Tag Archives: bay of pigs

Black Market a lo Cubano

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If you follow my blog or any similarly semi-intelligent Cuba-related news outlet, you know that things are fast a-changin’ on this side of the Straits. For those out of the loop: in April, 2011, a series of unprecedented policies – which amount to a new (and not without substantial risk) economic paradigm for the country – were approved at the Sixth Communist Party Congress (see note 1).

Though some of my Cuban friends gripe that change isn’t happening fast enough, I’ve been surprised by how many new policies have come to pass as promised: private sales of homes and cars, relaxed regulations for paladares and casas particulares, and the approval of nearly 200 pursuits and services for private enterprise. Other movement towards so-called normalcy is slower and more complicated still: unifying the two official currencies, salary increases, and phasing out the permiso de salida (see note 2) among them.

What these changes will mean for the most vulnerable remains to be seen and I have not a few friends here tormented by uncertainty, anxiety, and a generalized malaise in the face of it all. Uppermost in their hearts and minds: what might these changes mean for the political, social, and ethical tenor of the revolutionary project so many have fought so long to strengthen and so hard to save?

Some days it feels like it’s all going kablooey – that the Cuba we’ve known is reserved now for dewy-eyed nostalgics fingering grainy photos of the 10 million ton harvest. And this is heart breaking to people who have survived so much drama and tragedy: the rending of families in the 60s and 70s, (plus the Bay of Pigs and Missile Crisis), followed by the Mariel boat lift and collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the 80s which led to the torturous Special Period of the 90s. Then there was Fidel passing the baton to hermanito Raúl which I guarantee looks different from your off-island perspective than from ours here in Havana. And let’s not forget the 50 years of sabotage (both bald-faced and covert) by the behemoth to the north, to say nothing of terrorist attacks by US-sheltered individuals and groups.

So before it all goes kaboom (a day late and a dollar short, perhaps?), I’m determined to document the Cuba I’ve known for the past 10 years and the attendant change as accurately, responsibly, and comprehensively as possible. Today, I turn to an examination of the black market.

Jeans and stilettos, perfume and gas. Cigars of course, but also ice cream (Coppelia, the country’s best), and iMacs, milk and meat: it’s all available on Havana’s black market – if you have the hookup or happen upon someone “repurposing” Cuban Clorox or café. In the interest of full disclosure, I have very little direct experience with the black market (or parallel market as Cubans call it) despite a decade in residence; I have no car, so no need for gas, I buy my meat off the cement, fly-spotted counters at my local carnicería, and would love a Mac but don’t earn enough to join that club. Besides, all that shit is stolen (see note 3) and I’ve had enough stuff vicked in my life to know that if you ain’t part of the stolen goods solution, you’re definitely part of the problem.

But then the moral high ground begins to shift (Cuba is funny like that).

—–

Every once in a while, a kind-faced granny shows up at my door selling either eggs (see note 4) or powdered milk – a key ingredient in the Cuban kitchen. Someone on the block must have told her an extranjera lives in Apt 5 because she came straight to my door that first time, knocked hard and called me La Rusa (“The Russian” – old stereotypes die hard). She’s a bit gnarled and I can tell from the edge in her voice and the fade of her blouse that times are tough for the milk-peddling abuelita. Unfortunately, when I need eggs, she has milk; when I want milk, she has eggs. So even though I was keen to help her out, our supply and demand algorithm never quite jived. Last week, her friendly face appeared anew at my door.

“I have eggs,” she said.

“So do I. How about milk?” I asked.

She didn’t have any that day but promised to “resolve” some; I promised to buy it once she did.

Sitting in my office yesterday whittling a Tweet down to 140 characters instead of working, I once again heard her hearty knock at my door. Smiling big, she told me she had three sacks of milk for sale at $2 a pop (a 50 cent savings over the official store price). I agreed to take one, glad I was finally getting the chance to help out granny. Until she pulled the sachet from her frayed knapsack: I, we both, were taking milk from the mouths of Cuban babes. What my elderly friend was selling was the milk the government guarantees to every child under 7 and I’d just purchased 600 grams of it. I knew that milk wasn’t going to be too tasty. 

—–

This transaction got me to thinking about where all this stolen stuff comes from and put me in mind of my friend Alberto. He has an old Lada on which his livelihood depends. Driving around recently, I noticed a balón de gas (the 20-lb tanks used here for home cooking) wedged behind his seat. Seems Alberto had converted his gas-powered car into a propane-propelled one.

This was a smart investment on his part: although the conversion kit cost $350 and had to be imported from abroad, Alberto fills that tank – which takes him 120 km or so – on the black market for just $5. By way of comparison, that same $5 would buy 15 liters of real gas on the black market; just over four at the pump. I’m glad Alberto has figured a way to enlarge his margins, but wonder about the families who show up to fill their kitchen tanks to be told “no hay” (there isn’t any).

This same pattern repeats itself with steaks and blocks of Gouda, stamps for official paperwork (I was surprised to be asked to produce receipts for my bank-bought stamps on my last visit to immigration) and cooking oil. And while I can appreciate the need for every last Cuban having to do something (or something extra-legal) to make ends meet, the more I parse the situation, the more unsettling it becomes.

And it makes me realize that a certain amount of that aforementioned moral ground is shifting below my feet. At these times I’m forced to ask myself: is this is a part of Cuban culture I wish to participate in? Unluckily for my milk-thieving granny, it is not. But I’m sure she’ll find other clients: as long as there are commodities like oil, meat, and milk to “redirect,” and resell for pure profit, folks will do it.

 As I said: old habits die hard.

 Notes

1. These political powwows are held every so often (the last was in 1997) or mejor dicho: whenever sufficient excrement threatens to make contact with the cooling element, if you know what I mean.

2. All of these issues came to the fore in nationwide public referendum-type debates held in late 2010. The permiso de salida is an exit permit which is mandatory for overseas travel by Cubans and residents. It earns the country revenue, but is also a barrier to travel – an issue that has to be reconciled somehow and soon.

 3. Except the goods in the black market Mac store. None of this is stolen, but rather all new, in-the-box gear with warranty and all, purchased in Miami and spirited into the country.

 4. Eggs aren’t usually stolen either, but rather the product of home-raised hens.

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

Cuba: Independent Republic of Los Sabelotodo

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Last night in a fit of exasperation my husband chuffed: ‘yeah, ok. Whatever you say sabe lo todo.’ A Cuban labeling someone as a know-it-all is ironic, not to mention a clear cut case of the pot calling the kettle black. In this instance, applying the sabe lo todo label was especially illustrative since a) my significant other is a shameless (and sometimes tiresome, truth be told) know-it-all and b) he was telling me where to pitch what stories – in essence, telling me how to do my job. He’s annoyingly right most of the time, but this wasn’t one of them.

After nine years of marriage, this isn’t my first experience with him waxing expert on themes about which he’s largely clueless. In the US, we call this talking out your ass. The most hilarious (or heinous, depending on your POV) of his sabe-lo-todo/ass talking was after I’d had an explosive multiple orgasm. As I lay there in that delicious free floating state of petit morte, he came back for more, making a beeline for my clitoris. When I begged him to stop, explaining it was painful like when someone tickle tortures you, he actually said: ‘No! This is the best part!’ A man professing to know how a clitoris feels post-orgasm: this is how deep Cuban sabe lo todo runs.

If you know Cubans, you know people like this. Alternatively, if you’ve been to Cuba, you’ve likely met the street sweeper (or taxi driver or bartender) who knows more than a foreign neurosurgeon. These folks will tell you the best way to prepare lobster even if they’ve only tasted one in their life or expound on the safety of New York City streets though they’ve never been on a plane.

Let me be clear: not all Cubans suffer from this affliction and it definitely strikes men more often and acutely than women. Male vegetable sellers, for instance, are notorious know-it-alls, forever proclaiming their flaccid or small, close-to-rotting or not ripe produce is top quality. I recently let loose on a burly guy selling the typical selection of Havana fruit and veggies (i.e. flaccid, small, and pre- or post-prime) who tried to convince me his bruised, mushy tomatoes were perfect for tonight’s salad.

“Do you cook at home?” I asked him, my smile turning nasty.

“Do you do the shopping for your house?”

“Do you know what I’m buying these tomatoes for?”

“No, no, and no, so shut the fuck up.” That’s what I wanted to say but didn’t. Instead I walked away, costing him a sale, which in this wacky system is of no consequence whatsoever (yet).

Having a touch of the strident, know-it-all myself (when I was 8 my mother told me I was too dogmatic; it goes that far back, runs that deep), I chafe when I come up against it here, I admit. This has forced me to think about the causes of sabe lo todo and taught me to better appreciate the Socratic Method. It has also underscored the importance of being open to learning from all walks of life á la Popular Education.

So why are Cubans such know-it-alls?

First and foremost, Cubans on the whole are ingenious, smart, and educated, so they do know a hell of a lot. Over 50 years of free education (including in remote areas and all post-graduate and advanced studies) means the average Cuban knows more about the history of the Western Hemisphere, for example, than me or you. I’ve been embarrassed more than once by Cubans correcting me about a Civil War battle or US electoral processes. ¡Que pena!

Such erudition may be eroding among the younger generations however, as Cuban education (especially primary and secondary) becomes increasingly mired in resource scarcity, low teacher and student morale, and slackening standards – not unlike what’s happening in public schools up North, I gather. But Cubans 40 and over? Like the IRS, they are all-knowing and spell trouble when they’ve set their sights on you.

Another, more complex reason for the sabe-lo-todo tendency is the success the Cuban Revolution – capital C, capital R – has had sticking it to The Man Uncle Sam. No country so close, so small has ever resisted the US drag towards globalization, neo-liberalism (AKA contemporary colonialism), and all the inequities and contradictions these constructs imply. To say nothing of Cuba’s resounding defeat of US-backed invaders at the Bay of Pigs or the wedge it jammed between the super powers during the Missile Crisis.

Sometimes when I sit back and look at Cuba in the big picture, even I have trouble believing this little country has so consistently and successfully flipped the proverbial bird to the USA. Not since the Haitian slave rebellion of 1791 has a small island been such a game changer. Despite all the errors and imperfections of the Cuban system, having such chutzpah and success must affect the collective psyche some how, imprinting a tacit superiority on the hearts and minds of the people.

However, underlying this singular triumph and its attendant feelings of superiority – modest and unconscious as they might be – is, I suspect, a niggling feeling of inferiority. Let’s face it: Cuba is an island, small and isolated, which has never been given its rightful place on the world stage.

Underestimated and undervalued, Cuba’s contributions to the global dialectic in science, medicine, literacy, human rights broadly defined, and disaster prevention are minimized, criticized and questioned – often by people and media unqualified to level such judgments. This has to rankle, contributing to an inferiority complex which, in a textbook example of over compensation, manifests itself as sabe lo todo.

Lastly, many Cubans confuse opinion with fact. A slippery concept, opinion is a confluence of knowledge, experience, emotion, bias, even upbringing and culture. Facts, meanwhile, are evidence-based, provable and documented. Facts can inform opinion, but not the other way around (FoxNews notwithstanding). Presenting opinion as fact is one of the first, most obvious signs that you’re up against a sabe lo todo.

Although I’m often ruffled by this posturing which can feel belittling as it negates my experience and knowledge, Cubans have taught me that no one is all-knowing. Certainly not me. Slowly, this wondrous Havana journey is making me less of a know-it-all and more of a question-it-all.

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What Cubans Won’t Say

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The mainstream media has you hoodwinked. The Beeb, Miami Herald, WSJ, CNN – whatever news profiteer you prefer, they’d have you believe Cubans are cowed, afraid to criticize the powers that be and not willing (or able) to speak truth to that power.

Those who’ve been here know that’s a whole bunch of hooey, another of those myths perpetuated to fit an antiquated paradigm and forward a political and commercial agenda. While media control and social coercion once ruled in Cuba and self-censorship was synonymous with self-preservation, that was then.

These days, Cubans and Habaneros (my specialty) especially, criticize a blue streak and are learning slowly, surely, to speak truth to power through neighborhood and national debates, blogs, publications like Temas and La Calle del Medio, as well as TV shows like Libre Acceso. Sitting here in Havana, trust me when I tell you: the evolution of the revolution is happening folks, whether They like it or not. And people are talking about it.

But there’s one thing Cubans won’t say still. From Abbottabad to Boyeros, Port-au-Prince to Perico, I’ve never heard a Cuban say “can’t.” Simply put, there’s no can’t in Cuba. What more, it’s what has kept the dream alive all these years (see note 1).

In a recent PBS special on Cuban healthcare, an executive at Havana’s Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center credited the US blockade for Cuba’s ingenuity saying, “it created the challenge for us to try and solve our own problems.” And this is undeniably true in the biotech sector, an industry where patents and inputs controlled by the USA forces Cubans to forge their own solutions – so successfully that today Cuban vaccines, cancer therapies, and generic drugs are among the country’s largest export earners today (see note 2).

In my mind though, the Cuban “can-do” attitude isn’t just due to the blockade; it’s in their blood. Consider José Martí, who organized, fundraised and fought for Cuban independence, only to be shot dead two days into the fracas. Or Fidel Castro’s failed attack on the Moncada Barracks which landed the survivors in jail, not to mention the even more disastrous (and fatal) fight after the Granma landed when only a dozen of 82 survived. As I said, “can’t” isn’t in the Cuban vernacular.

Bay of Pigs?
Yes we can!

Missile Crisis?
Yes we can!

Special Period?
Yes we can (eventually)!

Cubans can invent (and overcome, it seems) anything. Here we call this the ability to ‘resolver.’ These folks can resolve anything and even my mom has taken to saying: ‘It’s Cuba. It can be resolved’ every time I regale her with a new problem or gripe. She doesn’t realize both my husband and I are shitty resolvers.

Not so the guajiro who brought electricity to the clutch of one-room wooden houses in his remote mountain village of Guantánamo by inventing La Cuchufleta. Made from scrap metal and a bicycle wheel, this ingenious contraption sits in a bend in the river where the water flows fast and produces enough juice to power the bare bulbs and sole TV in that previously dark and silent burg.

Then there are the ‘Yank tanks,’ those Detroit dowagers nearly as old as Fidel that are kept together and running with duct tape, wires, and anything else that helps ‘resolver‘ – including a Flintstones vitamin bottle for brake fluid.

McGyver’s got nothing on the Cubans.

One of my favorite Cuban inventions is the rikimbili (see note 3), a motorized bicycle which has grown increasingly rare in Havana unfortunately. They come in different shapes and levels of sophistication, but when you see a bike putt-putt-putting along Calle 100 with a soda bottle strapped to the frame, piss yellow ‘brillante‘ sloshing around inside, you’ve sighted a rikimbili.

Cuban medical missions serving in scores of countries from East Timor to Mali, Bolivia to Botswana couldn’t survive without this inventive ingenuity. I’ve seen it firsthand. In Pakistan, where Cubans were freezing their cojones off during six months of disaster relief, I watched as family doctors constructed a tube of interlocking water bottles from their tent to a trench out back so they could pee without going out into the frigid Kashmir night. My bunkmates, las doctoras, weren’t so fortunate.

In post-quake Haiti, I held a girl’s hand (her only body part not in a cast) as a Cuban orthopedic surgeon adjusted her “traction” – a rope and cinder block invention rigged up at the foot of her bed in the overflowing, fly-infested ward.

Not everything Cubans invent is good however. Recently, a friend was buying veggies at the agro when he spotted a stand piled high with puré. Sold in re-purposed 1.5 liter bottles, this tomato paste is a staple of the Cuban kitchen and an efficient way to dispatch with past-their-prime tomatoes besides. As my amigo spoke to the vendor, he noticed huge sacks of carrots and squash behind the stand. In a wordless exchange (something else Cubans have elevated to an art form) he raised an eyebrow at the sacks and she responded, wordlessly, by pointing her pursed lips in the direction of the bottles. My friend couldn’t figure how the orange root vegetables could be transformed into the bright red paste until he consulted the radio bemba (grapevine): the color was obtained by adding a dash of pulverized brick. Apocryphal? Perhaps. This is Cuba after all.

Good or not so, keep an eye open in Cuba and you’ll discover inventions everywhere. Even after all these years, I’m still learning the extent of ingenuity powering this country. Just last week I was stopped dead in my tracks with a new way to resolver: the 3-legged chair. No stool this, we’re talking a 3-legged chair propped just so.

‘What will they think of next?’ I wondered.

I came across my answer a couple of blocks later: a 2-legged chair, propped against a tree, upon which was seated a none-too-slim parking attendant.

In Cuba, ¡sí, se puede!

Notes

1. The other factor that has kept it alive is the solidarity Cubans extend to each other. Consider this from a blog post listing What Cuban Friends Are Like: “A friend sends you a card and flowers when you’re in the hospital. A Cuban friend stays at the hospital, sitting in a rocking chair at your bedside.”

2. The blockade of Cuba, which is known as a “genocidal policy” here, prevents the island from obtaining badly-needed pharmaceutical products like Sevoflurane (Abbott Laboratories), a general anesthesia for children. Things like this – preventing kids from having anesthetic for imperceptible political gain – gets my Irish way up. It also prevents normal readers like you from traveling to Cuba.

3. There’s a special prize for any reader who can enlighten me as to the origin of this word.

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Wild Camping in Cuba – Part I

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The last time I planted tent poles, it was within pistol shot of the crumpled Presidential Palace, Port-au-Prince, March 2010. At 33 nights, it was the longest I’d spent in a tent. Given the wretched situation and endless cavalcade of sick and hungry Haitians seeking succor from the Cuban medical brigade I was covering, it was, (it goes without saying), the most taxing tent time of my life.

But a few months on, I was ready for the swelter of the carpa and clouds of (malaria-free) mosquitoes. Even the dicey baño scenarios didn’t deter. Besides, a camping vacation was the only kind our budget could handle.

Our target was the Bay of Pigs (see note 1). The snorkeling was good, the fishing promising, and the beaches we found on our 2003 island-wide adventure, camper-friendly. But in one of those travel mystery moments, as vague and insistent as a nostalgic scent or voice carried on a breeze that you can’t be sure isn’t just the wind in the leaves, we changed course. Which is how we ended up under a bridge.

—–

As sick as it sounds (and probably is), the plastic tarp and stick structures huddled under the bridges reminded me of Port-au-Prince. The more fortunate had two-person tents and a thatch-screened area for pissing and more demanding duties. Families 15-strong cordoned off their slice of beneath-the-bridge beach using old rope, freshly-cut palm fronds and whatever else was on hand. Their dogs prowled the periphery, their bunches of plátano hung out of reach. Side by side like cubes in an ice tray, kids tucked into mosquito net cubicles rigged by red eyed fathers in knee-high gumboots. As the little ones slept, bonfires blazed and chispa burned throats. Cooking, bathing, dishwashing and other necessities of life were carried out in broad daylight. Children frolicked. Women worked. Men played dominoes. It felt awfully familiar.

We kept exploring. Every few kilometers there was another river carving its path onto the beach and feeding into the sea. Each river was spanned by a bridge. They had evocative, indigenous names that filled my mouth with marbles: Yaguanabo, Cabagan, Guanayara. Then we pulled down into Río Hondo. Claims had been clearly staked at the far side of the beach nearest the deep, green river and by the looks of it, the campamento there was hosting a family reunion of forty. Already I could feel the reggaetón and general bulla rattling my bones and grating my nerves.

We kept on exploring.

Our pocket was tucked away at the other end of Río Hondo’s sandy expanse, where the bridge curved over and away like a mulatta out of your league. Almond and seagrape trees provided shade for weathering Cuba’s brutal summer sun and we could easily improvise bathroom facilities where they thickened back from the beach; the tumble of sea stones that made up the shore gave way to a sandy, shaded patch for our tent; and our closest neighbors were 300 meters down the beach.

The site was, I dare say, perfect.

To be continued…..

Notes

1. You almost never hear ‘Bahia de Cochinos’ in Cuba, which just goes to show you how far apart the thinking is between here and there. Forget coming to terms on human rights issues, immigration, or sovereign state concepts: the two sides of the Straits are even at etymological odds, having different terms for the embargo (know as the bloqueo here and occasionally as genocidio, which I have a small conceptual problem with), the Spanish American War (called the Guerra Hispano-Cubano-Americano here which makes eminent sense: the Cubans, after all, played a pivotal, indispensable part), and the Bay of Pigs (here referred to as Playa Girón).

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