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Surviving Cuba with FE*

(*Familia en el Exterior)

I used to tell people when I’d be traveling—give them a head’s up in case they needed something from a fuera. That was when I first got here, green and eager. It took just a few trips hauling back motherboards, tires, cologne and all manner of sordid (vibrators/lube) and sundry (Dremels/extension cords) cargo to learn to keep my travel plans private. The responsibility became a burden, literally and figuratively, my luggage loaded down with encargos.

Everyone wanted something. But not everyone needed something. It took me awhile and hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned to distinguish between the two.

Some people talk a really good, sweet game. Others take straight up advantage. Often, priorities and similar levels of need compete. Triage is hard—especially in disaster times. The night before I left our tent camp after weeks of living with the Henry Reeve Brigade in post-quake Pakistan, I offered to mule gifts to the doctors’ families back in Cuba. Within a few hours, I had tank tops and underwear, flip flops, dolls, razors, makeup, toy cars and soap—an entire extra bag accompanying me on the long trip home.

As I’m sure/hope you’ve heard, we are squarely in disaster times on the island right now. It’s heartbreaking (Alfredo making chicken foot soup; Elena fashioning her own soap) and there’s blame to lay, but what substantive, long-term good does that do? Not enough, I’m afraid. Does it ease our aching hearts? It does not, I am proof. So this time I’m bringing back as much as my skinny arms, wallet and airline will allow. But I’ve had to set—and stick to—a strict prioritization method.

For me, like most people (most of my people anyway), it’s always family first. I’m talking beyond blood: I’m talking Family, capital F. Cuban-type, capital F type Family, which is broader, more blended, sometimes even including mistresses, bastard children and ex-husbands. Have I been burned? You betcha. Swindled. Double crossed and tricked, by people I thought were family. What a crappy feeling that is, eh? These days I’m studiously careful about whom I consider Family. Because these days, more than most days, all Cubans need FE to survive. And I can’t be a surrogate FE for all these people in need.  

The need is great indeed. Everyone is suffering from the COVID-induced paralysis of disastrous proportions, the reunification of the currency and attendant runaway inflation, plus the US blockade which is right now at its most Draconian since its imposition 60 years ago. So for this (unplanned and bittersweet) trip, I told no one but my Family—this includes my closest neighbors, the Cuba Libro team of course, and my MEDICC Review colleagues. But you know what happens once la bola está en la calle: word starts getting around.

It fast became evident I would need a solidarity hierarchy to complement my regular prioritization mechanism:

  • Family: Within this category I prioritize the sick, elderly, children and new moms. Our pets are also Family (there is so much need for veterinary meds and supplies). Among the items I’ll be bringing back: a cane, shoes, razors, wheels for angle grinders, printer cartridges, a couple of cell phones, bras, toothpaste and brushes, shoes and seeds for home gardens…Just last night my sister-in-law fairly begged for seeds and spices. I’ve got her covered.
  • Medicine: Certain non-family folks jump to the front due to health problems, like the 3-month old with leukemia who lives next door to an old friend and a colleague’s mom who recently had a cerebral hemorrhage. Medications I’ll be bringing back for them, family and friends: children’s cough syrup, Omega 3, glaucoma eye drops, multi-vitamins, B complex, blood pressure, cholesterol, anti-anxiety and Parkinson’s meds, antihistamines. burn cream and lidocaine patches.  
  • Food: You’ve seen how skinny I am? It’s not an eating disorder: that’s stress and food scarcity pure and simple. Smoking doesn’t help and I surely have parasites glomming off my gut, but I love to eat. So much so my Cuban friends dubbed me La Yuma Jamaliche.  But this whole COVID thing combined with the teetering Cuban economy means there ain’t enough to go around. Me and almost everyone else is not getting enough to eat, period. It was annoying enough when every last person was saying how flaca I’d become but it was downright alarming when one of my scientific, vaccine expert colleagues told me the same thing, advising me to eat more (as if it were that easy in Havana, Spring 2021).  I always chow down hard when I’m in the States, aiming to gain 10 pounds, but this trip I’m going for a baker’s dozen (only 2 pounds to go!) by the time I return. And you know I’ll be returning with a valise full of food including: industrial amounts of cumin, cinnamon and garlic powder, nuts and grains of various types, energy bars, rice, pasta, dried fruit, parmesan cheese, tuna and more (RAMEN is my savior!).
  • Gifts, fun and ephemera: A well-known food and social justice activist taught me an important lesson: for years, she was rabidly opposed to any cut flowers, arguing that this and all fertile land should be dedicated to food production. Bouquet flowers were frivolous, ephemeral and perishable—and criminal when people were starving. Then one fine day, someone pointed out to her that flowers feed the soul.

And our soul needs feeding. More than ever these days. Soul burn out is real and lethal. This is especially true for those of us fighting the good fight and dedicating ourselves to helping others. And while cut flowers are still kind of iffy in my mind (better to plant your own), the point is, we all need fun, pretty stuff in our lives. This isn’t an easy lesson for me. My epigenetic code yells Suffer! Deny comfort! Work hard! Form follows function! Not a lot of wriggle room for pretty things within my particular neurosis, but I’m learning and this trip I’ll be going back with: scented candles, two of mom’s ceramic bowls from my childhood, a psychedelic spinning thing for my balcony, all kinds of chocolate/cool magnets/earrings for my family and friends, and a bit of makeup for me ‘cuz you know: I’m getting old and burnt out and it’s beginning to show.

As I hunt furiously for a way to return, people continue to write me asking to bring: belt drives, nutritional yeast, cell phone cases, mouse pads, and more. The need never ends. There’s never enough room or money or time. I’m learning to say no when all I want to say is: ‘hell yes!’ Now if only I could get my body and bags on a plane headed to Havana…

NB: The term FE (Familia en el Exterior) was copped from Peter, my brother from another mother.

Also: These travel gymnastics and luggage nightmares would be fewer and far between if Biden would get OFF HIS ASS and restart the normalization process.

And: For those who got all the way to the end of this post and are left wondering…yes. I mule in money for every family, friend or colleague who asks.

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

Cuban Dumpster Fires #42-46: COVID & The Blockade

Things aren’t going well in Cuba In fact, the situation is peor que nunca. Rolling blackouts, the antiquated aqueduct system busted, leaving huge swaths of Havana without water, the country is posting record numbers of COVID infections and there’s no pork, rice, coffee, salt…

In short, our world is rocking.

Which means my world—this inconsequential space-time blip I occupy with friends, family and a few random undesirables—is also rocking. Upside down and sideways. It’s COVID. It’s the embargo. It’s the forced separation the combination engenders. If you’ve got any Cuba connection, you know we’re in a long-running, island-set shit show with dumpster fires peppering the stage. The flames rage while bystanders burn.

And I’m sidelined, unable to dowse or dampen the conflagration: I was obligated to leave Cuba two months ago.

My passport sat in a drawer for the whole of 2020 while I faced other calamities and grief. Discovering it a few weeks before expiration was a fluke—like when you look at your lover’s phone for the time to see their gym partner sexting. A fluke that makes you want to puke, that is to say.

Panicking, I turned to the US Embassy in Havana. Por gusto: it was closed in 2017, thanks to You Know Who (in Cuba, consular services were cancelled before COVID-19—a petty and pathetic maneuver, even for this day and age). I called the Embassy and got a recorded message. I sent an email as directed. I received a boiler plate email repeating what was on the phone message and website. For the first—and only—time in my 19-year stay, I presented myself before the Embassy’s 20-foot steel gate. The nice Cuban guard told me to send an email. The bureaucratic loop—call, email, wait, repeat—triggered rage, tears, and feelings of helplessness tinged with entitlement (‘I’m a US citizen god damn it! How dare they strand me like this!’). From her solitary lockdown in Minnesota, my sister called the State Department in DC. No dice. She called the passport office. Ditto.

Dumpster Fire #42 starts smoldering…

And please stop screaming ‘mail it in!’ at your screen: direct mail services between the USA and Cuba, normalized under Obama, are also reeling from the COVID/Humpty Trumpty one-two punch. Besides, would you trust your passport with a foreign mail service during a global pandemic? Or with the gutted, beleaguered US Postal Service?

No Embassy and no mail left me two choices: let my passport lapse or get off the island. I opted for the latter.

Cue Dumpster Fire #44 (I’m choosing to elide over #43 which saw me sobbing on the floor, Toby sniffing at my snot-encrusted face)…

The problem? Cuba was (and is still) closed to almost all air traffic due to an explosion of post-holiday COVID infections; just two flights a week have been flying between our two countries for months now. And they’re booked through August. With mere days left on my passport, my sister (who has a knack for travel), scored me a seat on the oversold, once-a-week JetBlue flight. With a festering case of gastritis, plus sleeper case of hypertension, a panicked clinic visit for a PCR test, and harried kisses for my guy and dog, I left.

_____

Being on far away shores after fighting tirelessly, surviving heroically, and loving fiercely sucks and hurts, giving rise to a toxic cocktail of guilt, relief, nostalgia, and yearning. Not to mention an unhealthy dose of frustration-laced anger. Some of you know of what I write.  

But to hell with the guilt and pain, and idealized nostalgia: I keep on fighting. Unless I’m curled up in a ball bawling (AKA Dumpster Fire #45 & #46), I keep on fighting—to honor mom’s memory, to help my Cuban friends and family, to remain on the side of the just. I keep fighting to maintain sanity, to keep money coming in and out of trouble/jail, to make sure my loved ones stay fed, housed and connected to the Internet. I fight, uncurl myself from that ball, and clear away the tears to face a new day.

Today.

One day at a time.

Fakin’ it till I make it.

I take solace in 12-Step mantras—not because they helped me get (and stay) sober, but because they keep me off the Cuba/COVID/Conner-at-51 ledge. I’m still an addict, but to other things, like work and cigarettes and coffee (the introvert trifecta!) and these have kept me alive and as-well-as-can-be considering the circumstances. As I contain my conflicting emotions and try not to lash out at loved ones, this is what that looks like: 

*Writing ad nauseum about COVID: I often counsel a news blackout or media vacation as a mental health tool for our modern world. But there’s no rest for a health reporter during a global pandemic. Just in the past few months (to say nothing of 2020), I’ve been neck deep editing and re-writing manuscripts about Cuban kids with long COVID and related cardiovascular problems; neuropsychological effects of COVID; and the sickening politics, inequities and egoism of our pandemic-plagued planet. And the hits kept on coming after I was assigned two interviews on the “mono-topic:” with the directors of Cuba’s Center for Clinical Trials and the Molecular Immunology Center, which produces the recombinant RBD for Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines

As I clocked a week of 14-hour days wrapping my aching head around pandemic-related issues, I was asked to revise the English-language insert for SOBERANA Plus, Cuba’s vaccine for convalescent COVID patients.

Important? Yes. Fun? Not at all.   

*Going deep on the US blockade: Many big and little things are crumbling as a consequence of COVID-19: marriages, mom and pop stores, traditional greetings like our customary kiss on the cheek. Unless these macro and micro implosions affect us personally, they go unnoticed. So it goes with OXFAM, which closed 18 offices around the world, including in Cuba. After 27 years of bolstering food security and sovereignty, strengthening gender justice, fighting climate change, and reducing disaster-related risks, this is a huge blow to the innumerable Cubans who’ve benefitted from OXFAM support and programs the past three decades. OXFAM Cuba’s parting salvo is The Right to Live Without a Blockade, a report on how US sanctions hamstring Cubans’ right to live, learn, grow, develop and dream on their own terms. The report was co-written by moi, along with a multi-talented team. The official release date—in Spanish and English—is May 27. Please help us spread the word!

*Conner says what?!: I was red tagged and sent to detention for my big mouth as a kid. Nowadays, folks are bombarding my socials with all manner of Cuba-related interview requests: women’s issues, LGBTQI+ rights, how my reed-like figure doesn’t excite Cubans, and the embargo, of course. I was reluctant to talk about my expiring passport situation with the New York Times but despite these misgivings, I did—it’s about the message, after all, not me.  The message? The State Department doesn’t give a flying one about US citizens living abroad—rich business people excepted, of course.

***BREAKING NEWS: The NY Times article by Debra Kamin referenced above got the State Department off their duff and (some) US citizens with expired passports can now travel back to the US. Better late than never! Not for nothing: Cuba started it’s paperwork/passport/visa deferral plan at the beginning of COVID-19.

*Popping my Zoom cherry: Living in Cuba, where Zoom is blocked by the US embargo, I skated through 2020 with nary a video meeting, interview or webinar. But as the pandemic drags on and we all struggle not to be dragged down with it, the invitations are pouring in. Despite my technological struggles (VPNs, expensive data, blackouts), I popped my Zoom cherry as a speaker on the Canadian Network on Cuba’s panel to raise funds for medical donations to the island. I found it enjoyable, uplifting even (it was my first one, after all!). If you’re looking for a concrete way to help Cuba confront COVID, I suggest donating to this initiative or the multi-organizational drive to send 3 million syringes to the island for the whole population vaccination effort now underway.

Next up was a webinar series among health experts and virologists from Cuba and the University of Minnesota to share experiences and ideas about effective COVID strategies and policies. Thankfully, US scientific and academic communities are open to collaboration and exchange: another webinar series launches on June 8 between Cuba and the University of Alabama.

*Struggling to be a “real” writer: Pop culture, slang, evolving vocabulary and concepts: a lot of it passes you by when you live abroad for long periods of time, when you’re not on the ground, watching things unfold and taking part. Being woke, Karens and Beckys, the drip, Tuca & Bertie – I didn’t know jack about any of this until I researched or was schooled by friends. So it was with Imposter Syndrome, a term I’d never before heard but from which I definitely suffer (though I’ve always called it good old-fashioned self-hatred). I don’t consider my blog “real” writing. It may be thoughtful and well-crafted, but it doesn’t pay (that dogged yardstick by which too many of us measure worth and success), hasn’t led to any assignments or gigs as far as I know, and doesn’t have a broad audience. It has value, of course, mostly in helping me maintain a semblance of sanity and breaking down myths about Cuba, but it ain’t great literature, investigative reporting, or emotive memoir—the type of writing I dream of publishing.  

And then I wrote a blog post that sent readers swooning; friends, strangers and writers I admire wrote in with accolades and support. They urged me to add a bit of context, flesh it out some, and submit it to major publications, the likes of which triggered some real imposter doubts. The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the New York Times—other level shit for a not-very-real writer. ‘Possible?’ the imposter in me wondered. And what about my tendency to “punt,” as a wildly accomplished writer observed of my tendency to stick to safe terrain and retreat in the face of rejection? Criticize me and I recoil like a set of testes in an Icelandic lake, but once I regroup, I double down. So I rewrote, restructured and retitled that post and am making my way down the list of possible outlets. I’m only two rejections in…stay tuned!

*Saving Cuba Libro:  Something else I’ll have to write about in a “real” way sometime are the last eight years of my life, consumed by this community project I founded. Our philosophy and programming have touched so many, altered life trajectories, and improved well-being. Mine included, though it’s such a struggle it often feels like keeping Cuba Libro alive just might kill me. At no time has this been truer than 2020-2021.  Over the past 14 months, we’ve been able to operate for just two. That’s 14 months of rent and utilities, 14 months of buying overpriced coffee, milk, fruit, syrups and sugar and nearly 14 months of maintaining salaries for our seven full-time staff. To keep busy, we’ve redesigned our space for social distancing, developed new recipes and a new menu, installed a freezer, implemented a reservation system, improved our garden, forged new collaborations, and stepped up our digital image and game.  

None of this would be possible without our seat-of-the-pants fundraising and the generous, unflagging support of our global community. I remember when we were redesigning the space for social distancing in May 2020, we discussed this “temporary” situation, that in three months we’d be able to go back to the “old” café design and earning model. Ha! Here we are over a year later, still closed, still begging for support. It’s depressing, debilitating and deflating, but we soldier on. We sally forth. In that vein, we’ve launched two new initiatives—tax-deductible monetary donations to our 501(c)3 non-profit Friends of Cuba Libro and 100% original, Cuban-designed merch in our Red Bubble store. And on June 3, Dr William Ross (voted Favorite Customer by Team Cuba Libro in 2019) is hosting a fundraising webinar with me (and whomever can connect from Havana), En la Lucha: The Cuba Libro Story. Please tune in/share if you’re able.

Times are terrible in Cuba, I can’t lie. Empty stomachs, limited horizons and broken hearts are foisted upon us thanks to US sanctions, the global pandemic and the island’s inability to withstand the current context for much longer. Our safety net is dangerously frayed. Friends and loved ones plot escape. Indeed, by the time you read this, one of our dearest friends and most ardent supporters will have emigrated. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.

I’ve got my new passport, but thanks to the embargo, pandemic and politics, I’m stuck in the Estamos Jodidos until further notice. Coño.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban economy, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

Nuestro Vino es Amargo…

I’m baaaack! Not that I went anywhere. Not physically, anyway. In fact, I haven’t ventured farther than 30km from my apartment in a year. But mentally—spiritually—I’ve traveled some long, dark roads in that time. Who hasn’t? The collective trauma caused by COVID makes 9/11 look like a bad hair day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fortunate. Privileged even. I’ve been able to make rent. I still have my highly-rewarding (albeit low-paying) job. Various old age ailments have beset my better half and me, but otherwise we’re healthy. Plus, I live in a place where the science is sound, people retain a keen sense of humor, and healthcare is free. What’s more, thanks to good planning and foresight, not to mention political will and a superlative biotech industry dating back over 30 years, Cuba has four COVID-19 candidates in clinical trials; whole population immunization begins next month.

It can’t happen soon enough. I’m sure you understand. If you don’t, I’ll go ahead and assume you’re a COVID denier, anti-vaxxer or selfish bastard unfazed by the prospect of infecting innocent people. If one of these applies, let me break it to you not-so-gently: Darwin was right and your days are numbered.

But you didn’t come here to listen to me whine and lecture (although this is kinda my bread and butter; deal with it). Rather, you want to know what’s happening here in Havana. For the short attention spanners among you, it boils down to the old saying ‘nuestro vino es amargo pero es nuestro,’ which basically means: it’s a shit show, but it’s OUR shit show.

What that looks like circa February 2021:

Almost everyone is broke, in debt and gasping for air at across-the-board, sky-high prices – Without going into a macro-economic muela about the why of this category 5 economic storm (for which I’m professionally and intellectually ill-equipped regardless), let’s just say it’s multifactorial and transcends COVID-19.

Certain factors are historical, like the blockade/embargo, combined with inherent inefficiencies in the Cuban system, funny accounting, and the informal economy feeding off them. Other factors are cultural, including farmers and middlemen who’d rather the produce rot than drop their prices and a cannibalistic capitalism coursing through many a Cuban vein (provided the chance to make a nickel, these folks snap to action faster than a homely jinetera espying a group of rich Russians).

One thing is clear: the global recession is rocking everyone’s world. And in no way, shape or form is Cuba exempt from this downward spiral. But just to add a little spice to the party—as Cubans, love ‘em dearly, always do—we are currently undergoing the painful, laborious, decades-in-the-making, unification of the currency here and all that entails.

Many of you may remember the late 90s-early aughts when the US dollar, Cuban peso (CUP) and Cuban convertible peso (CUC) circulated concurrently. I do: it was happening when I moved here in 2002. Oh how gloriously naïve I was! Stumbling along in my so-so Spanish, relying on my energetic husband to shield me from the sausage making, and marveling at how Cubans pivot and resolve! I now realize it was like dining at a fine restaurant when things go sideways: it takes forever for your meal to arrive (the first plating slid to the floor), potatoes were substituted for polenta (the sous chef was snorting a line while it burned), and the coulis tastes more like raspberry than pomegranate (the purveyor couldn’t deliver and was subsequently canned). Nevertheless, it’s beautifully presented, delicious even! But you, the diner, are none the wiser to the mayhem and stress going on in the kitchen.

That was then.

Nearly 20 years on, I am no longer unwitting. I am no longer shielded. And things are much, much tougher this go ‘round. This time it really is sink or swim (or at least tread water like your life depends on it). Cartons of eggs have more than tripled in price. The same with powdered milk—the only kind available. Not that these things are necessary available, no matter how much money you have. Cheese—oh beloved cheese!—is another lost cause. People tell me it’s sold in the dollar stores but I wouldn’t know; I haven’t had cheese since August 2020. So we go without. We go vegan. Shouldn’t that be a choice? I mean, forced veganism: how dystopian.

Lines are long, salaries fall short – So we tread water and stay afloat. How? Anticipating this all-too-predictable inflation, the state has raised salaries in an effort to offset the shortfall. Are the higher salaries enough? No. Are they equitable? They are not. Consider the fact that under the new salary structure, a university professor with a PhD earns less than a parole officer with a ninth grade education and you start to see the dynamic. Again, I’m no economist (thank the dear lord), but this new system smarts of the old—in short: same dog, different fleas and making ends meet is a real hardship, a day-in-day-out struggle.

The hard truth is, most months the ends won’t meet. And you’re truly up shit’s creek if a pipe bursts, a stove part breaks or your kid needs new shoes. But we keep on treading.

Barter is a major player in the COVID-19, post-CUC economy. Toothpaste for cooking oil; coffee for mechanical work; cowboy boots for gas—Cuba is on the cutting edge of the in-kind economy. Just yesterday I traded ibuprofen for onions in a marvelous win-win swap.

Solidarity, now as always, is a complementary survival strategy. Alfredo pedals 25km into the countryside to buy fresh yogurt for our Cuba Libro family. First Dailyn and then Jacqueline gave me kibble when Toby’s food was running dangerously low. Kristen and Abel share their abundant harvest with friends, family, neighbors, and the local old folks’ home; I can’t tell you how many people have enjoyed their organic arugula during COVID! There’s another saying here: ‘quien tiene amigos, tiene un central’ which loosely translates as ‘we get by with a little help from our friends.’ Shock froze my family doctor’s face last week when I told him I completed the 14-day, triple pill treatment he prescribed for my gastritis. During the consultation, he warned me that pharmacy stocks were low and I probably wouldn’t be able to get the medicines. ‘I have a central,’ I told him—it was entirely thanks to my friends that I was able to procure the treatment I needed.

And when all else fails, we stand in line. We’re talking 4 hours in line for bread, the butcher, to enter a store or the bank. Entire WhatsApp and Telegram groups, Facebook pages and word-of-mouth networks are active 24-7 letting people know what store has which products and how long the line is. “Café Guantanamera, 23 y 26. Two kilos per customer. Not many people on line,” is one recent message. “Store on 15 y 26 is taking names for tomorrow’s chicken line,” reads another. “Amiga! Chopped meat at 11 y 4. No line!!!” says the one that literally just came in.

Can’t or won’t stand in line? These groups can help out there, too. “Chicken just arrived at the casa del pollo, 5ta y 42. If anyone is coming down, I’m here on line” (meaning, you can scoot on line with your friend). Alternatively, you can throw money at the problem by paying someone to stand in line for you—recent rates were $1CUC/hour during the day, $5CUC before sunrise—or sidle up and buy the numbered ticket from someone who has already been standing on line for hours ($5CUC/ticket). Or, if you’re really in the money, you can rely on black market resellers who provide door-to-door service selling meat, coffee, oil, soap, sponges, detergent—you name it. Probably the best strategy however, is to have someone ‘on the inside’ of the store. They will call you when certain goods come in, meet you ‘round back and load up your bag away from all lines and prying eyes. You pay for your goods, include a nice tip and away you go, stocked and stoked.

Health measures are changing rapidly and there are no ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards – Maybe it’s just me, but things seemed more organized during last year’s first wave. Adding to the confusion are new measures that are announced and then rescinded or altered, sometimes even before implementation. Does public transport stop at 7pm or 9pm? Can we shop in stores outside of our home municipality? Are they really putting physical barriers in highly trafficked places to improve distancing on line as announced? Can we travel between provinces in private transport or not?

In January, a friend of mine was driving home from her dad’s house across town. It was about 9:30pm. The cops pulled her over informing her that she couldn’t be driving past 9 (this was weeks before the current 9pm-5am curfew, implemented on February 5). ‘What?’ she asked. ‘That’s one of the new measures?’ They skirted the question (typical) and repeated that she could not be driving at this hour. This friend of mine is young, especially bubbly and possesses the most striking sage green eyes, which she employs to great effect. She talked her way out of the ticket.

Last week, Mary—neither bubbly, nor as young, and certainly not as deferential—wasn’t so lucky. Masked up and jogging with her dog in the local park, she was stopped by the police who told her exercising in public is prohibited. She pushed back, gently. Mary isn’t deferential, but she isn’t stupid either: police are a touchy breed anywhere, regardless of the times or troubles afoot and need to be engaged with caution. They repeated: no running in public. They proceeded to put her in the squad car, take her down to the station and put her in a cell where she spent several hours. It was crowded, physical distancing was impossible and everyone had a tale to tell. There was the guy who pulled down his mask to use his asthma inhaler. There was the couple at the hospital trying to get their second PCR test and were taken in for…being in public without having a second PCR test. Everyone behind bars has a story and who knows if they’re true, but I know Mary’s is. She was taken in for exercising in public, spent hours in close quarters with many strangers during a global pandemic and was issued a 2000 CUP fine—half her monthly salary.

Speaking of jail, my good buddy Miguel called yesterday. You may remember him—he’s serving 6 years on a ridiculous charge. If it’s tense out here, you can imagine how it is on the inside. Total lockdown for almost a year and only a few physically-distanced visits from loved ones in all that time. Not being able to hug or kiss or get horizontal with his wife Esther is taking a mighty toll. Food is scarce—most days it’s rice and split peas, maybe an egg but never two. There’s little soap, no toothpaste, razors or deodorant and without the monthly visits and sacks of provisions hauled out to the campo by family and friends, prison commerce has largely ground to a halt. Parole hearings are still held—on paper—but no one is getting it. At least Miguel has periodic access to a phone; thanks to Cuba’s ongoing tech revolution, I was able to recharge his phone card electronically.

Small businesses are screwed – This is a global phenomenon, we are all well aware, proving that COVID-19 is deadly in more ways than one. But for us, it’s not just about COVID: Trumpty Dumpty and his anti-Cuban puppet masters also tightened the screws precisely as the pandemic worsened. They fined financial institutions helping Cuba weather the storm. They turned back planes of medical supplies. And they shut down Western Union, drastically affecting remittances to families on the island. For years, these regime change hawks harped: ‘Cuba needs a middle class. Cuba needs a thriving private sector. We need to support the Cuban people.’ So we’ll just go ahead and cut them off at the knees and sever all sorts of lifelines during a global pandemic. The fucking hypocrisy. Sickening.

Throw in hyper inflation, reduced purchasing power for consumers, zero tourists, no goods coming in via mulas and you have a perfect storm for sabotaging the private sector and the individuals that have shed blood, sweat and tears building small businesses.

But they will not break us. We have our in-kind economy, our solidarity, our central. We have creativity and community and values. This is how Cuba Libro has survived from March 20, 2020 until today, during which we were open two short (but fabulous!) months. Thanks to donations and unwavering support from people who came for our coffee, volunteered, bought books, gifted books, left tips and helped lift our spirits, we were able to pay rent, maintain minimum salaries of our 7 employees, and keep them connected to the Internet while closed.

These are people who believe in our mission and vision. Who believe that good coffee and music, excellent literature and a tranquil garden can build community and contribute to a better future. That together and by example, we can strengthen commitment to others and the environment, build mutual respect despite differences, and create a safe space for all regardless of gender, race, religion, financial possibilities, sexual orientation, age or ability. These are people who believe that doing good for the collective is more important in the long run than doing well individually. Who believe we all have things worth teaching and worth learning and that great things can be accomplished with few resources combined with collaborative action. Who believe that maintaining our donation programs and book sales during the pandemic is more needed than ever.

Some say I’m naïve, a fool, a dumbass for structuring a small business thusly—where some days (bad days!) I take home less pay than the rest of the team. Still others accuse me of having a ‘white savior complex.’ These detractors are at best confused and at worst so ‘woke’ their insomnia is affecting their analytical skills. To these folks I say: lead, follow or get the fuck out of our way.

Certain people say I’m an idiot, moreover, for maintaining minimum salaries for our 7-member team while we’re closed. We don’t have time for these kinds of people – the ‘not our people’ people. The precious time we have we spend working at our side hustles; sharing and pooling resources and making sure they get to those most needing them; keeping ourselves as balanced as we can and away from the deep, dark psychological hole into which each of us, at one time or another, has plunged in the past year. Just today my friend Anita said to me: ‘girl, ever forward. And whenever one of us is down in the depths, we gotta pick each other up and push each other forward.’ Anita is our kind of people, the ones who know that the worthy things in life have to be built, nurtured, fed and shared. The other ones? Those who say it’s foolish to maintain minimum salaries? They’re the ones who think you can buy commitment and community. And love. You can’t. Beatles, 1964. Hello?!

We’re surviving, but it’s wearing thin. Even with their archetypical sense of humor, tendency to not sweat the small stuff, outlook that tomorrow is another day and let’s live today like there’s no tomorrow, Cubans are stressing. The tension is palpable, audible: ubiquitous sirens at night, parents yelling at their cooped-up kids, and dogs barking (more than usual) at anything that moves; granted, not much is moving these days. Even the silence is tense. No music wafts from windows, no kids laughing or skipping along. No dominoes being shuffled and played under the milky light of a street lamp.

But we keep on keepin’ on. And to all who have helped us, helped Cubans, helped anyone, during COVID-19: we thank you deeply, as our barrista extraordinaire Gaby would say in her so-so English. This is the way forward. The only way. In the meantime, we tread.

PS – The day after I wrote the first draft of this post, my friend Ivan gifted me a wedge of blue cheese. There is something to that ‘put it out in the universe’ stuff!

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COVID in Cuba: Havana Monkey Wrench

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The flame of hope blazed.

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

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

And then the coronacoaster derailed.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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COVID-19 & Cuba: The Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

And last, but certainly not least:

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

 

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

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COVID-19 & Cuba: The Not-So-Good

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yet.

And yet.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to spitting and chicken.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Twisters & Twinks: Mobile Data Mobilizes Cuba

Confession time. I’m something of a Luddite. If you know me, you know I was one of the last to relinquish my flip phone. I still rely on a pocket digital camera to document my frequent adventures and I’ve only connected once – unsuccessfully – at a Wifi park. I’ve never, ever, read an E-book and, all my writing, including this post, is crafted old school style – with pen and paper.

In short, I’m an analog kind of gal. Except when it comes to earning my living and putting frijol en el plato as we say here. And one thing greatly handicapping me, which regularly prevents me from landing paid gigs, is my lousy internet connection. If I had a nickel for every assignment I’ve lost because I couldn’t upload a PDF, download writing guidelines or respond quickly enough to an editor’s inquiry, I could take a sabbatical, write my memoir and make some real money. So when it became possible to access mobile data here, I jumped at the chance – no more missed pitch deadlines! No more blind pitching! No more $2/minute phone calls to Mom; now it’d be pennies a piece with WhatsApp!

It took me three phone “upgrades” and several sit downs with my tech savior Ivan before I was finally able to get data (thank God Ivan came along; since our buddy and IT guru Miguel landed in jail, we’ve been even more technologically challenged than usual). Heady, I sprang for the second-most expensive package – 1GB of data for $10CUC, good for a month. No longer would editors assign pieces to those quicker with the reply. Gone were the days where I’d pitch without reading recent issues. I could even keep the Cuba Libro website current! Well, maybe. But Instagram! Yes!

Since December, anyone with the proper device and money (or Yuma sugar Mama/Papa providing said tools), jumped on the bandwagon. Including my husband – the man who doesn’t have email, had never been on the internet and with whom I rack up $200 phone bills when I travel off island (money much better spent on rent.) Finally! An alternative. I’ll never forget our first video chat – he beaming smiles from his sister’s porch in Playa, Toby at his side, me laughing out loud as my sister and I squeezed into the frame from the music-filled streets of Memphis.

Suddenly, a video chat with Granny from your living room or crystal clear, cheap phone calls to your jevito in Toronto, are possible. Of course, the rest of the Internet is also accessible but even with the infinite cultural, comic, educational, and edifying benefits of the World Wide Web just a click away, I know countless Cubans who don’t access it. No, many folks here prefer All Facebook, All the Time. Untold throngs, including my husband, are addicted, considering Facebook the end-all-be-all in connectivity.

Unfortunately, Cubans’ “pliable privacy” and wholesale lack of discretion combine with the steep digital learning curve to create a whole lot of FB bullshit and mini scandals. Tagging people in compromising situations (ie stinking drunk, pegando tarro, in salacious postures not meant for posterity); taking private messages public; and revealing racist, homophobic and misogynistic tendencies – it’s all happening on the ‘Facebu.’ Plus chain mail madness and phishing expeditions, por dios! All of this is mere annoyance. What really gets my panties in a twist is the proliferation of fake news. Cubans on the whole are savvy at parsing propaganda, reading between the lines and filling in the blanks – in traditional media and milieu. But the format and minute-by-minute nature of social media causes them to lose all sense and sensibility. When you throw angry exiles and recent immigrants seething with enmity and rancor into the mix, it makes for a toxic combination. I know: I’ve been on the receiving end of these bellicose keyboard cowboys.

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For those rushed readers or those with a short attention span (tsk, tsk), here’s a quick rundown of the good, bad and questionable developments since we’ve had this in-your-pocket internet access

The Good:

 The Bad:

  • Bootie calls are now accompanied by live video – should your would-be fuck buddy need some live-action enticement. You’ll live to regret it m’ijo. Sexting is one thing; providing explicit images is quite another.
  • Sexual harassment of the sort now rampant in other parts of the world is now happening in Cuba, with bosses sending nude photos to underlings demanding employment perks and promotions in exchange for sexual favors (in the specific case to which I’m privy, the boss is a woman).

The Debatable:

  • Recent food scarcity has driven Cubans to apply their enviable pragmatism to the digital realm, starting the WhatsApp group known as Donde Hay. Launched a couple of weeks ago, users upload photos of food and goods with the price, length of line to buy said products (we’re just shaking free of two hour – or longer – lines to get chicken) and at which store they’re being sold. People dissimulating and trying to send the thousands of users to different stores with their “fake” food sightings are booted off the group. I call this a debatable development because while I admire the practicality, my little old lady neighbors and favorite grandmas, can’t take advantage of this. So while they’re tottering over to their local mercadito, Donde Hay users (many of whom are private restaurant owners, no doubt) are already picking those shelves clean.

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We’ve had nearly five months of mobile data now, making it a good time to drill down and look at how this is manifesting. Most importantly, my husband no longer has to be cajoled to ‘get off the Facebu’ to make our morning coffee (I walk Toby, he brews the espresso – le toca mango bajito, eh?). Beyond our four walls, the impact of mobile data really hit home when the tornado struck Havana on January 27th. The government responded immediately and concerned citizens followed suit, taking to social media to organize relief efforts. Cars and trucks laden with clothes and shoes, potable water, non-perishable food and hygiene products started rolling into Regla, Guanabacoa and 10 de Octubre. Throngs of young people stuffed backpacks and bags full of donations, hefting them into the hardest-hit areas.

If you’re reading this and have post-disaster relief experience (either on the giving or receiving end), you can guess what ensued: chaos and confusion. In Cuba, recovery and relief is designed, implemented and coordinated by the government’s civil defense arm. International aid is requested, received, and distributed by them and only them. It has always been this way – until now. In short, the overwhelmingly quick, coordinated response by civil society, private individuals and business people – almost all of it through social media – was neither anticipated nor accounted for.

In the first days, the videos, photos and interviews depicting the confusion and trauma flooded the Internet and shot around the world. The Cuban diaspora weighed in, worried about their families. Criticisms flew. Trucks of relief, organized by reggueton stars and symphonic orchestras, rolled into damaged areas and were turned back. And social media documented it all; for the first time, those Cubans with the means followed the drama on their phones and devices.

It’s hard to get out ahead of a story – especially with Twitter, Instagram, WhatsApp and Facebook newly in the mix. With my personal post-disaster relief experience, in Cuba and elsewhere, and Cuba Libro’s years of targeted donation programming, we got involved quickly. We provided a sorting and packaging site for donations, teamed up with volunteers and drivers and participated in deliveries with CENESEX and others. We acted as an information clearing house and sent donors to other distribution sites including the Fabrica de Arte, Historian’s Office and Jesus de Monte Church.

We also calmed critics. Many people with big hearts and time on their hands, couldn’t understand the problem presented by appearing amidst crowds of traumatized, desperate people, including children and elders, with loads of donations. But this approach is rife with problems. Who was the most in need? Who had already received donations? Who was truly a tornado victim and who was just posing as such for personal gain? What happens if (ie when), strong, young men elbow their way to donation trucks, pushing past grandmothers and mothers with babes in arms?

We talked to people, explaining certain realities and complexities. For instance, in the first week, there were entire neighborhoods which hadn’t received donations – one reason why coordination is key – plus we outlined ethical relief and donation programs. One of the young, (socially-media coordinated) organizers convened volunteers for a meeting prior to a donation delivery, during which he explained the fatigue they would encounter among the victims, their possible hostility towards interview requests, the ethics of photographing the scene, and the importance of following all instructions and orientations of the coordinating authorities. In the end, Cuba Libro sent out over a dozen large donations, almost all of them using social media.

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More recently, we’ve had the IDAHO kerfuffle, still simmering on the Internet. The short version goes like this: after 11 years of active, enthusiastic celebrations here on and around May 17 (International Day Against Homo- Trans and Biphobia), the “Conga,” an all-inclusive diversity parade and one of the highlights of the event, was unexpectedly cancelled. The cancellation was announced via an official note by the coordinating organization, CENESEX (published on Facebook, natch). I’ve been involved in anti-homophobia efforts for decades and many, like me, were stunned and confused, not to mention pissed. Enter social media, that efficient organizing tool, but also the bastion of passive bitching, vapid dissent and hollow valor. Cue the organizing of an “unofficial” parade in a different part of Havana and with different agendas not limited to LGBTIQ rights. CENESEX reacted with another official note, which only served to muddy the waters and fuel the extrapolatory fire. Mariela Castro, Director of CENESEX and other activists took to the national airways to explain further…

The unofficial parade – convened for one of the most touristed part of the city, with a healthy international press presence – was set for the same Saturday as the cancelled Conga. Not surprisingly, the shit hit the fan. I was working a special event at Cuba Libro that day so couldn’t participate, and regular readers know I don’t write about “bola”, ‘run run’ or any other fourth, fifth, or sixth hand accounts. Cuban friends where there, however, and texted us as things unfolded. After allowing the march to proceed along the Prado, the Rainbow Army (oops, bad word choice), was told by the police they could not continue along the Malecon for reasons of traffic and safety. Some pushed through and onward nonetheless and that’s when a handful of folks were hauled off. I don’t know how long they were detained (some of the arresting officers were plain clothed cops), but at least one of them – a known provocateur red flagged by the government for previous bouts of civil disobedience unrelated to queer issues, was released shortly thereafter.

 

Beyond this, I cannot say what happened or what ensued but I’m entirely confident in reporting that some people participated precisely to cause a ruckus and that the parade was infiltrated by folks not fond of – or in direct opposition – to the government; folks who previously had not participated in related LGBTQI events. I can also say that the whole clusterf*ck went viral on the Internet, with digital jockies on and off island putting in their two cents. Like everything in Cuba and social media, this will blow over but the fact remains that LGBTQI Cubans do not enjoy the same rights as their straight or CIS gender counterparts and what was it that Marti said? “Rights are to be taken, not requested; seized, not begged for.”

 

 

In a general sense, mobile data has Cuba looking and reacting more like the “real world” with flamers, viral fake news, out-of-context photos, and acrimonious finger pointing wherever you click. From an anthropological view, it’s fascinating to have a ringside seat for this digital learning curve and spectacle. In practical terms, this access and its effects mirror what happens in other latitudes: the potential for knowledge and horizon broadening of digital access is incalculable but unfortunately, it more often results in the spread of hate and disinformation. It divides rather than unites. And once again, Cuba finds itself in deep, troubled waters. Someone send me a life raft, please!!

 

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Jail, Cafe Closure & Strawberries?!

Usual excuses aside (overworked; procrastination; writer’s block), the transition from 2018 to 2019 was, as we say here, ‘de pinga’ – and not in a good way. I’ll spare you the details but let’s just say I’ve been waiting for some positive news, from whatever corner, to revitalize Here is Havana. Luckily, living in Cuba obligates me to develop an inhumane amount (for me, a native New Yorker after all) of patience…But I tire of waiting for the bad news blues to lift and need to write for sanity’s sake. So I thought I’d provide ya’ll with an update of some doings in my corner of Havana (and there is some good news, despite my whining).
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Miguel has been sprung! For a weekend anyway. We celebrated his first three-day pass from Havana’s largest prison a short time ago and the tears flowed, believe me. If you’ve been following the story, you know our dear friend was sentenced to six years in the Combinado del Este for fewer than two dozen tabs of Ritalin. According to Cuban jail math, where 10 months inside equals a year in real-world time, he’s served a third of his sentence already. Several months ago he was ‘stepped down’ to the minimum security ‘campamento.’ On bad days he professes he’d rather be back in the Combinado’s maximum security section, but really, life is much better for him in the campamento, comparatively. He has regular, monthly conjugal visits and much more phone time, plus he has been released from machete duty, now spending his days in an office (Miguel The Bureaucrat!) – except when there are high-level visits, of which there are many, by comandantes and the like. At these times, it’s all hands on deck to paint, sweep, clean and perform whatever other tasks are necessary to prettify the place. A tall order.

Those prisoners who’ve earned their chits and kept their heads down, like Miguel, are rewarded three days on the outside. A family member (or friend) has to trek out to the Combinando for ‘orientation’ and to escort the prisoner home. There are five rules of the weekend pass:
1. They must check in, before settling in at home, with their local police station.
2. They cannot go to parties or clubs or bars – any place selling alcohol is verboten.
3. They cannot frequent parks or anywhere else with a “bad element.”
4. They must not be out, anywhere, after midnight.
5. They must report back to the jail no later than 9am sharp on the appointed day.

A local police officer may stop by their home during the weekend pass to ensure they are complying. This didn’t happen during Miguel’s three free days, but another prisoner failed to return and the whole place went on lock down.

When Miguel walked into Cuba Libro, a giant cheer went up – the kind you hear when the lights blast back after a 10-hour blackout. He and Esther’s coffees were on the house (as they have been since he was imprisoned and will remain so until he’s released) and we all wore those goofy ear-to-ear grins brought on by happy reunions and unbridled joy. Old friends dropped by once word got out that Miguel was in the house and seeing him – clean shaven, his raven locks a distant memory, his teeth fixed – surprised many. Diana, who didn’t know he was out for the weekend, greeted everyone around the garden table with the customary kiss on the cheek. When she reached Miguel, with whom she has been friends for years, she said ‘Hi. Nice to meet you.” As Diana took a step back, everyone burst out laughing.

“MIGUEL!!!” she shouted and jumped into his arms.

He flushed red and flashed his fixed-on-the-inside smile. Diana is one of our prettiest, most exotic regulars and Miguel had probably never before received such a shower of affection from her. The scene repeated itself when Amanda, another regular and friend, didn’t recognize him. Head shaved, the dimple on his chin, his filled-out body: Laritza, another friend, said “whoa! You’ve become a tall drink of water locked up!”

It was beautiful to be a part of the reunion and share with Miguel and Esther (who couldn’t keep their hands off each other; we almost shooed them into the bathroom for a quickie, but house rules hold that only the owner has that right). I’m just sorry we didn’t have more time together. But he has another pass in 45 days. The countdown begins!
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Switching gears, I wanted to give a short update about my rebuttal to that story that went viral saying Cuba Libro was being forced to close – this did damage, believe me, coming at the end of a very tough year where hurricanes and Trump absurdities took their toll. I promised we would find a way to stay open and true to our mission and vision, while remaining 100% legal (an important element in our ethically- and socially-responsible business model). The article didn’t mention any of this but I was (mostly) confident that we would prevail. Lo and behold: two days before new regulations for private business were due to take effect, the one that was most problematic for us – that you can only have one license – was struck from the plan. !Pa’lante!

My phone went berserk with messages and incoming calls as friends and supporters shared the news. Relief from constant, low-level stress caused by circumstances beyond one’s control doesn’t wash over you suddenly once the danger and adrenaline pass. It’s not like a near car crash. Rather, it releases slowly, like the pressure cookers steaming black beans in every Cuban home. Several trustworthy sources had counseled us to sit tight and wait and see, but when you’ve shed volumes of blood, sweat and tears for over five years to convert idea/dream into reality, it’s challenging internalizing such advice – however well-informed.

Complicating Cuba Libro’s particular situation (beyond that our business model is founded on selling affordable coffee and books – hence the two licenses) is that we rent our space. No one here is a property owner. Cuenta propistas who own their property enjoy more latitude with the one-license rule since each person on the deed is permitted a license. But all that is water under the bridge. When we learned that logic had prevailed and two or more licenses were permitted – after all, we’d been operating continuously for five years, with all the attendant inspections, required permits, work papers and the rest – we were ecstatic. And vindicated.

Of course, the changes that did take effect obligate us to confront tiresome, tedious levels of bureaucracy and these are causing all manner of frustration across Havana. For instance, because the name of our cafe activity has been changed from ‘cafeteria de alimentos ligeros en punto fijo’ to ‘servicio gastronomico en cafeteria’, we have to change all our paperwork: our health certificate, all the working papers of each of our team members, and inscription of the business with urban planning. Sounds not too taxing, writing here in this beautiful, tranquil garden with an espresso at hand, but believe me – this will take weeks and require a heroic amount of patience on our part.

And then there’s the ‘cuenta fiscal’ – the bank account that every private entrepreneur has to open. The good news is once you have the account, you receive a 5% discount on purchases made with the bank card. You also have to maintain three months of your licensing fee in the account (in Cuba Libro’s case, $45CUC), plus a percentage of profits – not ideal for a cash-poor business like ours. Nevertheless, this means the government is guaranteed their payments and can be more on top of tax scams – a major problem in the all-cash private sector. The bad news is many (if not most) of the banks aren’t prepared: they don’t have the personnel, they don’t have the magnetic ATM cards and nerves are fraying. Tussles and arguments have broken out in banks over this and really, I haven’t the energy these days to face a bureaucratic scrum. Like a pap smear, it’s something that has to be done, but no one looks forward to it.

AND THIS JUST IN!!!

I ran into my friend and cafe regular Adonis during my four days of rest and relaxation with my Harley-Davidson family. This was well-earned and sorely-needed after several 70-hour work weeks punctuated with daily donations to tornado victims. My phone was turned off, I didn’t connect to the internet and checked in on Toby once a day because in this, I have no choice: I’m head over heels for that terrier mutt. Chatting with Adonis about his 7-year old daughter and the upcoming concert over smoked pork ribs, reality came crashing down…

“Conner! I forgot to tell you. Did you know that someone opened a Cuba Libro in Havana Vieja?”

“What?! Where? What do they do there?” I asked, calmly, because there was absolutely nothing I could do about it at the moment, plus I was loath to let this dose of unsettling news ruin my mini-vacation.

“I’m not sure,” he said. “It was closed when I walked by.”

I gnawed on my pork ribs as the idea of someone profiting off our six years of tireless work gnawed at me. We aren’t among TripAdvisor’s Top 5 Things to Do in Havana by chance and this bit of trickery was just the type of thing that makes me hate the human race sometimes. Alas, there wasn’t much I could at the moment, but I could consult our most trusted regulars and mine the hive for ideas on how to proceed. I sent out a quick message to half a dozen friends and returned my phone to airplane mode.

Back in Havana, with several ideas in hand ranging from industrial espionage and legal recourse to tactics much more…guerilla, I began lining up our ducks to stop what I was convinced was a straight up case of identity theft. Adonis did some legwork taking photos of “Cuba Libros…Bookstore” in a prime Habana Vieja location. Seeing the images of books and magazines in English, with some of the same artists adorning the walls, my blood boiled and my brain roiled. We’re still gathering intel on this place but I wanted to put the word out that there is no relation or link whatsoever between us (the “real” Cuba Libro) and these Habana Vieja poseurs. Stay tuned…
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And one last thing by way of update for those diehard fans who have stuck this long with my ramblings: remember my post Stupid Shit People Ask Me about Cuba? Incredibly, those examples were surpassed this week at our little oasis. Before the big reveal of what our Kitchen Captain and Donations Coordinator called ‘the stupidest thing I’ve heard yet,’ let me be fair and say that Cubans ask me some stupid questions as well.

From this week’s annals: since we are in the midst of the very palatable, but very short strawberry season, we’ve been offering an elixir of all-natural strawberry and pineapple juice for $1.25 and made a sign to advertise this and our strawberry fruit smoothies ($1.75). If you’ve been to Cuba, I’d wager a month’s salary that you didn’t see a fresh strawberry during your stay – they’re that rare (if you did, don’t get excited: my monthly salary wouldn’t buy a bushel of strawberries where you live!). As two neighborhood women studied the sign, I asked if they had any questions and invited them into the cafe.

“Are those prices in pesos cubanos or CUC?”

Absurd: that would make our exotic (for Cuba) juice four cents. We’re fair, not crazy.

Now to the pollo of the arroz con pollo: A young woman doing a Master’s thesis on Cuba (topic still undefined) came in and offered to pay me to answer her many and varied questions.

“Make yourself at home and I’ll be happy to answer whatever I’m able. And you don’t have to pay me.”

“Oh. I thought that’s how things are done down here.”

“Not at Cuba Libro they’re not.”

The first question from this post-graduate, non-Spanish speaking “researcher” who has been walking up to people on the street and in parks (very scientific, her methodology) asking them varied, vague questions, which should have raised red flags. But really, nothing prepared me for what was coming:

“Cubans tell me the reason crime is so low here is because people are afraid to go to jail. Is that true?”

Not knowing where to begin, I offered her a copy of Crime and Punishment on the house.

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Inside a Cuban Prison: Part IV

It’s dark, a bit damp, the birds aren’t awake or even singing, let alone my neighbors. I rush to make coffee and walk Toby before the horizon lightens over Vedado way. It’s 5am – too early for me, except on May Day when I shuffle to the Plaza de la Revolución with 500,000 or so others in the pre-dawn calm. But today isn’t May 1st. Today I’m returning to the Combinado to visit Miguel.

I’ve been to Havana’s biggest prison several times with Miguel’s wife Esther, but today is different: today, we’re taking their 7-year old nephew. It will be the first glimpse the kid gets of his uncle since he was put behind bars over a year and a half ago.
Today is different too because it isn’t February 12, 2014, but it feels like it. That was the day my sister was moved from the ICU to the “step down” unit. A happy, relief of a day, when she could sense release from the oppressive whoosh of machines keeping people alive, the perfunctory and invasive rounds by strange doctors and students, the tests and needle jabs and jabbering nurses. She could smell freedom but couldn’t have it – not yet. Today feels similar because after 18 months in prison, Miguel has been transferred to his own step down unit, Area Zero or el campamento, as it’s known in Cuban prison-speak.

Two days after his 34th birthday he got word. He was bullied into quickly gathering his personal effects – other convicts immediately called dibs on anything left behind, snatching at them. Suddenly, Miguel couldn’t find his flip flops or lighter, undershirts or extra pens. ‘Hurry up man! You’re going home!’ As if drinking parasite-infested water in minimum security, bent double hacking grass with a machete, torpid day after torpid day held any semblance of home. But it was closer than the hard timers would ever get and besides, the more Miguel rushed, the more he was likely to forget, which would be divvied up faster than you can say ‘life sentence.’

When he called with his ‘step down’ news, we immediately began to see flashes of the old Miguel – a discernible familiarity we’d been missing. He had much more phone time for starters, and was as loquacious as ever, talking to everyone at Cuba Libro for such long periods he would ask us to hold on while he greeted prisoner friends walking by. Now, we were the ones who said we had to go rather than in his maximum security days when he’d hang up with a brusque, heavy click followed by a hollow silence. In classic Miguel style, he was also complaining: the sun was brutal; he had open, nearly oozing sores on his machete hand; and other prisoners got five day passes – he was only due to get three, sometime in November. Coño mi hermano, we said: three whole days on the outside, sleeping in his own bed, in his wife’s arms, pissing in a bathroom with a door. It was like talking to the Miguel we knew and loved, defects and all.
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So here I am on visiting day, up before dawn making coffee for me and Miguel and walking Toby. I dress appropriately (no shorts or tank tops) and head to Esther’s house to pick her up, 7-year old Junior in tow. He’s got ants in his pants, anxious to see Miguel. He’s chipper, flashing his gap-toothed smile at the sleepy adults. It’s the same long drive to the verdant outskirts of the jail, followed by two hours waiting while they check our IDs and go through the sack of sardines, hot dogs, crackers, puffed wheat and more, item by item.

“The campamento is different, mi amor,” the guard says to Esther. “You don’t need all this food and really: you should be eating it yourself.” Esther is still woefully thin – her hip bones push sharply through her dress and as a fellow flaca, I know how grating these well-intended comments from strangers can be.

“You also shouldn’t bring it in the huge rice sack. It’s almost a kilometer to the visiting area.”

Esther looks at me and I know we’ll be sweating and flushed once they herd us onto the blazing hot road, the heavy sack sagging between us. Junior is jittery and asks us when we’re going to see Miguel as we wait in the last holding area before the long walk. There are more kids than on visiting days for the max unit, several babies in arms and a couple of very pregnant women. I assume their bulging bellies are the product of the monthly conjugal visits granted well- behaved prisoners. One mother nurses, another changes a diaper, her infant son cradled on her lap and many people chuff on filterless cigarettes. I offer my seat to an elderly woman here with multiple sons – the genetic lineage is so clear, I’m sure I’ll recognize their prisoner when we enter the visiting area. Suddenly there’s movement and everyone is crowding around the single door leading to the outside, wondering why they don’t open both.

‘TIC,’ I think. ‘This is Cuba,’ where things are often harder than they need be.

After a few hundred meters under the ferocious sun, it’s obvious we can’t carry the sack, the other big bag packed with lunch for the four of us, our purses and hold Junior’s hand all at the same time. To our relief, a stalwart visitor with a wrestler’s physique offers to carry the sack. He hefts it on his shoulder, we wipe our brows and Junior wants to know if we’re almost there. We’re not…
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Junior is doing the too-hot, too-tired two step as we approach a pavilion with a roof, crowded with prisoners lingering outside in street clothes hugging their loved ones, cuddling their babies and squinting against the sun to see if their people are making their way towards the anticipated union. And there’s Miguel, just like the old days on the outside; he’s wearing brick red Bermuda shorts, a white t-shirt and grey Vans. The only difference (besides the mental/spiritual one; more on that later) is both his head and face are shaved close – gone is his ass-length mane and goatee. Miguel was the first Havana hipster, sporting a man bun and facial hair before it was all the rage, before he was busted.

We hug fiercely (I always give Esther first dibs, of course) and Junior is wearing that blank look of non-recognition – the same face I wore when I first saw Miguel behind bars.

“It’s me Junior! It’s me!”

The kid looked up at him like, ‘you can’t fool me cowboy. You aren’t Miguel.’

But after a few more words of cariño and a full-on laugh that was unmistakably Miguel, Junior’s face lit up with that million dollar gap-toothed smile.

The street clothes make an incredible difference –here is the Miguel we know and love! I don’t know who that other guy was I visited repeatedly in his prison greys, but I was glad to be sitting across from my old friend again. As Esther dished out congrís and fried pork steaks, I took in the scene. The pavilion was open on two sides, the palm trees and some pines providing green relief and I could see straight into the prisoners’ dormitory – two long lines of bunk beds, two tiers tall. Towels and flip flops, shirts and shorts are draped and strewn about; it reminded me of summer camp. There are no guards here, only prisoners serving as guards and they too, are in street clothes. In the campamento visiting area, men and women are allowed to sit next to each other, caressing, gently cavorting. I catch more than one couple out from the corner of my eye making out, the prisoners slipping hands under skirts.

We dig into our lunch with plastic forks (another bonus of Area Zero: prisoners are allowed real cutlery, something we didn’t know that until this visit) while Miguel catches us up. He has more friends from the outside, here in the campamento – three who are serving a year sentence for having a joint. While the bathroom has a door, it’s always propped open. The food is the same (ie: shitty) but there’s more of it thanks to the prisoners here working in the kitchen. Medical care is still sporadic and getting medicines to prisoners not systematized.

Miguel is on grounds detail, meaning he wields a machete a few hours a day, beaten tired by the sun and exertion. He’s a machete virgin and has never done manual labor before. He shows us a quarter-sized patch of raw skin between his thumb and forefinger. Despite the large straw hat we’d given him the week before, he is now the technical definition of a redneck, with freckles splashed across his cheeks. He complains about the beastly sun after having been deprived of it for a year and a half. He’s upbeat and laughing, hugging and cuddling and kissing Esther and I revel being in their aura of love. More than once I avert my gaze and am ashamed to admit I didn’t leave the table and take a stroll outside; I’m sure they would have appreciated the semblance of privacy. Prison etiquette isn’t my strong suit, but I’m learning.

I do a double take at the elderly prisoner trailing a three-month old puppy doing that adorable trot-cum-dance they do. Street clothes; metal utensils; a bathroom door; a puppy – semblances of real, outside life. It was intoxicating.

It was also exhausting. At one point Miguel says: ‘let’s slow the roll on this conversation. All the information overwhelms me a little.’ It’s true we’ve covered a lot of ground – details of the penal and sentencing systems; proposed constitutional reforms; and plans for his first weekend pass in November. I change the subject.

“Hey! Let me see your tattoo!”

When Esther told me he got his body inked for the first time, I fairly gasped. It wasn’t so much the design that worried me – prison tats can be decent and besides, we know several kick ass ink artists who could resolve any bad tattoo. What worried me were the health and hygiene implications. I especially wanted to know what they used for ink. It wasn’t pretty: Miguel’s tattoo (and many others happening right now, as I type this) was done with the melted plastic handles of blue disposable razors, the plastic burnt to liquid onto a piece of paper, scraped up and mixed to the right consistency with I don’t remember what; I stopped listening at ‘melted plastic.’ He raises his arm, palm up to show me his inner bicep. It was surprisingly well-lettered, spaced and placed. I stare at it a beat longer than normal.

“Is it right?”

YOU HAVE ONLY ONE LIFE TO LIVE. DON’T LET THEM BREACK YOU.

I loved the message, but the writer in me cringed. Or as my friend Peter says: it made my eyes bleed.

My gift to Miguel on his weekend pass? A trip to Zenit Tattoo.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Uncategorized

Hogs & Dogs: Extreme Camping in Cuba

Our summer vacation plans were simple and cheap: strap the camping gear onto the 1946 Harley-Davidson and plunge deep into the mountains of Pinar del Río, getting as far from hot, hectic Havana as we could without a visa. We were broke and stressed; our souls needed to sigh a bit among the pines and pure air.

 

This sounds nuts, I know. Who in their right mind vacations where there is no plumbing and more livestock than people? To boot, our transportation is a 72-year old motorcycle held together by string (literally; more on that later) and we’d be camping in a place where, incidentally, camping isn’t a thing. Add to this the general state of Cuban roads, the crippling August heat, and dearth of gas stations, stores, and food, and you begin to understand why the whole idea had family and friends from near and far expressing concern for our sanity.

lastunasbaches

But this wasn’t our first rodeo. Last summer we traveled nearly 2000 kilometers between Havana and Granma on that same Harley as research fodder for my new book. Yet this was something altogether different.

first rodeo

This time we were considering taking the dog.

 

Our decision wasn’t snap or capricious; we’d deliberated and debated – conversations which left me more comfortable with the idea of canine accompaniment but not entirely convinced. And being the youngest of four from a poor household (i.e. too self-centered than my station or accomplishments warrant), I wondered: how does bringing Toby benefit me? Unless I sold the story to The Sun or New Yorker, it seemed like a lot of work for negligible reward…

 

The evidence base, if you can call it that, was slim and partial for how Toby might comport himself on our odyssey. We’d spent a sublime weekend camping at seaside Canasí where he romped in the woods, lounged by the campfire swollen with tinned meat, and ran, tail between legs, from the surf. And there was no question the little guy loves to ride: every day, paws on the handlebars, ass pressing against José as we bank turns, we commute to Cuba Libro on the Harley. But what we were proposing wasn’t just a weekend within striking distance of the capital or a five-minute jaunt between home and work. This longer, more remote trip promised to be more intense. Way more intense.

commuting

The idea was a week-long back country camping trip covering over 600 kilometers through the mountains of Pinar del Río, towing a trailer with our gear and Toby in his cage. Never mind that Toby, a dog rescued from Havana’s mean streets, had never before been in a cage.

 

Both José and I have extensive riding and camping experience – he more of the former, me better-versed in the latter – but as a team we were motivated and adept. In short, we had the chops to make it happen, dog and all. Toby? I wasn’t at all sure how he’d react.

 

_____

 

For those not familiar with Cuba, let me explain why this plan sparked a second round of concerned emails, which now expressed fears for our sanity and Toby’s safety. First of all, there are no Harley-Davidson dealerships or parts sellers in Cuba. Should we break down in the middle of nowhere – if a cable or gear shaft or belt should go – we were on our own. Luckily, my pilot José is a crackerjack machinist, electrician, and inventor (it doesn’t hurt that he’s also easy on the eyes!) Plus, the Harley is made from real steel that can take a beating. Second, in Havana, you can’t just pop into a Petco for a doggie cage or AutoZone for a trailer. All this had to be built from scratch and scrap – on a limited budget. These weren’t hurdles we could throw money at. Complicating matters is the fact that there is nowhere to officially camp on the island – we’d have to be tremendously resourceful and somewhat careful to find practical, pleasant places to camp (last year we pitched camp too close to the naval base in Guantánamo). And one more detail troubled me: dog food isn’t sold in Cuba. We were used to cooking for him daily at home, but on the road? It’s not like we had a camp stove or anything.

chariot

The one-wheel trailer, hitch and cage were designed and built by José using salvaged wood and wire, supplemented by re-purposed refrigerator racks and dorm room crates dating back decades to my NYU days. The cage door was held in place with a bungie cord – release the cord and the door swung open. The cage (or “chariot” as my friend Chris prefers to call it), sat atop a suitcase containing our camping, cooking and snorkeling gear, plus our clothing, food and my reading/writing materials. The suitcase nestled perfectly in the trailer’s bed and elevated Toby and chariot above the exhaust pipe. Even with all this killer design and forethought, I wasn’t at all sure how Toby would handle it. José told me not to worry. Like that ever works.

 

Once everything was strapped down and secured, we placed Tobito gently in his cage. He was more enthusiastic hitched to the Harley than when we tested it in the living room. So enthusiastic, in fact, he started barking as soon as we hooked the bungie cord into place and didn’t stop until we unhooked the door (every couple of hours once we were on the road). It was 600 kilometers of non-stop, on-the-road barking – maddening for us, but he was a happy camper. He wagged his tail wildly, caught the wind of the open road upon his face, and sniffed eagerly at the goats, cows, and pines as we passed. He often had an erection. By the time we got home, he was hoarse from so much barking and we were aurally traumatized. But he was a trooper and a champ, never messing his cage, protecting our camp at night and hopping gleefully in and out of his chariot by trip’s end.

toby in LR

tobyin chariot w LR

 

We’d pre-cooked five days of meals for Toby, freezing it and storing it in a little Styrofoam cube. It kept well for four days and the last meal we fed to an emaciated country dog who devoured the almost-turned liver and rice. Once the precooked meals ran out, we fed him hot dogs and canned meat balls cooked over the campfire.

 

When we caught bad weather (repeatedly), we would quickly pull over and bivouac under sheets of plastic. Together with trailer, Harley, chariot, and gear, Toby, José and I would huddle under a plastic teepee and prepare our little cafetera to enjoy some sweet, hot, dark espresso as we waited for the skies to clear. We had no camp stove, but lo and behold! At our first rest stop, José whipped out a ‘revelberro’ – a one-burner wonder made of two steel pieces: the base which gets filled with luz brillante and the burner, which is placed on top. In Cuba, you learn something new every day and though I’ve camped the length and the breadth of the island – from Granma to Guanahacabibes, above and below waterfalls, on the beach and in the bush – I had never seen one of these nifty units before. It’s not only great for camping, but also blackouts, hurricanes or when you forget to pay your gas bill. Note to self: see if José’s sister will sell me her revelberro. Toby didn’t partake of the rich and delicious café Cubano, but we granted him tent access during thunderstorms and rain. Hot dogs and meatballs, tent privileges and unparalleled adventure: this is one lucky doggie.

 

We crawled out of the tent after one of these summer storms broke and found a horse grazing under a double rainbow. On the far west coast, when the clouds shipped out after a nighttime tempest over Guanahacabibes National Park, we wished on shooting stars. We shared crack-of-dawn coffee facing the caves from where Che commanded troops during the Bay of Pigs with the site’s historians one day and sipped the best espresso (served in little coconut shell cups) with a campesino family in their dirt floor home the next.

tobes rainbow

No cell phone service, no showers or tour buses or air conditioning: camping in Cuba is not for the fastidious or faint of heart. The lazy or timid also need not apply. But if you’re looking for a unique adventure – natural, cultural, logistical – consider this alternative. Even if you don’t have a car or bicycle (or Harley!), a similar trip to ours is possible. Parts of it you won’t want to replicate, like when one of the seat springs (about the size of a small peach), busted in two on a remote road cleaving between mountains. Suddenly I was leaning dramatically to starboard. José cut the motor and set to bending and re-threading the spring to make it shorter, but strong, reinforcing it with several lengths of twine.

 

If you’re game for this type of trip, it helps if you speak Spanish and can build a decent cooking fire, but with gumption, a phrase book, and healthy stash of protein nuggets and nuts, you can camp here way off the grid and without leaving a trace. If you’ve dreamt of this kind of vacation, you may find these tips helpful, honed over 15 years of camping on the island:

 

  • For reasons related to Cuba’s wonky supply chain and environmental stewardship, do not depend on bottled water. Pack a filter or purification tablets to ward off thirst and protect your gut flora. Cuban pharmacies and almost every home also stock hipoclorito de sodio; add two drops to every liter for potable water.

 

  • Food can be an issue in Cuba (now there’s an understatement!). Even if you’re on the fanciest organized tour, you will probably go hungry at some point in your trip. Bringing packaged soups, pastas, and dehydrated meals from home, supplemented by vacuum packed tuna, Spam, and the like, is a great strategy. Also, high-protein, lightweight anything (beef jerky, Clif bars, trail mix) will be a life saver at some point. You can round this out with peanuts and other on-the-ground snacks; our little sack of chicharrones kept all three of us happy during our recent odyssey. Fruits and veggies can be procured en route, but availability and variety depend largely on the season. Fresh pork is sold everywhere – looked for ‘ahumado’, smoked cuts, which keep beautifully. Eggs are also widely available; keeping them from cracking is the tricky bit, but an experienced camper/packer will figure it out. Hard boiling them for a roadside picnic is another option. Canned goods are sold in tiendas; those at gas stations, like the one where we stocked up in Sandino, can be gold mines.

 

  • Mountain regions and (some) beach areas are the best bets for finding practical, beautiful places to camp. For mountains and valleys, I suggest: the Escambray, Sierra de los Órganos (Pinar del Río), Valle de Yumurí (Matanzas), Sierra de Cristal (Holguín) and the region around Baracoa (excluding Parque Nacional Alejandro de Humboldt, which is off-limits to casual campers). For beach camping, good opportunities abound in Guanahacabibes and the adjacent coast of Pinar del Río, Playa Larga (Matanzas), the beaches between Cienfuegos and Trinidad, the Las Tunas coast and beaches around Yumurí (access from Baracoa). Canasí is ever popular and there will likely be Cubans camping there when you turn up.

 

  • If you can’t find an appropriate camping spot, try one of the scores of ‘campismos’ around the country. Technically these are not for tent camping and only a handful rent the concrete cabins to foreigners, but with a bit of conversation and cash, you’ll likely be able to convince administrators to let you pitch your tent. These are always located in beautiful settings, from mountain to sea, along rivers and tucked into valleys.

 

  • Cuba is, overall, quite safe. Locals tend to be more curious and protective of campers than any sort of threat and they’ll surely want to chat you up, which is part and parcel of the charm of this sort of trip. Offering a slug of coffee or swill of rum to people happening upon your camp will result in lively conversation, unsolicited advice and maybe even new friendships!

 

  • Pack biodegradable toilet paper. Be sure to pee and poop off the beaten trail and bury the latter, please!

 

no-trace-before.jpg

Guanahacabibes campsite in full swing

No Trace Camping

Guanahacabibes campsite, 12 hours later upon leaving

  • Burn all paper garbage, bury the biodegradable, and pack out the rest. At several points during our most recent trip we cruised the mountain roads with a plastic bag filled with tin cans tied to the motorcycle seat. While this elicited strange looks from passersby and the cans rattled annoyingly, disposing of them properly in the first available garbage provided great satisfaction.

 

  • The May-October rainy season is hot, sticky, buggy and wet. Usually these are afternoon thundershowers, but we’ve been rudely awakened at 3am by water dropping on us through the mesh tent roof. If you break camp early and move on to your next destination, setting up before the thunderclouds roll in, you can beat the worst of it – most of the time. Ponchos are an important tool at this time of year. Not only will they keep you dry, you can use them to cover campfire wood so you’re not eating raw and cold once the clouds move out.

 

 

I wasn’t sure about taking Toby at the outset and even mid-trip, when José declared he’d go camping with Toby again in a heartbeat, I wavered. But once I saw Toby leaping into his chariot with a mini-erection somewhere around Valle de San Juan, barking like mad, I was already planning our next adventure to Pan de Guajaibón.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, cuban beaches, dream destinations, environment, Expat life, hiking, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Uncategorized, Writerly stuff