Category Archives: health system

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

Havana, We Have a Problem: Stray Cats & Dogs

If you’ve been to Havana, you’ve seen them. The poor bitch in heat lying prostrate on the sidewalk trying – unsuccessfully – to prevent another macho from mounting her. Packs of roving cats scouring garbage night after night. Bony and mange-ridden, Havana’s strays have a hard row to hoe. Here, where food is rarely thrown out and the majority face daily pressures more urgent than a dumped or unwanted animal, street creatures have to be really scrappy to survive. They have to dodge the pet police, avoid getting poisoned (a shockingly, all-too-common practice here; when your dog barks too much or causes too much fuss, your neighbor just might feed her some meat mixed with crushed light bulbs or a fatal dose of BioRat, domestically-produced rat poison), and forage enough food to live another day.

lindapreop

Although Habana Vieja has a program for spaying, neutering, vaccinating and tagging strays, this is not the case throughout the rest of the city. Coincidence that the country’s #1 tourist destination is the only place with a functional animal protection policy? You be the judge. Animal rights activists here are trying to get a protection law considered – to present it to parliament, they have to collect 10,000 signatures from Cuban voters. And they almost made it; more than 8,000 people signed the petition to legislate spaying, neutering and vaccinating strays so they might be adopted. But the initiative went to shit when internal divisions (over money, I’m told, which isn’t at all hard to believe), split activists, leaving the petition en el aire, as we say here. Today, there are at least two groups still actively pushing for legislation: PAC (Protección de Animales de la Ciudad) and CEDA (Cubanos en Defensa de los Animales). There are also foreign associations – from Canada and Belgium for example – which help fund local animal protection efforts and come periodically to spay and neuter strays for free. These initiatives are admirable, but speaking from personal experience, wholly inadequate.

Toby. Linda. Tucho. Yoko. Luther. Belle. All of these cats and dogs are part of our family. Don’t worry. I haven’t turned into some crazy cat/dog lady; I don’t live with all these animals, but rather say ‘our family’ since here in Cuba we still speak more collectively than individually (let’s see how long that lasts; in Havana at least, the “me” mentality is starting to root). And each of these wonderful pets are rescues. At different times, under different circumstances in different parts of the city, they were saved from life on the mean city streets.

tony-and-marylou

Toby wandered into Cuba Libro, dirty and sorry-looking, in 2014, soon after his young owner headed into military service, whereupon he cast Havana’s most beloved terrier mutt into the streets. I’ve got empathy for abandoned dogs, but as my father once wisely observed: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus.’ Besides, I live in a three-flight walk up – hardly ideal for a dog. So Toby lived in Cuba Libro’s garden, eating pizza and spaghetti until one fateful day when a violent tropical storm ripped open the Vedado skies, sending down thunderclaps and lightening, a hard pelting rain, and almonds from considerable height. And then my conscience kicked in: ‘that very cute dog is waiting out this storm alone. I better go check on him.’ When I got the locks off the gate and entered the garden, Toby was in the corner, soaked-to-the-bone and shivering, with a heart-broken look on his face. Did I have a choice? No folks, I did not. I plopped him into my backpack, strapped it to my chest and rode him home on my bike. Every day since, we’ve walked from our apartment to Cuba Libro, where he is more famous than me.

Tucho, salvaje!

Tucho, salvaje!

yoko

Tucho, the dog, like his friend Yoko, the cat (her partner, John, went the way of the actual Lennon, unfortunately), were found dumped in garbage cans, on the verge of starvation before my friends Lis and Alfredo took them in. Luther, meanwhile, was rescued outside the maternity hospital in Marianao. Lis and Alfredo discovered him when they came upon a gaggle of mischievous kids pelting the kitten with pebbles. Following a proper chewing out for their cruel behavior, my friends provided house and home for Luther (named for Dr King, who Cubans revere). This is one superior kitten who scales trees and walls like a superhero, can leap through windows better than a thief, and who already has his very own fan club with a President and card-carrying members, of which I am one.

Local heroes, Liz & Alfredo (and Tucho!)

Local heroes, Liz & Alfredo (and Tucho!)

luther

Belle, a gorgeous mutt with a good dose of German shepherd, was found abandoned in a coop, her fur so infested with chicken lice she couldn’t stand herself. Or even stand. Belle was taken in by my friends at the organic farm Finca Tungasuk where they tried all manner of non-chemical applications to cure her. Seems these were some hyper-resistant bichos: they finally resorted to spraying her with Lo Maté!, Cuban roach and bug killer. This is some strong stuff (manufactured by Cuban convicts, by the way). ‘If this doesn’t kill these lice, nothing will,’ they figured, letting the aerosol fly, taking great care to keep it from her head, mouth, eyes and ears. These are CUBAN bugs, remember. Rather than die, they hightailed it to Belle’s nose where they formed a writhing black mass like something from a sci-fi movie. Grossed out but determined, my friends eventually relieved Belle of her vermin, now contained on her nose, using a small brush. The good news is, today Belle is a beautiful, healthy, and happy farmhouse dog. In fact, she has just given birth to six gorgeous puppies sired by Huracán from the adjoining farm.

belle1

belle2

There’s Belle and then there’s Linda. Similar names, completely different experiences. Linda was found in San Miguel de Padrón at death’s door. This is no Cuban drama-rama or exaggeration: this one-year old mutt with baby doll eyes was lying on the sidewalk literally more skin-stretched-over-bones than dog, unable to lift her head. Seems her owners (strike that: abusers) had kept her on a choke chain so tight, a one inch band around her entire neck was raw and bloodied, with tendons exposed. Meanwhile, the ring on the chain had opened a nickel-sized hole in her throat so any sustenance proffered (she was beyond foraging for herself), went into her mouth and came out the hole.

lindaoperacion2

lindaoperacion

Likely she had only a few days of life left when Alfredo and Lis (the same friends who took in Tucho, Yoko, and Luther) carried her home. What ensued was a modern fairy tale mixed with grisly, gory reality TV – a three hour surgical procedure to close her perforated pharynx (during which she flat lined twice), intravenous antibiotics multiple times a day, changing of bandages, intramuscular vitamin injections, and a special high protein diet, among other measures (yes, she was allowed to sleep in the bed!) to help nurse this helpless animal back to health. It put my friends in the poor house with all the transportation, medication and care required, but you should see this beautiful, grateful pooch just a week after her surgery. Hair growing back, eating like a horse, she’s constantly wagging her tail and setting her soft, gratitude-filled eyes on every human she comes across. And she and Toby have fallen in love. Exactly six days into her post-op recovery, she came into Cuba Libro bundled in a sheet carried by Lis. Toby immediately began licking Linda’s stitches and kissing her nose. He swiftly moved to sniffing her butt and before we could intervene, he mounted her. And she liked it. I swear they were both smiling. We’re now considering the possibility of mating them once she’s fully recovered. After Cuba’s cutest puppies are born, she’s getting spayed and he’s getting neutered.

linda-que-linda

Spaying and neutering: this is the #1 issue any Cuban animal protection campaign should attack head on. Where I come from, responsible pet owners spay and neuter. It’s hard to overstate how vehemently most Cubans reject this basic obligation – to the animals, to their neighbors, their city, and themselves. It’s part ignorance, part machismo (‘you can’t take away his manhood!’ I was told repeatedly when I announced I was going to neuter Toby. ‘I can’t? Watch me,’ I told dissenters). If more Cubans followed this standard practice, we wouldn’t have buried newborn kittens left in a box by the bodega last week.

Don’t like cats +/o dogs? Allergic? No problem. There are other animals left to the streets with alarming regularity – a duck took refuge in Cuba Libro’s garden a few days ago and Shiva, a tortoise, was rescued from a Centro Habana sidewalk by another friend a couple of years back. When she reached to scoop up the animal, she was chastised: ‘don’t touch that! It’s brujería!!’ (tortoises are used in various Afro-Cuban sacrificial ceremonies). She paid them no heed and today, Shiva is as big as a football and an integral part of her family. There are myriad reasons for leaving street animals to fend for themselves towards likely death. But there’s no excuse for putting a pet on the streets (a fairly common practice among Cubans preparing to emigrate) and one very good reason for rescuing them: it’s the right thing to do.

shiva
liz-and-shivas

NB: Friends of Cuba Libro, the 501(c)3 I founded to fund projects of high community impact, is launching an initiative to help activists defray costs of animal rescue and raise funds for a proper animal shelter in Havana. Please drop a line if you’re interested in receiving more information.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, health system, 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.

_____

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

The Cuba No One’s Writing About

Early adopters of my blog may remember my post (many moons ago) where I listed the reasons why I love Cuba. Considering I’ve opted to make this crazy place my home for the past 13+ years, this is a question I get fairly often. For several reasons – the superficial fluff being published about Cuba with frightening frequency, the tsunami of clueless tourists, the stress Cuba’s new economy is generating – I think it’s time to revisit why Cuba rocks. This is the Cuba no one is writing about – the deep, below-the-surface substance that makes this place so special. Let’s dive in:

Our diet is largely chemical- and preservative-free.
Sure, you can spend $5 on a can of Pringles or $3 on a can of Red Bull, but when you can whip up fresh plantain chips for mere cents and buy fresh-pressed guarapo for pennies, aside from the novelty, why would you?

The country is popping with wonderful eye/soul candy. Human, architectural, artistic, natural – this place is a visual and spiritual feast.

There is music everywhere
. Literally (and whether you like it or not).

Havana’s tactile nights.
Once you catch that savory-sweet wind laced with gardenias, plumeria and sea salt, moonlight glancing off the waves crashing into the Malecón? No tiene nombre as we say here.

Solidarity.
Foreigners ask me pretty often if Cubans’ willingness to share, lend a hand, empathize, and the like is real. It is. I think this is one of those things – if we can retain it (dare I say strengthen?) – will go a good way toward saving what’s really admirable about this society whatever the next few years may bring.

Abortion, free and on demand.
Ever wonder why it’s so hard to find an orphanage in Cuba? This is it: almost 100% of children born in Cuba is a wanted child.

Cubans are shame-free when it comes to bodily functions. Got diarrhea? Your period? Hemorrhoids? Feel free to share (over-sharing and TMI are concepts which don’t translate here); seek advice and resources; vent. Interestingly, this is one of the few areas of discussion and interface which is completely free from gender considerations. Just today I was talking with a Cubano friend about finger probing prostate exams, while another guy lent a kind ear to a friend waxing cathartic about her crippling hot flashes.

Embracing bodily (mis)functions is something I came to appreciate very early on: one of my earliest memories after moving here occurred at a family barbeque at Playa Larga. A couple of hours after meeting everybody, one of the teen girls emerged from the ocean and appealed to men and women alike: ‘does anyone have a maxipad? I just got my period.’ (Yes: there was blood running down her leg. Did I mention that TMI doesn’t apply here?!). And she felt no shame because of it. Why would she? She got her period unexpectedly – one of the most natural things in the world (and what keeps the human race going, incidentally) – and it was entirely not her fault. It’s like how Cubans view disabilities: it’s not that person’s fault, so it’s just downright cruel to shun or otherwise judge someone for a condition or circumstance which is completely out of their control.

But I digress.

Back to how Cubans view bodily functions and how this perspective implicitly rejects Puritanism and gender paradigms. I’ve been in conversations with friends – male and female – about: being a man-whore; circumcision; boob jobs (for both aesthetic and medical reasons); to what size the cervix must dilate to pass a baby; bowel movements – lots and lots of shit talk (frequency, consistency, color, remedies for, causes of); hemorrhoid operations; and penis operations (thankfully not related and not on the same person).

And then there was this recent exchange between some (platonic) friends as we headed out one night:
Her: Shit. I don’t have another Tampax (pronounced in Cuban: Tampac).
Him: I’ll go get one from my sister.
Me: =)

Cuba: it makes you laugh. It makes you cry. But it never leaves anyone indifferent. And this is the #1 reason I love this crazy place: it arouses passion.

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

Day 1, Year 0: Cuba and the USA

A bunch of people have asked about what I, CCG, personally think about recent groundbreaking announcements vis-à-vis Cuba, the US, and their respective release of prisoners. Some of you folks who follow my blog, but also a rash of people who read my dispatch for the Daily News (New York’s hometown paper!), came around querying. So to complacer them, you, and me, I’ll give you some of my thoughts on this, Day 1 of Year 0.

For me, the tangible effects this is going to have on Cuban families (and I mean that in the most expansive, criollo way possible) is the most important issue. Any improvement in trade, telecommunications, travel, postal and embassy (!) services, immigration policies, and transparency, translates into some sort of improvement for Cuban families. Ahora: the question is at what cost those improvements? Therein lies the rub, which is why it deserves is own short discussion.

I’m hearing a lot of static in the international media/blogosphere about the ‘Americanization’ of Cuba. First off, I suggest anyone using this term study up on Simón Bolívar, with a little José Martí thrown in for good measure. Second, the idea that US companies like McDonald’s and Starbuck’s are going to roll in and over the island disregards two very important components of the Cuban political reality: 1) the state remains steadfast in its commitment to complete sovereignty and 2) they’ve been thinking about this day for over 50 years. It also ignores two important factors in Cuban daily reality: 1) there are more pressing material problems than satisfying a Big Mac/Frappuccino craving and 2) policy makers are aware of the health dangers (ie chronic disease) burgers and milkshakes pose and so should work to keep them out – protecting public health is especially important in Cuba where the government maintains a universal, free system and regards health and well being as a human right.

Taking these realities into account doesn’t mean that no US chains will stake their claims here, but I think the Cubans will be strategic about whom they let in. Marriott, Hilton and other hotels, Cargill, ADM, and their big ag interest friends, Home Depot, telecommunications providers – these are all likely candidates for early entry into the Cuban market. McDonalds and Starbucks, not so much. Maybe it’s too rosy a picture, but I don’t think the folks running the show are just going to open the floodgates and let US interests run roughshod over the place.

The ‘run run’ (as we say here) amongst some, is that the policy changes won’t stick or even be enacted. One camp reasons the Cubans will finesse a flip flop, while the other argues the US Congress and/or next President (should it not be a Democrat or Rand Paul), will roll back whatever Obama and company have in store for the next year. These bits of ‘logic’ defy logic. First of all, the Cubans would be completely loco to announce such policy changes and then not pursue them – this is just a recipe for disaster given the current context on the island. And as far as Washington goes, US business interests want in on Cuba, like yesterday. The bottom line (pun intended): The desire for increased commerce and trade will trump any tantrums thrown by hard-line Cubans and Republicans regarding Cuba. As Obama has said repeatedly (paraphrasing Einstein), pursuing the same actions over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. And the embargo is a self-defeating policy – another opinion voiced by President Obama in these past few days.

Leaving politics aside, this is an incredibly emotional moment – especially for those of us who have been adversely affected and working so tirelessly to have this Draconian policy reversed. Obviously, change isn’t going to happen with the flip of a switch. There are a lot of messy threads to untangle, many policies and steps to analyze and tweak. For example, the 50% or so of Televisión Cubana that is pirated from US channels – HBO, Showtime, Discovery, ESPN – is going to go by the wayside, sooner rather than later. But after ‘no es fácil’ (it isn’t easy), our favorite saying here is ‘algo es algo’ (something is better than nothing). And the announcements of this past week are a very big something.

Just now, my 51-year old neighbor stopped by. “I never thought I would live to see the day. I knew The Five would return home in my lifetime, but I never thought I’d be alive to witness the normalization of relations. It is a great, great moment in our history.” She came over to congratulate me on the new era of US-Cuban relations (this is happening all over Havana these days: whether stranger, friend or neighbor, everyone is greeting each other with claps on the back, hugs and shouts of ¡felicidades!) and to let me know she’s already renovating a room in her house to rent to Americans, once they can travel here freely.

Personally, I can’t wait. Vamos bien.

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

Queer Cuba

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I’m what’s known in the vernacular as a ‘fag hag.’ It was not choice, calling or custom that threw me into the gay orbit at an early age, but rather a fortuitous convergence of nature and nurture. My family is peppered with homosexuals and my oldest brother loved to tell us of his escapades with The Eagle Scout, The Priest, and The ‘Straight’ Guy. As a tween, I was already accustomed to seeing men kiss and knew about the dark and personal horrors of the closet (from the likes of The Priest and Eagle Scout, not my brother who was loud, proud, and occasionally obnoxiously, gay; see note 1).

I’ve been to leather bars, bear bars, piano bars and clubs where the dress code is naked and go-go boys dance in cages. I remember one of our tribe – the hottest, most coveted among them – telling me he wished he was straight so he could get with me. I love the humor and the hubris, honesty and fashion/design sense of my gay friends. I go to them for sex tips and appreciate having escorts who won’t try to grope me. They throw the best parties and usually have kismet with the downtrodden, being an oppressed group themselves.

By way of context, I’m talking about pre-AIDS New York City, when there were still dungeon clubs and working “girls” in the offal-slicked streets of the Meatpacking District (see note 2). Back then, bath houses called on gloomy days and condoms were for breeders. But most relevant to this post: straight girls like me were part of the gang.

This wasn’t the case in San Francisco where I lived for seven years after NYC. The queer scene there, to me, felt hyper segmented, with gay men, women, and everyone everywhere along the sexual diversity spectrum siloed in their individual worlds. It smacked suspiciously of tolerance, a weak and non-sustainable stand-in for the unity and community I’d known in New York.

Back here on this island, I’m happy to report that years of tireless, often unappreciated and highly criticized, work by CENESEX (headed by Mariela Castro), the HIV-STI Prevention Center, El Mejunje, advocacy groups like GPSIDA, MSM (Men who have Sex with Men), and the straight allies who support them, is gaining traction.

sorry girls Im gayteeny

Nowadays, men hold hands in public (in Havana anyway), transgendered folks go shopping, clubbing, and to work as their real selves and there are more and more places for the community to convene (see note 3). And every year, Cuba’s International Day Against Homo/Transphobia grows bigger, more fabulous, and better focused. Last night, I attended the World AIDS Day gala which was as sexy, saucy, and talented as you’d expect of this place and the theater was SRO with the entire rainbow representing. I hesitate to say it’s a movement which is a bit of a dirty word here, but I’m heartened to see my queer friends and compatriots finding their stride. It feels like pride, but that’s another questionably good concept in the Cuban context since it implies superiority of one group over another and replicates hegemonic constructs they’re trying to break down and through.

But there’s rhetoric and there’s reality and as the wave of sexual diversity rolls towards a crest, I’m asking myself: will it manifest like NY, SF, or something altogether different? The evidence is conflicting, the analysis complex, and even after talking to lots of friends – gay, straight, and in between – from here and away, I’m still not sure where all this is going. But here are some factors at play in gay Cuba:

The Machismo Hydra – Once again, the scepter of male dominance and perceived superiority rears its ugly head (no pun intended) and underscores human relations here. I’m fairly certain this is part of the reason gay men have more visibility, mobility, and are more tolerated (there’s that sticky wicket again) here than gay women. Just yesterday I overheard this exchange between four friends hanging around their Lada slinging back Bucaneros: “who care if there are fags there? Deep down we’re all fags” (see note 4). The underlying meaning? Men-on-men action is not only within the realm of possibility – no matter how subconscious – but could even be desirable. Is it the power two men together represent, the simple carnality of it? Is it a way to neutralize machismo in an effort to liberate mind and body somehow? Once again, I’m not sure, but while a Cuban guy can say ‘deep down we’re all fags,’ chances are high that same fellow would say of a lesbian: ‘she just hasn’t had the right macho’ (and immediately propose himself as the one to convert her). Almost to a one, lesbians here, foreign and Cuban, have confirmed my impression that a) it never occurs to most men here that a woman can only be into women and b) once they know, it’s simply a question of ‘having the right macho’ to show them what they’re missing. What’s more, lesbian friends often mention the discrimination, including derogatory terms, leveled at them by gay men. This is troubling.

alejandra

The DINK Phenomenon – DINK stands for Double Income No Kids and savvy marketers have long carved out a niche among gay men who on the whole have more disposable cash and fewer familial responsibilities than straight and lesbian couples. So it’s no surprise that many of the loveliest, most successful new bars and restaurants here are owned and operated by gay men – out and not, it’s worth noting. This is great – the boys are cute, the décor classy (or camp), and the food and drink of high standard. I’ve had memorable times at several gay-owned establishments. At a few however, the vibe is decidedly cold shoulder, reminding me of San Francisco, i.e. you’re not one of us, but we’re running a business so we’ll put up with you. Again: troubling.

The Generation Gap – The older I get, the more I understand how age affects human relations, which is one of the reasons I so energetically nurture relationships with people of all ages. Queer relations in Cuba are no different. Talk to a gay men of 60 here and you’ll get a very different perspective from that provided by the 20-something set. The younger generation generally, has a much more open and organic take on sexual diversity – regardless of gender. I remember one night at the Cine Club Diferente film debate here when an elder gay icon stood up and expressed his opinion on the gay politics reflected in the film and its relevance to Cuba. He was followed by a young university student who said he respected the older gent’s opinion and experience, but didn’t share them. And then he told the story of arriving at his dorm the first day of school and telling his roommate: ‘I want you to know I’m gay and if you have a problem with that, we’ll have to make a change.’ The other fellow had no problem with it, they became roommates, and remain so a couple of years on. Meanwhile, young women are increasingly experimenting with other women and although a friend assures me this is just a fad, I have to ask: And? Even if it is a fad – one of those ‘yeah, there was that one night with a friend in college’ type things – doesn’t it open people’s minds, expand their horizons, and break down bias?

Of course, all of this has to be couched in the Cuban context, where there’s a housing crisis, with its attendant lack of privacy (keeping many folks in the closet); salaries are absurdly low (affecting entertainment options, autonomy, and a whole host of other issues related to mental health); and sexually diverse people have experienced very real discrimination. And while friends from the States tell me all of this (i.e. the discrimination, alienation, confusing orientation with preference, etc) sounds familiar, I do think it’s substantively – at least legislatively – different here. Voters in Villa Clara have just elected their first transsexual public official for example, gender reassignment surgery is provided free for those who qualify, and same sex unions will soon be legal nationally.

I guess what I’m trying to say is I love gay culture and sensibilities and while I don’t know where we’re going, I hope to continue to be a part of it. Remember: though we may be straight, that doesn’t mean we’re narrow.

Notes

1. Is that politically incorrect? You let me know, but those who knew Bruce know he could be obnoxious – charmingly so, but obnoxious all the same.

2. R.I.P. My last Giuliani/Bloomberg nerve snapped when I dared to venture down to my old stomping grounds around Little West 12th Street last year. I never thought I’d see New York go generic, but there it was; it could have been Any City U.S.A. (Yes, I’m bitter about “progress” in Manhattan).

3. My Havana Good Time app has a dedicated LGBT category if you’re interested.

4. As with all things, conversations, and events related at Here is Havana, this is 100% true.

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Havana’s Happy Ending Massage

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Next to a full-blown orgasm, there’s nothing more relaxing than a full-body massage in my book. A good massage even beats out great masturbation if you ask me, and while I’ve had massages in places as far flung as Hawaii and the Bronx, Guatemala and the Yucatán, I’ve been reticent to explore such carnal (albeit platonic) pleasures in Havana. It’s not a question of cost – a full one-hour massage is as little as $10 here – but rather the 1-2 combo of Cubans’ notoriously lascivious nature and a rabidly jealous Scorpion husband (see note 1). Who knew what would go down on that table, yours truly lying there nude, a strange man’s hands roaming all about?

But recently, a different 1-2 combo struck, sending me to that table: first, the need for release and relaxation was too pressing to ignore and then a friend opened a full-service spa. Permissible under Cuba’s new consumer capitalism regime, this privately-owned spa is in a privileged corner of an upscale neighborhood and offers everything from spinning classes and yoga to Brazilian wax jobs and microabrasions.

It seemed like the golden opportunity to invite the strong, well-oiled hands of an unknown Cuban macho to get acquainted with my body…

But before getting down to the nitty gritty, I wonder what you imagine when you hear the word ‘spa?’ Is it some oasis serving cucumber water and salmon/watercress baguettes on Little Palm Island? Or a strip mall in the Valley specializing in waxing, wrapping, threading, and peeling? Whatever images the word ‘spa’ conjures in your corner of the world, I bet it’s nothing like what we have in Havana.

All of the spas I know here (see note 2), are mansions or grand homes at least, with living rooms converted to fully-equipped gyms, bedrooms repurposed for Pilates, and closets retrofitted as saunas. My friend’s spa falls under this rubric, though as educated, well-traveled and cultured as she is, her spa is mucho más allá, offering nutrition consultations, medicinal plants for sale on the landscaped patio, and self-defense classes for women.

Bright, clean and spacious, the spa was welcoming but exuded the contradictory energy typical to Cuba at today’s crossroads: phones rang, appointments were made and administrators made sure it hopped with the hustle and bustle of a profit-making/seeking enterprise, while employees sat around picking their nails and contemplating their navels.

I was shown to a Swiss-clean room with AC, professional massage table, and linens monogrammed with the spa’s logo. In the gleaming, marble bathroom, I was instructed to change into the robe provided. Just then, the masseur appeared. I’ll call him Henry. He was big not wide, which was good, and had the sculpted muscles of a gym rat, nicely displayed in a skin-tight wife beater. Except for his braces (adult orthodontia is big here), he was easy on the eyes, which is neither here nor there since my baby blues would be closed, but like having an unattractive or downright ugly gynecologist, it never hurts. Henry had the smooth, lustrous skin privy to youth and would be considered a hottie by anyone’s standards.

Expectations for popping my Cuba massage cherry were high…

I assumed the position face down on the table and Henry spoke the only words he’d utter to me over the next hour: “would you like your gluteus and breasts massaged as well?”

Wait, what?! I was sure I’d heard right, but was struck dumb for a second as yells of “you can do it señora! Feel the burn!!!” bellowed through the thin walls from the spinning class next door. My mind flew into high gear, considering his query:

– Is a tit massage standard procedure?
– Had I ever even been asked this before by a professional masseur?
– Do boobs even have muscles to massage?
– If the answer to the above questions is no, was there a hidden subtext?
– If I answer yes to the tit kneading, does it open the possibilities for a “happy ending” which, considering the cut of Henry’s jib, wouldn’t be the most unpleasant thing to happen to me today?

“Just the gluteus,” I told him when I’d regained my senses. He got busy.

Things started off suavecito, suavecito and my first thought was ‘Is this a massage or foreplay?’ It was too light and fluttery, nothing that would route out my many sore muscles and overworked tendons. ‘Maybe he’s just warming up,’ I reasoned.” But he kept on killing me softly, even on both feet, committing that all-too-common infraction: neglecting the feet in massage quality and quantity.

When it became clear Mr. Muscle wasn’t going to apply himself, I sucked up the string of drool crawling across my cheek and said: “please: do it a lot harder.” And I think he tried – for half a calf at least, but then lapsed back into the massage mode I call “How to Relax Housewives and Pleasure Slackers.” I imagined him learning the techniques at an intensive weekend workshop somewhere bucolic like Las Terrazas or Viñales. Needless to say, this masajito was doing nothing for the knots tucked deep beneath my shoulders and my related stiff neck. Henry’s approach released no toxins and alleviated stress for about as long as takes you to finish reading this sentence.

His hands were big and strong and my mind’s eye saw them kneading whiter skin than he had probably ever touched. ‘Litro de leche’ Cubans often call my skin tone – not always in a good way. When it came time for me to turn my lily white self over, the draping acrobatics commenced. Since I’d declined the boob massage, he had to flip me while keeping both my genitals and chest strategically covered. He was fairly deft at it, though somewhat mechanical, and I imagined a full third of that weekend workshop in Viñales dedicated to ‘How to Drape Your Client without Exposing Popular Erogenous Zones.’

I asked him once again to put more oomph into it, but he didn’t. I resigned myself to the fact that my mind and body were not going to attain any bliss today. Just then there was a knock on the door; a muchacha entered asking if she could leave her bag in the massage room. Busting in on a naked (albeit draped) me didn’t really rankle: I was used to people barging in here – during couples’ therapy, on the toilet, in the throes. Privacy in Cuba is one of the island’s enduring oxymorons and one you have to cope with if you fancy spending large amounts of time here.

My faux/flojo massage was almost over and I realized the only happy ending was for Henry, when I left him a nice tip – just for trying.

Notes
1. In 10 years here, most of those covering the health system (where almost all massage therapists train and work at some time), I’ve never met a female therapist – something which I predict is going to change fast as more foreigners drop into Havana’s day spas.

2. Watch for my upcoming article on Havana’s spas and their inclusion in the next update of my Havana Good Time iapp. It’s worth pointing out that there are both state-run and privately-owned spas here now.

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