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Cuba Contradictory

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]While other bloggers are making their end-of-year lists, I’m just waiting for this year to end. Loss and sorrow is what 2011 has meant for me and while a turn of the calendar page won’t cure what ails me, you, or the world, it can provide a dose of hope – false and fleeting as it may be – to help us keep on stepping. Like a car with an empty gas tank, the warning light red and taunting, we know we’re running on fumes, but moving forward nonetheless; ‘bound to cover just a little more ground,’ as the song goes.

Havana circa December 2011 feels similar: we may be running on fumes, but at least we’re still running.

But that’s today. Other days, Havana hops with energy and enthusiasm and drive, where the theme song is instead ‘How do you like it? How do you like it? More, more, more’ – more millennial and hip, more sophisticated and noteworthy. This fuel injection comes from new economic regulations permitting private businesses, the buying and selling of cars and homes, and relaxed travel rules by Obama for Cubans in the USA wanting to visit family on the island (see note 1).

So how Havana feels largely depends on the day you measure her. And your outlook, what you see and experience, and who you talk to. Just like anywhere else, I suppose (if you’re paying close enough attention), except this place is like nowhere else. The contradictions are starker, more frequent, funnier.

Here are some that have caught my attention recently:

The Limousine/Ox-Drawn Cart

When Cubans of a certain means and bent get married, the bride and groom tour around town in a convertible festooned with satin bows, the novia perched atop the back seat waving to passersby while the driver lays on the horn (some honk out the wedding march, others the Godfather theme). But a few days ago, I crossed paths with the newest fad of the nouveau riche: the black tinted stretch limo (there’s only one) rented from Rex Autos covered in the same satin bows. There was no horn honking, however, and no visible bride – defeating entirely the purpose of showing off to plebes and passersby. I guess the thrill of a limo ride is reward enough for some and it did turn heads, including mine.

A short time later, I waited as two oxen were maneuvered with coos and stick by their expert handler. They carted behind them the water tank (known as the pipa in these parts), that makes the rounds of neighborhoods without municipal water. The pipa is the savior of all those homes and families which only have water un día sí, un día no (or even more infrequently).

Stretch limos and oxen carts; conspicuous consumption and water shortages: Es Cuba, my friends.

Penthouse Too Big/House Too Small

Estrella lives in a propiedad horizontal – a floor-through apartment. And it’s a penthouse no less. These huge, luxurious flats are found throughout Vedado high-rises and are more reminiscent of Manhattan than Havana. They usually feature phenomenal city and sea views but are also a pain in the ass – hard to clean and maintain, they’re also a real liability during hurricanes when their height, exposure, and plate glass windows put them in direct path and danger of the elements. For these reasons, Estrella is looking to permutar her penthouse for something closer to the ground, a more manageable home in short.

Contrast this with my friend Gloria – 68 and a spitfire who has dedicated her life’s work to helping the revolution work, she shares a bedroom with her 6-year old grandson and 10-year old granddaughter. If you know Cuba and the housing crisis we’re in, you know multi-generational sleeping arrangements are common. Except in Gloria’s case, she not only shares the room with her grandkids, but a double bed with the boy to boot. Sadly, this is also not terribly uncommon.

Both Estrella and Gloria are equally revolutionary and politically committed; this too, is Cuba, dear readers.

Chocolate-filled Churros/Pallid Pizza

As the new economic regulations gel, Cubans are figuring ways to live with the Gordian Knot that is capitalism. Folks with money to invest and a head for business are differentiating their products and services – and making money hand over fist as a result. The full-service car wash that everyone is talking about is one example of entrepreneurial pluck and vision, as is the nearby scuba school. Since I have no car and don’t dive, these are simply a curiosity for me. Not so the cafeteria selling chocolate-filled churros; jamaliche that I am, this development piqued my interest. Using a machine imported from Ecuador, these folks crank out a fried, filled sweet treat that drives Cubans gaga – and all for the nice price of 3 pesos (less than 15 cents). Also taking the city by storm is the burger and pizza joint with one of those inflatable playhouses kids love so much in the yard. While the kids jump and play, their parents nosh and drink, dropping a bundle in the process. According to my sources, this cafeteria is netting 1500 pesos a day (around $62 – not bad for a startup here).

Meanwhile, block upon block of new cafeterias sell the same forgettable hot dogs and egg sandwiches, bread spread with cloying mayo or croquettes. Some of these places serve terrible food – tasteless or cold, on day old bread or presented to customers just after the flies have been swatted away. Last week, I stopped by a new cafeteria in my neighborhood selling the smallest, palest, saddest pizza I’ve ever seen. With cheese congealing (despite being placed beneath an office lamp), the pathetic pizza sold at Rapidos around town look delectable in comparison. No wonder the government estimates 80% of these new businesses will fail within a year.

The contradictions abound caballeros. Every human and society has them. But we’ve recently had many complexities introduced into our reality here on the island which are deepening these contradictions. It’s a confusing time – anxiety-ridden once you scratch the surface – but it seems these complexities have also sparked a new line of critical thinking and reflection.

Over several visits with different friends and families over the past week, discussions have turned on the theory and opinion that what we’re experiencing today can largely be chalked up to the Special Period – that time in the 90s when the Cuban economy crashed and burned, threatening to take the Revolution with it. So that wouldn’t come to pass, people tightened their belts, took a hold of their bootstraps, and sallied forth. But at a cost. These conversations didn’t focus on what the new economy is or isn’t doing for our present, but rather the hard times of the past and how they eroded values, placed the pursuit of things over relationships, and planted the seeds of individual survival over the collective.

“We used to live here so naturally.”

“People changed overnight.”

“It was 180° turn, fast and dizzying.”

These are some of the comments made to me recently about those trying years, but in relation to our current situation. Interesting food for thought and worth recalling, 20 years hence, as we contemplate the changes in Cuba circa 2011.

Notes

1. You should see what folks are bringing in from abroad to start their families’ businesses here – everything from car parts and coolers to snorkel masks and jungle gyms. Permissions for Cuban families from the USA to travel here is being threatened by political (but powerful, ojo) dinosaurs in Congress. Although it seems Obama isn’t going to let this happen, I encourage all Here is Havana readers to keep the pressure on to lift both the travel ban and the blockade.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

My Digital Divide

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Have you ever lost a job or revenue due to tech inequity? Watched hours of productivity get sucked into the ether by a dial up connection that poke, poke, pokes along, draining all satisfaction from the act like an inexperienced or egotistical lover? Known the frustration of not being able to perform any task involving large documents, YouTube, streaming, or VOIP? And my list of music to download? A pipe dream – along with watching Jon Stewart – until I’m off-island. Is there anyone out there who feels my pain?

Before I detail the many and sundry ways Cuba, and more specifically I personally, am far behind the tech curve, let me be clear: it’s not all bad, this technological disadvantage – knowing how to write and submit via a super slow, unreliable connection for example, helped build skills and instill patience which served me well reporting from post-quake Haiti.

Let me also point out that in some cases my technological handicap is not because the gadgets aren’t available in Cuba, but because they’re out of my financial reach – which is the same thing in the end, and a reality faced by many of the world’s poor. Something to think about the next time you hear someone defending technology as the great leveler (and when you receive text messages from Yoani Sanchez: where does she get the money? I have to wonder).

Taken together, the technical challenges (see note 1) combine with the price of buying and maintaining new technologies to create a digital divide which I’m guessing most HIH readers can’t imagine. Here’s a litmus: have you ever folded laundry, washed dishes, or otherwise had to multi-task while waiting for a page to load? No? Then you probably can’t relate.

Before anyone kicks me to the curb for being a privileged foreigner who’s insensitive to what ‘regular Cubans’ go through (see note 2), let me clarify a couple of things. First, I have access to funds many Cubans don’t and I have the ability to open an internet account as an accredited journalist. So privileged? Yes. Insensitive? No – just ask my friends and family without access of their own.

Furthermore, my livelihood in large measure depends on my ability to research and submit articles, stories, and guidebooks and update my iApp via the internet. Without those gigs, I’d be left with just this blog and empty pockets. Don’t get me wrong: Here is Havana is a great writing tool, motivator, community-builder, outlet for angst and cathartic vent, but without my internet connection, it would go the way of Obama’s campaign promises, fast.

This is the practical effect of the digital divide, but there’s a subtler, more insidious side to the disconnect: it contributes to the outsider status of expats like me. Neither entirely comfortable where we came from or wholly accepted where we’ve moved to, we’re in this limbo that is pointed up every time someone waxes orgasmic about Angry Birds or Google +. Mostly I prefer being behind the tech curve (I’ll take the Flinstones over the Jetsons any day) but when it affects The Work, I bug (see note 3).

For those interested in how a decade living in Cuba translates vis-à-vis tech challenges, here goes:

I have no cell phone. Cubans are incredulous when they discover I’m not celled up, but their disbelief is based on their assumptions that a) I can afford one (see note 4) and b) I want or need to be localizable 24/7. They’re wrong on both counts.

I’ve never used a GPS. I’m a map idiot, I admit, but the GPS concept is just dangerous if you ask me. First, any map skills someone like me may have had (or had the chance of developing), go out the window once you introduce GPS. Second, they’re useless in contexts that don’t fit the traditional mapping mold, like Cuba, Hawaii, the Mosquito Coast, and every medina. Third, they limit one’s likelihood to get lost, thereby curbing new discoveries, spontaneity and flexibility, and chances for fun.

I’ve only played Wii once. Granted it was for three days straight and was a helluva lot fun but…Here in Havana I have a friend with a Wii, who calls it ‘healthier than Playstation’ and limits his daughter’s usage (but not his, I suspect!). Tip for those looking for a gift for Cuban friends: you can’t go wrong with a Wii, (two remotes, please).

Kindle-free. My take on the Kindle is kind of like my take on sexual diversity: to each his (or her) own – as long as it doesn’t infringe on my action. In other words: you can have your Kindle, but let me have my books. This is where my old fashioned ways are a disadvantage, to be sure, since hauling books here is a real pain in the ass (see note 5), plus they require shelf space. Sure, a Kindle would make my life easier, but it would also make it less enjoyable. When someone talks quality of life to me, that involves the look, smell, and heft of books.

Blue Tooth?! About a month ago I saw a Cuban American picking his way among the busted up sidewalks of Centro Habana with one of these gadgets wedged in his ear. I burst out laughing at the newest accessory in the Miami crowd’s insatiable need to ‘especular’ (show off their material goods). I tried to imagine what was so damn pressing on the other side of the Straits that this guy was willing to pay three months average Cuban salary (minimum!) to have it mainlined into his ear. Then I remembered what Cubans do with other signs of apparent wealth like watches and cell phones: they wear them and flash them, but it doesn’t mean they work. But it’s one thing to have a busted watch strapped to your wrist or a bunk cell phone clipped to your belt (that’s how the men do it here; the women tuck them into their cleavage), while it’s quite another to walk around with a pinguita in your ear.

¿Conclusión?

My life goes along happily, swimmingly without these advances. Just don’t bring it up at deadline time or mention Jon Stewart – unless you want to see me cry.

Notes

1. Cuba is prohibited by the blockade from connecting to any US satellites or fiber optic cables. At the moment, that leaves Cuba only one choice for connectivity – an Italian satellite which transmits all the data to and from the island.

2. While it’s true Cubans have the lowest connectivity rate in the hemisphere with only 14% of the population connected, these figures don’t reflect the reality since internet accounts are widely and regularly shared here. And the famous underwater cable that has been laid from Venezuela to Cuba and promises to increase our connectivity by 3000%? When it was announced a few years ago, I counseled folks to not hold their breath. Take my advice: keep breathing and continue to file under ‘I’ll Believe It When I See It.’

3. This post was inspired by an ongoing freelance gig that I couldn’t accept because I have no access to Skype.

4. Despite the exorbitant costs (to get a cell account here costs $40, with both incoming and outgoing calls charged at $0.10-$0.45/minute), most Cubans are gaga for cell technology and spend what little money they have to get it.

5. This is also extremely costly: on the direct flights from the USA to Cuba which I’m eligible to take, any luggage over 44 pounds is charged at $1/lb – and that includes carry on.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Here is Haiti, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Cuban Blockade: Cruel & Unusual

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It’s time again for the international community to remind the United States how absurd and futile their blockade of Cuba is. The vote to condemn the blockade is a UN affair (equally as absurd and futile perhaps, since the Cuba policy is largely a US domestic issue and UN votes are notoriously toothless) – the 20th of its kind. Last year, 185 countries condemned the blockade, with 2 nations dissenting: the USA and Israel (surprise! surprise!).

For those needing a bit of a primer, the US embargo was first enacted in 1962 – before many of us were even born. The purpose of the policy, then as now, is to isolate the country to such a degree as to foment regime change (seems they’re a bit obsessed up north with the ‘C’ word – in this case Castro). After about 30 years of the means failing spectacularly to attain the desired end, the policy was strengthened through the Helms-Burton and Torricelli Acts so brutally that today, it violates the most basic human right of 11 million Cubans – the right to self determination.

This chaps my ass. What also irks me is when analysts, academics, and others somehow hitching their wagon to Cuba’s star call the policy an ‘embargo’ when it is, in fact, an economic, commercial and financial blockade. Semantics you say? Not for those of us here suffering under it. And not for those who understand the difference between the two. It’s one thing to prevent your own government, people, and businesses from dealing with Cuba, it’s something entirely, extraterritorially else to penalize other countries for doing same.

Consider this explanation by Peter Schwab in his book Cuba: Confronting the US Embargo:The embargo blockade disallows Cuba from using US dollars in international trade, costing the country additional money for exchanging currencies. US regulations also disallow the export of US products from a third country, while products even developed through the use of US technology or design [emphasis mine] cannot be sold to Cuba.

Not only vicious, the policy is ridiculous in its application: there was the incident at the Mexico City Sheraton, when staff refused rooms to Cuban guests in 2007 in town for a conference; an Oslo hotel owned by Hilton repeated the gaffe with a Cuban trade delegation that same year. In October 2010, Twitter blocked messages originating from Cuban cell phones, citing the blockade as justification. Twitter quickly capitulated, but isn’t the convergence between the “free” market, politics and censorship interesting to consider? Taken together, all the elements petty and severe of the blockade have meant over $100 billion in losses for the island over the years.

What really boggles the mind, however, is the bang-your-head-against-the-wall determination with which the policy has been pursued, despite its failure to reach its stated goal. It puts me in mind of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Yes, folks, this is an insane policy. What policytroublemakers in South Florida, Jersey, and D.C. doggedly ignore and don’t want you to know is how this policy lowers quality of life, separates families, and kills people on both sides of the Straits. Before I rant about the specific ways in which this policy makes life harder here as well as there, allow me to extend my deepest condolences to all the families, Cuban and otherwise, who have suffered under the blockade. I’d also like to voice my deepest respect and admiration to all those working towards a change in policy and the 11 million Cubans – 70% of whom have only known life under the blockade – affected daily as a result.

So you might better understand how this translates on the ground, I offer these snapshots of how the blockade has affected me and my loved ones.

I can’t hear you! Can you hear me?! – Phone calls originating from the USA get routed through China, Argentina and who knows where and cost upwards of $1/minute (except to the US naval base at Guantanamo, adding insult to injury). Getting a call to actually connect may take half a dozen attempts and forget wishing someone well on Christmas, New Year’s or Mother’s Day, when over 1 million Cubans living off island are all trying to do the same.

When the call actually does come through, it sounds like my sister is underwater and my mom is in a cave so deep, her voice is echoing off the walls. My PBS producer, meanwhile, may as well be talking into a Dixie cup on a string the delay between what she says and I hear is that long. To give you an idea how severely this affects communication, consider that in almost 10 years living here, only two friends have called me a total of three times – and I have some very devoted, (albeit poor), friends. For all these reasons, you can understand why I maintain my PO Box here, though even letters from the USA sometimes don’t leave domestic soil due to blockade politics. Thankfully, FaceBook and other social media aren’t blocked by either country.

Can I connect? No, you cannot – Recently PayPal threatened legal action and said my account would be blocked for trying to access the site from an ‘embargoed country.’ This is more serious than it may seem: like many freelance writers, I receive earnings from some clients via PayPal, and this prevented me from collecting payment for services rendered. Only I after I enlisted my own counsel and provided voluminous paperwork proving that I’m a journalist with US Treasury permission to be here (another absurdity: the US prevents it’s residents and citizens from traveling freely to the country of their choice, in this case Cuba), did they reinstate my account. I still can’t access it though and so only have use of my funds when I’m off-island. Other sites blocked for the same reason are iTunes and Tiger Direct. LinkedIn is also LockedOut thanks to US embargo.

Cash on the barrelhead – If you’ve been to Cuba, you know US credit and debit cards don’t work here. When I first moved to Havana in 2002, I thought my HSBC card would work. Silly me. Despite being a London-based bank, HSBC has offices in the USA (like most banks worldwide), and therefore cannot do business with Cuba under the terms of the blockade. I love how globalization works for those holding the reins. For the rest of us? Salsipuede.

Think of all the things you do with plastic funds. How would you live without debit and credit cards 24/7/365? How would you pay for webhosting or buy a plane ticket or god forbid, get money in an emergency? Anyone from the USA who travels or is based in Cuba has to do everything in cash – no exceptions (see note 1).

You’re sick and will stay that way – Of the more than 300 major drugs on the market since 1970, nearly 50% are of US origin and effectively blocked from export to Cuba (see note 2). The stories of people on both sides of the Straits who are denied life-prolonging or -saving medication due to the collusion between US big pharma and politics are heartbreaking. There’s the US drug Prostaglandin E1 – used in children born with congenital heart defects – is denied to Cuba. In fact, 90% of the products used to correct these malformations are manufactured by US multinationals or their subsidiaries and therefore are not available here due to the blockade. Anesthesia, diagnostic equipment and parts, and the latest in antiretrovirals to treat HIV are likewise unavailable. Cruel? You tell me.

But sadly, the policy affects US folks too. A dear friend of mine recently died of lung cancer. Had the breakthrough Cuban therapy Cimavax-EGF been available to her, she could have lived up to 5 years longer (if recent clinical trials in Europe are any indication); even if she didn’t respond optimally to the treatment and lived another half decade, the therapy certainly could have improved her quality of life at the end. The same holds true for meningococcal B outbreaks in college campuses across the country. Were the Cuban vaccine for the disease VA-MENGOC-BC available, these outbreaks could be averted. These Cuban therapies and vaccines, along with Heberprot-P, used to treat diabetic foot (a major cause of morbidity in diabetics) and blue scorpion venom used in cancer patients, are unique in the world. Thanks to the blockade, if you’re in the USA, you can’t have them.

The blockade causes pain, suffering, and grief. But it also strengthens our resistance, creativity and resilience. To Obama on down I say: stick with your failed blockade policy. Over here, we have 52 years proving unequivocally that Yes We Can!Notes
1. The Canadian company Caribbean Transfers issues debit cards for use in Cuba and American Express Traveler’s Checks work in some banks here, but for the overwhelming majority of us, we’re forced to live entirely in a cash-based economy. This means carrying drug dealer type wads of cash on any Cuba trip.
2. See The Cuban Cure by S.M. Reid-Henry, pp 39.

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Filed under Communications, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

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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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

Lawyers, Guns & Money

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Why is money green?

Because lawyers pick it before it’s ripe.

To be fair, two of my closest friends are lawyers, which predisposes me to their ilk, but I had no clue how often I’d be relying on their craft when I landed in Cuba. To wit: the organization I work for is completely lawyered up and my husband and I required representation to get married. I’ve had clients advise me to retain counsel before they axed me unlawfully and I surely have a fat file somewhere in the bowels of the State Department (hopefully this will never be cause for me to call on my attorney friends).

I’m required to navigate all these legal hoops due to the simple, but paradoxically complex fact that I fell in love with a Cuban who, like 70% of his compatriots, was born under the US blockade. I’m based here in full compliance with US law, but no matter: I still require a phalanx of legal eagles.

The stated purpose of this 51-year old policy is to topple the revolutionary government. When a policy hasn’t worked for over half a century, it’s time to try something new, don’t ya think? Maybe I should write Poli Sci for Dummies for those bozos in the Beltway. In addition to failing to achieve its goal, it makes US administrations and the Florida PACs that yank their chains look like an abused spouse: they know it’s not working, witnesses and allies tell them it’s not working, but they keep coming back for more, taking a beating in the process (see note 1).

Sad and illogical for regular folks, but good for the lawyers.
_____

I grew up in New York, but didn’t see my first dead body until I moved to San Francisco and didn’t see my first gun until I moved to Havana. As might be expected on a blockaded island, weapons are extraordinarily rare in Cuba (the woman-to-woman withering stare and crippling bureaucracy notwithstanding) and Havana is the safest place I’ve ever lived or traveled (see note 2). But people talk…

Especially around Christmas and New Year’s, when money is both needed and tight, crime rates spike and run-of-the-mill rumors are spiced up with brazen robberies and cheeky scams. Since the daily papers and nightly newscast favor potato harvests over politics and international crises in lieu of the domestic variety, our only way of learning about heists, busts, or protests is through these rumors AKA radio bemba, the coconut wireless, and the grapevine.

As 2010 drew to a close, everyone was talking about the stick up at the Trimagen on 42 & 19. It wasn’t the ideal place to hit, what with the police booth and cameras on the corner adjacent. That area is a hive of activity too, meaning all of Havana was a-buzz with the story of the two masked gunmen and their derring-do. Robberies always dominate year’s end gossip, but the use of a gun distinguished this tale.

When a buddy of mine from rough and tumble Lawton shared stories of armed thugs robbing women for their gold chains in his neighborhood, I wondered aloud: ‘where are all these guns coming from?!’ (see note 3).

“There was a container full of guns stolen back in the 90s. They’re still floating around,” my friend explained.

Hearing about guns (or quakes or snakes) is one thing – coming face-to-face with them is quite another.

It was an inky, moonless night when we broke down by the side of the road. We were between here and there on Cuba’s main highway, called Ocho Vías for its eight lanes that in reality are reduced to four when you factor in all the potholes and horse carriages. This isn’t a highway in your sense of the word. Here, there’s no shoulder or lights, no roadside service or emergency call box. To get out of there we’d have to fix the Lada ourselves or walk to get help (we were too close to Havana to flag someone down – those days are largely over as suspicion displaces solidarity in the big city).

As I fretted about getting clipped by a passing truck on the side of that dark road, my driver – an ex cop who shall remain nameless – reached beneath his seat.

“Don’t worry. If anyone messes with us, they’ll be sorry,” he promised, brandishing the first pistol I’d ever laid eyes on. And I was worried about other drivers.
_____

Money: it makes even the most isolated, bull-headed island go ’round. This isn’t news – except perhaps for all those lefties whose rose-colored glasses are clouded by wishful thinking and dewy-eyed nostalgia. It has been a long time since Cuba was immune to The Market, marketing (Red Bull anyone?), and the opiate of the masses peddled by the likes of Steve Jobs, Barry Levinson, and Mark Zuckerberg. Cuba’s resistance was inspiring while it lasted and let’s give thanks that it lasted as long as it did. But those halcyon days? Konet.

I admit my relationship with money is fraught with difficulties and contradictions. I know we all need the green (some more than others, certainly), but I’m miserable at making it, more so at managing it. This is a deadly fiscal combination – especially in Cuba where it’s dreadfully hard to make money and life is expensive.

Playing the money game is something I’ve never been good at, which is painfully obvious when it comes to international banking – or lack thereof as the case may be. For those of you who don’t know, American credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba. If your bank even so much as has a branch on US shores, your plastic is useless due to (again) the US blockade.

To give you an idea of how incredibly insidious this is, I ask you to consider the last time you traveled somewhere – even to the next town over – and couldn’t use plastic money of any kind (see note 4). OK, maybe during a long weekend in the woods or on an off-the-beaten track Asian odyssey, but living for months at a time, with no access to your bank account, nor capability to purchase anything with a credit card? How would you do it? (see note 5).

I’ll tell you how we do it. We mule in cash. Fat wads of Euros, pounds, Canadian dollars or whatever’s giving the best exchange rate at the moment (see note 6) are carried in by Americans forced to do so. As I type this, big stashes of cash are being tucked in bras and under clothing to wing their way from Miami to Havana.

Let’s hope there are no armed robbers lurking at Arrivals. My advice? Have your lawyers number handy just in case.

Notes

1. Many people have written on the economic boon lifting the embargo would mean for key regions in the US, notably Florida and the Gulf States.

2. Save for the Big Island which in so many ways is unto a class itself (see note 4).

3. It’s difficult enough to sneak in a hard drive or dried sausage these days past Cuban customs, let alone a firearm.

4. Residents of and visitors to the “cash is king” Big Island excluded.

5. I should mention here that there’s a Canadian outfit called Caribbean Transfers which sets up a totally usable card for you to use in Cuba to get cash and make purchases. I personally have not had luck with them, though I know other people who swear by this company.

6. Despite being called the ‘convertible peso,’ it’s impossible to procure or change (ie convert) Cuba’s hard currency outside of Cuba.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Things I Miss about the U.S.A.

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I like living abroad for so many reasons – being obligated to become bilingual, the different values, and the required self-reliance among them. But Havana is wholly unique, entirely distinct from other Third World capitals like Guatemala City or Bamako. Here, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, there are simply things you cannot buy. Toilet paper today, butter and flour tomorrow, but other items are unattainable any day like print cartridges, razor blades, high speed Internet. The big, bad Bloqueo strikes again.

But living in Cuba isn’t just living abroad, it’s living in exile – for us Americans anyway. We have no access to our bank accounts for example and getting back on US soil is an expensive, hoop-jumping production with lots of paperwork (thanks to Congress, not the Castros). And that’s without any swine flu or other wrench in the works. To give you an idea, my upcoming flight to NY (home once, but not for many years now and feeling less so each infrequent visit I make) will be a 13 hour affair with a couple of plane changes. This, mind you, for what is a 3-1/2 hour flight as the crow flies. And the price for the privilege?1 We’re talking in the $750 range for a distance that’s like flying New York to New Orleans. To put it in traveler’s perspective, with that same $750 it will take me to travel from one island “home” to another, I could go from New York to Tokyo. Welcome to my world…

I’ve adapted as foreigners must if they’re to survive here. I remember when I first arrived, a Cuban American guy who has lived on Long Island for decades told me, ‘only New Yorkers can live in Cuba – they already know how hard life can be.’ Of course, not all five of us living here are from New York, but I do think we share cravings and miss some of the stuff that makes the USA great in its way.

In no particular order, here is a list of Things I Miss; stay tuned for another list of Things I Don’t in a future post.

 Bathtubs
 Jon Stewart
 Mushrooms, artichokes, and tofu
 Anonymity
 English (especially my extensive repertoire of curse words and the phrase ‘I don’t know’2)
 Wireless
 Being able to pick up the phone and call my best friend, or any friend
 NBA & USTA
 Ginger ale
 Magazines
 Netflix
 Rock ‘n roll (hoochie koo, thankfully, is not a problem)
 Mail delivery
 Gay bars, parades, and queer PDAs
 Cafés
 Seasons
 Indian, Thai, sushi, and good Chinese
 Central Park
 Hiking
 Customer service
 People who can multitask
 Toilet seats
 Garlic cloves of a reasonable size3

Notes

1. In another weird twist of antiquated Cold War policy on the part of the United States, traveling to Cuba is a privilege, not a right for that country’s citizens.

2. While Latin Americans throughout the hemisphere are famous for not uttering ‘yo no sé’, Cubans are over-the-top anti I-don’t-know. I have several theories why this may be so, but the bottom line? It’s a country of know-it-alls. Compulsory education will do that…

3. In Cuba, garlic cloves are the size of a child’s fingernail and cause for anxiety, if not outright insanity. The Hero/ine of any household is the person that peels garlic. In my case, that would be me (although the man of the house is a fabulous and enthusiastic cook).

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A Cuban Snapshot (or Three)…

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The Cuban psyche is shaped, some might say warped, by four fundamental factors:

1. We’re on a slab of land you can drive across in 15 hours. Water hems us in. As on every island, there’s an intrinsic self-reliance tempered by that nagging question: what’s beyond all that blue, blue sea?

2. Revolution, capital R. Almost 50 years of it. Dignity, self-esteem, solidarity with the downtrodden, and kick ass culture are part of the post-1959 Cuban DNA at this point.

3. Blockade, capital B (for Bully, Bollocks, Botched, Bogus, Besieged).

4. Sex.

Some days, like yesterday, I do think it’s twisted, this Cuban psyche. What with all the melodrama. Then there are other days when it’s refreshing (the psyche, not the drama-rama), revelatory, and yes, downright revolutionary goddamn it.

When the small island that’s hard to get off doesn’t drive you stir crazy with the eternal question: what’s beyond all the water?, it unifies. Its simple state of island-ness, combining the tenacity of the underdog with the confounding irony of needing to be, but never becoming, self-sufficient puts us all in the same boat so to speak.

From Malta to Manhattan, name an island and you’ve got a co-dependent.

Even so, exactly how can an island, any island, become self-sufficient when it’s totally blockaded (ironically, that other fundamentally unifying element)? It’s sick and expensive the lengths the USA goes to screw Cuba. I won’t go into it here; you’ve got Google. But I’m quite sure history will judge – sooner rather than later – the US embargo policy as just that: sick, expensive, and cruel. Not to mention failed.

But back to right now.

The Revolution. It’s more grayed than frayed, as some might have you believe. Still, the former can be just as dangerous. Maybe more so. Frayed can be mended; gray just withers and dies.

Then there’s Fidel.

He was so influential for so long. His mere presence inspired, as anyone who has met him will attest. He was game changer personified. I don’t think he’s much different in reclusion: whatever his state of health, he still stirs hearts, minds, (and ire), influences events, and provokes thought (and fights).

How did I get off on Fidel? See how it’s always about him? Certainly the foreign press seems to think so, if their Enquirer-esque pursuit of anyone with the Castro last name is any measure.

But I was talking about the Revolution after all and what the Revolution is, essentially, is a compact between him and the Cuban people to create a more dignified life for as many as possible. And honestly, I think when it all shakes out, Cuba has done that as well, if not better, than any other country in the world. (Don’t agree? Live here for seven years, then we’ll talk.)

Not to say mistakes weren’t made and shit didn’t happen. Mistakes are still made and the excrement still hits the cooling element: making ends meet is a nightmare for some, a pipe dream for others. And those that have ‘resolved’ their ends to meet are probably making serious sacrifices and compromises to do so. They may even have to break a few laws or bend a rule or three hundred to get the job done. But from Calle Ocho to Callejón de Hamel, when you need a job done, call a Cuban.

Then there’s Havana’s decrepit splendor or splendid decay, depending how you look at it. No matter how you look at it, though, it’s here. High above clothes drying on the line a turret crumbles, the toilet overflows at the breathtaking Gran Teatro, and another dozen families are evacuated from a seaside building threatening collapse.

But it’s improving. Slowly, very slowly, but surely, Havana’s being reinforced and restored. I can imagine a day when every grand palace and collonade is all spruced up capitalistic-Home Depot style with luxurious landscaping and hot interior design.

When that day comes, no doubt Havana will look swell. But the traffic, not to mention the nostalgia, will be hell.

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