Inside a Cuban Prison: The Sequel

Miguel has a court date.

Finally.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Havana Declaration: He’s an Assassin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy 2018 everyone!

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Humans of Havana

“I’m doing absolutely nothing. I don’t plan on even leaving the house. I want to hang out with you guys, eat as much as I possibly can, sleep and luxuriate in hot water worth its name.”

As you may have guessed, I was excited to go off-island for Thanksgiving and spend some quality time with my family. I needed a rest from my 70-hour work weeks. I needed to escape from Cuban-generated stress. I needed to eat with abandon. I needed a 24-7, seamless Internet connection. I needed to bank.

The only social obligation I had was to re-connect with my oldest friend who cheated death – repeatedly, by a hair – and was now on the road to recovery. The meet-up had potential to be heavy (we were twice a couple over our 30 year friendship and I was intimately involved with his various brushes with death) and I was looking forward to it, but not, if you know what I mean. I really didn’t want to leave the house, much less on Black Friday, but for Jason I’d do it. I took a seat near the dog park at the Museum of Natural History to wait for him.

My head raced with random thoughts – nostalgia for our long-gone youth and those heady days when Jason and I crossed the country in a Ford Econoline; my (possible) complicity in his near death experiences and the day I gave him a final wake-up call; and how amazingly he shreds the electric guitar and viola da gamba. I marveled that the New York winter weather was actually pleasant – the landscaped areas around the Museum of Natural History teemed with families and Upper West Side lifers lightly clad, nary a woolen scarf in evidence, present company excluded, of course.

I looked past the Alfred Nobel monument and across the plaza wondering how late Jason might be – he is a chronic over-scheduler; I think it’s related to his natural state of misplaced optimism. As I mused on the intersection of cheating death and misplaced optimism, I saw a guy in the middle distance walking in my direction.

‘He’s bee-lining for me,’ I thought with no small dose of dread. I wasn’t in the mood for a random encounter. Not today. And I was right – this guy was striding directly towards me.

What the hell does this have to do with Havana you’re wondering? Maybe you’re yelling at the screen: ‘¡Vamos al grano, ya! Get to the point already girl!’…I’m sure I’ve lost readers already. So as not to lose more: the tall guy with a big, pro camera dangling from his wrist rolled up to my bench.

Him: “Hi.”

Me: I responded with what a Cuban friend calls my ‘synchronized swimming smile.’

Him: “Have you heard of Humans of New York?”

Me: “Nope,” looking up the path to see if Jason was coming. No dice.

Him: “I take portraits of New Yorkers and do interviews to go with them. I have two books on the New York Times Best Seller list.”

Me: “Congratulations!” This wasn’t sarcasm: as a writer, I’d be orgasmic if I had two best-selling titles.

Him: “And I have 18 million followers on Facebook.”

Me: 18 million?! I wondered when was the last time he came upon someone who had never heard of his project. Instead I said: “that’s a lot of bored people.” He laughed. Point for brazen camera/writer guy.

Him: “Maybe the content is really good and that’s why there are so many followers?”

Me: “Fair enough. Let’s say half are following for the content. The other half are just bored.”

Him: Earnest laughter.

I agreed to give the interview and have my portrait taken. (Actually he had me at two best-selling titles).

Him: “What’s the biggest challenge in your life right now?”

Great opening question, I thought. But complicated. My imminent meeting with Jason was an immediate and unpredictable challenge. Growing Cuba Libro amidst innumerable, unforeseen bumps in the road was another. I also had career and deadline challenges, others related to my relationship, and still more with my family. But really none of that compared to my greatest problem.

Me: “My biggest challenge? I just quit smoking. And I live in a country where everyone smokes, everywhere – on the bus, at school, in the office, even in hospitals. And a pack of cigarettes costs 70 cents.”
Him: “Where do you live?!”

If you’ve been to Cuba, if you have struggled with the nicotine monkey (according to addiction experts it is the hardest to get off your back), you know down to your bones how hard it is to not smoke here. I ended up talking to Brandon Stanton for over half an hour, covering all kinds of ground and talking about a variety of topics, including his wife’s stellar project Susie’s Senior Dogs. Jason looked momentarily hurt when he finally turned up and found me deep in conversation with this affable guy snapping my photo. Brandon gently asked for 10 more minutes with me.

Alas, I don’t think Brandon knows this monkey of which I spoke. He couldn’t relate to how all-consuming, how incredibly difficult it is to quit smoking. Ex-smoker Brandon was not. Pretend extrovert? Maybe. What he published focussed entirely on my comments about being an introvert in Cuba. Here, there’s obligatory socialization. Having to talk to strangers and greet neighbors by name, take a day out of the weekend for a visit or engaging in a conversation waiting for the bus, bread, the bathroom, whatever – these were significant challenges when I moved here over 15 years ago. But I’ve learned the lesson well, I think. Otherwise I certainly would have blown off the guy with his camera and mad interview skills. Had I not had over a decade of training talking to strangers, I would never have had 70,000 likes and nearly 3,000 comments on my HONY appearance.

Now I’m back in Havana. I resisted valiantly. After 8 hours at court for Miguel’s trial last week, my resistance failed. Each day, with every cigarette, I feel I’ve failed. And each day I feel more a Human of Havana than a Human of New York.

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Me Too: Gender Violence in Havana

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Cuba Travel from US – Legal and with RESPECT

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

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

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

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A Quick Note on Irma

Havana September 14, 2017

Time for thanks giving.

Among the many (well documented) reasons Cuba does hurricane preparation and post-recovery/survival so well is the ability of the populace to pull together, help each other and and sweat it out as one. It’s one of the intangibles of resiliency which if we bottled, would make this a better planet and us a more evolved race. To all the supporters of Cuba Libro who generously donated batteries, candles, flashlights, headlamps, and crank radios over the years: you directly supported resiliency in our community. These items were distributed to families in preparation for and in the wake of Irma. So thanks for that.

To the folks who helped batten down the hatches and clean up afterwards, including the entire Cuba Libro Team who, I say it to them and I’ll say it to you: is in a league of their own. What great, giving people. Regulars and neighbors pitched in too, while Salgado – I can’t remember the 52 things this Renaissance guy did to help us get ready and bounce back. So thanks for that ya’ll. Then there’s Toby who went on walkabout just shy of 8pm the night before Irma hit as we were hauling everything in. He chooses his escape window carefully, that wily pooch. So no thanks due there, but he’s awfully cute and keeps our spirits up (except when he’s on unauthorized walkabout).

To my neighbors in Playa who shared food, rum, water, conversation, information, companionship, volunteer time, and solace, a heartfelt thanks is also due. My block didn’t pool food supplies – a couple of plátanos from Isabel, a chunk of pork from Gaby, some puré from Ramón – to make a caldosa like those where Mary and Yen live, but just short of it. We passed hours and hours talking to our neighbors, sweating out the long hot days and nights when Irma moved out and we were left in entire blackout. Havana, Holguin, the nation. Our lights just came back on after more than four days (CROWD ROARS). As I type this, a text comes in from my friend M who still has no lights. I picture her house and sigh: she definitely won’t have lights any time soon; M lives steps from Colón Cemetery. As soon as the lights came back on at Cuba Libro, we let M and other friends know so they could at least charge their devices and drink some ice cold water. We became a meeting point for support and catharsis.

The flooding, the destruction and the deaths: it’s intense and real. I saw old-growth trees, trunks bigger than tractors, ripped with the chunk of sidewalk where they grew, straight from their roots. Some blocks had so many of these grand stands down you couldn’t even see the street. Most ripped out electricity posts or hung suspended on thick cables. Although these trees – in Playa and Vedado – choked off entire streets, I can’t remember one that hit a house straight on. Crushed an iron fence, sure, glanced off a corner of a roof before crashing to the ground, definitely. But crushing a house outright? I didn’t see that. I’m sure Havana had its share of damaged houses and that is awful. I also saw traffic lights and concrete utility poles snapped in half, heard a dog get electrocuted, watched as blond, laughing tourists cruised damaged neighborhoods in classic convertibles, and listened as my friend D, described her sofa, refrigerator, furniture, books and savings floating in her living room as the sea crashed through her front door. Anyone living on the ground floor within three blocks of the Malecón has a similar story; flooding from the sea also contaminated all the cisterns in these buildings.

As I write this, half the Cuba Libro team still doesn’t have electricity – along with most of the country. This presents so many practical problems it’s hard to transmit the difficulties if you haven’t lived through something like this; the way the planet and Mother Nature are protesting lately (hurricanes, earthquakes, typhoons, tsunamis), many readers, friends and family sadly, know all too well what I’m talking about. Instead of presenting the laundry list of problems a developing, blockaded, island nation faces in a post-disaster situation such as we find ourselves, I’ll limit to just one aspect which in my estimation and experience is overlooked and under-reported: sleep deprivation. When it’s a hundred degrees, with 90% humidity and not a leaf blows in the non-existent breeze, you haven’t had a drink of cold anything in days, nor a shower during that time, sleep is more elusive than a straight priest (if this last offends you, sorry: PC this blog ain’t). In these days, we’ve dragged mattresses into living rooms and on to balconies, hefted them up to roofs – NY, black tar beach style – and tried to catch a few winks in rocking chairs. It rarely works and we wake in pools of sweat, no shower possible. Babies are fanned with squares of cardboard or collapsible hand fans all night long. It makes people tense and cranky, a bit awkward and torpid, slow to answer or react. And lovemaking? Por díos, no.

But we’re muddling through with characteristic cheer and chistes, with the occasional attack of hysteria. When that happens, friends and neighbors intercede, commiserate and return us to a laughing state. But this is no laughing matter: the island is reeling from Irma and needs help. If you’re planning a trip to Cuba, come. If you’re coming to Cuba, bring donations – targeted, well-needed donations. I can’t tell you how many tubes of expired Neosporin and four-year old bottles of ibuprofen we’ve received. And please: keep your half-used trial size Pantene. I’d be happy to provide ideas of what, and importantly, where to donate while on the island. If you’re reading this anywhere in the world and would like to support recovery efforts of the health system, MEDICC and Global Links, with over 30 years combined experience in supporting Cuban health, have partnered with PAHO. If you know of other worthy, transparent and experienced organizations with a track record in Cuba, please comment or get in touch.

I’ve gotta go freeze more water for my friends still without electricity.

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

Inside a Cuban Prison

Maybe you read my recent post Inside a Cuban Posada, where I sneak a peek (cockroaches and combs included) into the island’s love hotel business. This post follows in that same vein – providing readers a first-hand, behind the scenes look into things wild and weirdly Cuban – though this one doesn’t contain photos for reasons too obvious to state.

To be clear: I’ve never been arrested, in any country (knock on wood). Rather, pulling back this veil on Cuban jail is possible due to some very unfortunate events that unfolded like this:

My friend – let’s call him ‘Miguelito’ – was hanging out on the Malecón one torpid Thursday night. A fight broke out nearby having nothing to do with, nor involving, Miguelito and his piquete, who were just sharing a bottle of rum on Havana’s seawall. But when the cops arrived to break it up, they detained everyone in the vicinity and patted them down. Miguelito froze like a deer in the proverbial headlights and remained paralyzed while six or so of his friends were searched, each one anxiously, surreptitiously tossing anything incriminating over the wall and into the bay. But not Miguelito. The police found a blister of Ritalin in one pocket and $7CUC in the other. Ritalin, known as ‘titi’ among the Cuban pill popping crowd, is produced domestically and taken by prescription, but also recreationally. Maybe it’s a popular rave/party drug were you live too. I wouldn’t know. I left the States even before the Special K craze and the strongest pills I take are ibuprofen. Anyway: major problem for Miguelito.

He was taken to the police station in Havana Vieja for booking. Word hit the street the next day. His girlfriend – let’s call her ‘Esther’ – and those in his inner circle tried to keep his imprisonment on the Q.T., but Miguelito is a super social guy, with lots of friends of different ages, from different neighborhoods. And besides, this type of information – Miguelito’s in jail! – fuels Cubans’ vice for gossip and drama. Miguelito is a close friend of mine and I bristle at random people hitting me up for the skinny. They don’t care how Miguelito and Esther are doing, they just want a piece of hot gossip. One of Migue’s supposed friends – one of those who was there went it all went down – had the chutzpah to say to me: ‘he’s an idiot. He should have ditched the pills. He had the chance.’ Passing 20-20 hindsight judgement on your buddy who is now sweating his balls off in an overcrowded jail while you’re drinking a Bucanero at noon and sweet-talking a foreigner? Classy, dude. Similar conversations and scenarios unfolded in the ensuing weeks while we collected money to contract a lawyer and tried to keep Esther from falling over a psychological or emotional cliff. Working full-time, navigating the penal and judicial systems, separated suddenly from her partner of four years – she lost weight, grew pale, took up smoking and got increasingly pissed at Miguelito’s so-called friends. ‘Not one of them! Not a single one has called me to ask how he’s doing. Let alone me. The shitheads!’

Esther is one feisty muchacha.

She kept us informed: ‘he was transferred to the Combinado del Este.’ This was bad news. About a 30-minute drive from Habana Vieja, it’s a bitch to get there and is known as the roughest prison around. ‘They cut off all his hair.’ This was expected news, but it was a shock, still. Miguelito had beautiful tresses down to his ass. I used to let out a small squeal every time he came into the café with his hair loose. In this heat, it wasn’t that often that we got to see Miguelito’s mane. Esther fought to keep his hair. ‘It’s totally against regulations,’ they told her. She fought on. They said ‘No’. She kept fighting and they finally relented, bunching it into a ball and shoving it into a plastic bag. When Esther got home, it stank, having been stuffed, damp, into a bag. She untangled it the best she could and saved some for when he’s released. Who knows why, but I would have done the same. The rest she sold – to someone who wanted long hair for their ‘Santería Barbie.’ This is not a Real Barbie, but a doll used in Afro-Cuban religions. They gave her $10CUC. ‘I could have gotten $40 for extensions from my hairdresser if it hadn’t been so tangled and smelly,’ she told me. We learned that Miguelito wouldn’t give up the name of the person who sold him the pills – the guy’s no rat. We also learned that he hadn’t been sentenced yet, but the worst case scenario was eight years. Miguelito won’t last eight days in prison, I thought, my heart dropping. He’s a smart, articulate guy, a nerd who’s prone to wax eloquent about the new Samsung phone and The Big Bang Theory.

About this time, he started showing up in my dreams. Nothing untoward mind you, he just began making cameos with all his hair, in all its glory.

Last week, Esther, another close friend and I had the chance to visit Miguelito. He’s allowed three visitors maximum, every 15 days; names of visitors have to be submitted at least a week before his authorized visiting day. We contracted a rickety Dodge to take us out there for $10CUC (that Barbie money came in handy). We would have to make our own way back. Exiting the tunnel under a summer sherbet sunrise, we followed signs to the beaches – Playas del Este and Varadero. But we weren’t going to the beach. The long, tree-lined drive to the entrance was more like a lead in to a botanical garden or country club than Havana’s notorious hoosegow. But we weren’t going to a garden; we weren’t going to the club. The framboyans were afire with orange blooms and the grass neatly clipped (not surprising giving the surfeit of manual labor on hand). We helped Esther drag out everything she’d brought for Miguelito: his lunch; a small duffel stuffed with razors, soap, a towel, washcloths, and other personal items; a five gallon jug of purified water; and a giant white sack in which Cuba imports rice (from Brazil or Vietnam). Every visitor had a sack like this, cinched with a piece of rope, and crammed with toilet paper, powdered fruit drink, crackers, cookies, bags of puffed wheat, hot dogs, and lots and lots of cigarettes – a valuable coin in the incarcerated realm. Each pack had to be stripped of its plastic casing, the silver foil removed. Menthol Hollywoods are the most coveted, but there were also Populares, H Upmanns, and Criollos, the uncut black tobacco cigarettes which taste sweet, like cancer candy. People in the breezy waiting room unwrapped cigarette packs furiously as we waited for Miguelito’s name to be called.

The grim looking guy on a raised platform at the front of the room was barking into his microphone. We didn’t understand half of what he was saying, but once in a while he’d shout sternly: ‘sit down! Wait for the name to be called!!’ He wore olive green and owned his authority. ‘MIGUEL ÁLVAREZ!’ We rushed to the platform. He checked our ID cards against Miguelito’s approved visitor list. When he saw my ID, he paused. I held my breath. Everyone said that foreigners can visit prisoners, but like much in Cuba, I wouldn’t believe it until I actually saw it, until it actually happened. ‘When you get to the next checkpoint, tell the officer that Peña Blanca said you can enter. He’s probably never seen one of these ID cards before.’ I exhaled. First hurdle cleared. We waited to pass to the next checkpoint and I looked around at all the women and children – they outnumbered adult male visitors four to one – coming to see their husbands, lovers, brothers, fathers, and sons – it dawned on me that this was the first time in 15 years that not one Cuban here cared that I was Yuma. There must have been 150 people waiting for their person’s name to be called and I received not one double take, nary a sidelong glance or raised eyebrow silently saying ‘yuma?! What is she doing here?’ It was a revelation – I’m so used to being a sore thumb, an odd combination of welcomed and singled out, accepted, but different. In short, I’m accustomed to being constantly reminded of my otherness, my non-Cuban-ness. But not here. People couldn’t care less – they had more pressing issues. If only the reality outside these four walls could be as natural and laidback. Oh, the irony.

We passed in groups of 15 to the next checkpoint where all the duffels and sacks, satchels and purses passed through an X-ray machine. We walked through the metal detector to the next checkpoint where each bag, bundle and Tupperware was individually searched. The white rice sacks were opened and their contents inspected. Esther had brought olives, whole wheat crackers, chocolate, cookies and a ton of other stuff which looked more like a Parque Almendares picnic than a prison visit. Once receiving the green light, the sacks were sealed with a bright blue zip tie and stacked behind the inspection counter. The visitor receives a numbered claim tag (a ‘chapita’ in Cuban Spanish) corresponding to their loved one’s sack which they give to the prisoner during the visit, the convict claiming their sack once the truck transports them to the cell blocks.

It was now going on 11am – we’d arrived just shy of eight. Those with experience brought full lunches to share during the visit. There were pork steaks and sweet potato, congris and avocadoes. I watched as guards dug to the bottom of tubs of rice and beans, stabbing into the depths with a fork, looking for hidden contraband. The avocadoes were cut in half. Afterwards I learn that avocados, bananas, and guava can be injected with a syringe, with what I don’t know. Can you smoke a banana? Snort an avocado? Someone brought a sheet cake, decorated with electric blue icing. Cuban cake can leave a lot to be desired, but this one would be appreciated, horded, traded piece by treacly piece, I was sure. We passed through one last checkpoint where we handed over our ID cards, got a chapita to claim our cards upon leaving and headed to what’s called the ‘sterile area’ to wait for the long walk to the visitors block. The view through the breeze blocks was spectacular, a panacea – rolling green hills and towering palms, flowering trees hosting songbirds who darted in and out of the waiting room. Finally the door was unlocked and we walked about a half kilometer, outside, to pass through two giant steel gates to the visitor room.

The guard barked Miguelito’s name. I didn’t recognize him when he emerged. Shaved close to the skull and without his signature goatee, he looked edgier, angrier, and without his easy smile. He had a dimple on his chin I’d never seen all the years I’d known him. The room had a couple of dozen concrete tables arranged in two rows, with enough bench space for four people. Men had to sit on one side, women on another. It was prohibited to mix genders, so Miguelito and Esther had to reach across the table to hold hands. Everyone was chain smoking – including Esther. She updated him on progress made by the lawyer – none. She updated him on permission for conjugal visits – she was still waiting for the paperwork on her obligatory HIV test. We shared plastic cups of orange soda and crackers smeared with mayonnaise Esther had packed. We couldn’t stretch our legs; the concrete extended from tabletop to floor, to prohibit any footsie or passing of items below. We gave Miguelito the books and magazines we’d brought. ‘Conner, this is hell. Every move, every conversation is cause for ribbing and abuse. I told Esther not to bring the pink Tupperware,’ he said motioning to the container with his dessert. ‘I’m going to take a lot of shit for it.’ He was tormented, worried about Esther (‘please don’t smoke, amor. It’s bad for you’), worried about his sentencing, worried about his sanity. He had to fit in enough to not get the beat down, but was terrified of acculturating. ‘I can feel myself changing,’ he told us. ‘Using slang I’ve never used before and swearing like a sailor’ (or a criminal, I thought). He was having problems in his cell block, which housed 50 bunks. His bottom bunk mate wet his bed every night. The other prisoners taunted the guy, and sometimes hit him. Miguelito defended him once – he’s that kind of guy. Then the abusers turned on Miguelito. He put in for a bunk transfer that had yet to come through. He described the bathroom scene – 16 urinals, 16 sinks and a couple of stalls. There was no room to maneuver between them without making physical contact. He applied for a job in the accounting department but was afraid to get it – jail isn’t a good place to be the Smart Guy.

All the prisoners wore grey vests, white t-shirts and grey pants. They were surprisingly fashionable like cargo pants without the pockets, but the vests were fitted, showing off the muscles of some, the sinewy wrinkled arms of the old timers. Miguelito had fast figured out the hierarchy – he’d been inside a little over a month at this point – and had some budding alliances with the over 60 crowd. They had prison cred for time served and were decent at holding up their end of a conversation. Esther and Miguelito talked about his case; me and my other friend fell silent. We wanted to be upbeat. We tried. We successfully stemmed tears. I didn’t mention the collection we took up to defray legal costs – some lawyers, including Miguelito’s, are now private sector workers for hire. I encouraged him to put pen to paper; he had a bookful of experiences now. He told us how he traded two cartons of cigarettes and a bag of crackers for a pair of boots; a pair of socks set him back 13 packs of Hollywood menthol. If socks cost just 13 packs, the boot guy must have been jonesing something fierce.

The guard blew his whistle and started shouting. Visiting hour was over. We hugged hard and promised to come back soon.

Miguelito still shows up in my dreams and the lawyer still hasn’t done shit, but Esther and Miguelito have a conjugal visit in the ‘Pabellón’ next week. We’re sending condoms. And all our good thoughts. Miguelito still hasn’t been sentenced, but we hope he’ll be out soon.

UPDATE #1: I saw Esther last night. She looks skinnier, more stressed, and a bit run down. And she is a beautiful young woman. The update is not good news: the lawyer whom we’d raised funds to contract and which Esther is working her ass off to pay, split the country, taking the money. He had done NOTHING regarding Miguelito’s case: he just strung her along, told her he had done A, B, and C and kept taking money. He had several cases which he was handling and did the same to the rest of his clients. Please, let karma rain down hard on this DB.

UPDATE #2: Miguelito called me after Hurricane Irma. They are all ok, but the prison was five days without WATER. A nightmare, but they lived through it. Miguelito and Esther now have a new lawyer who is actually doing his job, but Miguelito is depressed: he celebrates his birthday next week, behind bars, still.

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