Category Archives: Cuban economy

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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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad

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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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

El Paquete: Opiate of the Cuban Masses

I’m not a particularly heavy consumer of the “package” (love the typically Cuban double entendre) but I know what I want, my ‘Paquete’ guy knows what I want, and I stray only for research and on recommendation. Samantha Bee; Transparent; Lie to Me (swoon, swoon Tim Roth); The Lobster; Sully; Captain Fantastic – here, we get any series you’re watching for $1 a season. Another buck gets me six or seven films playing in a theater near you.

What first turned me on to The Paquete in a hot and heavy way was when I discovered it also contains all manner of professional sports. My Paquete guy, Yuri, knows: any Knicks or Golden State game and all pro tennis, bring it on! I’ll take a Redskins game or any old Monday Night Football once in a while, too. I’m a life-long sports fan and active participant, still, and if you ask me, sports transcend. Watching and playing sports – the most democratic and unequivocal of all human pursuits – thrills me. I know some of you don’t get it and actively reject organized athletics. That’s cool, but I do think it’s your loss.

Enjoying sports via The Paquete however, has its quirks and downsides. Lots of it comes from ESPN en español, so none of the sportcasters are familiar, they’re using Spanish sports slang I’m still learning, and they can be terrible chismosos. Listen, I don’t want to hear about Carmelo Anthony’s new car – just call the game asere! Another downside is when you’re fast forwarding through the commercials, the total length of the program is indicated on the menu bar. So if Team X or Player Y is getting walloped, the length of the menu bar serves as spoiler and at a certain point it becomes obvious that a mid-game rally or late match come-from-behind is impossible. Knowing which side will reign victorious before or mid-way through the game takes a lot of the fun out of it. But ‘del lobo un pelo’ as we say here: something’s better than nothing.

For a fairly new phenomenon (within the past 8 years or so), The Paquete is making a huge impact. When I moved to Havana in 2002, most neighborhoods had a person – young, old, home-bound – with an impressive VHS (remember those?!) collection who made a few extra bucks renting them out. Their bread and butter was mostly Hollywood blockbusters several years out of date and the latest soap operas from Brazil and Mexico. The more technologically savvy and those with more financial resources eventually transitioned to DVDs and soon thereafter, businesses cropped up where the movies or series or soaps you wanted were copied directly on to a memory stick (‘pingüitas’ in Conner slang, for their form and propensity to catch viruses). The soaps and flicks were then re-copied and re-copied as you shared them with friends. The final stage of this digital evolution is The Paquete.

In the simplest terms, The Paquete is one terabyte of media downloaded (mostly via a super speedy connection provided by the State and motivation a-plenty for some people to hang on to their low-salaried State jobs) every Monday and then shared the length and breadth of the island via private businesses dedicated to just that. I’m fairly certain this is a ‘grey market’ activity, but according to ABC News, The Paquete is the #1 employer in Cuba today.

Accessing The Paquete is easy: within a 5-block radius of Cuba Libro, for instance, there are no fewer than half a dozen private businesses – usually in the entryway to a residential home or building rented out for this purpose – where you can go every Monday to download the entire terabyte of new offerings on an external hard drive. Or you can pick and choose what you like. Different distributors organize their offerings differently and prices and quality vary. Some folks I know price by the gig – 8 gigs for 10CUP (about 35 cents) is one of the cheapest I’ve found – others, by the number of movies or episodes you want. Some movies have been hand-filmed in cinemas (where you can hear audiences laughing at the funny bits and get a glimpse of the guy returning from the concession stand with his popcorn), while others are BluRay or high definition. There is also home delivery service of The Paquete where the distributor arrives at your door and copies directly on to your computer whatever you request (free anti-virus included).

It’s worth mentioning that The Paquete contains more than just sports and Hollywood movies and series – the funny (and not so) tapes from Havana’s police cameras; digital magazines produced in Cuba (of which there are many, Vistar being the most high-profile); erotica (AKA soft porn); La Voz; music videos; computer games and more. Super events like the Stones concert in Havana and the Chanel show are also popular and usually available in days following the actual extravaganza. Recently, Zoológico, a Cuban-produced soap opera deemed unfit for broadcasting on state-run TV has been a popular Paquete request.

Games of Thrones, The Walking Dead, West World: visitors are often shocked at how plugged in and current Cubans are. Me? I’m still shocked at the pervasiveness of the ‘Cuba frozen in time/stuck in amber’ myth. There’s now Wifi the entire length of the Malecón (to give you an idea of the type of tourist here nowadays, I actually had someone ask me last week what the Malecón was. Dios mío) and in parks from Mariano to Nueva Gerona, Quivicán to Guantánamo. A pilot project will install broadband in 2,000 Habana Vieja homes soon and Cubans will begin receiving data on their mobile phones this year. Every medical professional has full internet access via Infomed and those accounts are often “shared,” multiplying users two- or three-fold. In universities, the national network of Joven Clubes, at work: Cubans are way more connected than you ever imagined.

I know a lot of readers may have expected and wanted my new post to be about Fidel’s death and I’m sorry to disappoint. Rest assured, I’ll get around to it (once I’ve further wrapped my head around it). But I will provide you with this bit of intel straight from my friends who work distributing The Paquete: during the 9-day national mourning period, these folks made money hand over fist, working double time, until midnight most nights, copying movies and series and sports for Cubans anxious to watch anything besides the ‘round-the-clock Fidel documentaries being shown on State TV.

I gotta go.There’s a hot Murray-Djokovic match I’m in the middle of watching.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Communicating from Cuba?!

One of my oldest, closest friends is having a tough go of it lately. Man problems, work-life balance problems, health problems. In a nutshell, she’s living life, which, as Hobbes observed, tends to be nasty, brutish, and short.

All I want to do right now is pick up the phone and call her in LA to commiserate, consult, and kvetch. Unfortunately, that’s an impossibility since I’ve insufficient saldo on my cell and besides, rates are outrageous (over a dollar a minute). It’s also impossible to call her from my home phone, which has no international service. At least I have a home phone – many people here can’t say that. But igual, rates are outrageous. What about email? you may be wondering. I can pause the pirated US Open match I’m watching, plug in the modem and phone line, wait and HOPE it connects (on a weekday night like tonight, even if I succeed in logging on to the remote computer, the connection speed tops out at 28kbps – that’s kilo, not megabytes, people). If it does connect, yay! Then I have to click through four screens to finally be able to kvetch and commiserate via email. Meanwhile, I’ll be praying no one calls, thereby kicking me offline. But you know what? That just doesn’t cut it when you want to talk to someone you love.

If this state of communicative affairs sounds terrible as you stream the latest Netflix series or rock out to Pandora, while taking calls and reading this blog via your broadband and bandwidth, it is. But things are a lot better than when I first moved to Havana in 2002. Back then I lived in a microbrigada in what’s known as a ‘silent zone’ – meaning a neighborhood with no landlines. For the next six years making a phone call (nationally only, of course) was a serious chore. I had to make sure I had the right coins (because not all coins are accepted; that would be too easy and efficient), go down five flights of stairs and walk several blocks to a pay phone. And if there was a neighbor gossiping with her girlfriend from Gunatánamo? Ay mamá! The wait for that precious phone could be half an hour or more. I remember a fight broke out once – nothing physical (it takes a lot, or a lot of rum, for a Cuban to raise a hand or throw a punch), but rather a loud, bellicose shaming: ‘chiquita! You aren’t sitting at home in your living room. This is a p-u-b-l-i-c phone. Wrap it up already!’ This encouraged others to chime in. ‘There’s a line here, you know!’; ‘we have to make calls too. Give us a chance muchacha!’ people in line grumbled.

Having a cell phone back then was unthinkable. It was extraordinarily expensive of course and it was illegal for Cubans to have them. That seems absurd now, given how far connectivity has come in the intervening years. The only people I knew with cell phones were international correspondents (who also had Internet and satellite TV; the latter is still illegal for Cubans). Fortunately, the days of illegal cell phones and silent zones are long behind us. Now we have Wifi in parks, people get emails on their smart phones, and don’t be surprised if the Cubans kids at the table next to you are glued to their tablets or iPads. In short, communication to and from Cuba is better than ever – not as fast or accessible or affordable as any of us would like, but still, we’re leaping into the 21st century. Here’s how we keep in touch in Cuba nowadays:

Cell Phones: Cubacel is the one and only cell service provider on the island. Once you sign a contract for a phone (cost: $30 CUC) and buy an actual phone if you don’t already have one, you have to fuel it in increments of $5 and $10 CUC to make calls. National calls cost between 10 and 35 cents a minute, depending on the time of day. International calls are over $1 CUC/minute no matter where in the world you’re calling. Text messages are more affordable (nine cents per 160 characters within Cuba, 60 cents to the rest of the world) but can be prickly in practice.

Just getting a cell contract is a neat feat since the lines at Cubacel offices can be obnoxiously long and it’s not uncommon to find they are out of SIM chips, in which case you’re shit out of luck. If your phone is from outside Cuba, it will likely be locked or won’t accept the size chip used here, which also renders you shit out of luck. This, however, is ‘resolvable’ since private entrepreneurs all over the island have opened businesses specifically to unlock phones and cut SIM chips down to the proper size (costing an additional $100 CUC or so all in).

Text messages are a fast, cheap way to communicate – I’m sure many of you reading this send scores of messages a day without even thinking about it – but texting can fail mightily here. The most frustrating aspect for me personally and millions of Cubans is that it’s impossible to send messages to or from the USA using a Cuban cell phone. You read that right. You can text a congris recipe to your friend in London, Madrid, Buenos Aires or Montreal, but can’t tell your mom in Kendall that you love her or confirm an upcoming meeting with a delegation from DC via text. There are services to allow texting between the two countries, but Im too tired to jumopop through even one more hoop! Internally, text messages also get delayed when volume is particularly heavy – on Valentine’s Day, say, or when the Stones are in town. How many times have I been rudely awoken by a 4am text that was actually sent the night before? Too many to count. And how many parties or family meals have passed without my presence due to delayed message receipt? Ditto. The moral of this story is two-fold: if the information you need to convey is time sensitive, spend the extra money on an actual call. And if you want a good night’s sleep, put your phone on airplane mode.

The same advice holds for US folks with Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint, which now have roaming agreements with Cuba. Rates are usurious – you wouldn’t be the first to return from a Cuba trip to find you’d racked up $1000 in roaming charges. The only people these agreements benefit are business and government fat cats with even fatter expense accounts.

Now for the good news. A service appeared several years ago which allows you to recharge a Cuban cell phone via the internet. This means you don’t have to hunt around for someone selling the $5 or $10 CUC scratch off cards and you can do it any time of the day or night. Don’t have an internet connection and credit card? No matter – friends anywhere in the world can gas up your cell with the click of a few buttons. But it gets better: every six weeks or so, the companies providing this internet-based service have promotional offers which double or even triple the money charged to your phone. For those without friends or family abroad willing to plunk down money on your cell, there are private businesses all across the island which allow you to take advantage of these promotions for a $2 CUC surcharge. These services (Facebook is another), have literally transformed communication between Cuba and the world strengthening relationships and even reuniting families. My friend Douglas in Havana, for instance, reconnected with his long-lost brother, Clive, in Stockholm. They first made contact using Facebook and now talk via cell thanks to offers like those provided by ding which make calls affordable (admittedly, I’m often transferring money from my cell account to Douglas’ – and other friends – so they can talk. This is another new and wonderful option we have: using a simple code, you can transfer saldo from one cell to another here.) Clive has been to visit Douglas three times in the past 18 months and it’s heart warming to see their relationship blossom.

While there are a handful of companies offering this suite of services, my family and friends swear by ding (not for nothing but ding is headquartered in Dublin so receives bonus points for the Irish connection). Hearing about my mom’s latest canine escapade or wishing my niece a happy birthday, sharing details about our latest art show at Cuba Libro or regaling friends with Harley tales: I can personally attest to an improved quality of life thanks to ding’s generous recharge offers. And all you have to do is click Cuba in their drop down menu, enter the phone number and click ‘Top Up.’ This last has led to some panicked calls from Cuban friends: ‘Conner! My socio in Canada wants to put money on my phone before the offer expires, but they can’t find where to do it!’ I tell them to click the big green button that says ‘Top Up’. Even bilingual friends look confused at this point, unclear what ‘top up’ means – it’s less than intuitive this last step. The ‘top up’ service is sold in 500,000 retail locations around the world as well. Ding also has services for putting money on Cuban landlines and nauta accounts.

Nauta: This is even newer and more novel than cell phones. An email and internet service available directly from your smart phone (which one repeat visitor called ‘the new Bible in Cuba’), Nauta is very handy, especially if you work extensively with Cubans via email. Opening a nauta account may involve an interminable line, but it will be worth it once you pay your $2 CUC to open the account and receive a dedicated nauta email address. Then you can send and receive email and surf the internet for $1 CUC per megabyte – the money is deducted directly from your cell phone. Internet can also be accessed from hotels ($6 CUC/hr) and dedicated ETECSA internet offices (the most user-friendly is in Miramar Trade Center). Ding also offers Nauta top up services.

Wifi: Wireless access in public parks across the nation may just prove to be the revolution within the revolution. This technology was introduced a couple of years ago and allows people – again, those privileged enough to have smart phones – to connect to Wifi for as little as $2 CUC an hour using a one-use card. Re-sellers are rampant due to the high demand however, and do a booming business cranking the cost of the cards by 50 to 100%. Since my phone is more dumb than smart, I’ve never used the park Wifi but I know the connection can be wonky depending on traffic and well, communicating in a public space can present privacy issues. If you want real insight into contemporary Cuban culture, skip a night on the Malecón and plant yourself on a park bench during peak Wifi hours. A grandmother connects to the internet for the first time in her life and meets her baby grandson virtually; a mulatta lies to her husband that she doesn’t have anyone else, that he’s her one and only Papi; a third grader tells his mom about his day at school – whether you’re at 16 & 15 or Parque Coyula or any of the other parks around town with Wifi, such eavesdropping will be a revelatory experience.

For my part, thanks to my family and ding, I finally have money on my phone to be able to talk to my friend in LA. When the call connects, it goes directly to voice mail, costing me $1 CUC in saldo.

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

Stupid Shit People Ask Me About Cuba

Judging from the number of people who walk into Cuba Libro saying: ‘Hi! I’m [insert random name here]; I sent you an email!,’ people are unclear about the volume of correspondence I receive related to my journalistic, writing, and community-building activities. Suffice to say: I receive way too many emails for me to remember each one; your missive has to be extraordinarily clever or interesting or funny if it’s going to imprint itself on my overworked brain. Nevertheless, there’s another type of correspondence that, lamentably, gets stuck in my head, rolling around like a cheesy song I just can’t shake – Jingle Bells, Frosty the Snowman, Ob-la-di Ob-la-da and the like. These requests fall under the rubric of the outrageous, misinformed, misguided, disrespectful, and just downright dumb.

Then there are the idiotic search terms people use to reach my blog. To take one of the most recent examples: ‘do Cuban men masturbate?’ I’m sure (or rather, I hope) most of my readers don’t need an explanation as to why these may be the stupidest search terms ever. Maybe if they had searched on ‘do Cuban dogs masturbate?’ I might be willing to help – especially because a friend taught her shih tzu, proudly, to jack off yesterday. True story.

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One of the wisest young men I know recently opined that it’s okay to name the crime, but not the criminal. I’m still mulling over the ethics of this principle. For instance, in certain cases, simply naming the crime fingers the criminal; it’s that grey area which troubles me, ethically speaking. And this post swims in those grey waters: I’m naming the crimes, not the criminals here, but some readers may recognize themselves. Accept my apologies in advance, but I do feel strongly that when you’re traveling to a foreign culture or context – regardless of whether it’s within your national borders or not, regardless of whether it’s actual or armchair travel – you have the responsibility to learn about that culture and context before you go. I’m not talking about thesis-level research here people, but rather educating yourself a bit about where you’re traveling so as not to say or ask stupid shit like:

Given all the African immigration here, do Cubans practice female genital mutilation?
This question, fielded in a group Q&A (after the group had spent a week in Cuba already), left me speechless, literally. I’m not sure if the person asking was blind – you need just look out your tour bus window at all the empowered, professional, libidinous Cuban women to realize this would be impossible in this context – or just plain stupid. With all the elegance I could muster, I explained: what you call ‘immigration’ is known as slavery. It happened hundreds of years ago. And I don’t think the slaves were cutting cane by day and clitorises by night.

Can I yarn bomb the tank in front of the Museo de la Revolución?

I’m not clear exactly what a yarn bomb is – and I didn’t care to clarify with the lovely San Franciscan vegan asking. No, sweetie, I don’t think you should try something ‘artsy’ on the tank used to defeat the USA at Playa Girón (the only ‘military defeat of Yankee imperialism in the hemisphere’), which by the way, features a 24-hour guard by Cuban soldiers – unless you want to become intimate with the inside of a Cuban jail, where things are decidedly not vegan.

I live in (insert any town USA) and want to retire in Cuba. Can you help me?

In a word: no. For anyone harboring such a fantasy, let me just say: this is illegal with both the US and Cuban governments. Interestingly, most of these requests come from people who have been to Cuba once or only on vacation or 30 something years ago. Sorry to be a bubble-buster but 99% of you couldn’t handle Cuba. Seriously limited internet and burdensome bureaucracy, water/electricity/gas outages (I haven’t had water in my building going on two days now), shortages of whatever at any given moment (currently we’re having trouble procuring sponges, light bulbs, diapers, nail polish remover), dodgy transportation, hurricanes, and the cultural and practical requirement that you speak Spanish, are our daily reality in Cuba. Still want to retire here? Buckle up. You’re in for a wild ride…

I want to hold internet publishing workshops with Cuban youth. Can you help me?

For folks who want to help educate the poor, digitally-challenged Cubans (a fallacy, by the way), I have two words for you: Alan Gross. Remember him? He snuck in satellite and technological equipment – illegally – to do something similar and was given a 5-year stay in a Cuban jail. Even if you were to do everything completely legally, with the approval of and collaboration with local authorities, consider these two words: dial up. My millennial readers don’t even know what this is, but in a nutshell: it allows you to connect to the internet (when the phone call actually goes through and the remote computer and server are actually doing their job) at a whopping 40kbps. This translates into a 30-minute battle just to get to your inbox – not open an email mind you, but just to see what lurks therein. There’s no video or audio streaming, no up or downloading of documents larger than 300k without losing your youth, and inaccessibility to any sites full of Flash, plug-ins and the like.

We’re a widely-read/famous/well-financed publication. Would you write some original Cuba content for us? We can’t pay but…
I rarely finish reading such requests, because there are some openers for which nothing good ever comes after the “but” (think: ‘I’m not a racist/homophobe, but…’ or ‘I’m not attracted to you, but…’). And ‘we can’t pay, but…’ falls squarely within this paradigm. Typically, they offer linking to my blog for “exposure” and promise to cite me as an “expert.” You’d be surprised how many editors contact me with this vapid attempt to stroke my ego.

For those wondering about my needs for exposure, the expert moniker, or ego-stroking, let’s review: I’ve written close to 20 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, including the Cuba guide back in the day; I’ve been an accredited journalist in Havana for a dozen years, covering everything from the health system to antique Harley-Davidsons for all manner of media; I’m the only foreign journalist to have been embedded with Cuba’s Henry Reeve Medical Disaster Team, twice; I’ve been writing this Cuba-specific blog for over 6 years; I wrote the majority of the content for the Cuba Travel Network; I’ve been featured on Democracy Now, PRI’s The World, the Travel Channel, TeleSur’s From Havana and Dossier programs, and in the pages of the Wall Street Journal, Islands Magazine, Drift and others. Furthermore, my writing is included in numerous anthologies and I’m the primary author of Havana Street Style and Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor. I’ve got thousands of followers on social media. And you want me to write for free?! I’m not sure what these editors are smoking, but I’ll take a double dose.

This is just a sample of the stupid shit people have asked me recently. Stay tuned for more (for there will be more, I’m willing to bet on it) – including repeated requests by House Hunters International trolling for ‘Americans moving to Cuba and restoring their new homes to their previous grandeur.’ Díos mío. Can someone stop the ride? If things continue this way, I’m going to have to get off.

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

Want to Help Cuba? Travel Responsibly

I’ve got my knickers in a twist and if you know me, you know how ugly I can get when my ass is chapped.

Today’s topic? Ethical, responsible, and sustainable travel to Cuba.

For those who don’t know me (let alone my knickers), a bit of background: I’ve written some 20 or so guidebooks – almost entirely to Latin America and Hawai’i. That is, contexts where vulnerable communities and environments depend on critical tourist dollars. And it’s not always pretty. Importantly, I’ve also borne witness to the continuum of change in Cuba, from my first month-long volunteer stint in 1993 to right now, after nearly 14 years in residence. So I know intimately the ‘bueno, malo y regular’ that tourism can heap upon a place. I also know painfully well the challenges facing Cuba as it navigates a tumultuous domestic reform process, while facing the oncoming tourist ‘tsunami’.

When I launched Cuba Libro in 2013, I designed it as an ethically- and socially-responsible business – relevant and responsive to local communities’ needs, which would also serve as a cool, cultural space for visitors to dig below the surface of this increasingly complex society. I also wanted it to shine as an example of how the private sector can (and must if there’s any hope for the Cuba we know and love) support and strengthen the public sector.

I recently participated in a Temas panel and debate dedicated to sustainable and responsible tourism. If you’re unfamiliar with Temas, it is the intellectual publication of reference here and its Director, Rafael Hernández – regularly published and quoted in the western press – can often be found on speaking tours abroad. In short, Temas is a heavyweight when it comes to critical debate in Cuba.

So despite feeling like shit with what turned out to be the onset of dengue, I made my way with some 50 colleagues to the lovely Parque La Güira in Pinar del Río to learn about what’s happening around sustainable tourism in Cuba.

I should have stayed home. While the panelists were informed, experienced, eloquent, and educated, there was a general pall over the proceedings. Despite a formal invitation, no one from the Ministry of Tourism showed up. Nor were there any representatives from the Ministries of Health or the Environment. So much for intersectoriality. What’s more, various presentations and exchanges revealed there is no national strategy, no community voice or participation, not even a consensus on what constitutes sustainable and responsible tourism and therefore no evidence base upon which to measure progress. I wasn’t sure if it was the dengue or lack of policy/political will making me shudder, but I (and others I spoke with) came away from that panel depressed.

Why? Because responsible and ethical tourism is a two-way street. Recipient countries have rights and obligations and it’s unclear what Cuba is doing about it. The emphasis on golf course and resort development (did you know Cuba is in a crippling drought? We certainly do: it’s on the news and in the papers all the time) and cruise ship tourism (I was hoping someone on the panel would provide cost-benefit analysis on this issue. File under: Wishful Thinking), are troubling. Even more troubling is this trip report from a frequent traveler to the Oriente, and this report from the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, which while long, lacks substance.

But individual travelers also have rights and obligations and since I can’t do much in the short term about the government’s role, I wanted to write about what you can do to help Cuba while you explore this fascinating country.

#1: Respect the laws of Cuba – If you are a reporter, blogger or freelance writer or filmmaker and enter Cuba on a tourist visa with the intention of writing about or filming here, you’re breaking the law. If you participate in sex tourism, you’re breaking the law (and if you have to pay for sex, you’re a loser). If you couch surf, you’re breaking the law. If you drive drunk or with an open container in your car, you’re breaking the law. If you put up the money for a business or house with a Cuban on the paperwork, you’re breaking the law. Do people do these things all the time? Yes, every day. But people OD on heroin every day, too – that doesn’t mean you’re going to go out and do it, right? I know, I sound like someone’s curmudgeonly mother.

#2: Reduce water usage
– The drought is so dramatic it’s affecting our fresh food supply (although upwards of 70% of food is imported, none of it is of the fresh fruit or veggie variety). Plus, there are millions of Cubans, even right here in Havana, who do not have running water every day. Can you let a faucet drip or run knowing that? Would you do it at home given the same circumstances? Californians know full well what I’m talking about.

#3: Reduce plastic waste – During our team meeting at Cuba Libro yesterday, one member opined that we should sell bottled water (even though we give out gallons of purified water for free every day), because ‘tourists don’t trust boiled water.’ And he’s right – some folks don’t believe boiled water is safe for drinking. But they’re wrong: check the scientific evidence. And the plastic waste 3 million (and counting) tourists create when they drink countless plastic bottles of water during their stay is doing damage. This is an island ecology, where use is outstripping recycling and we don’t have landfill enough for all the plastic waste you leave behind once you return home. So what can you do? If you’re in a casa particular, boil or otherwise treat (drops, chlorine, iodine, filters) water and use a refillable bottle. At the very least, buy the 5 liter jugs of water and refill with that. When all else fails, switch to beer – anything to avoid the half liter bottles overfilling our landfill.

#4: Adapt – My Cuban friends make fun of me I’m so anti-pingüino. ‘The penguin’ is local slang for air conditioning. But it has been unbearably, record-breaking hot this summer, and I’ve had to resort to sleeping some nights with my Russian tank of an AC on ϹИᴧЬНО (that’s ‘high’ in Cyrillic, I think!). So, it’s hot, I get it. But the all-too-common tourist practice of leaving the AC on all day long while at the beach or out sightseeing so the hotel or casa particular room is ‘a lo pingüino’ upon return is totally irresponsible – not only does it sap the local electrical grid and damage the environment, but it contributes to global climate change as well. Besides, in AC-challenged Cuba, adapting is a much more practical survival strategy (just yesterday a US tourist said to me: ‘quite frankly, I’m used to my US comforts, like AC’). In short: suck it up and use your AC judiciously.

#5: Do not, ever, request Guantanamera, Lagrimas Negras, or Chan Chan
– Already Cuban musicians and artists are dumbing down their magnificent repertoire to cater to perceived tourist tastes. Respecting the patrimony of Cuba includes letting these musicians rip on compositions they haven’t played a thousand times for a thousand tourists. Your travel memories will be richer for this expanded listening experience. And don’t forget to tip.

#6: Learn some Spanish (or even better: Cuban) phrases
– No matter where you travel, having a couple of local phrases and vernacular up your sleeve opens doors, minds, and hearts. Get a phrasebook or app. Use it. Trying to communicate, even in the simplest way, in the language of your host country is a sign of respect. It’s not easy, I know this in the marrow of my bones. But it’s also not terribly hard once you start and is immeasurably rewarding. Do it!

#7: R-E-S-P-E-C-T
– Speaking of which: visitors, especially from the USA (who Cubans love for cultural-historical reasons, but also for being big tippers), have to tame their egos. This doesn’t apply to everyone, obviously, but there’s a tendency for some US folks to push the “America [sic] is the greatest/most democratic country in the world” point of view, combined with a cringe-inducing perspective about “how to fix Cuba.” This happened just yesterday at Cuba Libro and got Douglas’ Irish up in a major way – and he has not a drop of the Emerald Isle in his blood. Travelers, from everywhere, frankly, should be conscious that they are visiting a highly-educated, cultured, and professional context, which is no way intellectually ‘frozen in time’ and that Cubans have spent a long time analyzing and living with their problems. No matter how erudite you are in your own life and field – and I include myself here – you don’t know as much as people living here day-to-day, who have spent a lifetime in this complex country. Can you enrich the dialog and provide perspective? Definitely. Can you solve Cuba’s problems after a ten-day or two-month trip? Definitely not. Show respect for your hosts’ intelligence, triumphs, and challenges by listening and learning. No one likes a dogmatic pontificator.

Lest I am accused of being a hypocrite, I will sign off here. If you have something to add about responsible/ethical/sustainable tourism, please write in; I’m starting to put together evidence, documents, and experiences related to what works and what doesn’t regarding this issue with an eye towards action.

Happy travels!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, environment, Expat life, Hawaii, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba