Category Archives: Fidel Castro

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 Their bread and butter was mostly Hollywood blockbusters several years out of date and the latest soap operas from Brazil and Mexico.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

Getting Stoned with Obama in Cuba

No, I’m not talking about smoking blunts on the Malecón (File under: Not Gonna Happen). Nor am I talking about the rock-throwing barbarity found in other latitudes – even at their most dogmatic and agitated, Cubans are more prone to throwing eggs and barbs and Santería spells than something that would directly, physically harm another human being.

Anyone who is following developments in Cuba knows to which watershed event this post refers: the Rolling Stones are going to rock Havana on March 25th; that’s what I’m talking about.

Rumors started flying about the possibility of a Stones show here even before Mick Jagger dropped in for a visit last October. But rumor-mongering and gossip – the ‘national sport’ – are rife here regardless of time or circumstance. We dared not imagine that such a huge, historic, and real rock ‘n roll concert by a band so legendary (for the record: Cubans have always preferred Zeppelin to the Stones) would actually be transformed into reality. The Stones in Cuba fell into the realm of ‘when the embargo is lifted’ – something people talk about rhetorically, dreamily (also for the record: the embargo is still 100% in effect). Until it’s actually upon us.

Soon, very soon, it will be upon us. And Cubans aren’t talking about anything else.

Oh wait. There’s a different, history-in-the-making visit which is also going to be upon us shortly: the first standing US President (I met Carter on one of his post-Oval Office trips here) since 1928 will set foot in Cuba. I’m sure you’ve heard. And some readers must be wondering how Cubans feel about it. At Cuba Libro we have the opportunity to ask hundreds of Cubans from all walks of life what they think about any given topic on a regular basis. So we’ve started asking. And listening.

First off, everyone agrees it’s a milestone, historic, maybe even a game-changer. Second, everyone here in Havana gets excited for such high-level visits, be it Pope or President, because it means streets will be paved and houses painted on the official route the dignitary will traverse – just yesterday an 88-year old Cuban granny offered this precise opinion, unprompted. Third, the Obamas are rock stars; Cubans are, on the whole, faranduléros, no matter if it’s Barack or Beyoncé, Rihanna or Raúl, they chase stars like the most ravenous paparazzi. Furthermore, the presidential couple will bring lots of press and TV crews and attention to Cuba and if there’s one thing Cubans love, it’s attention.

So as a good friend from NY said after the December 17th normalization announcement: ¡Obámanos!

Yet there’s a cost, a downside to all this attention and fanfare. Public transportation will be disrupted in a massive, isn’t-life-here-tough-enough? way; liquor sales with be suspended for at least a day, likely more in this case; cultural activities will be cancelled or re-scheduled; and the overwhelming majority of us will never catch a glimpse of the visiting luminary (though Cubans are already capitalizing on this visit with their archetypical humor: check out these magnets now for sale in Old Havana!)

obama magnet

But make no mistake: Obama’s trip visit is just the appetizer. The pollo of the ‘arroz con pollo’ is the free Rolling Stones concert for el pueblo cubano (as I write this, I hear the first mention of the Stones concert in Cuba on Sirius-XM radio. Cue the goosebumps). We’ve had similar giant, free concerts in the past – Audioslave, Calle 13, Rick Wakeman, Fito Paez, Air Supply (I know, I know. Believe me, I know the Cuban penchant for cheesy American pop). None of these concerts ca compare to the Glimmer Twins, Charlie and Ronnie. THE Rolling Stones!

What Cubans are most concerned with is access to the venue and the crowd-control question. Cubans are experts at state security – they’ve thwarted over 600 attempts on Fidel Castro’s life, after all – they aren’t that adept at controlling cultural crowds. I’ve seen cinema doors broken down by surging masses trying to get in to the premier of Minority Report and I was locked inside the Casa de la Música when rioting crowds tried to bust down the doors to see The Roots. I predict a shit show to enter and exit The Stones concert. Roads will be closed, security will be tight and bags will be searched. We’re not talking Altamont here (see aforementioned egg/barb-throwing observation), but leave plenty of time to arrive and leave, cógelo suave, and remember: we’re all damn lucky to be here, now.

People near and far are beyond excited for this concert. For months I’ve been fielding questions on my Facebook page, at Cuba Libro, and via email about this monumental musical event. Now that details are coming to light, most people want to know how they can avoid the lines and crowds. It’s a good question; people are coming from Miami, Mexico, Camagüey and más allá for this show and there isn’t going to be enough room at the inn (5,000 Havana hotel rooms have been requested for Obama’s visit just two days before, which means 5,000 people who think they will sleep in Havana those days will actually be whisked to Varadero, regardless of what their reservation receipt says. Official emails to this effect are making the rounds already).
The question we’re fielding, publicly to our Cuba Libro community, is: given the choice, who would you rather visit our innovative, visionary project – Keith Richards or Barack Obama? So far, the legendary guitar player is in the lead by a nose. Except if the visit is Barack and Michelle. If she’s in the mix, most Cubans vote for the Obamas. No one, it should be noted, has yet asked if a visit to Cuba Libro would be Keith and Mick.

I leave you all to ponder the greater socio-political implications of our poll’s results. Stay tuned!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, dream destinations, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

Cuba: What You Know but Don’t Realize

Over the years, I’ve dedicated (probably too) many hours analyzing, writing, editing, and commenting about the differences between here and there. The ‘there’ of which I speak is the US – from where I hail – but could easily be anywhere North, whither Big Macs and reality television conspire to make people fat and stupid.

Did I just say that? You betcha. I’m sorry if that applies to you, but my internal editor has been on sabbatical ever since a guy richer than Croesus got all up in my grill dissing Cuba like he actually knew what he was talking about.

Which is part of what sparked this post.

There’s a type of visitor here – usually imperious, moneyed men skidding down the hill of middle age towards moldering (and the aforementioned rich fulano fits the bill) – who has Cuba all figured after four days here. Sometimes even before getting here. Cuba is more complex than you could have imagined, you’re more close-minded than you care to admit, and your facile analysis belies the intelligence I’m sure you evidence in your back home life. For those in this category, I’ve crafted this post to clue you in. Just a little.

First, we’re facing a wave of economic, paradigmatic change here without precedent. It roils with an energy confusing, contradictory and encouraging (in its way), towards our shores. Indeed, already it’s breaking on our eroding sands. Like a tow surfer (see note 1) whose very survival depends on accurately calculating wave height, speed, and interval, while accounting for hidden (i.e. underwater) and surface (i.e. other surfers and their support crews) factors, we’re gauging the wave, trying to maintain balance, remain upright, and most importantly, keep from being sucked under.

But as any tow surfer will tell you: surviving a 75-foot wave and riding it are two entirely different experiences – as different as summiting Everest with throngs of weekend warriors as attaining the peak without oxygen. One simply takes money and some machismo and motivation; the other requires experience, training, skill, meticulous preparation, and a measure of karma and respect born of intimacy with the context.

So as this monster, freak wave feathers and breaks over Havana, I want to ride it, not simply survive it. And to do that, I – we – have to measure and analyze the conditions, bring our skills and knowledge to bear, channel positive energy, and ensure our fear is healthily spiked with faith. The first step in successfully positioning ourselves to ride this wave, it seems to me, is to understand the culture, in all its contradictory complexities, which brought us to…right…now…

While many emphasize the differences between here and there, between the land of Big Macs and the tierra de pan con croqueta, I take this opportunity to explain how we are the same:

Opinions vary: One of the questions I field most often is: do people like Fidel/Raúl/socialism/the revolution? This is as absurd as asking do people like Obama/capitalism/federalism? Setting aside the fact that the question itself is unsophisticated and dopey (governance and mandate are not about like or dislike but rather about measurable progress and peace within a society, plus, any –ism is just theory; it’s how it works in practice that counts), I posit that it all depends on whom you ask. Up there, a brother from the Bronx is unlikely to share views with a Tea Party mother of two. Similarly, an 18-year old from Fanguito won’t agree with a doctor from Tercer Frente.

It’s obvious, but visitors tend to forget that here, like there, you must consider the source when posing such questions. Less obvious is that here, it also depends on how you ask the question. But that’s a more advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

People like stuff: On the whole, Cubans are voracious shoppers – always have been, always will be. Whether it’s shoes, books, handbags, wooden/porcelain/glass/papier mâché tschotskes, fake flowers, clothes, or packaged food, Cubans will buy it. Or at the very least browse and touch and dream of buying it. Some folks – like the ones who inspired this post – deny capitalist, consumerist culture ever existed in Cuba before now, revealing their lack of knowledge. I’m embarrassed for them; on the upside, it means many up there are clueless to fact that if you dropped a jaba bursting with a new pair of Nikes and Ray Bans, iPod (or better yet, Pad), some Levis, a pound of La Llave, gross of Trojans, and a couple bottles of Just For Men on every Cuban doorstep, with a note instructing them to come over to the imperialist dark side, a lot, the majority even, would do it. Being Cuban, a lot would pledge to ditch and switch just for the swag, of course, but that too, is an advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

Until that day, folks here are gobbling up stuff as fast as the shelves can be stocked. In short, todo por un dolar is rivaling hasta la victoria siempre as most popular slogan around here.

It’s all about the kids: Here, as there, parents want a better life for their kids. While what constitutes “better” (again, here as there) depends on whom you ask, this desire to leave a more comfortable/equitable/safe/luxurious life and legacy to one’s kids is human nature. It drives people to rickety rafts, May Day parades, and long, hard overseas postings. It makes parents compromise their own mental health, spend beyond their means and completely subsume their own lives to their children’s. Case in point: have you ever seen what a Cuban goes through – psychically, financially – to celebrate a daughter’s quince? Hundreds, thousands of dollars and days, months, years of preparation are spent for the all-important photos, party, clothes, and gifts for their darling little girls. Families living six to a room in Centro Habana spending $5000 for their 15-year old’s celebration remind me of US folks who scrimp, struggle, and sacrifice to pay for their kid’s wedding/down payment/tuition. Children first – at all cost and any price, here as there.

We are the best in the world: Drop in anytime, anywhere in Cuba or the US and whomever you encounter will profess their country is the best. Greatness or weakness such bravado and pride? A little of both, I figure. That such hubris has contributed to where we are today, riding the wave, I have no doubt.

Notes
1. I’ve just finished reading The Wave, a spectacularly, adventurously researched and highly readable book on giant waves and the guys – tow surfers – who live to ride them. Check it out.

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

Pushing Your Luck in Cuba

The querida phenomenon; why locals love iron bars and pure-bred dogs; and the story behind those ridiculous ‘dos: Here is Havana is your go-to resource for the inside scoop on all sorts of Cuban cultural minutiae.

This place is so intriguing and complex, I’m constantly heeding Mom’s advice to ‘learn something new every day.’ If you’ve been here, you know this perpetual learning curve of which I speak, surely. Or maybe you live somewhere/somehow that, like Cuba, allows – indeed forces – you to learn something new every day. If so, I salute you.

What’s holding my fascination and providing ‘ah ha!’ moments lately is the long-standing, deeply-rooted Cuban tradition known as La Bolita.

From Ciego’s piña-studded campo to the listing wooden houses of Regla, Cubans are playing the numbers. Like an underground Powerball, La Bolita is technically illegal but in practice allowed to function (not unlike other things here including the world’s oldest profession; two houses sharing one phone line; and foreigners buying property). Not only does it function, La Bolita flourishes as a twice-daily gambling habit nursed across the country.

I was quite surprised to discover how many people I know play La Bolita – work colleagues, neighborhood doctors, Harley dudes, government guys, grannies, ballet dancers. So diverse are the Cubans playing the numbers, I think it may be one of the most genuinely and naturally integrated and equitable systems in contemporary Cuba. La Bolita leaps across class, race, gender, and geographical lines and though I haven’t made a point of asking, I’m sure my LGBT friends are also placing their daily bets (see note 1). In short: La Bolita doesn’t discriminate.

First a little background: Most HIH readers know that until los barbudos rolled into Havana in 1959, Cuba was a viper’s nest of dissolution – rotten with drugs, prostitutes, gin joints, and gambling (no wonder Hemingway called it home!). In those days, fun seekers and ne’er-do-wells from the US used to hop down to use the island like college kids do Cancún and the ghetto: a place to score, get sloppy and slum, before returning to safe, cushy lives back home.

The Revolution put an end to all that (mostly, technically, anyway) and gambling was especially targeted and vilified. Big, lucrative casinos in nightclubs like the Tropicana and Sans Souci and hotels including the Riviera and Capri were shut down, along with smaller enterprises in the back alleys of Barrio Chino and out in Boyeros. La Bolita, however, was a national pastime, a traditional pursuit and while publically and officially banned, has survived all these years. The daily numbers, for those wondering, are drawn in Miami and Caracas, if my sources are correct (see note 2).

From why folks emigrate to how Cubans (mis)behave at all-inclusive resorts, I find all aspects of culture intriguing here. But La Bolita captures my fascination beyond what may be rational. To wit: I recently placed my first bet. I thought this was just a question of picking a series of numbers from the 100 in play and laying down my money á la the NY Lotto. Silly me. This is some really complicated shit and I needed a tutorial from my friend Aldo to place my bet correctly.

>Here’s what I learned:

Numbers range from 1 to 100. Nothing complicated there. But each number corresponds to a symbol – think Mexican lotería.
loteria mexicana
The symbols are key and transcend simple number-figure association, however. For instance, Cubans often play numbers appearing in dreams: if you’re chased by a Doberman while dreaming, you should play 95 (big dog), if it’s a Dachshund, 15 (little dog) is more appropriate. Beware dreams of 63 leading to 8, because that will land you in 78 and finally 14 (murder, death, casket, cemetery). Scary. When this happens, do you play these numbers, just in case?

Folks also bet numbers they see in their daydreams – I’m sure you know someone who hopes to get a 100 or some 38 (car, money) or a Cubana who has already made their dreams come true through a 62 (marriage) to a foreigner.

The numbers and their corresponding symbols have also passed into common vernacular. Fidel is called the caballo (1) for obvious reasons and for those who doubt my claim that Cuban Spanish can stump even fluent, native speakers, what would you do if your taxi driver said you owe a fish and a nun? Would you hand over $5? $20? $50? You’d be ripping either yourself or him off if you did (see note 3).

My life (like everyone’s if we choose to pay attention) is riddled with symbols and I had no problem knowing what numbers I would play. In fact, I determined not to let this year go by without playing La Bolita as soon as I learned 43 (my age) stands for scorpion (my sign). What could be more propitious?

But how to play? I knew I’d have Aldo place the bet because I didn’t want to show my foreigner face at any of the neighborhood ‘bancos’ – Cuban for Bolita bookie – lest I make them  nervous; it is illegal after all. So I’d play 43 and if I needed to pick a bonus number, I figured I’d go with 52 in honor of my beloved Frances.

Were it that easy.

As it turns out, there are all kinds of variations you can play, including the ‘parlé’ (a type of trifecta); a fixed number with additional jackpot numbers; and other combinations which still confuse me. There’s also a specific way to note your numbers on a piece of paper that needs to be folded a special way when you place your bet. The minimum bet is 1 peso cubano (about 4 cents)  but most people wager more; payoffs can be huge – Aldo recently hit for 700 pesos and another friend’s uncle once won 5,000. Of course, he’d bet much more over the course of his lifetime, but that’s the gambler’s carrot and curse, no?

En fin: like many things Cuban, I’m sure La Bolita is played differently in different latitudes (see note 4) – including in South Florida where it thrives. What I relate here is simply how it went down in my corner of Cuba. I ended up playing scorpion-San Lazaro-machete (43-17-94) in keeping with various symbolic occurrences lately. Alas, my 37 (brujería) proved powerless: I lost my 25 pesos.

Oh well, there’s always tomorrow for learning something new (and placing another bet).

Notes

1. Let me take this opportunity to wave the rainbow flag: every May, Cuba celebrates the ‘jornada de anti-homofobia’ known as IDAHOBIT globally – and it’s one helluva good time. This year’s festivities kick off May 7 and run through May 18 in Havana and this year’s host province, Ciego de Ávila.

2. Over several years of writing this blog, it has become clear that Here is Havana readers are hip, informed, and sit upon a wealth of knowledge; if anyone has light to shed on the mecánica or history of La Bolita, please share!

3. A nun is 5 and a fish is 10; your taxi ride cost $15.

4. While researching this post in fact, a friend of mine and closet bet-placer, told me about La Charada (traditionally la charada china). This predates La Bolita, which takes its first 36 numbers (horse/caballo through pipe/cachimba) from the older chinese tradition. This numbers game dates from the 1800s when Chinese workers arrived on these shores. According to one source, in 1957, Cubans wagered between $90 and 100 million on La Charada, la Bolita and other numbers’ games.

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Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

Havana Vice: Titimanía

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

I’m what’s known in these parts as a ‘temba.’ The term generally applies to anyone, male or female, over 40. It’s not a hard and fast rule – a younger person who looks older may be called a temba – nor does it infer, like other terms such as ‘tía’ and ‘pura,’ that the person is over the hill sexually, physically or otherwise. Temba is not derogatory; it’s simply a category of Cuban, used here to describe a state of being, similar to our use of descriptive terms like negro, chino, flaca, santero or maricón (see note 1).

One thing I love about Cuba is its integrated, inter-generational nature. This facilitates friendships with Cubans aged 12 to 84 – something I cherish and which is harder to achieve in the United States. Naturally, however, many of my colleagues and consortes are other tembas. Over years of observation and recently a more in-depth investigation into Cuban sexual practices and mores for a larger piece I’m writing, a couple of tendencies keep cropping up: flexible fidelity is one, titimanía is the other.

Simply put, titimanía is the compulsion temba men have to date impractically young women. This is not limited to Cuba, of course, but by parsing how universal behaviors play out here, I hope to provide insight into the particularities and peculiarities of the Cuban character – for all our sakes (see note 2).

Before proceeding, I should disclose that I’m no stranger to the attractions of older men: at 16, my first serious boyfriend was 26, an arrangement for which he could have been prosecuted in our hometown of New York. While I think statutory rape laws are ridiculous in cases where everyone consents to getting it on, I admit there is something creepier when the ages are more advanced and the age differences greater.

Take my friend Carlos. When I met him a decade ago, he was 40 and his live-in girlfriend was 18. Jenny was gorgeous, of course, but a child – intellectually, developmentally, and practically. Just out of high school, she’d never had to pay a bill, work, or worry about a leaking faucet or roof. After four years together, the relationship ended disastrously, with Jenny hightailing it to Miami taking Carlos’ expensive gifts – jewelry, clothes, electronics – with her. Pre-ordained, perhaps, but that didn’t faze Carlos.

He quickly “recovered” (I’ve noticed men, Cuban and otherwise, tend to rebound fast – but incompletely – from ravaged relationships) and before long had Tania living with him. Prettier than Jenny, smarter, and worldlier, Tania was 22. After a few years, that relationship also ended badly, worse even than the one previous. Tania and Carlos barely speak today, which is uncommon in Cuba where circumstances and reasons too complex to elaborate here fairly obligate exes to remain on good terms. Uncommon and sad: their kids from previous relationships had become siblings and when they split it signaled an end to their blended family to the detriment of everyone involved, even if they don’t realize it.

Today, Carlos is 50 and has recently taken a 20-year old wife. I haven’t yet met her but have heard through radio bemba (our grapevine) that she’s hot and terribly boring, limiting dinner conversations to her new shoes, so-so manicure, and how the sushi she tried last week ‘totally grossed her out’ (see note 3).

Not all 20-somethings are that vapid and clearly, I better understand what’s in it for the women. Older men tend to be better than their younger counterparts in bed (if less athletic and enduring); have more status and economic possibilities; and generally have a clearer idea of what they want in life and are already well on their way to getting it (or should be).

However, once men hit that temba threshold, what they want are girls young enough to be their daughters. My 48-year old friend Elena is finding this out the hard way: after 15 years of marriage, she’s divorced and dating. Elena’s not looking for a new husband or live-in (the two are synonymous here); far from it. She just wants a healthy, available guy for a good time. You’d think this would be easy in libidinous, gregarious Cuba. Not so for Elena. ‘No niños for me,’ she tells me. ‘I don’t want to teach them the art of the orgasm or have to finance our affair. I’ve got my own kids, I don’t need another.’

Elena is looking for someone age appropriate and therein lies the rub: every man her friends try and fix her up with is interested in women her daughter’s age. They are, in short, suffering from acute titimanía. She has actually been told to her face: ‘you’re too old.’ And although they always put it in the nicest way possible, it’s getting her down. Once you rule out the married, infantile (of which there are many), gay, and titimaniacal tembas, Elena’s roster of eligible men is as short as Fidel’s speeches were long. And she’s discouraged, pobrecita.

The titimanía phenomenon came up the other day while I was talking to our mutual friend Alejandro. Clever and fit, with a comely face that belies his 50 years, Alejandro is one of the guys posited – and rejected – as a possible hook up for Elena; he likes them younger. Cubans are very frank about such things, which is efficient at least: while men here might date fat, unemployed, gold-digging, or gap-toothed women, age is not negotiable and they don’t waste time saying flat out ‘you’re too old’ (in the nicest way possible).

Alejandro could tell I was irked by his titimanía and its inequitability. “What chance is there for Elena and her ilk, when you guys are chasing skirts just out of high school?”

Mira, mi amiga,” he said smiling, his eyes crinkling around the corners they way they do with happy people, “from the age of 15, girls try to look older and do all kinds of things to enhance their beauty and heighten their self-worth – fake nails, fake boobs, dyed hair, high heels, the works. Old guys like me don’t do any of that. Instead, we pump up our egos by dating young women.”

“So tembas like you have the mentality of a teenage girl?” I wanted to say, but didn’t.

Laying my indignation aside, I could see his point. It’s about the self-esteem boost for everyone involved. But where does this leave Elena? Alejandro couldn’t provide an answer beyond: “I don’t know, but she’s too temba for my taste.”

Notes

1. This last term, meaning ‘fag’ or ‘queer’ is used in Cuba to denote male homosexuals. And while it’s inherently homophobic – which is why I don’t use it – many highly-educated and cultured people use maricón to classify gay men (or derisively with their straight friends). I employ it here by way of illustration only.

2. Equally as interesting are behaviors which don’t manifest here. For example, the reverse – a young Cuban buck getting jiggy with a cougar or MILF hasn’t caught on here like in the United States (the 13-year old who couldn’t peel his eyes from my temba friend Lucia’s cleavage, declaring her ‘hot and chesty,’ notwithstanding). But I’ll leave this for another post.                                                                                                                                                             

3. While I predict this marriage will be short-lived, I have friends who have been in one of these May-December relationships for ten years. They’re healthy and happy and while it remains to be seen what that relationship will look like when she’s 35 and he’s 63, so far so good. More power to them.

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Crystal Balling Cuba

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]
Get your mind out of the gutter: this isn’t a pornographic post – which I know will be a great disappointment to some of you (I see every naughty and downright nasty search term used to find Here is Havana, you know). Rather, in this post I bring decades of capitalistic serfdom and 10 years of Cuban residence and observation to bear on Havana’s not-too-distant future. Making predictions is a dicey proposition and I will do it just this once, so pay attention. Here’s what I expect to unfold:

1. Bicycles are going to make a roaring comeback.
I mentioned this recently to a pair of Cuban journalists who fairly scoffed, decrying the idea as incredibly naïve and ill-informed. The hangover from the Special Period was too potent, they proclaimed in that annoying, know-it-all way, and the bike as a means of conveyance? Largely dead (and unlikely to be revived), it’s association with hard times, hunger, forced weight loss, and transport of last resort too fresh and caustic still.

I offered no rebuttal since Cuban journalists are not typically known for their insight or analytical chops (see note 1) and I was sure my theory on the resurgence of cycling would have been lost on, or worse, appropriated as their own.

What I didn’t say then but will now: as more people – young people especially – enter the private sector as wait staff, bartenders, hairdressers, parking attendants and in scores of other decent wage-earning jobs, they’re going to have to be at work on time. And public transportation is too unreliable. ‘La guagua no llegó’ was viable enough excuse when they toiled in a state cafeteria or the post office, but ‘the bus never arrived’ isn’t going to cut muster with their boss at the paladar or private spa. These gainfully employed folks will also have the resources to buy a bicycle. Moreover, I know intimately how efficient riding a bike to work or play can be. And if there’s one thing capitalism hammers into adherents early and often it’s find efficiencies or perish.

My Havana ride: Frances

A secondary and complimentary reason why bikes are going to come back into fashion is that Cuban women are beginning to feel the pressure to shape up. This isn’t a health craze, far from it. Instead, the pear/guitar-shaped figure that has always driven Cuban men mad is being supplanted by standards of developed world beauty. This super skinny/no hips archetype is problematic for a culture bred and bothered on fat asses and love handles – for centuries the ideal Cuban woman was one who had something you could grab onto. But slowly, surely, Cuba is headed for Barbie land – because buying into what they’re selling is what the “free” market does best. It makes me sad; one of the joys of this place for me is its proud nonconformity to dominant paradigms.

2. Pull back on car sales/private taxis.
Day by day, Havana’s streets become more dangerous, traffic-jammed, and accident-prone. This isn’t surprising considering the number of vehicles – new and rebuilt – that have been injected in a short period of time into a city laid out centuries ago. This is thanks to the relative ease with which cars can be bought and sold now, but there are other, less obvious, reasons why our streets are more perilous for motorists and pedestrians alike.

First, a small, but important change was made recently affecting the fixed taxi almendrones that ply main avenues around town: beginning last year, owners of those cars were permitted to subcontract out the vehicle to other drivers. Whereas previously only the owner could hack his car, now he can hire a driver to do the drudge work, freeing said owner to claim his spot at the domino table, slug back rum, and rake in cash. And the driving “skills” of some of these hired drivers are downright scary: they barrel down heavily-traveled thoroughfares at breakneck speeds; learn their routes – even how to drive – on the job; fight with unstable steering columns; and fiddle with the regguetón videos on their dashboard-mounted screens (thereafter becoming engrossed in the soft porn therein).

So bad drivers, in cars they know less intimately than some of their fares, is only part of the problem. The other part is that for the first time, SUVs are on the scene and in the hands of Cubans. This has a two-fold effect: first, these behemoths limit the sight lines of other drivers – I dare you to try and drive a Polski behind a Land Rover and test my assertion – and second, they give drivers an (increased) sense of invincibility.

Itty bitty Polski, photo by Caitlin Gorry

So I predict pullback. The market itself will play its part since the number of Cubans who can afford cars is finite (and prices are insane right now: $8000 or so for a used Lada or one of the aforementioned Polskis). Furthermore, the state will also be motivated to cap the number of cars on the road since accidents are among the top five causes of death here. And there have been a lot of accidents in my neck of the woods lately.

3. People will tire of the 50 cent pepper and the 5 dollar shot.
While outsiders and the foreign press, farmers and their middlemen praise recent economic changes allowing for direct food sales, ag cooperatives, and prices based on what the market will bear, my opinion is decidedly…measured.

I’m not as gaga over these developments for the simple reason that I subscribe to Mandela’s sage observation that ‘where you stand depends on where you sit.’ And if you’re sitting on mountains (or even molehills) of disposable cash, the reforms affecting food production and sales are deliciously welcome. Tomatoes in July, avocadoes in October, exotic crops like broccoli, cauliflower – the diversity and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 19-year love affair with Cuba. But if you’re struggling to make ends meet – if you’re sitting with the Cuban 99% – all of this is moot because you can’t afford any of it.

Green peppers, onions, and beans (staples all) are so astronomically priced these days, going to the agro can feel like a museum experience for many of us – except going to a museum feeds the soul, while food out of your financial reach just feeds your hunger and a simmering rancor (see note 2). In the veggie markets charging what they can (as opposed to state markets where prices are capped), produce is at least double the price. The guys wheeling carretillas from street to street, carts heavily-laden with bounty bought from those subsidized state markets, resell at triple the price.

Those who can afford exotic and not so produce at whatever price are largely oblivious to this I’ve noticed. They shop happily at the ‘diplo-agros’ (ie affordable only to the foreign diplomatic corps and other 1%-ers) for carrots, bok choy, white onions, parsley and lettuce – none of which are available, at any price, at the state markets where the rest of us shop.

Price distortions and places for “us” and others for “them,” are dangerous to the social fabric, especially because the gap isn’t only widening, it’s deepening. Translation: the types of goods and services available to only a select portion of the population is growing, while those locked out of those options is also growing.

I went to a “private” bar last weekend where cocktails started at $5 (see note 3) and topped out at $25 for a highball of Johnnie Walker Blue. Seems to me we’re on a bad course when my neighbors exist on rice and lentils; you can get laid by a working gal for $10; and too many people can’t afford toilet paper, but you can sidle up to a bar in your knock-off Blahniks and drop the average monthly Cuban salary on a glass of whiskey. It’s not only gastronomic that has gone astronomic: some state concert venues have doubled, and in some cases quadrupled, ticket prices, putting culture out of reach of many, as well (see note 4).

Don’t get me wrong: part of this distortion is due to decades of over-subsidizing and preferential pricing. But price spikes without concomitant salary increases is not only dangerous, it’s cruel: those punished are disproportionately poor or those doggedly dedicated to the revolutionary project who’ve tried to do good; do gooders never get rich, this much we know.

The price/salary disconnect is a hot topic around here these days and I predict backlash – a rash of failed restaurants which won’t make it selling $10 pasta and $15 pork; a rejection of easy and exotic, but expensive, options for procuring raw foods like from the uncapped markets and carretillas; and a growing gap and related aggravation between the haves and have nots.

4. Major changes in leadership.
Got your attention now, don’t I? But this is far from news: Raúl and the historic leadership are facing biological inevitabilities, plus, that same leadership recently instituted term limits of two consecutive five-year terms. So this is more affirmation than prediction, and while it remains to be seen who will walk the halls of power and policy in the coming years, I know there are some good and fair, wickedly smart, and hard working people to choose from. For their future and ours, I predict: no es fácil, pero tampoco imposible (it’s not easy, but neither is it impossible).

Notes
1. There are some notable exceptions of course: I worked with the fabulous Fabiola López while in Haiti after the earthquake; Julia Osendi, who covers sports for Televisión Cubana, has more guara than most; and Rolando Segura, who has been covering Africa and the Middle East lately, does a bang up job.

2. For this same reason I reject sidewalk cafes – you need only walk by such a place, once, your stomach knotted with hunger and no means to quell it, and smell a juicy burger to know the inherent cruelty in taunting hungry people with a meal close enough to touch, but out of reach. People, I beg you: take meals inside if there’s any chance a hungry soul will happen by (eg in big cities and on busy streets).

3. A non-drinker for years, I stuck to the $1.50 Tu Kola.

4. Just today I received a note about a new disco charging a $10 cover.

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Let Us Pray

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] I ventured once again outside my comfort zone yesterday here in Havana: I went to mass. It was as oppressive (and let’s be frank – hypocritical) as I remember from Jesuit high school (see note 1), although this one was presided over by the big Catholic kahuna himself, Pope Benedict XVI. It was also mercifully short.

While I’m sure you’re oversaturated with ‘The Pope in Cuba’ news up your way, one of the indelible lessons I’ve learned in my 10 years of island residency is that the picture you get of here from there – especially when refracted through the lense of reporters sent to cover such an event – does not accurately reflect what we’re experiencing on the ground. It’s not only that every media outlet from The Militant to FoxNews has an agenda. The view is skewed also because Cuba newbies rarely grasp the complexities of our context (see note 2), nor the attendant history influencing those complexities. You don’t get this perspective unless you’ve been around and stick around and only if you speak Spanish – even a translator is no guarantee (see note 3).

So let me tell you about the mass I attended yesterday under a blazing sun, delivered by a frog-like man in a funny hat.

What folks are saying: One of the pervasive myths about Cubans is that they’re afraid to speak their minds or offer opinions, and that self-censorship is rampant. While it’s undeniable that people keep their heads far below the parapet in the workplace and have the tendency to adjust responses to what they think people want to hear, I’ve always found Cubans to be fiercely opinionated – once you get to know them. Or more to the point: once they get to know you.

The Pope’s visit confirmed this impression.

“I’m so sick of this Pope.”

“Wasn’t he a Fascist?”

“I’ll come by your house once The Almighty Pope leaves and things calm down.”

“Son of a b@&*h! The Pope took our Internet.” (see note 4)

“Faith, hope, and peace: that’s what it’s all about.”

Rocking our rum-pork-party holy trinity: Another element piquing my interest was how Cubans approached this whole Papal visit. Essentially, yesterday felt much like hurricane preparation and landfall: people laid in stores and stayed home watching events unfold on TV, with some chicharrones and a bottle of rum close at hand. Except – and this was a rude awakening for several of my unprepared friends – authorities instituted a booze ban the evening before, which lasted until the Pope Mobile and its cargo were safely at the airport. So those who didn’t lay in the ron were homebound with pork, friends, and family, but no curda. In my decade here, I only recall a few alcohol-free events: election days are always dry and if I’m not mistaken, they did the same during the Non-Aligned Summit here in 2006. Let me tell you: no rum makes Havana kinda grumpy.

Revenue coup: The cleverness of Cuba never ceases to amaze me and yesterday didn’t disappoint once I saw the huge numbers of tourists in the Plaza for mass. My first clue was the distinguished older gentleman of means dressed in khakis, a pink Oxford, and penny loafers, with not a gin and tonic in sight; clearly not one of us. I started looking closely at the crowd and their clothes and distinguishing different accents. Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile, Panama, the DR, USA, PR, Mexico, Venezuela – flags from all across Latin America snapped in the wind whipping across the Plaza and I realized that aside from the pride and so-called “soft power” the Papal visit signified, it also represented a hugely-needed and greatly-appreciated influx of tourist cash. There wasn’t a hotel room to be found; paladares overflowed; extra charter flights were added from Florida. And all Habaneros (save for cops and docs), were given a paid day off. This is the type of devotion we could use more of and we thank you for supporting the cause.

The US matters less: After Juan Pablo II’s visit in 1998, Bill Clinton’s White House issued a press release announcing new policies ostensibly resulting from this historic trip. Most importantly, the release approved people-to-people visits in order to foment “regime change” and “promote a peaceful transition to democracy” – concepts mentioned no fewer than six times in the short document. Blatantly threatening the national sovereignty of an independent and peaceful country thusly is absurd enough, but that Obama maintains precisely the same policies and parrots exactly the same rhetoric 14 years later – that’s just loco. While the US is embarrassingly and unjustly static in its policy, the world and importantly, Cuba has changed, is changing still. Raúl is a different bird from his brother and that manifests itself in many ways, including less of the ping pong policy-making that based decisions on what the bully to the North was doing. That’s how it looks publically anyway.

holy jama!


As anti-climactic as the Immaculate Conception: I’m sure you’ve already divined that the religious importance of having his Holiness here held no interest for me and in this I’m not alone: I’ve never seen an event so thinly attended in the iconic Plaza de la Revolución in my 10 years here. In fact, we strolled into the central area just a few moments before the 9:30 mass kicked off and were going against the current of people streaming away from the square. “I came and took the pictures I wanted; I’m going home,” a friend I ran into said. The curiosity seekers and thin crowds were surprising but make sense: as a whole, Cubans just aren’t that church-y. Religious and faith-bound, yes, but that’s different from kneeling before a man in a dress and goofy hat while he proselytizes a doctrine peppered with sins bound to doom your mortal soul. Cubans just aren’t down with that, but they do love a spectacle: one of my favorite moments was when a women who wanted to taste the host tried to fake her way through the motions while the priest held the wafer aloft. When he caught on, he patted her on the head and returned the host to his jaba. Though the Pope himself failed to inspire, Cubans never do.

Notes

1. This, Fidel and I have in common, except those same Jesuits expelled me my junior year (another story entirely!)

2. A simple example: journalists arrive here and compose some flaccid or purply prose (even leading with it occasionally, dios mío) about all the old cars rumbling about. For those of us with continuity here, that’s ‘dog bites man.’ The more compelling, ‘man bites dog’ story is the unbelievable amount of new cars on the road and what that means for traffic, transport options, pollution, etc.

3. The press conference by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez upon the Pope’s arrival is case in point: his response to an English-speaking reporter about “freedom of consciousness” was elegant and sweeping in the original Spanish, mangled and less inspired in English.

4. Cuba has limited bandwidth due to the US embargo-cum-blockade which prohibits the island from connecting to underwater cables running nearby. Instead, the connection for the entire island is provided by a sole, slow Italian satellite. This bandwidth was prioritized for visiting press so they could report live from Cuba. It’s back now, thankfully, obviously.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Raul Castro, Travel to Cuba