Tag Archives: blackouts in cuba

Periodo Especial: The Sequel?!

I don’t know how the Special Period felt coming on, but I do know how it manifested once in full swing. Transport was so scarce and overcrowded, passengers lunged from bus windows at their stop or simply rode on the roof, hung from the door frame or clung to the back bumper.

Each and every day, the entire island was plunged into darkness; blackouts were so long and common, Cubans, plumbing their deep well of ironic optimism, began referring to ‘light ups,’ those times when there actually was electricity. So few and far between were those electrified hours, neighborhood block parties were held in the street, around a bonfire with a jug of rum (or more often moonshine known as ‘chispa‘e tren/baja tus bloomers’).

Toilet paper was non-existent – we used water or more often, pages ripped from the Granma newspaper. In many homes, squares the size of real TP were cut from the paper and stacked neatly atop the toilet tank. I wasn’t too put off by this. As a life-long camper, I’ve wiped my butt with all manner of material. Nevertheless, I do remember my shock at seeing Che’s face, shit-stained and crumpled, staring up at me from the bathroom wastebasket. It seemed blasphemous then but practical and normal thereafter – in dire/adverse circumstances, you do what you gotta do to survive.

And Cubans did.

They pedaled the 1 million Chinese bikes imported as transport of last resort. They fried “steaks” from grapefruit rinds, they fanned infants for hours with a piece of cardboard during stagnant summer nights. They lost weight, some suffering a neuropathy epidemic for lack of nutritious food. They rigged up kerosene burners for cooking and fashioned homemade matches. They struggled and suffered, finding solace in family, days swimming at El Espigon and nights stretching out on the Malecon. They danced, sang and fucked. They persevered and survived…

Flash forward to 2019. We’re in a different historical moment, a different context than the one I experienced in 1993, but the effects of the Special Period linger, if you know where to look. Not wanting their kids to ever go hungry like they did, parents indulge appetites to the point where child obesity and overweight are current health problems. Bicycles and cycling are stigmatized, reminding people too viscerally of those hard times. Today, hoarding happens and some still prefer newspaper to toilet paper.

The cleverness of Cubans and their deep stores of creativity and inventiveness honed during the Special Period are constantly on display. You see it in the 70-year old Harley-Davidsons zooming down the road, parts hand-hewn in cluttered, greasy garages across the island. You see it in the Russian washing machines cannibalized to make lawn mowers, blenders and coconut shredders. You see it in the burgeoning upcycle movement where the experience of struggle is translated into décor and dollars.

But no one, I mean no one wants to go through that again. And I highly doubt as many Cubans who tolerated it then would now – at least not in Havana. Make no mistake: Cuba learned its lesson from the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which sent the dependent island economy into a tailspin. It diversified, it liberalized, and it looked for and forged alternatives. But we’re seeing signs, folks. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. And it’s worrying.

Indeed, the most violent factor was – and is – beyond Cuban control: the nearly 60-year old US embargo cripples all economic and social development in one way or another. And last week the Trump Administration announced it’s considering enacting Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. I’ll leave a full explanation to the economists and wonks, but the important point is: as in 1996, during the deepest days of the Special Period, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton pounced on Cuba’s vulnerability and pushed this Act through Congress “to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.” Sensing that same vulnerability like a lioness stalking the weakest of the pack, Marco Rubio is exacting his quid pro quo with Donald Trump via Cuba and Title III.

It’s abominable how this administration is destroying lives at home and abroad. It’s no less shameful how supposed political detractors enable this cabal. Please, anyone in a policy/decision-making position reading this: do the world (and yourselves) a favor and grow some balls/ovaries; history will judge you and you will NOT be absolved.

Unfortunately, I doubt anyone reading this is making US policy. I also doubt that many people reading this realize just how vulnerable right now feels. Major trading partners and allies including Venezuela and Brazil are on the ropes. Trump rhetoric is scaring away investors and tourists. The embargo is still in place and we’ve suffered Hurricane Irma, Sub Tropical Storm Alberto, a devastating plane crash and a tornado, all in the past 18 months.

And we’re feeling it.

There was a massive flour shortage and though we are once again enjoying flour and pizza, there is neither milk (terrible for Cuba Libro) nor eggs. These latter were dubbed salvavidas in the Special Period days because eggs are a cheap, easy-to-prepare source of protein. They were, and are, ‘lifesavers.’ In the past three months, I’ve eaten a total of half a dozen eggs; it used to be a daily (or even twice a day) affair. Monthly egg rations have been cut in half to five per person, per month and when they do appear in stores, customers are limited to two cartons of 36 eggs each. But this is Cuba…

This week, my friend Camilo got word that eggs were being sold at the Plaza de Marianao. He made the trek across town and took his place in the long line. He watched people carting away 6, 7, 10 or more cartons of eggs. The stack for sale behind the crumbling counter shrank. He surmised the egg sellers were paid off to ignore the two-carton rule. The sun beat down, the stack shrank, Camilo was sweating from the heat and attendant low-level panic. Would the eggs hold out until his turn came around? He had waited in line already for two hours. The stack shrank. He asked one of the customers pulling a dolly away with over 400 eggs if he would sell a carton?

‘!Hombre no! This is for my private cafeteria. I need every last one.’

The eggs ran out and Camilo left empty handed. Mad and desperate, he went to a cafeteria near his house to order two egg sandwiches, hold the bread, hold the oil, hold the making of it. When he discovered that same sandwich which used to cost 35 cents, now costs 75, he slumped home egg-less. Today we’re scrambling to procure eggs for Jenny’s grandmother who, ailing and frail, has been prescribed a special diet by her doctor, including two eggs a day. So far we’ve been unsuccessful.

Then there’s the cooking oil situation. Shortages nationwide mean customers are only allowed two bottles per person. To procure those two precious bottles, you have to travel to the store that has it (lucky you if it’s actually in your neighborhood) and spend hours on line under a blistering sun just like my egg-less friend Camilo. As a result, many people I know spent this past weekend rendering chicken and pork fat so they won’t get caught (too) short.

Shortages of flour, eggs, oil – this post was simmering in my overworked brain for a bit but didn’t come to fruition until last night when the smell of gasoline permeated my living room. I emerged from the egg-less, flour-less kitchen (we don’t fry much and our current bottle of oil is a month old and still half-full) to see what was up. Twenty liters of premium gas now sits in a tank in said living room because people see the writing on the wall: gas hoarding has officially begun.

Blackouts are happening too – not as long or as often as I experienced in 1993, but worrisome still. And the economy overall is showing signs of serious distress. Last year the national economy grew a meager 1% and projections for this year are similar.

We may not be headed for a Second Special Period, but things feel tense as we plod through this year, Havana’s 500th anniversary.

Happy Birthday, ciudad querida. I hope smoother sailing awaits.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Havana Bad Time (see note 1)

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Times are exceedingly complex and anxiety-ridden on this side of the Straits. This is part of the reason I’ve chosen to accentuate the positive lately – both personally and generally. No one needs me griping about the small things and adding to the angst, I figure. Besides, here, like everywhere, you take the good with the bad, which is my stock answer for those who don’t believe (or cotton to) my choice to be in Cuba. And for me, the good has heavily outweighed the bad for 10+ years.

But these days, my life has gone a bit pear-shaped (see note 2), sending me to my surest, safest refuge: pen and paper (see note 3). Indulge me this one post and we’ll return to issues of more import, (not to mention fun), soon. Te prometo.

¡Apagones cojones! – Once upon a time, I was one of the 11 million here who withstood 10 hour black outs. Years later (before we’d hooked up with Hugo), the apagones were shorter – a couple, three hours – but still a fact of life. And in hurricanes, the electricity is cut when winds reach 40 miles per hour – one of the reasons Cuba suffers minimum loss of life compared to other places since many storm-related deaths are due to downed live wires. So I’ve known my share of blackouts.

But none of this explains why I came home last week after sol-to-sol meetings to a dead answering machine in my sala and defrosted pork parts in my freezer. Did my neighbors have lights? Yes. Had I paid my bill? Yes (see note 4).

‘Tis a puzzlement as the King once said and not in an intriguing, brain teaser kind of way, but rather in that ‘how am I going to cook dinner and keep cool?’ kind of way. The head scratching intensified once I located my meter amongst 18 others downstairs and found it in working order. Next, I went to the circuit breaker inside my house and found it in the ‘off’ position. I switched it to ‘on.’ A light sputtered to life, but I didn’t even have time to yell “Yay!” before it threw the breaker again.

I waited a bit before switching it again to ‘on.’ The light flickered and held. No electrician has been able to explain the mystery – I have no new appliances or anything additional plugged in – but I dare not turn on my old Russian AC. Send help if you don’t hear from me by August.

The concert that wasn’t – One of the undeniably greatest things about living here is the quantity of quality music happening almost always. So was the case last Saturday night when X Alfonso, Raúl Paz, Kelvis Ochoa, and Decemer Bueno were all playing at different, fabulous venues across the city.

How to choose?

For me, it was easier than most since I’ve seen them all perform multiple times and Decemer’s concert promised something special: invited guests included Israel Rojas from blockbuster group Buena Fe, plus Xiomara Laugart – an exile making her return to the Cuban stage. 

I highlighted his concert on my Facebook page. I invited friends and family and pedaled over some time after 10. I took my time: Cuba isn’t a particularly punctual place and these cats less so. I cruised up and ran into friends on an inaugural date, thrilled they’d chosen this concert over the others…

Once the clock reached 11:15 and the doors still hadn’t opened, my friends bailed. I hung in there and was relieved when they (finally!) started letting people in at midnight. I grabbed a Tu Kola at the swinging bar and headed into the theater where a full house waited. And waited. And waited and waited. At 1 in the morning, I bailed myself, my night of getting down, gone down – in flames (see note 5).

Yes You Can!=No You Can’t! – I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: my life changed when I got a bike several months ago. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s practical and represents independence and freedom – coveted states no matter where you live. But I still nursed a hangover from my first Cuban bike in 2002, when I had been stranded one time too many with nowhere to park my chivo.

Bike parking lots were as ubiquitous here during the Special Period as wannabe iMac users are today, but most car lots circa 2012 are reticent to accept bikes and those specifically for bicycles are few and far between. But so far, I’ve only had one run in – with a too-cool-for-school parqueador more concerned about his dwindling keratin supply than the vehicles he was paid to guard. Then I rolled up to the car/moto/bike lot adjacent to Coppelia. Here things took a fast turn for the douche absurd.

ME: Buenas tardes, compañera. I’d like to park my bike.

HER: Sure, put it right there in the rack. (She ties a chapita to the frame and hands me a matching metal ‘ticket,’ which I pocket).

ME: Great. Just need to lock it up.

HER: Oh no! You can’t lock it.

ME: ?!?!

HER: No, no. No locks.

ME: Compañera. I don’t understand. This lock provides added security for both of us.

HER: No. You can’t use a lock here. If you want to use a lock, do it on the street.

ME: But that’s illogical. Why wouldn’t you want more protection for me and you?

HER: Because we’ve had ‘situations.’

ME: What kind of ‘situations?’

HER: People have abandoned their locked up bikes here.

ME: ?!?!

So I wheeled Frances three feet away, on the other side of the rope from the official parking area, locked him to a tree and headed off for ice cream. Your 5 peso loss, lady.

Doggin’ me – This last was really the icing on the cake, the ill effects of which I’m still suffering. Last Sunday afternoon, like those before it, I was making my way to play bike polo. But this time I was escorting a friend, which is good news: our league suffers from a chronic shortage of bicycles. We had just made it around Havana’s hairiest rotunda at Ciudad Deportiva and turned onto the access road to our court. I glanced behind me to make sure my friend had made it through the rotary and when I turned around, there was a stray, mangy dog directly in front of my tire. 

I had no time to react – no swerve or brake or little hop was happening. I ran squarely  over him, passing with a thud over his flan-colored midsection, first with the front tire, then the back. He yelped. I fell. Folks nearby gasped. The dog ran off, leaving me with a badly sprained ankle and a serious hitch in my giddy up. If I wasn’t a dog person before…

Notes

1. This post was suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) by Havana Good Time user Annabelle P after a visit here. Thanks chica!

2. And what follows is only what Politics, legal considerations, and my personal ethical code permit me to air publically.

3. For all two of you who were wondering: I still do all my first drafts the old fashioned way – by putting pen to paper.

4. The electric and phone company here are merciless when it comes to non-payment, cutting service one day past due. I experienced my share of cold nights and interrupted phone service growing up due to unpaid bills, but I don’t ever remember ConEd or AT&T being that cut throat. Ironic, eh?

5. Turns out they took the stage at 1:30am, having had to wait for the sound guy who was working one of the other concerts which also ran late. To boot, there was a short in Decemer’s mic, so he was getting shocked through his six song set before calling it quits. Friends tell me they’re going to make it up to their pissed public with a free concert soon.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Cuba’s Secret Weapon: Little Old Ladies

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Up and moving to a foreign country is like tiptoeing across a tightrope without a net. It takes balls (or ovaries, as we say on this side of the Straits), but can be stupid, reckless, and if all goes horribly wrong, detrimental to breathing.

When I landed in Cuba to live full time – without a net – in April 2002, I had a pretty good idea of what I was in for (see note 1). But imagining 6-hour blackouts and bucket showers is one thing. Cooking, eating, reading and lovemaking by candlelight followed by a military shower is something (uncomfortably, unsustainably) else.

Little by little, things improved. Gradually, I adjusted. I sprang for a $15 electric shower unit (known as widow makers in some countries) and we kept a list of debate topics on hand for the next blackout. Over time, I grew accustomed to my neighbors dropping by unannounced for coffee and a chat and I no longer started at the good-natured yelling Cubans indulge in. Poco a poco my wardrobe got shorter and tighter, I perfected the use of a pressure cooker, and grew used to the idea that gladiolas aren’t just for dead people (see note 2).

But clothing, cooking, even floral tendencies, are differences you expect in foreign countries. In Pakistan I had to cover my head. In Guatemala I (happily) forsook bread for tortillas. Here in Havana however, I was blindsided by something else entirely, something wholly unexpected: I’m surrounded by old people.

It’s not simply that Cubans have a longer life expectancy than you (see note 3) or that the country has 1,488 centenarians and counting. Sure, the island is a willing poster child for the 120 Club (see note 4), but the ubiquity of the elderly here has more to do with the culture of aging than health indicators.

In Cuba, great pains are taken to keep the ‘senior zits’ and ‘blue hairs’ (as my mother calls them, even though – technically – she forms part of their ranks) actively involved in society. Active aging they call it. Every day, from Pinar del Río to Guantánamo, you’ll see seniors doing knee bends and loosening their rotator cuffs in free, outdoor exercise classes; raisin-like men mixing up the dominos at seniors’ centers; and great grandmothers wheeling their sweet potatoes and yucca away from the Tulipán vegetable market.

As end of days approach, it is the rare Cuban that gets parked in a nursing home. Here, people prefer to take care of their own, at home – even hospice happens at home, in your own bed. Up north, meanwhile, we tend to shutter people away once they reach a certain age. Where I’m from, growing old and dying at home is the rare exception. I get that nursing homes are handy. Who wants to change their mother’s diaper or go unrecognized by their own father as he battles demons known only to Alzheimer’s patients? But, the incontinent and impenetrable aside, I think the Cubans are on to something with their family-based aging in place.

Teresita was my first clue. Wide-hipped and curmudgeonly, with hair dyed the color of bread crusts, Teresita is my 86-year old neighbor. She’s the archetypical despotic Cuban matriarch, heading up four generations of females squeezed into a 2-bedroom apartment. Though able-bodied, Teresita never leaves the apartment. Despite her cranky, iron-fisted disposition, we call her “Terry” with affection.

Times are hard for Terry and her girls. She had to share her rubber-sheeted bed with her 56-year old daughter Lila until the latter emigrated to Tampa. It happened exactly like most leave-takings here in Cuba: here one day, gone the next. The space opened up in Terry’s bed couldn’t compensate for the sorrow it planted in her heart. With the high drama that grips so many Cuban women, Terry comes to me after Lila has left to say the only thing she has to look forward to now is the grave.

While her granddaughter is out earning her daily bread and her great granddaughter is at school learning her times tables, Terry is left alone. All day, every day. She’s locked in, but far from shut-in: perched at her window observing all the comings and goings, Terry is The Gossip. From her I learn a trio of young thugs are posing as public health inspectors, finessing their way into the homes of little old ladies, and robbing them blind. It’s Terry who tells me that Omara from upstairs in going to Spain and Yusi downstairs is dating a new guy.

“He’s black,” she whispers to me, passing a couple of fingers along her forearm – the classic Cuban sign for a person of color.

Like many white ladies of an age, Terry is a little bit racist, which is akin to being a little pregnant in my book, but I let it slide. She’s got over eight decades of memories and experience and I find myself heading across the hall to “talk story” as we say in Hawaii. I find reasons to knock on her door – bringing her the reading material she so desperately craves and dropping by for coffee and a turn in her broken cane rocker. Over tiny cups of sweet and musky bodega coffee (see note 5), she tells me about her brutal, pre-revolution childhood.

Rocking and sipping, she tells me how her father’s second wife, a wicked substitute for Terry’s dead mother, forced her to work beginning at an absurdly early age. There were the customary cooking and cleaning chores that every household has, but young Terry was also forced to take outside work, washing and ironing the neighbors’ guyaberas, slacks, and skirts. If she protested, she met the business end of a belt. She’s less forthcoming about her husband, who gave her one daughter and a whole lot of headaches. Of course, our conversation always detours to the terrain of her various ailments: stiff joints, failing eyes, and a chronic, inexplicable throbbing in her thigh. If I let her roam, we’ll get lost in the badlands of her aches and pains.

Then there’s Carmita, my 82-year old friend from Regla (see note 6). She’s more affectionate and sharp-witted than Teresita, but is a similarly iron-willed matriarch with a long gone husband. ‘Good riddance!’ she exclaims with a devlish smile. ‘That one was born unfaithful.’ Laying a liver-spotted hand on my leg she cracks jokes about macho men and criticizes complicit women in that spirited, pre-curve feminist way of hers.

Sipping the same sweet, musky coffee from the same teeny cups everyone has here, Carmita spins tales of teaching hicks from the sticks to read during the 1961 literacy campaign. With her eyes closed softly, she recreates the Bay of Pigs attack, reliving those tense days. Carmita can be mercurial, fluctuating between placcid and resigned, spunky and spent. Like Teresita – like everyone I’m realizing – her life has been peppered with profound pain and loss.

Carmita has her health problems too – arthritis forced her to abandon her sewing business some years ago and the diabetes is under control. For now. While she fries up some plantains for her handsome grandson, Carmita relates last night’s dream with that munificent smile of hers. In the dream, her recently deceased daughter has been revived, the cancer expunged, her lifeblood back.

“Give me a hug Mom.”

“It won’t hurt?”

“No, Mom. I’m good. I’m healthy.”

Her words hung in the small, dark kitchen.

“And then you woke up, though you never wanted to,” I say with finality.

“It was horrible muchacha.”

I can’t imagine.

Old Cuba likewise comes alive sitting on Evarina’s porch in Miramar. Homebound and 80-something, Evarina’s a bulldog of a dame. She’s from the Oriente originally, (which means something if you know the island), and once upon a time was a daily cigar smoker like myself. Her diabetes is having its way with her and there’s some concern she might lose her foot. While she tries to “resolve” a course of the Cuban wonder drug for diabetic foot, she passes her time burning up the phone lines gossiping about her sister’s new cleaning lady and the Braves’ acquisition of her favorite ball player.

Then there’s Mary and Esther. Debra and Julia. When I step back and look at the landscape of my life here in Havana, I’m shocked to realize that the people I like best, that are the most interesting and engaging, are, on average, 79 years old. Old women, the lot of them. Why, I ask myself, are there so many viejitas in my midst? Could this even happen in the States?

Gotta run. Carmita’s expecting me in Regla and has promised to tell me about when Hemingway was sweet on her, dropping by her work to flirt and conquer.

Notes

1. I had been here several times before, first as a volunteer in 1993 during the Special Period (which was very, very “special” according to the Cuban joke,) and most recently in 2000.

2. There are a couple of Cuban characteristics I will never get used to. Topping the list is the national penchant for spoiling movie endings. If you have Cuban friends, you know what I’m talking about. The other is eating pizza with a knife and fork.

3. Cubans’ life expectancy is 78.3 – just surpassing the US figure of 78. Meanwhile, 16% percent of the island’s population is over 60; this will shoot up to 25% by 2025. Cuba’s recently concluded national centenarian study is fascinating.

4. Fidel Castro is the Club’s most famous member.

5. The “bodega” is where Cubans receive their monthly rations – food and other staples provided almost free by the State. As I type this, the ration card is being phased out in one of the most radical departures for the Cuban government in recent memory (I’d hate to be the person who had to convince Fidel that cutting rations is a good idea). Last week, potatoes and dried peas were dropped from the ration card. Bread and coffee are next but won’t go as gently into that good night as papas and chicharro, I’m afraid. In Cuba, bread and coffee mean breakfast. Making people buy these staples is going to be tricky – especially coffee, which, like everywhere, is very expensive: we make one espresso pot a day, spending around $15 a month. Being that the average salary is $12 a month, we’ll soon be facing a national java jones unless other provisions are made.

6. Regla is known as the “Little Sierra Maestra” it’s that revolutionary. It’s also home to the Black Virgin of Regla (Havana Bay’s patron saint and closely linked with Yemayá) and many secrets great and small. You can drive to Regla in 10 minutes from downtown Havana, but cross the bay via ferry for a picturesque, enjoyable journey to what could be a small town in the island’s interior, with all the friendly faces and simple fun that implies.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad