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My Havana Valentine

We had a squabble getting ready for Alicia’s party. It was one of those lover tiffs which squalls out of nowhere…but somewhere. It’s that discussion ostensibly about mixed up dinner plans but actually lays bare incompatibility. The writing on the wall? Perhaps for one person in the relationship, anyway. Or maybe it really is about the dinner plans, or where you parked the car, or remembering to buy garlic. In love, I’m slow to see the writing on the wall. I choose to believe it’s about the car or the garlic – until a point.

We kissed in an obligatory, ‘fake-it-‘til-you-make-it’ way before stepping out the door. It’s better this way when you ride together on a motorcycle. Couples can stay mad and steam driving in a car, but two on a Harley is a different story. We had to touch and occasionally huddle against the wind and rain or clutch and lean together to avoid potholes. And when, inevitably, we would hit one of Havana’s classic giant holes in the road, we’d absorb the shock and keep rolling. There was no choice, especially on creepy, dark streets like the backside of Quinta de los Molinos between Centro Habana and Plaza. It was times like these – and taking the curves around the cemetery or dodging asphalt moguls in Playa – that I was glad to have a couple tons of good ‘ole American steel beneath us. I know it’s more Cuban chatarra than US metal, but it’s some sort of comfort still. It helps that my pilot is very experienced, a native Habanero with a mental map of the potholes and other hazards. Still, driving in this city requires the reflexes of a ping pong pro, especially when riding an antique Panhead weighing a ton or two. Centro Habana, where pedestrians rule, is particularly hairy. Indeed, we had to dodge several meandering down the middle of Reina like it was Obispo. Suddenly a loud rumbling came over my left shoulder, shaking me from my nocturnal musings, something Havana’s penumbra and perfume, sinister doings and secret possibilities engender. A garbage truck, light of load, flew by us. The Harley’s speedometer is broken, but they were going over 50 miles an hour.
“Wow. They’re flying,” I yelled into J’s ear.
“And drunk!” he yelled back. “All garbage truck drivers are drunks.”

They barrelled through the red light at Infanta and Carlos III, bearing out his observation. Even under the best, well-lit circumstances, this intersection is extraordinarily dangerous.

We were approaching Alicia’s building – one of those crumbling relics so popular with certain photographers (AKA poverty porn). Our tiff no longer smouldered, but there was a jilted awkwardness between us as we discussed where to park. Alicia yelled down from her postage stamp balcony, underwear drying on the line: “just leave it there! It will be ok.” We were unsure: these old bikes draw crowds from Havana to Gibara and it was Saturday night in the bowels of a rough part of town. But Alicia knows her ‘hood; we left it gleaming under a streetlamp. Someone had scrawled ‘Granma Campeón!’ on a near wall. Dogs barked. A trio of young girls wobbled down the street, their unfortunate fashion choices impeding their progress. I turned to J after two flights up.
“What?” he said, his voice jumping.
I gave him a kiss. ‘Let’s have a good time,’ it said. We entered a house full of friends, more mine than his but not really good ones of either. We danced and joked. He drank wine, I nursed some Cachito. We popped out to the balcony for a smoke and to check on the bike. We were almost double the age of the oldest person there but no matter – this smart, fun Cuban crowd, tight since they were teens, treated us as contemporaries instead of the grandparents we could be.

J was filling his wine glass to the rim, I noticed. I didn’t care, he wasn’t an alcoholic like others I’d fallen for. In fact, he only drank socially, a concept I still can’t wrap my addict head around. But there was only one bottle of red and I noticed all eyes follow his full glass as he made his way across the room. It wasn’t like him to drink much as I mentioned, and he was always thinking of others – to a fault. He needed to take the edge off to deplete that single bottle so dramatically. We took our leave just after midnight, not long after the disco ball was lit. I knew we’d have sex when we got home. We were horny. We loved – and even liked – each other. And more so than the party’s wine and good company, a couple of orgasms would buff out any lingering static between us.

When I next saw Alicia, she told me how everyone at the party was talking about us after we left, saying what a beautiful couple we made. How we were so in sync – healthily, happily. That’s always nice to hear. Especially after a spat. Either it was true or we were really adept at faking it until making it. Maybe it’s a fine line and I’m splitting hairs, but the distinction plagues me: more than once recently I’ve caught myself swaddling my head in scarves, dancing funny with people watching and having existential conversations with my dog. I’m afraid I’m turning into Little Edie, Cuba Libro my Grey Gardens. Perhaps that’s why I believe it’s about forgetting the garlic and not the writing on the wall. Why I choose to believe it’s about fucked up dinner plans and not faking it; I’m choosing to believe if Im partnered up, I won’t end up like the Little Edie’s of the world.

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Inside a Cuban Prison: The Sequel

Miguel has a court date.

Finally.

Regular readers of Here is Havana are likely haunted still by my friend’s unfortunate tale of incarceration in Havana’s roughest prison. Unfortunately, after more than six months behind bars, his – and Esther’s – saga continues its tragic trajectory. It doesn’t help in the slightest that Miguel is still awaiting sentencing for his crime – being caught with 10 tabs of Ritalin, all for personal consumption, but which the cops determined were for sale. I’ve just returned from another visit to the Combinado de Este across the Bay and a certain fatalistic tenor as settled over him. In short, Miguel is caught in a living nightmare, his Locked up Abroad – no matter that he’s Cuban.

Miguel isn’t a drug dealer. He’s a young-ish Cuban who doesn’t drink or smoke or swear, but does enjoy raves and electronic parties which often go deep into the pre-dawn hours. Like many youth the world over, he enjoys a little bump every now and then while getting his groove on. Now he’s looking at six years with Havana’s hardest criminals (worst case scenario) or two if the voodoo we’re working proves to be any good.

Luck has not favored Miguel – or Esther – throughout this torturous process. If it seems like I’m mentioning Esther a lot, I am, and on purpose. For every 10 people who ask her how Miguel is doing, she’s lucky if one asks after her; it’s extraordinarily rare for someone to ask how she’s doing. Miguel told me he wouldn’t be surviving behind bars if it weren’t for his wife of four years. She’s working two jobs to be able to visit him every 15 days (with an additional conjugal romp each month) hauling 20-pound sacks of cigarettes, socks, hot dogs, powdered fruit drink, cookies, olives, and other goods for sustenance and trade on each and every trip. It also falls to Esther to deal with the lawyer and paperwork, track down potential witnesses, and visit her trusted palero so he can work his magic; it’s important not to leave any stone unturned. Esther is fortunate to have sympathetic bosses: the time off and money required to turn over all these stones are not insignificant. Despite the financial support her family, friends, and aforementioned bosses have provided throughout this ordeal, it’s a terrible struggle and Esther has dropped so much weight a day doesn’t go by without a friend or stranger commenting on how rail thin she is. I attributed it to stress but it’s not just that as it turns out – Esther has a thyroid problem. But that’s a different story.

The financial and physical toll of this whole experience is appreciable, but nothing compares to the psychological effects it’s having. The mind games incarceration and the judicial process play is no joke. Miguel’s first lawyer, to give you one example, stopped answering his phone after working on the case for six weeks. Mr Lawyer Who Shall Remain Nameless couldn’t answer his phone. Not because it was lost or broken, but because he fled the country – with all his clients’ money. Worse yet, he never even opened Miguel’s case. My friend had been inside a couple of months already when the treachery came to light. Back to square one. Esther, feeling the financial pain and pinch acutely now, contracted another lawyer. He discovered that Mr Lawyer Who Shall Remain Nameless, in addition to stealing his clients’ money, hadn’t done jack shit and to his chagrin and our horror, Miguel’s second lawyer couldn’t even locate his case file. It was lost in the system, MIA in the Cuban bureaucracy, a place to which you wouldn’t condemn even your worst enemies.

About the time the missing case file came to light, I visited Miguel again. The guards and checkpoints were stricter this time, less relaxed and gregarious, less Cuban, vaya. Seems someone had tried recently, unsuccessfully, to smuggle in some pills in a bag of powdered milk. They had laid a fart in the middle of the fiesta as Cubans say and now the visiting process was more tedious and longer. Worse however, is the fact that they wouldn’t let me enter with the Time magazine dedicated to new technologies (Miguel is a certified nerd) because the advertisement with a woman in a tank top had spank bank possibilities, disqualifying it as appropriate penitentiary reading material. Rather than letting me rip out the offending ad, they stored the magazine for post-visit retrieval. I didn’t really give a whit for the magazine, but I knew it would have occupied Miguel’s overworked brain for hours and kept his day bright long after we concluded the visit. What really grated, however, was the guards also prohibited me from carrying in the most recent B&H catalog, Miguel’s preferred porn with all its new gadgets and high-tech geegaws. They also wouldn’t let me carry in the four-page letter I wrote him the night before. Is there anything more stimulating and stress-relieving for a convict than a personal letter? The conjugal visits, I suppose, but that’s not my job.

This visit was different from those previous and not just for the revision of our provisions. For one thing, I was starting to recognize repeat visitors and their prisoners. There was the dyed blond mulatta with the three inch nails; the guajira in her visiting day dress, the same one she wears every time; and the 72-year old inmate, shrunken and wrinkled, chain smoking uncut Criollos. This time we could have played footsie or passed contraband under the table since the ones in this pavilion were open below rather than blocked off with cement. After initial hugs, kisses and a fair share of ass grabbing, female visitors started setting out tablecloths and Cuban feasts – congris, pork steaks perfectly cooked and seasoned, salads and fritters and flan. Daughters hung on their fathers’ necks, babies nuzzled against chests, and hands were held tenderly across the expanse of table. Voices ricocheted off the cinderblock walls and laughter filled every corner like cobwebs. That room overflowed with love. It was palpable, tinged with sadness of course, but authentic, positive emotion ruled the afternoon.

On the outside, this wasn’t so: Miguel’s central (Cuban for family/support system) was losing energy, our upbeat outlook turning dark. Then by some miracle – or more banal and earthly reasons like money – his case file appeared. Esther snapped into action, amassing documents and paperwork, compiling photographic evidence and contacting potential witnesses. She needed photos of Miguel’s apartment – a nearly condemnable 1-BR affair in Centro Habana – because the investigators accused him of living ‘beyond his means.’ Police-speak for ill-gotten goods or being involved in illicit business. Wait until they see the photos: mildew-stained walls, crumbling counters, doors so termite-infested they’re soft and splintery to the touch, the chipped tiles and floors, and windows so far off true they haven’t shut right in years. Witnesses are an especially important part of the evidence equation – just one person from the group present that night on the Malecón could make all the difference. Any one of the half dozen “friends” who were with Miguel could testify that he wasn’t selling the pills. Bastards. To a one they declined to appear on his behalf. The older I get, the more indignant I am about pussy people – those who refuse to raise their heads above the parapet to defend who or what they believe in.
“Cuba Libro. Buenas tardes.”
“CONNER!!”
“Who’s this?”
“Miguel!”
Say what?! Miguel only gets one 10-minute phone call a week. I couldn’t fathom why he’d call us instead of Esther. But he was phoning with positive news: he got a good jail job, distributing three hots to his cell block. It was a plum job, for which Miguel had to make periodic payments to land and keep, but it improved his life exponentially. Moving between kitchen and cell blocks provide him a freedom enjoyed by few and also gives him regular access to the payphones. He was now calling Esther several times a week, often for 30-minute conversations. The buckets of beans and rice and stew were heavy and his shoulders and arms ached painfully because of them but chow time was a welcome break in the routine and Miguel’s personable, chatty style is making him popular with the other inmates. He told me all of this on the phone, but buried the lead: he finally had a court date for sentencing: more than 7 months after being hauled in, Miguel was going to learn his fate. He warned us: “it’s going to be frightening. I will be in handcuffs and leg shackles. You have to prepare for the worst. Dealing drugs is considered a crime against the state.”

We’re thinking positively, Esther is off to do some intense “work” with the palero and Miguel is hanging tough. About a dozen of us are going to the sentencing. Hopefully I’ll be back here soon with good news.

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Havana Declaration: He’s an Assassin

I thought I’d already written all I had to say about New Year’s Eve in Cuba. Likewise, I figured a couple posts about Donald Trump – the Cuban reaction to his election; his overall ineptitude – were sufficient, more than enough in fact. But 2017 was a particularly difficult year thanks to what the politicians, planet and life in general had wrought; given their wont to let off steam when the going gets tough and daily grind too trying, Cubans were anxious to bid goodbye the past year with a four-day weekend. And hell of a party.

Life-long traditions like eating 12 grapes at midnight; tossing a bucket of water out the door to purge the house of last year’s nastiness; and walking around the block with suitcase in tow to ensure future travels, are part of the national New Year’s script. Fireworks, on this island where fun and spectacle are homemade instead of manufactured, are making inroads, despite this year’s tragedy in Remedios. But 2017 required something more dramatic, more purging, more political, a bigger catharsis and my new-found family from the campo didn’t disappoint.

When Ivan told me over Christmas Eve dinner to come early on the 31st to help build an effigy, I took it as idle talk – the kind of statement Cubans make to fill the silent void, akin to the wishful thinking about what fast food they’ll eat once they reach the Yuma or the car they’d buy if they could.

“We need an old pair of pants!” Ivan told me over the phone as we prepared to make our way to his house in Marianao (or Playa, depending on who you ask). It seemed the effigy business was serious, a tradition in this family of guajiros. When we arrived, the life-sized muñeco was well along, the straw-stuffed torso, legs and head laid out for assembly in the driveway below a Cuban flag (another tradition here heralding Fidel and Co.’s victorious 1959 entry into Havana). The shirt and pants were so tightly packed the thing almost stood on its own, but a fist of tawny straw was saved out to fashion that absurd swoop of a ‘do ridiculed from Rye to Katmandu.

My Cuban family was burning an effigy of Donald Trump to ring out the year.

Mounted on a cross for easy transport to the corner, the tucked-away street was dead quiet leading up to midnight. But long-time neighbors knew the glee which overcame Ivan on New Year’s (the whiskey didn’t hurt) and they began drifting from their houses once Donald made his debut. One of the first was an overweight, dyed blond Cubana-Americana in a motley housecoat: “that’s a real man! That’s my President. You’re burning my President?!” she shrieked as she filmed everything with her iPhone. And then almost to herself: ‘this is going straight to Facebook.’ Her embarrassing revelations were interrupted by my second cousin:

“We should have made it Marco Rubio. He’s the real son of a bitch.”
“Yes! We should have made a Mini Me/Marco to go with Trump and burned them together,” I said.

The neighbors – save the bottle blonde – started weighing in.

“Rubio’s the real asshole. An even bigger imbecile than Trump,” opined Neighbor #1.
“And he’s never even set foot on this island! But he acts like he’s struggled and suffered through the same as us,” said Neighbor #2, spitting on the ground for emphasis.

As Lázaro doused Trump’s feet in black market gas, fireworks popped, shouts of ¡Felicidades! rang out and cascades of water arched from bucket to street. 2017 was history.

We sparked a couple of Cuban matches and tossed them in Trump’s direction. The effigy burst into flames the height of two men, burning fast and hot, temporarily silencing the dozens gathered in the street. As we watched rapt, bottles of ice-cold sparkling cider (used here in lieu of champagne, whether out of tradition or lack, I know not) were uncorked and passed around among neighbors and friends. By now, would-be, wannabe, travelers started making their way around the block with wheelie carts, backpacks and duffels. One couple dressed to the nines, looked ready to alight at Charles de Gaulle, while an entire family, five generations all told, headed down the street with luggage in tow. ‘¡Buen viaje!’ we shouted out.

“See you at Terminal 2!” yelled an older gentleman in response.

The graceful Chinese lanterns containing wishes of wealth and health for the new year drew our eyes skyward as they soared high above the Havana rooftops. We pledged to do that next year – something positive and beautiful to be seen by the whole city. Dreaming of the year to come, we watched Trump go up in flames, his head and silly hair crashing to the ground. Through the revelry and smoke, singed straw and sparks, I caught the eye of my suegra:

“Trump is a bad man. A very bad man. He’s an assassin,” she said softly.

Happy 2018 everyone!

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Me Too: Gender Violence in Havana

I’ve been physically assaulted twice. Both times I was walking home alone at night. And both times I was compromising my safety. In the first instance, circa 1993 in Monterey, California, I was drunk. In the second instance, I had earbuds in, music blasting, as I walked down Calle 23 in Havana. While in theory every person has the right to drink, listen to music and walk home alone, life experience – especially mine, growing up in violent, drug-riddled New York – teaches girls something wholly different. All women reading this have certainly suffered objectification, harassment, assault or been grossly propositioned in their lifetimes.

Between the first and second instance, I did two things which completely transformed my life: I quit drinking entirely and I took self-defense classes for women. When the nearly 6-foot tall man came upon me from behind as I walked down Vedado’s main thoroughfare – one of Havana’s busiest neighborhoods – I knew exactly what to do. And I did it, sending that guy running like a cheap pair of stockings.

I’m telling you all of this because several friends and acquaintances here have been assaulted lately. My friend Veronica, a beautiful, buxom young woman who reaches 5-feet tall in heels (which she never wears), was walking to a friend’s house one afternoon when a man on a bicycle tried to rip away her purse. She fought back and he sped off. Simply a botched robbery? Perhaps. An opportunistic crime gone awry? Maybe. But then the same thing happened a couple of weeks later as she walked home from work. It was barely dark and she was just a block from her house. When she told me about the first incident and then the second, it reminded me of her bus story. Some years ago, when Veronica was 20, she and her friend Luna were riding the 69 bus on their way to an art show. The bus, in typical Cuban style, was packed to the gills and kept cramming people in. If you’ve ever suffered a ride on a Cuban bus, you know there isn’t room to slip a shim the bodies are squeezed in so tight. Normally (and normal) people accommodate the crush by angling away sensitive, erotic parts or by strategically holding a bag or knapsack over said parts. But there are others who treat a bus or subway ride as a golden opportunity for some free frisson. As the two friends gossiped and laughed, a nasty old dude started pressing his nasty old cock against Veronica. Luna launched into a story about her ex, oblivious. “Chica. We’re getting out at the next stop,” Veronica said, metal glinting off her voice. “But we’re not there yet!” Luna responded. “We are getting off!” Veronica said staring hard at Luna. Right before making their move, Veronica turned on a dime and nailed the guy in the balls, hard, with a well-placed knee. This petite young woman is not the easy target she appears – to thieves or molesters.

But not every woman and girl has the same wherewithal as Veronica. A US college student studying here for the semester quickly mastered the fixed-route taxis known as ‘almendrones.’ Hold out your hand, ascertain if they’re cruising the route you want and climb aboard these old Detroit hulks with half a dozen Cubans; 35 cents later, you’ve arrived at (or close to) your destination. It’s customary to sit two up front with the driver – when those seats are available. This college student, I’ll call her Laura, rode shotgun until another passenger stopped the car and opened the front door. Laura scooted over towards the driver, as you do. After a couple of blocks, the driver pushed his hand up her skirt and parked it on her inner thigh. Terrified, appalled, she froze and issued no response, instead just willing the ride and indecency to end as soon as possible. Laura didn’t know what to do or what she could do or maybe she feared a reaction would put her in further danger.

This isn’t uncommon, especially in cross-cultural situations where the code of conduct and norms, consequences and sensibilities are confusing or unknown. In another episode – for want of a better word – a group of young people (again, from the United States) were at a guateque replete with music, dancing, a roasted pig, and free-flowing rum. As the night grew darker and boozier, one of the locals who was too-well lubricated at this point, started dragging one young foreign women after another on to the dance floor. He was literally grabbing at them, laying hands on them, virtually obligating the party guests to dance with him. Uncomfortable to a one, they didn’t know how to deal with the guy and were afraid of doing something inappropriate. While I know exactly what I would do if someone manhandled me or stuck his hand up my skirt, the cultural context and local sensitivities are factors worth considering: my Cuban friends were unanimous in their opinion that most Cubanas – but not all – would tell the driver to stick his hand where the sun don’t shine and tell the drunk to get lost (or worse) as soon as he laid hands on her.

No matter where you’re from, sometimes we don’t have the resources or reserves to confront these situations as we’d like. Case in point are two Cubanas I know. Both are in their early 20s and both were recently raped – one in Centro Habana, the other in Vedado. The woman in Vedado went home, tried to scrub the violence away, a stream of tears mixing with the shower’s spray and called a friend. He ran to her house to provide succor and a momentary sense of safety. The other woman, I’ll call her Lucía, was attacked just a few blocks from her house as she walked home from work. Lucía, a beautiful, stylish brunette, has an Adele-type body – tall, strong, and solid. Still, her attacker overpowered her and had his way. Although quite near her house, she went straight to the police and reported the attack. They applied the standard rape kit, took her statement and a description of her attacker. They quickly caught the repeat offender who was on parole and sent him back up the river.

Maria Elena, Esther, Iris, me and probably you – we’ve all known gender violence of one type or another. My question is: what are we going to do about it? What can we do about it? Raising awareness is key of course. Showing solidarity for other women is also necessary – now more than ever, that’s clear. What does that mean? For one, don’t judge or criticize other women’s reactions (or non-actions) in the face of this violence. Not everyone has the will or tools or strength to fight back. Many women are taught – indeed, society consistently reinforces the ‘women as polite and submissive’ paradigm – and so we swallow and withstand all kinds of repressive bullshit so as not to be labeled a ball-buster. How extremist! Over time and across history, women have been reduced to one of two polar opposites: pussy or bitch, Madonna or whore, if you will. Any women CEOs reading this (and bringing down smaller salaries than their male counterparts) surely know what I’m talking about.

To break this paradigm and increase our personal security, we need to support each other. If you’re out with friends and see a woman being harassed or made uncomfortable by unwanted attention, extend a hand, invite her to your table, pull her into your dance circle, safeguard her drink while she goes to the bathroom. The same holds for when you’re in the street at night. If you come across a woman walking alone, offer to accompany her. There is safety in numbers.

One thing every woman and girl can do to marshal and augment their inner strength and confidently protect themselves is to take a self-defense class. These classes changed my life and I have seen it change others’ as well. I’m determined to begin offering a course at Cuba Libro so more women can tap into their power. The problem is, I haven’t yet found a qualified instructor who can impart the necessary techniques, concepts and strategies, while at the same time creating a safe space for women to share their stories, tears, fears, and traumas – an important element in the empowerment dynamic. If you know anyone who fits the bill (maybe yourself?!), please get in touch. Fluent Spanish is a must.

In the meantime, anyone anxious to jump start their safety skills should immediately get a copy of Gavin de Becker’s The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect Us from Violence. Or rather, get three: one for you, one for a friend and one for Cuba Libro. It will make a difference.

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Cuba Travel from US – Legal and with RESPECT

For the past two days, I’ve been participating in the US-Cuba congress RESPECT (Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel) in Havana. This is the largest US-based organization (150 members from travel service providers and airlines to lawyers and non-profits) dedicated to promoting responsible travel to the island. The 17 founding principles incorporate standard responsible/ethical travel suggestions based on Cuban priorities for sustainable development in tourism. While I’m not in agreement with all the policies being pursued here as regards tourism (golf courses, really?!), RESPECT co-founder Bob Guild explained at Day Two of the congress that RESPECT is not a policing organization, but aims to get all the players on the same page and encourage others to put into practice as many of the principles as possible.

There must have been over two centuries of US travel to Cuba experience in that conference room when the news broke about the Trump administration’s decision to cease issuing visas for Cubans, effective immediately and until further notice, which is going to incense Cuban families everywhere and cripple academic-scientific exchange between the two countries. The Donald’s knees must be sore from so much gratuitous blowing of Marco Rubio. At the same time, the State Department issued a travel warning for US citizens and residents to Cuba based on health issues that some diplomats are having of undetermined origin, and that the press and Rex Tillerson have called “acoustic attacks.” The FBI found there was absolutely NO BASIS for this accusation after an extensive investigation with full cooperation on the ground from Cuban authorities. Over 500,000 US people have traveled to Cuba in the past couple of years and there is not one reported case of this auditory illness among visitors. End result? US travel to Cuba is still fully legal under the categories established by President Obama (these cannot be changed again with an executive order) and Cuba is not hazardous to your health. Here is the official press release from RESPECT:

For Immediate Release
Contact: Bob Guild, 1-201-755-0217
respect@respectassociation.org
US Travel Association Opposes Trump Administration’s Cuba Travel Warning and Pullout of Embassy Staff
September 30, 2017, Havana, Cuba – Meeting here, RESPECT, the largest association of US organizers of travel to Cuba unanimously rejected the Trump Administration’s Cuba travel warning and its decision to withdraw diplomatic staff from its Havana embassy.
The reaction came in response to Washington’s announcement that it is withdrawing 60 percent of non-emergency staff from the US Embassy in Havana and is warning US citizens to avoid travel to Cuba. The justification for both is unexplained health problems that 21 Havana-based US diplomats have reported.
In addition, unidentified US officials said the US Consulate in Havana would suspend issuing US visas to Cubans, indefinitely. The US Embassy will continue to provide emergency services to US citizens in Cuba.
“Based on the evidence thus far and the fact that the State Department says no other US citizens have been affected, we believe that its decision is unwarranted, and are continuing to organize travel to Cuba and encourage others to do so,” said Bob Guild, RESPECT Co-Coordinator and Vice President of Marazul Charters. He also stressed that US citizens and residents can legally travel to Cuba under US law, and that the State Department advisory in no way prohibits US persons from traveling to the island.
RESPECT is joined by US commercial airlines and others in the travel industry who have publically expressed their intention to continue Cuba travel. Gail Reed, RESPECT Co-Coordinator and MEDICC Founder, noted
“Cuba remains a very safe destination for US travelers.”
The US Foreign Service Association, the powerful union that represents US diplomats around the world, also opposes any decision to withdraw US diplomats from Cuba. Association President Barbara Stephenson says “We have to remain on the field and in the game.”
The US complaint about the health issues originated almost a year ago during the Obama Administration when the two governments were working toward rapprochement. As acknowledged by US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, the Cuban government responded immediately and initiated an investigation, inviting the US government to cooperate.
At the invitation of Cuban authorities, the FBI went to Havana seeking evidence of what the US described as “sonic attacks” resulting in hearing loss and other symptoms. However, its agents found no devices or other evidence to explain the mystery.
None of the 500,000 US visitors to Cuba this year have reported similar health issues. Tillerson said this week, “We have no reports that private US citizens have been affected…”.
Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez, speaking at the UN this month, reiterated that Cuba takes very seriously the protection of all diplomats in its country and would never cause them harm or allow others to do so, in accordance with the 1961 Vienna Convention. He also urged the US authorities to work more closely and effectively with the ongoing Cuban investigation, a point he raised again during his meeting with Tillerson this week.
Replying to the US move to reduce its diplomatic personnel in Havana, Josefina Vidal, Director General for US Affairs at Cuba’s Foreign Ministry, called the decision precipitous and said it will affect bilateral relations and cooperation in areas of mutual interest. She noted that Cuba had urged the US not to politicize the matter and insisted that Cuba needed the active cooperation of US authorities to arrive at a definitive conclusion.
“We fear that such hasty action by the Trump Administration, independent of scientific evidence, may be motivated by politics rather than concerns for health and wellbeing,” said Walter Turner, RESPECT Co-Coordinator and President of Global Exchange. “Thus, once again we encourage all US visitors to continue to travel to Cuba.”
—————————————————————————————————————————————————————-
RESPECT (Responsible Ethical Cuba Travel) is a 150-member US professional association of non-profit entities, travel agencies, tour operators and other travel service providers dedicated to practicing and promoting ethical and socially responsible travel to Cuba. Founded in December 2016 on the anniversary of the opening announced by the US and Cuban presidents, RESPECT held a two-day meeting at the Meliá Cohíba Hotel in Havana this week, where its members hammered out a 2017 Action Plan to implement its 17 principles. These include ways US travel organizations and travelers can contribute to protecting Cuba’s environment as it adapts to climate change, commit to non-exploitative relations with all Cubans and respect the country’s cultural heritage and expressions. The Association also defends the right of all US citizens and residents to travel to Cuba, and advocates lifting all US government travel restrictions to the island.

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In the Summer, In the City

It may be hard to believe (or all too easy, depending on your experience and perspective), but there are days I rue my decision to live here. You’d think 14 years would be time a-plenty to know whether a place is for you. Alas, I descend from a long line of slow learners…

 

But Cuba is a confounding place, at equal turns bewitching and bitchy. Sometimes, on those twilight evenings when the full moon is on the rise, the air perfumed by gardenias and a stranger offers to heft your burden three flights to your door, it feels like you snagged the brass ring. Other times, when you awake to a blackout and there’s no coffee in the stores, when a stranger lets fly a snot rocket, sprinkling your sandals with phlegm, it feels like someone just poisoned your childhood dog.

 

Today is a dead dog day.

 

I’d be lying (not like a rug, but like a Cuban!) if I said I’ve had a string of dead dog days – sure, my manuscript was rejected by yet another agency and half of my friends are in the midst of existential crises (the other half, meanwhile, have left the country). And while things are feeling a bit chronic lately, I’m living more for the moment, in the moment than usual, having a bevy of new experiences – like driving a motorcycle for the first time, a 1956 Harley no less, and producing my first short. I’m also getting better at looking on the bright side, like when my pap smear came back clean. So I’m doing ok, but Havana is in its summer throes and it ain’t particularly pretty.

 

Being poor and from NY, I know how much of a burden summer can be, when the days are too hot and long, when tempers run just as hot and way too short. After so many interminable summers, you’d think I’d be used to it. I should be used to it (I’m from the slow side of the family, remember). Maybe it’s because a life lived in Spanish is still hard for me. Or because I miss my people, my family – both Cuban and Yuma – almost all of whom are not here. Maybe I need catharsis. I definitely need a break. Since the latter is too long a ways away, I’ll settle for the former.

 

Here are some of the reasons Havana is anything but fun in the summer:

The heat: There are songs, stories, eulogies written about Havana heat. It is legend. It is horrid. These days, Havana is Hades hot and pea soup humid. It’s thick and clinging like a dim only child or the not-too-bright girl whose cherry you popped. When there’s a breeze from the sea, it’s tolerable, but when Havana’s still, the heat steals sleep and robs appetite. Sex lives stall and it’s just one more excuse not to work (most Cubans don’t need another, believe me). Havana also proves that climate change is real. If you’re one of those who needs proof, you’re as dumb as that once-upon-a-time virgin. When I moved here in 2002, July and August were intolerably hot. Now, May through October is like the old August – mercury approaching 100°F and humidity so dense breathing is hard. That mouldering stink you sense from the other five people crammed into the collective taxi? It’s the humidity: newly-laundered clothes (not to mention towels) never completely dry. And beware and prepare your olfactory sensitivities if you board a bus after a summer thunderstorm – the stench wafting from the hundreds of passengers will permeate your clothes, memory, soul.

 

When I made Havana my home, I was of the belief that complaining about the heat just made things hotter. Like many of my beliefs once firmly held (women over 40 shouldn’t wear mini-skirts; flip flops are indoor shoes), this has fallen by the wayside. I challenge anyone – whether here for a vacation or a lifetime – to pass two days here in summer without griping of the heat.

  • ¡Hay que calor!
  • No soporto este calor…
  • ¡Que calor hace, mi madre!

 

Now you’re as likely to hear me complain as earnestly and often as a native Habanera but with my NYer potty mouth: El calor está de pinga mi hermana. Maybe if I had air conditioning at home or at work. Somewhere.

 

Blackouts and gas rationing: That air conditioning we USED to have at home, work, somewhere? Adios, amigo. Some two weeks ago, information started leaking that we’re headed once again for rolling blackouts a la Periódo Especial (maybe not that bad, but bad enough). I was here August, 1993. A month of 12 to 16 hour blackouts was plenty for me. Little did I know that by the time I moved here in 2002, things had only improved a little (this was before the Venezuela-Cuba pact brought cheap oil to our shores). The time without lights was a few hours fewer but the heat was just as intense. At least this time around I wasn’t working in the fields under a blazing sun, kept upright by periodic shots of milordo (sugar water).

 

These days, the rolling blackouts have already hit certain Havana neighborhoods, but where they’re causing real distress is in the state sector. Stores, offices, and agencies previously chilled by the pingüino, are now without air conditioning. Along with internet, air conditioning is reason enough for people to cling to their shitty salaried state jobs. Now folks are even less motivated to hit the daily grind. To save energy, some places are only working half time these days – either half the hours five days a week or full days only half the week. However you do the math, it means less efficiency, less gas for the economic engine, less optimism, less hope. And more sweat. Though I’m sure some people welcome the time off – after all, it doesn’t affect their salary.

 

What people are NOT welcoming is the 50% cut in gas rations. Here is Havana in a nutshell: the global price of oil, combined with the political shakedown in Venezuela means there is less black gold to go around in these parts. Cuba has had to adapt (luckily, Cubans are more adaptable than Darwin’s case studies). In response, the government cut all gas to state enterprises in half – from now until October if word on the street is to be believed. The effect this is having on daily life is hard to overstate. To understand it – and we’re still trying – you have to know a bit about the ‘mecánica’ Cubana. I can say with confidence that every recipient of a gas ration for their job sells a portion on the black market. They make a little extra for their family, the buyer gets cheaper gas and everyone is happy. Those days are over. Families have less of a supplement, people are only driving when necessary, and the authorities took measures to prevent price hikes by boteros. These drivers of collective taxis (known as maquinas or almendrones), buy their gas on the black market for 40 cents cheaper a liter than at gas stations. Have you ever seen one of these taxis filling up at the Cupet? I thought not.

 

One of these taxi drivers became overnight famous when he stupidly, ingenuously blurted out on the nightly news that his business is being crushed because of the higher black market gas prices. Within 24 hours, the government announced they were enforcing a set tariff for collective taxi rides. Anyone caught violating it would get fined and risk losing their license. Passengers were encouraged to write down the license plate of any violators and report them to the authorities. Oh this is rich! What happens when the cheated on husband reports his wife’s lover, the taxi driver to the cops just to screw him? Knowing el cubaneo, I’m sure this is going down as I type this. And what happens when these drivers realize they can band together and agree not to work for two days, paralyzing Havana? Then we’ll be screwed.

 

Vegetable drought: The hot summer months are truly shitty if you like vegetables. Right now, you’re lucky to find a cabbage or some limp green beans – and please don’t write in about the abundance and variety if you shop at 19 and B – the ‘boutique market’ as it’s not-so-fondly known. In regular, run-of-the-mill markets, the only thing you’ll find are tubers and cabbage and garlic so tiny you need a loop to see the cloves. Meanwhile, onions are so expensive people have stopped eating them. Our usual summer consolation – avocado season – is no consolation this year: early summer winds sent the bulk of the harvest to the ground to rot. What’s left are not the quality or quantity we’re used to. Normally by this time in the summer, we’re sick of avocadoes, having subsisted on them for months. I ate my first avocado this week. To make matters worse, the ambulatory vegetable sellers have disappeared. Their prices were usurious but at least it allowed us to resolve a cucumber or two.

 

Super slow season Tourists are flocking to Cuba, I’m sure you’ve heard, but the flow slows to a trickle in the summer (see The heat, above). This is creating desperation in la calle that’s palpable and uneasy. We’ve had half a dozen people come in to Cuba Libro looking for work, while we struggle to pay our bills. The tourists have trickled out, Cubans have little extra cash for coffee, and our expenses pile up. The slowdown is also noticeable since people are selling anything and everything they can: books older than me, raggedy ass magazines, used clothes, underwear (not used, thankfully), fish, powdered milk, plants, art – you name it, someone’s selling it. Everyone is feeling the pinch – except the Cuban 1% who continue to drive, party, and consume like they’re in Miami.

 

There’s more, but why beat this dead horse? We still have three months of summer to go. It’s going to get hotter, mis amigos

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That Time of the Month in Havana (AKA Periodo Especial)

So the KKK deigned us with a visit. Not the white hooded racists, but the Prada-clad Kardashian clan. By all accounts, they hated Havana. They are not alone. Reasons to dislike my adopted city abound – the vicious gossip and hearsay; the transportation troubles; the dearth of nuts, berries, cheese, and fish; the inevitable beer or four added to your tab. But apparently, none of this registered on the limited radar/IQ of these young women who will never garner the respect or notoriety of their step dadmom, Caitlyn Jenner (I bet that puts Kim, Kourtney and Khloe’s La Perla panties in a twist). No, they hated Havana because their escapades in the world’s hottest city went undocumented on Snapchat and Twitter, negating whatever semblance of relevance they’ve ever known.

And in Havana, the Kardashians are irrelevant, something else they bitched about: ‘no one here knows who we are!’, proving once again that as insane as Havana is, it remains one of the world’s last bastions of sanity. What is relevant are the expectations people bring to this very unexpected place. I get it: most folks traveling here have sorely limited knowledge about Cuba. Maybe they know about the Missile Crisis or the Bay of Pigs or nothing at all. That started changing about two years ago when the likes of Usher and Jagger, Lagerfeld, Lady Gaga, and the real First Lady began stampeding the island like WalMart shoppers on Black Friday. Naturally, these visits made novel TV fodder for channels around the globe.

Meanwhile, Hollywood discovered a tropical playground with high-quality, low-budget talent (Fun Fact: the 12 day shoot for the 8th installment of the Fast & Furious franchise cost Universal $7 million; Cuban friends working on the set report that Vin Diesel is an idiot). Vanity Fair won’t fulfill subscriptions to Cuba (which has my cotton briefs in a twist), but sent Annie Leibovitz down for an exclusive shoot with Rihana where the pop star looks like just another ‘ho from Centro Habana, $2500 come-fuck-me shoes notwithstanding. All of these factors, plus others beyond the purview of this post, create a pseudo-reality of Cuba in the minds of the outside world. The result? Distorted perceptions and false expectations.

Distorted reality was what led me to create Here is Havana seven years ago – to give you the straight dope on what’s really going on in one of the world’s most fascinating cities. So while the Kardashians are whining about their inability to access the Internet (Pro Tip girls: head to the park at 16 & 15 to get all your connectivity woes resolved), I want to talk about real life issues affecting us on the ground: feminine hygiene products.

This is what period products are euphemistically called in the USA, but down here, where menstruation is talked about in mixed company, between and among generations, and at the family dinner table, we’ve no use for euphemism. Cubans – and now me by extension – talk about maxi pads and ‘Tampac’, blood flow and cramps they way you talk about Fair Trade coffee and standard-of-living raises: big issues, but not a shame-inducing big deal. In short, from periods to explosive diarrhea, Cubans have no pena when it comes to bodily functions. I’ve written previously about my admiration for this kind of Cuban straight talk, but given the ‘tourism tsunami’, I think a re-visit is in order, especially what women can expect at that time of the month.

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When I moved to Havana in 2002, it had been decades since I’d used a maxi pad (also known as a sanitary napkin, which makes it sound like a Purell-infused paper towel found on your airplane or hospital food tray). Until my early 30s, I was a tampon gal all the way and never used anything but Tampax (Fun Fact #2: tampon brand loyalty is one of the all-time fiercest consumer behaviors according to focus groups and surveys; get a girl on to your brand in her first or second cycle and she’ll love ya for life! Or at least through menopause).

I arrived with a jumbo box of tampons, but was rudely awakened when those ran out: tampons were just not a thing in Havana. Not available, at any price. I was shocked and a little pissed. How did Cubanas cope? Tampons were a necessity as far as my First World mind could fathom and many of you likely agree. Can’t it be argued that the tampon is one of the most powerful weapons in the women’s lib arsenal (after the washing machine and the immigrant nanny to run it)? It seemed antiquated, as if I’d been thrown back to my mother’s pre-Betty Friedan teenage years.

Except this was 2002. And I was bleeding without recourse. I had to adapt.

This exercise in dystopian social Darwinism taught me some key Cuban survival skills. Most importantly, I learned how Cubans confront the monthly bleed: they procure a limited amount of maxi pads via their ration card, supplemented by cotton swaddling they fashion into pads when the ration, inevitably, runs out. The former are often gifted or sold, the latter reserved for when things devolve into a bloody mess. Once in a while, you might find pads in the dollar stores and when you do, buy in triplicate. When all else failed, I resorted to wads of toilet paper and Scotch tape. File under: Epic Fail. This all put a serious hitch in my giddy up on trips to the beach, hotel pool, or secret waterfalls, but I made do without any seriously embarrassing bleed through. Although, as I like to point out, it’s terribly hard to embarrass a Cuban, no matter the context, and period blood made public is no real cause for concern. To wit: my buddy Oscar recently shared a story about partying with friends at one of the faux posh Miami lounges cropping up in Havana like fungi under cow shit. Seating was in booths and on cubes made of white pleather (that’s plastic leather in Conner-speak; learn it. Love it). When Oscar’s girl stood to go to the bathroom, she left the cube smeared with blood. As she walked away, Oscar grabbed a napkin and wiped it clean without missing a beat.

Still, it’s hard to return to bulky, non-beach-compliant pads and relive pleather-smearing accidents after you’ve experienced [insert your favorite brand here]. Indeed, tampons are in such high demand in Havana, we ask foreign visitors to pack some extra in their luggage. Thanks to many kind folks who have done so, we have stock on hand at the bookstore – we’ve saved many a tourist and colleague with these donated ‘feminine hygiene products.’ And we’re converting people too: a pair of Cubana friends declined our invitation to a Cuba Libro beach outing because it was their time of the month. I told them this shouldn’t be a limitation and introduced them to tampons. One of these women was in her 20s; the other in her 30s. I gave them a quick how-to (verbal, not visual) and handed them the bilingual instructions/anatomical diagrams provided in every box. Judging by the frequency of tampon requests we’re now fielding at Cuba Libro, I’d say consumer choice and convenience – of which the tampon is poster child – are going to start driving many people’s agenda. Personally, unless I’m working an outfit requiring a thong or am destined for water play, I’m a stalwart pad supporter. At my age, I don’t have that many more years to worry about all this. What a fucking relief (but please dear lord: retain my robust libido!)

As for the Kardashians, I hope they brought enough feminine hygiene products – they sure did seem like they were on the rag during their visit.

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