates, but take it to a new level. Witness a Certain US Tourist from Last Week: she rolled up in a classic car and nary looked askance at our friendly server’s offer of a menu (in this case, me).

‘I have my driver waiting,’ she said with a wave of her hand. Instead of relaxing with a refreshment, she asked if we sold ‘knick knacks.’

I explained that our strength is coffee and literature, but I showed her the pins made by a local artist that we have for sale. Something you can’t find anywhere else and made with creativity and care. I told her the price for each pin – $3CUC. She looked them over. She hemmed. She hawed.

‘We have some others in the office. I can get them if you like.’ I offered her a seat and spread out the other pins. She looked them over. Some had become rusted and spotted, victims of our oppressive humidity.

‘If you like one of those, I can sell them to you at cost – $2CUC. This is what we pay the artist.’

She fingered several. She hemmed. She hawed. ‘I like these,’ she said, indicating two. ‘Can’t you sell them to me cheaper?’

‘?!?!?!?!’

‘I’m sorry but $2CUC is what they cost us.’

She left in a huff.

The Abhorrent/Entitled: She strode in, butt cheeks peeking out from her too-short denim shorts and made a beeline for the living room couch.

‘How many CUC should I get for US dollars?’ she asked in rapid-fire Stateside English.

The four young Cubans enjoying their coffee exchanged glances during the ensuing awkward silence.

‘Eh, ah….’ one said, no one with sufficient English to answer.

I turned from shelving books to help out, quoting the official USD-CUC rate.

‘Oh! You speak English! Where can we get beef here? Or chicken? It’s all pork, pork, pork.’

I directed LaTonya (my pseudonym for this fauna) to the fried chicken joint around the corner. She thanked me but not before asking me about ‘that alley where there’s all kind of art and religion and stuff;’ this is Latonya’s second trip to Cuba to ‘buy cheap art and sell it for a lot of money in Amerika.’

Before heading off for some pollo chifla’o and Callejón de Hamel, she decided to sit in our little copse at the entrance – ‘the jungle’ in Cuba Libro parlance – to have a cool something to drink. I asked Alfredo to give her a menu and resumed my conversation with Maria Teresa at the dining room table. After a beat or three, Alfredo walks in, throws the menus down in front of us and declares: ‘I’m not serving her. Sorry, but that’s just disgusting!’

‘?!?!?!?!’

Maria Teresa and I give him the ‘WTF happened?’ look.

‘That girl just hawked up a ball of phlegm, leaned over and spit it at the entrance to the café. Not in the bushes or a plant – she’s only surrounded by them! – but right where people walk in. Not once, but twice. Who DOES that? I’m not serving people like that.’

‘All right. I’ll handle it. Not to worry.’

‘You’re so Zen right now!’ Maria Teresa, who knows me well, observed.

‘Yeah. I don’t know what’s come over me today.’ In reality, what was I going to do? To clean up that public health threat, I had to bust out the bucket and broom and swab down the entire entrance, right where she was sitting. I’d do it once she left.

Maria Teresa and I continued our conversation while Charlie whipped up LaTonya’s frappuccino. I served the drink and returned to the table. Talking to Maria Teresa about our next special event (Cafe Trivia Thursdays, she’s the Coordinator), I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye.

It’s LaTonya exiting the bathroom and cutting through the kitchen where Charlie is preparing another frappuccino.

If you’ve never been to Cuba Libro, let me explain that the kitchen shortcut is a) totally verboten – do you waltz into kitchens in other establishments? and b) really uncomfortable since there’s only room for two people (or three, if you’re like us, like family) in the very narrow NYC-style galley kitchen. But this lacra walks right in, grabs a cup off the drying rack, jams her hand into the bag of ice Charlie is manipulating to make the next order and grabs a fistful of ice. This is a person, you’ll recall, who has no compunction about spitting balls of phlegm inside a business and right in the path of patrons – AND has just exited the bathroom. We’re guessing she’s not a meticulous post-piss hand washer…He immediately threw out that bag of ice.

More ‘WTF?!’ looks go ‘round, this time with Charlie joining in.

Before finally departing, LaTonya shattered the frappuccino glass (accidents happen, but hell, girl) and paid for her beverage in US quarters – totally useless here since they can’t be changed in banks. And just our luck! She’s staying right up the block. Fortunately, on subsequent visits, she took her drinks to go. We were more than happy to oblige.
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Let me be clear that not all visitors are like these –we recently hosted an amazing quintet from Dallas (thanks for the donations and the tip, Randy and crew!); a family from Oregon in the care of Soltura Travel; some kindly queer folk from Canada; and more. And we need people coming to Cuba, no doubt about it. I commend those that do.

But to all the Influencers, Insulters, Cheapskates, and Abhorrent/Entitled travelers out there, here’s some advice for when you come to Cuba/Cuba Libro:

– Treat people you meet with respect;
– Experiential travel is much richer and more rewarding than its voyeuristic counterpart;
– When you’re hosted at someone’s home or business, treat it as you would your own; and
– Tip your servers, damnit! We don’t live on air and good humor alone.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban economy, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Periodo Especial: The Sequel?!

I don’t know how the Special Period felt coming on, but I do know how it manifested once in full swing. Transport was so scarce and overcrowded, passengers lunged from bus windows at their stop or simply rode on the roof, hung from the door frame or clung to the back bumper.

Each and every day, the entire island was plunged into darkness; blackouts were so long and common, Cubans, plumbing their deep well of ironic optimism, began referring to ‘light ups,’ those times when there actually was electricity. So few and far between were those electrified hours, neighborhood block parties were held in the street, around a bonfire with a jug of rum (or more often moonshine known as ‘chispa‘e tren/baja tus bloomers’).

Toilet paper was non-existent – we used water or more often, pages ripped from the Granma newspaper. In many homes, squares the size of real TP were cut from the paper and stacked neatly atop the toilet tank. I wasn’t too put off by this. As a life-long camper, I’ve wiped my butt with all manner of material. Nevertheless, I do remember my shock at seeing Che’s face, shit-stained and crumpled, staring up at me from the bathroom wastebasket. It seemed blasphemous then but practical and normal thereafter – in dire/adverse circumstances, you do what you gotta do to survive.

And Cubans did.

They pedaled the 1 million Chinese bikes imported as transport of last resort. They fried “steaks” from grapefruit rinds, they fanned infants for hours with a piece of cardboard during stagnant summer nights. They lost weight, some suffering a neuropathy epidemic for lack of nutritious food. They rigged up kerosene burners for cooking and fashioned homemade matches. They struggled and suffered, finding solace in family, days swimming at El Espigon and nights stretching out on the Malecon. They danced, sang and fucked. They persevered and survived…

Flash forward to 2019. We’re in a different historical moment, a different context than the one I experienced in 1993, but the effects of the Special Period linger, if you know where to look. Not wanting their kids to ever go hungry like they did, parents indulge appetites to the point where child obesity and overweight are current health problems. Bicycles and cycling are stigmatized, reminding people too viscerally of those hard times. Today, hoarding happens and some still prefer newspaper to toilet paper.

The cleverness of Cubans and their deep stores of creativity and inventiveness honed during the Special Period are constantly on display. You see it in the 70-year old Harley-Davidsons zooming down the road, parts hand-hewn in cluttered, greasy garages across the island. You see it in the Russian washing machines cannibalized to make lawn mowers, blenders and coconut shredders. You see it in the burgeoning upcycle movement where the experience of struggle is translated into décor and dollars.

But no one, I mean no one wants to go through that again. And I highly doubt as many Cubans who tolerated it then would now – at least not in Havana. Make no mistake: Cuba learned its lesson from the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which sent the dependent island economy into a tailspin. It diversified, it liberalized, and it looked for and forged alternatives. But we’re seeing signs, folks. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. And it’s worrying.

Indeed, the most violent factor was – and is – beyond Cuban control: the nearly 60-year old US embargo cripples all economic and social development in one way or another. And last week the Trump Administration announced it’s considering enacting Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. I’ll leave a full explanation to the economists and wonks, but the important point is: as in 1996, during the deepest days of the Special Period, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton pounced on Cuba’s vulnerability and pushed this Act through Congress “to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.” Sensing that same vulnerability like a lioness stalking the weakest of the pack, Marco Rubio is exacting his quid pro quo with Donald Trump via Cuba and Title III.

It’s abominable how this administration is destroying lives at home and abroad. It’s no less shameful how supposed political detractors enable this cabal. Please, anyone in a policy/decision-making position reading this: do the world (and yourselves) a favor and grow some balls/ovaries; history will judge you and you will NOT be absolved.

Unfortunately, I doubt anyone reading this is making US policy. I also doubt that many people reading this realize just how vulnerable right now feels. Major trading partners and allies including Venezuela and Brazil are on the ropes. Trump rhetoric is scaring away investors and tourists. The embargo is still in place and we’ve suffered Hurricane Irma, Sub Tropical Storm Alberto, a devastating plane crash and a tornado, all in the past 18 months.

And we’re feeling it.

There was a massive flour shortage and though we are once again enjoying flour and pizza, there is neither milk (terrible for Cuba Libro) nor eggs. These latter were dubbed salvavidas in the Special Period days because eggs are a cheap, easy-to-prepare source of protein. They were, and are, ‘lifesavers.’ In the past three months, I’ve eaten a total of half a dozen eggs; it used to be a daily (or even twice a day) affair. Monthly egg rations have been cut in half to five per person, per month and when they do appear in stores, customers are limited to two cartons of 36 eggs each. But this is Cuba…

This week, my friend Camilo got word that eggs were being sold at the Plaza de Marianao. He made the trek across town and took his place in the long line. He watched people carting away 6, 7, 10 or more cartons of eggs. The stack for sale behind the crumbling counter shrank. He surmised the egg sellers were paid off to ignore the two-carton rule. The sun beat down, the stack shrank, Camilo was sweating from the heat and attendant low-level panic. Would the eggs hold out until his turn came around? He had waited in line already for two hours. The stack shrank. He asked one of the customers pulling a dolly away with over 400 eggs if he would sell a carton?

‘!Hombre no! This is for my private cafeteria. I need every last one.’

The eggs ran out and Camilo left empty handed. Mad and desperate, he went to a cafeteria near his house to order two egg sandwiches, hold the bread, hold the oil, hold the making of it. When he discovered that same sandwich which used to cost 35 cents, now costs 75, he slumped home egg-less. Today we’re scrambling to procure eggs for Jenny’s grandmother who, ailing and frail, has been prescribed a special diet by her doctor, including two eggs a day. So far we’ve been unsuccessful.

Then there’s the cooking oil situation. Shortages nationwide mean customers are only allowed two bottles per person. To procure those two precious bottles, you have to travel to the store that has it (lucky you if it’s actually in your neighborhood) and spend hours on line under a blistering sun just like my egg-less friend Camilo. As a result, many people I know spent this past weekend rendering chicken and pork fat so they won’t get caught (too) short.

Shortages of flour, eggs, oil – this post was simmering in my overworked brain for a bit but didn’t come to fruition until last night when the smell of gasoline permeated my living room. I emerged from the egg-less, flour-less kitchen (we don’t fry much and our current bottle of oil is a month old and still half-full) to see what was up. Twenty liters of premium gas now sits in a tank in said living room because people see the writing on the wall: gas hoarding has officially begun.

Blackouts are happening too – not as long or as often as I experienced in 1993, but worrisome still. And the economy overall is showing signs of serious distress. Last year the national economy grew a meager 1% and projections for this year are similar.

We may not be headed for a Second Special Period, but things feel tense as we plod through this year, Havana’s 500th anniversary.

Happy Birthday, ciudad querida. I hope smoother sailing awaits.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Cuba Libro – In Peril?

I’ve always had an inkling, but now I know up close and personally why people shun and malign journalists. This new knowledge is particularly ironic given the fact that I’ve been a full-time, accredited journalist here in my adopted home for more than 15 years. I would say my recent experience was also particularly instructive if it hadn’t been so damaging – I have to douse smoldering fires before I can fully learn the lesson provided by recent events.
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One Cuba Libro phenomenon (among many!) which taxes our team and especially me personally, is the random, drop-in journalist. Normally, these are foreign correspondents, some with exceptional, deep experience around the world, in war zones even, who come to me in a panic, behind schedule, deadline looming, fairly pleading with me to provide story ideas, contacts, leads and the like. More often than not, they don’t speak Spanish, further complicating matters. Always they underestimate the difficulties of reporting from Cuba. They may or may not have the proper visa. These types of unexpected visitors spike when there’s a major news story like Fidel’s illness/death; a papal visit; or constitutional referendums (happening right now, as I write this).

A flood of such reporters descended upon us when the normalization process with the US was announced in December 2014, followed by the Obama visit a few months later. To the drop-ins must be added the phone calls, emails and Facebook messages I receive requesting contacts and/or interviews with me. It saps too much time and energy truth be told.
To handle this efficiently and with a modicum of aplomb, I’ve developed filters and a triage system for these folks. The ones without journalist visas make it easy – I don’t talk to them. They’re breaking local laws. Those with an axe to grind also don’t make the cut (I’m still quite old school, believing in objectivity, accuracy and the Fourth Estate when it comes to reporting. How antiquated, right?), nor those who haven’t properly prepared. That leaves those who have the authorization, a clear idea of their angle, and the maturity and organization/preparation to warrant my help. Sounds haughty, I know, but I’ve clocked a decade and a half of in-the-trenches experience – I’m not giving that away free to just anyone.

Then there are the Cuban journalists…

The filters still apply to them but I must admit I have a soft spot for the young cub reporters with bright ideas and insatiable drive. Everyone needs a hand when starting out and unless they’re really off the rails or egregiously misrepresenting reality (including by omission), I will sit down and talk to them.

Which brings me to the subject of this post.

It wasn’t the first interview I granted to El Toque. Staffed by young Cuban journalists, this is a locally-produced, non-state news site. It has its flaws. And it’s on a learning curve. A steep one. But when they approached me to talk about Cuba Libro’s green initiatives for a series on the environment they were publishing, I was game. Encouraged even – Cuba has made strides in environmental protection since I moved here, though I see egregious digressions every day still. If you’ve been here, you’ve seen them too. So I sat down with fulana (Cuban for Jane Doe – I honestly don’t know her name) and gave her an overview of our policies and practices promoting environmental protection.

I never saw the resulting article. Along with thousands of Cubans, my internet connection is via 28.8 dial up. I don’t have the time (or inclination) to spend an hour accessing everything written about me, my writing, or Cuba Libro.

My bad.

When fulana crossed our threshold last month requesting an interview about the new regulations for private business here, I acceded. I spent an hour talking to her about how we’ll comply and how it’s likely to affect our business model.
This time I didn’t need to tax my paltry dial-up looking for the article.

The Cuba Libros Literary Café [sic] (at least its essence) will disappear on December 7, 2018, when a “series” of new regulations for private business owners come into effect.”

This was the lede, mind you. The piece, published in Spanish, picked up by other outlets and translated into English, went viral. I was bombarded by messages, Facebook queries, phone calls and walk-ins lamenting our closure.

The “journalist” (yes, the quotes are necessary) or editors cut everything I said about long, official meetings to figure out how to remain true and legal to our mission. She cut the explanation about exploring alternatives with the Ministry of Culture and related entities to keep offering superior coffee and English-language literature – what Cuba Libro has been doing since 2013. She failed to mention our community-building and robust, free cultural programming and how we intended to not just maintain it, but grow it. Nor did she include our donation programs, our free condom initiative (17,000+ given away to date), or our ethically- and socially-responsible philosophy which includes profit sharing and collective decision making. She did, however, include a damning quote from a supposed regular who opined that without books, Cuba Libro would be just another generic cafe. No one who works at or frequents the cafe recognized the guy quoted and calling him a regular? Puhlease: all our regulars know about our social mission because they are participants – joining us on our periodic volunteer days, taking advantage of our free English classes, spontaneously planting trees and donating plants as part of our environmental stewardship, or receiving donations of pre-natal vitamins, menstrual cups or cold and flu medicine.

It was impossible for me to contain the damage while the article was posted and re-posted across the World Wide Web in both languages. My internet is too slow, my real work too pressing. Nevertheless, little by little I responded to emails questioning the impending closure of Cuba Libro. Again, I employed triage, posting a response on the most trafficked websites. I clarified the situation on our Facebook page. But weeks on, we’re still experiencing the adverse effects. Our book donations have slowed to a trickle. A customer came in the other day and in a disrespectful manner not uncommon to men (mostly) of a certain age from the developed north, ranted at me, asking me offensive, invasive questions about the economics of Cuba Libro, about why we were closing, about my origins, about my personal life.

“Are you a LESBIAN?!” he fairly shouted, standing so close I could see his nose hair needed a good trimming.
“Are you bi-polar?!” I should have responded, but didn’t, instead opting to hold my tongue.

He interrupted the documentary being filmed in the living room, ignoring our whispered requests to maintain his distance. He was so insistent and disruptive that the person being interviewed had to shoo him away. He got on my last nerve, that guy.

But apparently, there was more in store. At 6pm, on my birthday, mind you, a call came in with a 305 area code. Florida. My biological father (or as my friend Peter says of his: The Sperm Donor) lives in that hell state. It crossed my mind that it might be him, but unlikely – I can’t remember the last time he recognized my birthday. But no, it was worse: a journalist from Radio Martí wanting comments about the new private enterprise regulations. Where did she get my cell phone number I wonder? Fucking El Toque, probably. I wished her a good day and hung up.

In case there remains any doubt: Cuba Libro is neither closing nor getting rid of our wonderful books. See you there one day soon.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Communications, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Inside a Cuban Orphanage

If you know me, you know I get terribly bored (and sometimes in trouble) if I’m not learning anything new. If you know my writing, you know that one of the things I love about Cuba is that I’m learning new things all the time. It’s stimulating, humbling – an eternal education, vaya. A recent experience was particularly educational when Cuba Libro, together with our family of Harlistas Cubanos, paid a visit to the Guanabacoa orphanage.

orphanage

Here’s what I learned:

1) In Cuba, orphanages are not called orfanatos like in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Here, they’re called casas de niños sin amparo filial (literally children without family protection; more proof that Cubans are masters of euphemism. This is something I knew from my days volunteering here during the ‘Special Period in A Time of Peace,’ – how Cubans refer to total economic catastrophe);

2) In Cuba, these children aren’t called orphans. They’re called niños de la patria (how’s that for euphemism?);

3) There are some very dedicated, loving and compassionate people working in this sector (all are women at this particular orphanage, something I suspect is par for the course across the country);

orphanage5

4) I knew before this visit that there are few orphanages in Cuba (thanks to a variety of factors, including free, safe abortions), but I learned this weekend that the most common reasons children end up here are: neglect, their parents are in jail or addicted to drugs or they’re abandoned outright;

5) Orphanages in Cuba are divided by age – there are orphanages for infants who are still breast feeding, others for children from 1-1/2 to 11 years old; and others for kids 12 to 18;

6) Some children arrive at orphanages having never seen a doctor – despite Cuba’s free, universal health system. A 5-year old boy at the Guanabacoa orphanage, for example, arrived with an undiagnosed degenerative childhood disease. His muscles will atrophy until he dies, before reaching adulthood. He’s now receiving appropriate medical attention, but his is a bleak diagnosis. In addition to full medical care, the government provides these children with food, clothing, beds and linens, soap and toothpaste (a bar and tube, respectively, for each child every month), school uniforms, and a monthly stipend;

orphanage4

7) Every opportunity to place orphans with foster or adoptive families is investigated and made. Although the process is incredibly long and arduous, requiring all kinds of background checks, character testimonies, home visits, and documentation, several of the 20 children at the orphanage we visited were with their foster families for the weekend. Additionally, one 4 year-old girl was with her adoptive family which was finalizing her adoption;

8) The chance to visit the Guanabacoa orphanage and learn how all of this works in Cuba was possible thanks to a donation initiative by Havana Harley-Davidson riders and Cuba Libro. Most Here is Havana readers already know about Cuba Libro’s robust, targeted donation programs but this was our first donation to an orphanage. We’re incredibly thankful to have friends and family among these generous bikers who provided the opportunity to learn what orphanages most need in Cuba:
– infant and boys’ and girls’ clothes;
– sneakers and shoes;
– washcloths and shower scrubbies (caretakers are prohibited from having skin-to-skin contact with the children); and
– white knee socks – part of the official school uniform.
Thanks to this initial donation (organized by our Donation Coordinator, Yenlismara), Cuba Libro will be continuing to support the wonderful staff and children at this orphanage. If you would like to participate in this or other donation programs administered by Cuba Libro, please drop us a line;

orphanage2

9) The last thing I learned was the provenance of this house – a mansion really, with multiple gardens, a pool and Jacuzzi, three-car garage and so many bedrooms I lost count. Several years ago, an official police video made the rounds (you can get the new fuzz reels every week from any little storefront business selling the paquete) about a massive bust in Guanabacoa. The video showed all manner of ill-gotten goods – including eight cars, gold and jewels, appliances, electronics, the works. They even found bricks of cocaine stashed around – it was really some Cops Miami type shit. The culprit? A half-assed Cuban rapper wanted in the United States for a giant Medicare scam which fleeced boatloads of money from the federal program. I had never heard of Gilbert Man before I saw the video, nor after – until we were preparing the kids’ donations. Turns out that after he was caught, charged, sentenced to 17 years and imprisoned, the Cuban government converted his house into this orphanage. Upon visiting and beholding the f-ugly furniture, gold and brown brocade drapes, god awful porcelain vases and gilded mirrors, I learned that Gilber Man may have been (temporarily) rich, but had perennially bad taste.

I also learned that wonderful things can be sown from nefarious seeds and soil.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

A Quick Note on Irma

Havana September 14, 2017

Time for thanks giving.

Among the many (well documented) reasons Cuba does hurricane preparation and post-recovery/survival so well is the ability of the populace to pull together, help each other and and sweat it out as one. It’s one of the intangibles of resiliency which if we bottled, would make this a better planet and us a more evolved race. To all the supporters of Cuba Libro who generously donated batteries, candles, flashlights, headlamps, and crank radios over the years: you directly supported resiliency in our community. These items were distributed to families in preparation for and in the wake of Irma. So thanks for that.

To the folks who helped batten down the hatches and clean up afterwards, including the entire Cuba Libro Team who, I say it to them and I’ll say it to you: is in a league of their own. What great, giving people. Regulars and neighbors pitched in too, while Salgado – I can’t remember the 52 things this Renaissance guy did to help us get ready and bounce back. So thanks for that ya’ll. Then there’s Toby who went on walkabout just shy of 8pm the night before Irma hit as we were hauling everything in. He chooses his escape window carefully, that wily pooch. So no thanks due there, but he’s awfully cute and keeps our spirits up (except when he’s on unauthorized walkabout).

To my neighbors in Playa who shared food, rum, water, conversation, information, companionship, volunteer time, and solace, a heartfelt thanks is also due. My block didn’t pool food supplies – a couple of plátanos from Isabel, a chunk of pork from Gaby, some puré from Ramón – to make a caldosa like those where Mary and Yen live, but just short of it. We passed hours and hours talking to our neighbors, sweating out the long hot days and nights when Irma moved out and we were left in entire blackout. Havana, Holguin, the nation. Our lights just came back on after more than four days (CROWD ROARS). As I type this, a text comes in from my friend M who still has no lights. I picture her house and sigh: she definitely won’t have lights any time soon; M lives steps from Colón Cemetery. As soon as the lights came back on at Cuba Libro, we let M and other friends know so they could at least charge their devices and drink some ice cold water. We became a meeting point for support and catharsis.

The flooding, the destruction and the deaths: it’s intense and real. I saw old-growth trees, trunks bigger than tractors, ripped with the chunk of sidewalk where they grew, straight from their roots. Some blocks had so many of these grand stands down you couldn’t even see the street. Most ripped out electricity posts or hung suspended on thick cables. Although these trees – in Playa and Vedado – choked off entire streets, I can’t remember one that hit a house straight on. Crushed an iron fence, sure, glanced off a corner of a roof before crashing to the ground, definitely. But crushing a house outright? I didn’t see that. I’m sure Havana had its share of damaged houses and that is awful. I also saw traffic lights and concrete utility poles snapped in half, heard a dog get electrocuted, watched as blond, laughing tourists cruised damaged neighborhoods in classic convertibles, and listened as my friend D, described her sofa, refrigerator, furniture, books and savings floating in her living room as the sea crashed through her front door. Anyone living on the ground floor within three blocks of the Malecón has a similar story; flooding from the sea also contaminated all the cisterns in these buildings.

As I write this, half the Cuba Libro team still doesn’t have electricity – along with most of the country. This presents so many practical problems it’s hard to transmit the difficulties if you haven’t lived through something like this; the way the planet and Mother Nature are protesting lately (hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis), many readers, friends and family sadly, know all too well what I’m talking about. Instead of presenting the laundry list of problems a developing, blockaded, island nation faces in a post-disaster situation such as we find ourselves, I’ll limit to just one aspect which in my estimation and experience is overlooked and under-reported: sleep deprivation. When it’s a hundred degrees, with 90% humidity and not a leaf blows in the non-existent breeze, you haven’t had a drink of cold anything in days, nor a shower during that time, sleep is more elusive than a straight priest (if this last offends you, sorry: PC this blog ain’t). In these days, we’ve dragged mattresses into living rooms and on to balconies, hefted them up to roofs – NY, black tar beach style – and tried to catch a few winks in rocking chairs. It rarely works and we wake in pools of sweat, no shower possible. Babies are fanned with squares of cardboard or collapsible hand fans all night long. It makes people tense and cranky, a bit awkward and torpid, slow to answer or react. And lovemaking? Por díos, no.

But we’re muddling through with characteristic cheer and chistes, with the occasional attack of hysteria. When that happens, friends and neighbors intercede, commiserate and return us to a laughing state. But this is no laughing matter: the island is reeling from Irma and needs help. If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, come. If you’re coming to Cuba, bring donations – targeted, well-needed donations. I can’t tell you how many tubes of expired Neosporin and four-year old bottles of ibuprofen we’ve received. And please: keep your half-used trial size Pantene. I’d be happy to provide ideas of what, and importantly, where to donate while on the island. If you’re reading this anywhere in the world and would like to support recovery efforts of the health system, MEDICC and Global Links, with over 30 years combined experience in supporting Cuban health, have partnered with PAHO. If you know of other worthy, transparent and experienced organizations with a track record in Cuba, please comment or get in touch.

I’ve gotta go freeze more water for my friends still without electricity.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, environment, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Trump: The Laughingstock of Cuba

Let’s get this out of the way – US travelers can still come to Cuba. Nothing has changed, despite what that fool-tool of a President (and his minions) want you to believe.

New regulations for travel to Cuba have yet to be written (they’ll be released on September 15) and won’t be actionable until sometime thereafter. Until then, they’re the same Draconian, out-dated travel restrictions as usual. Draconian because even though President Obama relaxed rules for travel to Cuba (a step in the right direction, without a doubt), it’s still the only country where people from the USA are prohibited from traveling freely. For those keeping count, we’re going on 60 years of attempts by Washington to control Cuba and if that’s not the definition of failure (not to mention stupid and a violation of rights), you need a dictionary, a foreign policy course or both. Never mind that all public opinion polls show that a majority in the USA want full, free, and open travel with Cuba. Another detail: Cuba doesn’t prohibit US people from visiting. On the contrary. They love folks from the US here. The restrictions are all on that end.

But here’s the kicker: though nothing has changed, people are already cancelling trips to Cuba. They write me on this blog, my website, Cuba Libro’s website, and Facebook. Tour group operators, independent guides, semester abroad coordinators: they’ve contacted me virtually or in person to lament the cancellations in the wake of Trump’s laughable, but shameful, speech in Miami. So while it’s still status quo as regards traveling here, and will be for the foreseeable future, Trump did do damage – he wound the clock back to the Cold War, reinstating the culture of fear (and dare I say: terror), that then reigned. And fear is a mighty motivator. It makes pussies of the powerful, cows the courageous and intimidates the intrepid. I know. I survived eight long years of George W Bush here, when friends and family were too scared to come. Or too confused – because this is the other card in the stacked deck wielded by anti-Cuban politicians: it takes even specialist lawyers, those with decades of experience interpreting the twists and turns of the embargo, considerable mental gymnastics, and many expensive, billable hours to tease out precisely what’s legal and not, as well as the gaping grey area between. Clearly, some people profit off the politics around Cuba. During his Miami dog-and-pony show, Trump also successfully pissed off Cubans everywhere – including in the swamp state known as Florida.

On the flip side, some US travelers are heading here now, convinced the hammer is about to come down. Literally as I write this, there’s a New Yorker here talking to a Cuban, saying she came to Cuba “before the law changes.” Forget the fact that this isn’t a law. I hear the same thing day in and day out and am truly amazed that so many people are willing to come here in July and August, the absolute worst times to come to this hotter than Hades destination.

Here in Havana, we listened to his speech live, on Cuba Libro’s beloved Sirius radio (though it was also broadcast on Cuban state TV). The dining room was crowded with Cubans who had never heard him before. Nor had I. One of the brilliant things about living in Cuba is the facility the context provides for existing within a bubble, where asshole politicians, Caitlyn Jenner’s ridiculous pronouncements, and the 24-hour fake news cycle is someone else’s problem. Folks are always surprised when they learn I had never heard him before Miami. But if you didn’t have to listen to his bullshit and blather – if you weren’t addicted to Facebook or Twitter or involuntarily subjected to a screen in a bar or airport, would you waste your precious moments on this dying planet listening to that buffoon? Or listening to pundits or talking heads or social media chatter about him? I was quite shocked listening to him ramble on. I was shocked at how infantile he is, how lacking in elegance, not to mention eloquence he is, and how insultingly transparent he is, manipulating facts and history of course, but also his own supporters. They’re as stupid (or opportunistic) as him. It’s hard not to feel just a smidge of schadenfreude for all the racist, misogynist, isolationist white trash who voted him into office and who are getting a wakeup call to just how destructive he is to their interests. Unfortunately, many innocents are also caught in the net of hate, inequity, and cruelty cast wide by the Trump administration.

Cubans are being caught in this net. But Cubans are cockroaches (old news for regular readers). They’ll survive us all. They withstood the Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs. With stomachs empty and vision failing due to lack of nutritious food, they withstood the demise of the USSR. They withstood and reigned triumphant during the Elián crisis. Hurricanes, drought, Zika and dengue, the embargo, two Bushes – they’ve survived it all. And they’ll survive Trump, too. In the meantime, they’re going to hate on him big time (and are losing money because of him, which fuels the cycle of hate and belies his claim that his policies are designed to ‘help the Cuban people.’) As soon as he began rimming the Miami radicals with his smarmy tone, regular Cubans in the street, bars, cafes, and along the Malecón, were making fun of him.

They were laughing at how behind the times and the curve he is, invoking events that happened over half a century ago. ‘Is this guy for real?!’ one Cuban asked aloud during the speech. ‘Dude! Come join us in the 21st century,’ said another. They were laughing at how low class he is. They were laughing at what an inept orator he is. And they were laughing at the shitty musician chosen to play the national anthem. They stopped laughing when they realized the “out of tune” violinist wasn’t going to follow up the US national anthem with the Cuban one. ‘He’s clueless!’ declared a young local. I agreed: no matter where a Cuban resides, they are first and foremost, cubano and loyal to one hymn: theirs. And no one was laughing when they learned from Minister of Foreign Affairs Bruno Rodríguez (and my runner-up choice for next Cuban president; my first is Josefina Vidal) that the violinist at Trump’s speech was the son of a killer: his father assassinated Frank País, a young Baptist caught by Batista’s troops in the early days of the revolution and shot dead.

For Cubans, Trump epitomizes bad taste and is devoid of grace. He’s like a bucket of ice water dropped on them after their first-hand experience with Obama. He (and Michelle) charmed the underpants off the place, their visit making history. Trump isn’t making history; he’s making an ass of himself and tarnishing whatever gleam and sparkle remained of the United States. Mulling it over, I think it’s Trump’s shameless douchebag-ery that ruffles Cubans most.

Going with the flow is something Cubans do with aplomb. They also live for the moment – they don’t get hot and bothered about what might happen further down the road. They’re very Zen in this way. They especially don’t get their panties in a twist with political declarations made up north; they’re way over buying into that kind of drama. Once they found out the 5-year multiple entry visas to the USA already granted wouldn’t be revoked, they went back to laughing at Trump, creating hilarious caricatures and tagging walls with graffiti – one, a larger-than-life portrait with the word ‘estúpido’ stenciled beside it, was quickly painted over by authorities. They should have left it if you ask me. And it’s too bad the artists (from a collective known as La Banda) didn’t go with their original design which read ‘singa’o’. Conclusion on this side of the Straits: Trump es un tremendo singa’o! And he’s making a laughing stock of the United States. Quo vadis?!

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Tourism: Killing the Cuban Encanto?

First came the packs of drunken jailbait to the Fábrica de Arte, snapping selfies while the Cuban band played their hearts out.

Then came the frat boys so blasted they lay unconscious in the street and had to be taken to their casa by the police. Only they couldn’t remember where they were staying.

They were followed by the wannabe musician from Ohio (passing himself off as Brazilian) who threw himself to the sidewalk, shrieking like a schoolgirl ‘SOY TURISTA!! SOY AMERICANO!!’ when the Cuban he cheated set upon him.

This is the new normal for tourism in Havana. It ain’t pretty. I figured I’d just wait until it blew over (and it will blow over – the college girls will discover the gorgeous mulatto bailarín is already married; the Yuma who bought a house with his Cuban ‘frens’ will return after a quick trip north to find the locks changed and no legal recourse; and word will get around that there are too frequent shortages here, of beer, water, electricity, English speakers, toilet paper, vegetarian food, whatever). Then something happened which obligates me to write this post.

“Where’s the closest Wifi? We have to connect!”
“There’s a park with Wifi six blocks from here. And they just activated Wifi along the Malecón.”
“What’s the Malecón?”
“…”

These were nice guys, don’t get me wrong. But this is akin to asking: what’s the Louvre? What’s the Coliseum? The Malecón is THE symbol of Havana. This instantly qualified as one of the top 3 most stupid questions I’ve been asked. Plus, it convinced me to try – once again – to do something about the pervasive ignorance about Cuba. I know I’m pissing in the wind here – if I’m lucky, this blog gets 400 views a day and those are mostly choir members: people anxious for on-the-ground information about Cuba, my followers, friends and family. So how do I reach the others? The cruise ship passengers in port for 36 hours and the spring breakers here for a mojito-fueled weekend? What about the 1% who land their private jets at José Martí International Airport and contract a paladar for their exclusive dining pleasure, paying $6000 for the privilege (the equivalent of 20 years salary for my neighbor Mercedes), and then jet off again? Or the family of four “daring” to visit Cuba, trying to keep up with the Joneses?

I’ve written tons about traveling more conscientiously to Cuba. I’m a founding member of RESPECT (Responsible and Ethical Cuba Travel) and tell everyone willing to listen about this new consortium. Anyone who asks to buy bottled water at Cuba Libro gets all the potable (boiled) water they can drink, free of charge, and an earful about why we don’t sell bottled water. Four million tourists in 2016, drinking small plastic bottles of water + island ecology = environmental disaster, no matter how you do the math. The same goes for anyone who asks for a straw. We stopped using straws after participating in the Ocean Conservancy’s International Coastal Cleanup last year when we learned that drinking straws are the #1 plastic product polluting our planet’s oceans.

I’m one of those people who always wants to do more. Maybe it’s because I’m the youngest of four. But my time, money and reach are limited. I wish I could have an impact beyond sending these thoughts into the ether and bending everyone’s ear about the evils of (some) tourism. So, until I’m invited to do a TedTalk, here are some of the most egregious and under-reported ways that tourism is affecting us here on the ground:

No Spanish whatsoever: Get a phrase book, an app, an interpreter, whatever works for you, but learn at least a few words of wherever you’re traveling. One everyone needs at the ready here in Cuba is “permiso.” This means ‘excuse me.’ Learn it. Use it. I was at a popular club last week (part of my so-far-not-so-successful 2017 goal to re-establish some work-play balance in my life) and spotted my friends across the crowded dance floor.
“Permiso,” I said, the smile on my face audible.
No response.
“Permiso!” I repeated, louder.
Nothing.
“PERMISO/Excuse me!!”

The dude shifted his weight slightly to the right and I squeezed through. I get that not everyone speaks Spanish, wants to speak Spanish, or has the time, energy or brain cells to learn some local words before traveling to foreign climes. But when you start fucking with our mechanisms and flow, it gets annoying (and inefficient). It’s like the people in New York, my home town, who stand on the left side of escalators or who stop on street corners to look at maps or their smart phones. Permiso isn’t a hard word to learn or pronounce, nor is taking the último, which you should do in each and every line in which you find yourself. El último is the most important concept to learn before traveling here if you don’t want to screw with the local flow.

The classic car cliché – The fury for classic car tours has me irrationally incensed. I say irrational because there are upsides: cars rusting in back lots or abandoned in garages for decades are now up and rolling through the streets; restoring them is providing jobs for many; and the cars’ owners are making a killing taking tourists on hour-long loops around the city. Before I unleash my rant, let me repeat for lazy readers who missed it the first time: I recognize the benefits and I admit my attitude is irrational. Now for the complexities: convertible car tours have become such a trend that cars previously functioning as collective taxis for the local population are being taken out of circulation and their tops shaved off (to the tune of $3000 CUC) to satisfy tourist demand. Whereas these drivers used to hump their ass all day long (or hire someone to do so) collecting 10 peso fare after 10 peso fare (about 35 cents), they now get up to $50 CUC an hour (that’s double the average monthly state salary) taking Tea Party supporters on a Habana Vieja-Plaza de la Revolución-Parque Almendares-Miramar tour. I would love to do a Candid Camera-type maldad where fun- and sun-seeking tourists from Kansas jump into the convertible and instead of traveling around ‘Disneyland Havana,’ they’re taken into the dark, gritty depths of Jesús María, La Timba, Fanguito, Los Pocitos, and Coco Solo, ending up in Mantilla…and left there.

Sadly, whoever is currently chopping a classic car is screwed: word on the street is that the state auto regulatory authority won’t be approving any more post-factory convertible conversions. If true, I predict it’s going to play out like this: car owners unable to procure the proper authorization will operate anyway, illegally. The money is just too tempting and they have to recover their investment after all. When stopped by the cops, they’ll slip 20 CUC in with their license and registration and everyone will drive off happy. Instead of being just another cog in this cliché, I suggest taking a classic Harley-Davidson tour – you’ll get the same 360° views; be closer to the people and scenes you’re photographing; and helping a needier Cuban than the convertible car guys. It’s also much cooler. Two other factors about these cars chap my ass: the environmental damage of all these cars without catalytic converters is incalculable and when they line up on the Avenida del Puerto in the heart of Habana Vieja to await thousands of disembarking cruise ship passengers, it causes nasty traffic snarls, making it even more difficult for regular folk to get to and from home, work, or play.

Pro tip for those on one of these tours: someone, please sit up front! It is local custom for someone to share the front with the driver. Cubans are social like that, plus, you get to observe up close how a pro maneuvers 2 tons of steel , can feast on the dashboard details (I’ll bet you 10CUC the speedometer doesn’t work), and you get the same stellar views. Bonus, insider info will definitely be yours if you share a common language with your driver – whose ear you’ll have for an hour or more. So unless you’re on a honeymoon or something similarly romantic, ride shotgun – even, or especially if, you’re traveling solo.

Your lucha is our gain – There’s other tourism-related stuff annoying me lately: foreigners who refuse to stand in line and pay to jump it; visitors who scam subsidized cultural events here, insisting on paying the local price (almost all venues here have a Cuban and a foreigner price, just like in Hawai’i, the Seychelles and other tourist-dependent islands. Often these same visitors decry the low salaries here, precisely as they undermine them); and of course, sex tourism, prostitution, transactional sex or whatever you want to call it. I was very heartened to learn at the recent Gender Violence, Prostitution, and Sexual Tourism Symposium that Cuba is considering penalizing johns instead of the sex providers a la Sweden.

Because this is a very depressing post and we’re living in very depressing times, I want to end on a positive note. A couple, actually.

First, talking with my friend Ernesto today, he observed that one of the good things about all this tourism – especially from the USA – is that people are seeing Cuba for themselves and learning first-hand that much of what they’ve heard about Cuba – it’s dangerous, a repressive police state, that Cubans are miserable and hate their realities – is bullshit. People drawing their own conclusions from their own experiences is powerful.

Second is the story of Kevin, Bryant, Blake and Jeff (or something like that), four bros from the East Coast who came to Cuba on a quick 5-day whim of a trip. On Day 2, they went out to the Morro-Cabaña and while picking their way along the moss-slickened cliffs, Jeff (or Kevin or Bryant or Blake) slipped and went tumbling into the sea. He surfaced quickly, holding his iPhone above the water as his friends fished him out. They made their way back to their casa in Havana and began hunting for raw rice in which to submerge the iPhone overnight in an effort to salvage it. Night had fallen by this time; they didn’t know where to buy rice and no stores (let alone bodegas) were open regardless. They stopped in a restaurant and in their broken Spanish asked one of the waiters if he’d be willing to sell them some rice. A diner overheard their conversation, rose from the table where he was sharing dinner with his family, took the guys to his home, gave them some rice (refusing payment, of course), and invited them back the next day for some coffee and conversation.

They were thrilled and so was I: here were four dudes whose Cuba trip could have been filled with a classic car tour, mojitos, jineteras on the Malecón and getting nauseous on Cohibas. Instead, they embraced serendipity, solidarity and the spirit of experiential travel. I don’t know if they ever got the iPhone working, but I know they made travel memories that will last their lifetime.

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