Tag Archives: Che

Storytelling in Cuba

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Anyone who has been to Cuba or knows Cubans is familiar with cuentos cubanos. These often hilarious and frequently revealing stories make the rounds at parties, in meetings, on lines, and in the street. The best tales – especially in the hands of master tellers – become legend, like the one about the hick mason (from Pinar del Río, claro) who bricks the cement mixer into the theater he’s just finished building.

Other cuentos are just building momentum, like what occurred recently at Guamá, a recreated Taíno Indian village replete with bohíos and young bucks in loincloths. Tourists file through the huts to ogle the loin clothed-lads sitting Indian style on the floor. Instead of them pounding yucca or talking about moon phases in keeping with their roles, I heard one confide to the other: “that blond chick?! Careful, she’s a sewer rat.”

Then there are the tired, old stories about the whereabouts of your Cuban boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband/lover, but that’s another type of cuento altogether.

Tirando cuentos’ is part pastime, sport, and diversion, and there’s a certain type of Cuban with both the knack and need for storytelling – our oral historians of a sort. The following are three totally true cuentos, as told to me recently by different, but equally comic and charismatic, Cubans.

Racquetball with Barbarroja

If you live in the Bronx or Kendall, you likely know the fury Cubans have for handball. Here across the Straits, racquetball is equally (if not more) popular and enjoys an active fan base.

Back in the early 80’s, my friend – we’ll call him Juan Carlos – had a standing game with Comandante Manuel Piñeiro, known in these parts as Barbarroja. No small potatoes, this compañero was Vice Minister of the Ministry of the Interior, charged with strategic intelligence. In addition to being one of Cuba’s most popular cats, he had the ears of Fidel, Che and other revolutionary hot shots.

By all accounts, Barbarroja was a force to be reckoned with and respected – extremely intelligent, with cracker jack analytical skills and the confidence and station to speak truth to power, he was also gregarious and fun-loving in the best Cuban tradition. He was what we admiringly call a ‘tremendo jodedor’ or jokester extraordinaire.

After one of these regular matches, with Juan Carlos on the losing end once again (see note 1), Barbarroja made my friend a gift of three brand new racquetballs. The gist came with counsel: practice before their next meeting. Juan Carlos, being an entrepreneurial fellow with empty pockets, traded the bright yellow balls for a couple packs of Popular cigarettes.

Fast forward to the next match, where Juan Carlos again played poorly and lost. This time Barbarroja had another present, especially chosen for Juan Carlos: a carton of Popular cigarettes, gifted with a wink and a smile. Talk about hand on the pulse…

Painting the Pastor’s House

For several decades, Revolutionary Cuba was officially an atheist state. In addition to human rights violations, including internment in labor camps, religious adherents experienced discrimination in schools, the workplace, and society in general (see note 2).

So it came as no surprise that when the new pastor – we’ll call him Reverendo Lázaro – moved into a working class neighborhood, there was a good dose of wariness laced with suspicion. But over time, the humanistic pastor won over the neighbors with his moving revolutionary sermons, vigils to the sick and dying, and open door policy for all – believers or not.

When the local government initiated a neighborhood improvement plan back in the 80s, the cornerstone of which was a house painting program, residents rejoiced. But enthusiasm waned once everyone learned that the church and modest pastoral house where the Reverend lived with his family didn’t qualify for new paint. The neighbors rallied, singing the praises and merits of Reverendo Lázaro and petitioning the local government to reconsider. The paint and required labor were denied still.

The neighbors pressed on, informing officials that if they didn’t paint the pastor’s house, no one would agree to have their house painted. As a result, the entire neighborhood was denied paint. Undeterred, the neighbors raised money independently for paint and labor, which they donated to the pastor and his church. In the end, those were the only buildings painted that year of neighborhood improvement.

If I were writing this cuento for my book (and maybe I will), this is how it would have ended. Truth is, this story actually ended the way many things do around here – in a standoff and the paint went to a different neighborhood, presumably one sans charismatic pastor.

Silvio’s Baby Food

If you know Latin America, you know Silvio Rodríguez. Often called the ‘Bob Dylan of Cuba,’ Silvio was in the vanguard of the nueva trova movement of the 60s and 70s and continues to write and perform politically-charged songs. He’s an icon and touchstone for many Latin Americans and is especially beloved by Cubans.

Not surprisingly, musicians from all genres invite Silvio to play on their records since his talent and fame lend credibility and boost sales. Such was the case of a famous choral director some years ago. It was a simple request for the trovador to lay down a couple of tracks with the chorus, which he did.

While the record was still being mixed, Silvio received a visit from the studio manager.

Tengo tremenda pena, but we have to charge you for the studio time on the tracks you laid down.”

“Really?” Silvio responded.

“It’s only $50 – our usual rate. It’s for my baby, she needs food.”

Without a word more, the superstar agreed. The following week, Silvio (who knows a cuento when he hears one) complied, sending $50 worth of baby food to the studio manager.

Notes

1. Juan Carlos didn’t tell me if he lost on purpose, though given Barbarroja’s position, wouldn’t you?

2. In 1992, Cuba amended the Constitution rescinding the atheist nature of the state, allowing full religious freedom, including permitting adherents to enter the all-important Communist Party for the first time. It’s important to note that religion was never illegal in Cuba and today, all manner of churches are present and active throughout the island.

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

Drinking the Capitalist Kool-Aid in Cuba

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I’m not sure what news about Cuba is being made over your way, but I assume you’ve heard changes are afoot. I’m talking big, game-changing adjustments that surely have Che spinning in his grave (to say nothing of Marx and Lenin). The reasons are many and complex why I’ve put off writing about “the changes” (sounds like a euphemism for menopause which isn’t a bad metaphor for today’s Cuba I should think) but suffice to say, I can no longer keep quiet.

A sort of financial shock therapy, these changes are deeply personal and downright frightening for many Cubans. However necessary (and dare I say it?) inevitable, the greatest free market experiment since 1959 is a sink or swim proposition: if it does work, Havana will start looking more like Santo Domingo or Miami. But if it doesn’t work, millions of people will bear witness to generations of work going down the tubes.

This predicament, the very real possibility of economic failure translating into socio-political failure is causing anxiety, anger, breakdowns and break ups. Of course, the changes give hope to some, but I’m not among them. From where I’m sitting, they’re an unworkable solution. Salvaging the Cuban economy by allowing private enterprise and other too little, too late measures is an impractical workaround I call ‘Shutting Barn Door, Horse Long Gone’ (see note 1). The Cuban economy was, is, and always shall be struggling. It’s geography, politics, history and fate. It’s The Way it Is.

So I take exception to the theory and the timing. But even more so, I question the mechanism. Pandora’s Box is being thrown wide with this headlong dive into the shallow end of the free market pool. I call this last gasp for cash ‘One Foot on the Slippery Slope.’

I’m a capitalism refugee. I know viscerally that money is the root of all evil. It corrupts, ruins friendships, ruptures families, crushes love, and damages the environment. And make no mistake: this genie has a one-way ticket out of his bottle.

A fascist anti-materialist (see note 2), I moved to Cuba in part to escape the unchecked consumerism and dollar lust that grips my old world. An error in judgment, faulty analysis or both since I quickly learned that money and stuff (along with sex, transportation, and protein) are uppermost in Cubans’ minds; in fact, most days are dedicated to their pursuit. Still, I loved how time was made for friends and conversation, how freely people shared. This will all roll away down the Slippery Slope once the real money lust sets in, I’m afraid. When taxes and employees and suppliers must be paid and profits are squirreled away for baubles – this is when things will get ugly de verdad.

Already the fury for iPods and 2 inch acrylic nails, nights dancing at the Salon Rojo, navel piercings, and tramp stamps (see note 3) are eroding values and substituting style over substance, form trumping function. The market, I have no doubt, has the unique capacity to undermine most everything the Cuban revolution stands for.

The feeding frenzy is already in full scrum. I have friends who procured licenses under the new regulations to train dogs, sew and sell dresses, and even make ice – home delivery extra. In any neighborhood nowadays I can browse CDs & DVDs, shoes, guayaberas and house wares set out for sale on people’s porches. Every few days, an old guy walks my block shouting: “I buy empty perfume bottles.” I guess I should be glad that Havana garages hold perfume factories instead of meth labs – for now at least.

What scares me most is the fundamental economic concept of supply and demand: if there’s enough of the latter, someone will step up to provide the former. And if there’s one thing we have a surplus of here, it’s demand. I call this the ‘Special Period Hangover’ (see note 4).

Worrying me these days is more than the simple human desire for things. It’s the confluence of factors making free market free-for-alls particularly toxic and potent here: the US embargo which keeps Cubans in a permanent state of want and need; the indelible psychological effects of the Special Period; the new opportunities to amass cash; and the myriad different and novel ways to spend it.

Now, before you get your knickers in a twist, let me say that I fully and clearly understand how easy it is for me to disparage the lust for stuff, having had my chance at it. But I feel nauseous when I think about this socio-economic ‘perfect storm’ and what it means for the future – our future – the future being forged for Cubans, by Cubans.

Consider what I call the ‘Miami Effect:’ throughout southern Florida and especially in Miami, there are businesses dedicated to renting thick gold chains and ghetto hoops, rings for every finger and gold-plated watches – all gauche to the extreme. Men’s signet bracelets are also in high demand at these shops which exist solely to rent gold and bling to Cuban Americans returning to the island to visit friends and family.

Who cares if the 14k bracelet says Tito and your name is Yamel? The important thing is to arrive in Havana (or Holguín or Camagüey) looking like an old skool NY guido who just hit the Lotto. Thanks to these businesses, you can achieve your look at a reasonable price (just don’t forget to relinquish those jewels upon your return). Has it not dawned on these folks that their money is better spent on cooking oil or a pair of decent sheets for family back home? Maybe some quality sponges, batteries or other utilitarian items every Cuban home needs?

I invite my readers to take a moment to ponder the absurdity of a poor person visiting even poorer people and budgeting for bling (see note 5). I mean, I know ‘form follows function’ is a foreign concept in Miami, but this boggles the mind. And it scares me that this is part of the Cuban character. This type of materialist twist and bent is my nightmare. After 9 years in Cuba, I dread waking up to it.

A friend said to me years ago that if the Yanquis want to kill the revolution, all they have to do is drop a jabita stuffed with Levi’s, Converse, and Lancôme at every doorstep and everyone will roll over. I hope she’s wrong because that is just too fucking depressing.

Notes

1. Surely Cubaphiles will have caught the double meaning here: Fidel is sometimes referred to as ‘el caballo.’

2. For example, my blood pressure spikes when I watch my neighbor walking her two Siberian Husky puppies – the new breed of choice down here. I find it cruel and unusual for these dogs to suffer a Havana summer just because their owner wants a couple of status symbols. Then there’s all the kitschy Ed Hardy knock offs that make me shudder and groan. Maybe I should start importing Bedazzzlers – the Cubans will go gaga over a tool that allows them to bling everything from baja chupas (tube tops) to blumers (underwear). To get a better understanding of just how anti- I am about all this, check the Church of Life After Shopping link on my Blog Roll.

3. To put things in perspective, consider what these non essentials cost here on the average Cuban salary: iPod = 4 to 20 months salary; acrylic nails = 1 month’s salary; night out at the Salon Rojo = 2 months salary (minimum); navel piercing = 2 weeks salary; tramp stamp = 1.5 months salary.

4. Once the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba’s almost total economic collapse was swift. Nearly 85% of foreign aid disappeared, Cuban adults lost 20 pounds on average and the first experiment with private industry was launched. This era (1993 to depends-who-you-ask) was dubbed ‘A Special Period in Time of Peace.’

5. I welcome input from other immigrants and expats – have you found this to be true of folks from your country or where you live?

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro