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COVID-19 & Cuba: The Good

Greetings readers. I hope you’re as well as you can be given the shit show that is Planet Earth, 2020.

In my first chronicle about the coronavirus in Cuba, I led off with a (necessarily short) paragraph about some of the positive aspects of the ‘new normal’ here in Havana, followed by an all out rant about the negative. This time, I’m flipping the script, leading off with what is chapping my ass these days, before launching into the rays of light I’m witnessing in these otherwise deep, dark times.

Physical distancing is still—and always will be—a challenge in Cuba. The factors are multiple and varied, from cultural and historical to practical and meteorological. Yesterday’s meat hunt is illustrative. For those out of the loop: pandemic food procurement is one of the biggest stressors and threats to physical and mental health here.

We were out the door by 6:30am, already late by today’s standards: only the earliest birds get any worms in these COVID-19 times. Lines at stores where meat (usually chopped in a tube or pressed in a can) might be available but not guaranteed, begin forming at 4am. Folks on the hustle camp out at stores likely to release some kind of protein—canned sardines, corned beef loaf, hot dogs or the insanely coveted chicken—to be the first in line…and sell their spot to later comers. Typically, several friends and family members do this as a group so they can sell their turns in line, plus make their own purchases. Many of these items end up on the ‘informal market’ at a 100%, 200% or even 300% markup. Today, a tube of Colgate toothpaste is between $10 and $12CUC (up from $5) and 36 eggs cost $7CUC (up from $3). When you can find them.

The same dynamic is at play at carnecerías (open-air butchers) all over Havana.

Yesterday, instead of braving the crapshoot that is the stores, we opted for the butcher’s. This is more about Toby than us: we’re happy eating vegetarian, he is not. And the tubed/canned meat wreaks havoc on his health (for those not in the know: kibble in Cuba is reserved for the 1% who can source and afford it; the rest of us have to cook for our pets). When we arrived at 6:45 and asked for el ultimo, the line looked manageable. This was an illusion: the young man in front of us had marked in line for himself and three cousins, the woman before him was holding place for four neighbors and when meat finally went on sale at 9:15am, the line magically trebled as people cut in, jockeyed for position and called in favors with the meat purveyors.

During our four-hour, successful odyssey (we got some pork chops for us and bones with bits of meat for Toby), some of us maintained physical distance, but many more did not. Securing your place in line while keeping the cutters at bay, arguing with those who tried, theorizing about what meat might be for sale and when, all conspired to violate the two-meter distancing rule. And then it started to rain. Cue bunches of people huddled under a narrow awning trying to stay dry. COVID-driven anxieties notwithstanding, this scenario kicked off all my deep-seeded food insecurities bred during a childhood where too many mouths to feed and too little money had us arguing over who had more ramen noodles in their bowl and cruising the refrigerator or pantry for food was strictly verboten…

Although I miss my family horribly and there are days when people improperly using masks (obligatory here since late March) or my husband crowding me in the kitchen engenders thoughts of violence, I feel very safe in Havana. And there are some very good things happening.

If you’ve stayed with this post for this long, THANK YOU! Here goes:

  • Air quality and noise pollution: While we don’t have jutía frolicking in front yards or manatees sidling up to the Malecón, the air quality has become noticeably better. A fraction of cars, trucks and buses plying the streets, reduced work hours, and telecommuting, all contribute to improved air quality. In Havana, a lot of heavy industry is located within residential neighborhoods: I lived my first six years here directly behind the cigarette factory at 100 & Boyeros and this was (and is) a toxic environment. Even a slight reduction in the work day at pollution-spewing factories like this one helps the environment. Noise pollution—from vehicles, loud-mouthed neighbors and passersby, construction, and speaker-toting reggaetoneros—has also diminished considerably. For me, this is an extraordinarily welcomed increase in quality of life.

 

  • Bicycle boom: Bicycles and cycling culture are more complicated than you might think due to stigma from the economic crash (AKA Special Period) when pedal power was transport of last resort. But make no mistake: there is a small, but strong and growing, cycling movement afoot which predates COVID-19. Nevertheless, since the pandemic and attendant health measures limiting public transportation, bikes are coming out of garages, being rescued from backyard weeds, and off walls—yes, some people use them as décor which is absurd and makes me vomit in my mouth a little every time I see this. But the resurgence in cycling is wonderful to witness. Anyone with a bike knows these two wheels are a ticket to freedom. You can get anywhere your two legs will take you, plus it’s great exercise! Private businesses, including Cuba Libro, which enjoys and supports a large cycling community, are putting in bike racks and lobbying for bike-friendlier cities; hopefully this COVID-19 experience will stimulate more government support for cycling in general (ie not just for tourists). On the downside, if you want to buy a bike in Havana these days, it will cost 30%-50% more than it did pre-pandemic.

 

  • Kitchen creativity: This global phenomenon is taken to new heights in Cuba where the only items you might have on hand are rice, an egg and some tomatoes (if you’re lucky!). To keep things interesting, I’ve had to master Cuban classics like red bean potaje and ropa vieja, plus find new ways to prepare eggplant, bok choy, cabbage, carrots and more. I have to give a huge shout out to the Cuba Libro family in this regard for two very specific reasons: 1) someone very generously donated Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian a while back. My mom and sister have long been Bittman fans, but I didn’t know what I was missing; his books are such fantastic tools and well-written to boot and 2) our regulars at the café are creating their own coffee drinks at home, leading us to launch our CUBA LIBRO EN DA HOUSE competition—enter to win by June 6.

 

  • Better veggies, more sustainability: There are some silver linings to the food nightmare we’re living. First, in my experience, the fruit and vegetable markets here in Havana have been pretty well stocked the past two and a half months. Although I have to head out early, walk a half an hour and stand on line once I arrive, I’m almost sure to find watermelon, pineapple or mango; carrots, eggplant, peppers and onions; yucca or plantains (sweet potato has become a rare commodity for reasons still not understood); sesame and sunflower seeds, guava paste and peanuts; and with a little luck, basil and parsley. You never know what you’ll find, but even in smaller markets tucked along the Playa/Marianao border, I’ve found gorgeous bell peppers and tomatoes of unusual size. Chatting up the veggie seller, he told me this is ‘tourist produce,’ grown specifically for hotels and resorts, but made available to the public since Cuba’s borders were closed at the end of March. I glanced at the small, sad limones, with the bumpy skin that means they have no juice. ‘Tourists don’t eat lemons,’ he said laughing.

 

  • Growing your own: Here, like elsewhere, Cubans have started planting on balconies, along the small patches of dirt between sidewalk and street, on windowsills and roofs. Even me, with my notorious brown thumb, has a made a go of it. My garlic and bell peppers died in typically spectacular fashion, but…the pineapple I planted is going strong! I don’t expect a harvest, but it makes for a nice ornamental. Thankfully, my very forward-thinking friends in Guanabo started a community garden last year and are now harvesting like mad. Every week or so they drop off (mask in place, physically distanced) overflowing bags of fresh organic produce to friends, family, neighbors and community centers. Yesterday they popped by with fennel, arugula, parsley and wait for it…broccoli!! All of this conspires to help us eat healthier—the plate of chicharrones I put away last night notwithstanding.

 

  • Diversifying suppliers: I see a lot of this going on in the USA (bravo!) as people realize that megaliths like Amazon, although efficient and cheap and sometimes a necessary evil, are making a fortune off of us and their workers, and pursuing inhumane labor practices while ringing the death knoll for smaller mom and pop places. Here, we have had to pivot on suppliers, not for social justice considerations but because store supplies have constricted so drastically. Suppliers have also had to pivot since there are no tourists and private restaurants, previously their bread and butter, can only do takeout or delivery. As a result, we just ordered 2 kilos of artisanal goat cheese—a kilo of basil goat cheese and another kilo of oregano/garlic/black pepper goat cheese. This will be shared among several families and we’ll have to wait two weeks for it to be delivered to our door, but still! I am doing a serious dance of joy (cheese is another nearly impossible item to find these days). While not cheap, there are few things in this life for which I will pay whatever it takes. Cheese is one of them. And presented with the choice between meat or cheese, I choose cheese. Every. Single. Time. Some people won’t understand, but if you know, you know.

 

  • Solid solidarity: The willingness to help others, extend a hand, share what’s on hand and pull together, is very much a Cuban trait and vividly on display right now—globally and locally. Despite or because of all the very serious problems with the food supply (compounded by the cruel and failed US embargo), sharing and bartering is deeply woven into the fabric of Cuban culture. Let’s say the store where you’re on line has oil. You don’t need oil, but you buy your two allotted bottles anyway, to share with neighbors, give to friends or trade for tubed meat with the stranger you met on the four-hour line you stood on to buy it. In the past two weeks alone, I’ve traded: rice for flour, coffee for chicken, even soy sauce for chocolate! I’ve gifted banana muffins, coconut-mango bread and toothpaste (Note to self: take mother-in-law’s country wisdom to heart: ‘there are times when you don’t even share your water with your oxen.’).
  • Then there’s the Henry Reeve Contingent, Cuba’s specialized medical team now fighting COVID-19 in two dozen countries. I love when internet dissenters flaunt their ignorance, flaming me about Henry Reeve. I lived with this team in their tent hospitals in post-quake Pakistan in 2005 (they year the Contingent was founded, in direct response to Hurricane Katrina) and again for a month in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti. Covering their work in the field is one of the highlights of my career as a health journalist. Signatures are now being collected to nominate the Contingent for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Solidarity is also pulsing through Cuba’s younger generations who are participating in volunteer movements to care for the most vulnerable—particularly the elderly and disabled people who live alone and can’t navigate the store-food situation. This is their moment: they missed the triumph of the Revolution, the Literacy Campaign and the Special Period (for the most part, the worst part). What we’re facing with COVID-19 is terrifying, horrifying, but it’s also motivating young people to pitch in and help out in ways heretofore largely unknown. We will need this moving forward.

And last, but certainly not least:

  • Nooners, booty calls & other carnal activities: Here we talk a lot about sex and bodily functions. These are things that distinguish my birth culture from my adopted culture and Reason #69 why I groove to Cuba. It’s all natural! What’s to be ashamed of? So we’ve been talking quite a bit about coronavirus sex. Conclusion? Whether you’re in a new, long-term, open, multi-partner or casual relationship, everyone’s action has dropped off. Some single people I know have stopped screwing altogether. Meanwhile, other people I know are now pregnant. So it’s a mixed bag. And when you’re greeting your booty call with an elbow bump, you know the main act is going to be different (no kissing or oral, for starters). Front-to-back positions are surging in popularity and encouraged. Cuba Libro is distributing a lot of free condoms. Since we’re in this at-home-all-the-time loop, there has been a happy uptick in nooners and daytime sex in general, plus the opportunity for multiple sessions. Creativity is another bonus with toys, role playing, and moving things out of the bedroom for variety having their moment. This is when we have the energy to actually get it up; this isn’t all days by any stretch of the imagination. But the carnal act is more intentional now, and that’s another good thing.

 

I should wrap this up—my guy just sauntered by wearing something sexy—but the whole point is: some of these positive elements of COVID-19 won’t have staying power, some may linger and fade (a la NYC post-9-11), and a few might stay as we realize how important they are for our collective health and well-being. It really is up to us to recognize, embrace, and multiply the good. You in?

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Our Baby’s Two Years Old: Cuba Libro!

Circa January 2002: I was sitting at my sister’s dining room table – in the crappy apartment she was forced to rent after losing her home and business in 9-11 – with a friend. At the time, he was a producer for PBS and I was a struggling writer. When I told him I was moving to Cuba to live and write he said: “who would ever buy what you have to write about Cuba?” Cue incredulous, pregnant pause (haters gotta hate, right?) I’m sure he doesn’t remember this comment made so long ago, but it kicks me in the ass every time I pitch, and write, and yes, get published. Turns out some people do want to buy and read what I have to write about Cuba.

Flash forward a dozen years. A friend drives across Havana to give me a sack of books. “They’re good, but not great and I have no room for them. If you don’t want them, I’m throwing them away.” So first of all: I don’t have room in my life for good, but not great books, let alone the shelves to hold them. Second of all: I can’t bear to see books thrown out and can’t do it myself – it’s like those leftovers I swear I’ll eat tomorrow, until tomorrow turns into the next day and then next week. By that time, I can no longer distinguish the pesto from the mold but it’s food; when you grow up poor, you don’t throw away food. Third of all: when my friend made that drive across town, I was in a very dark place, in a grief so deep I couldn’t concentrate long enough to finish a page of a book, let alone an entire title.

That yellow sack of books sat for six months gathering dust as I mourned my loss and questioned my life. And then, after much loving support from my friends and family here and there, I was able to get through a page, a book, an entire day without bursting into tears. I started feeling like me again. An idea began to brew. What if Havana had an English-language bookstore and coffeehouse, a place equally comfortable for Cubans and visitors, residents and foreigners, where you could sit with a good book and coffee to make conversation and friends and memories? It could be an oasis from hot, hectic Havana where nada es fácil; it could be a place for visitors to get cultural information and for Cubans to practice their English; it could and would be an alcohol-free space, a regguetón-free zone, a place with no place for pena.

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

No Pena at Cuba Libro!!

But it could be so much more (obviously, I was feeling very much myself again, thinking and dreaming big). We could be ethically- and socially-responsible, basing our business philosophy on the principal that everything we do, every policy and practice, must be a win-win-win: a win for our customers, a win for our community, and a win for our staff. We could be a beacon in Cuba’s dark, uncertain times of private enterprise, where inequities are deepening, the country is experiencing double brain drain (people leaving for foreign shores; people leaving the state sector for the private), and the majority of Cubans don’t have the resources to patronize – let alone open – a private business. We would do things differently: we would be a place for everyone, our goods and services would be accessible to everyone, regardless of age, race, nationality, sexual orientation and importantly: finances. Money would not be the arbiter of who is in and who is out at our special spot. And so, Cuba Libro was born.

As two friends and I painted the space we rent from a neighbor, I honed my strategy about how to build community, support that community, and offer something completely different.

First Cuba Libro policy? You don’t have to buy anything. You can spend all day in a hammock reading National Geographic in Havana’s shadiest corner and not spend a kilo. This will bring in all the folks who don’t have the money or inclination to buy a coffee or book. It will make it a more diverse, exciting space. For people who love to read but don’t have the money or space for a book, we’ll offer library services, lending titles at 5 CUP (25 cents) for two weeks.

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Humberto is a regular in the Cuba Libro hammocks

Second policy? Cuba Libro staff will earn more than anyone else in Havana doing similar work. We will commit ourselves in this way (and others), to supporting Cuban youth – to proving that young people here can learn new skills, make a dignified living, and build a future in their beloved Cuba. In addition to the robust salary, I instituted a profit-sharing program for staff and a tip jar exclusively for them. Here’s a typical end-of-day exchange with staff: “Conner. This is too much. Please take your cut of the tips.” I always decline, but then they slip some bills into my bag when I’m not looking and I slip them right back. In an effort to support young Cubans, I determined we would dedicate part of the café to emerging artists who have little opportunity to show their work in a city where six terrific artists crawl out from under any rock. We’ve shown artists who use the hallway of their building to create or have to sit on their single mattress to paint. For almost all our artists, their Cuba Libro show is their first solo show. One of my favorite parts of this 2-year adventure is when I get to call one of these artists (especially the ones earning peanuts in a state job) to say: ‘you sold something; your work is going to Canada/the United States/Chile/wherever, c’mon by so we can settle up.’

reading is sexy

Third policy? We will do everything within our power to help attack inequities, educate, contribute to the health and well-being of our customers/staff/neighbors, broaden our collective support network, and build community. We will start donation programs, hold classes and workshops, plant trees, refill water bottles (as tourists numbers soar, plastic bottle waste is becoming a huge problem for this island ecology), give out free condoms (my public health commitment and also a way to diversify our community even more), make our stellar bathroom available to everyone, whether they buy something or know us or not, and actively curate titles, authors and genres requested by our community. When friends started an organic, collective farm, we offered to make their wonderfully delicious and affordable produce available to our community – at no profit to us. We pledge to be relevant and positive and pro-active.

Fourth policy? Cuba Libro will institute a collective decision-making model – any policy change or decision which affects our staff and/or community, requires consultation with them. This is completely new for many Cubans and we’ve had several opportunities to put the model to the test: do we want to appear in the Lonely Planet guidebook? Do we want to be on Travel Channel? This is a no-brainer for folks blind to everything except the bottom-line, but as I always say: ‘Cuba Libro is less about peddling coffee and books and more about being a resource for the surrounding community’ and once you get massive international exposure from media giants like LP and Travel Channel, the scales tip towards more foreigners, fewer locals in your establishment. Our collective debate revealed that none of us wanted this. But the debate also revealed alternatives, which ended up winning out. When I suggested raising our prices after more than a year in operation, staff pushed back, argued why we shouldn’t, and we didn’t; our prices, payable in either CUC or CUP, (another policy designed to make Cuba Libro as accessible as possible to as many as possible), have remained the same since opening: from a 60 cent espresso to a $1.50 frappuccino (both of which kick ass, according to customers). The latest debate is a rager: should we habilitate WiFi when it becomes a possibility? Feel free to weigh in, we’re currently collecting opinions.

Meanwhile, Cuban friends and family doubted my crazy bookstore/café idea when I unveiled it in 2013:

“You can’t give away stuff for free.”

“You have to sell liquor or you won’t survive. At least beer!”

“What’s the point of an English bookstore in a Spanish-speaking country?”

“You can’t lend books, they’ll never come back.”

Well, two years on, we’ve proven them wrong. Now what we’re hearing:

“Cuba Libro literally changed my life” (Susan, who met her future husband here)

“This is the best job I’ve ever had. It has changed my life” (Douglas! Fabulous Douglas, author of our original motto: ‘Life is peachy at Cuba Libro’);

“This is the coolest place in Havana” (Richard, early adopter and mainstay of the Cuba Libro family);

“I wouldn’t have survived medical school without Cuba Libro” (Dr Vero, another early adopter who was also the first – but not the last – to say: “I’m not telling anyone about this place. It’s MY oasis; I don’t want anyone to know about it”);

“I wish I had discovered this place when I first got to Havana” (Molly, a regular-in-the-making);

“This is my favorite place” (Humberto, who has cashed in more buy-10-get-1-free cards than anyone);

“I swear this is best iced coffee I’ve ever had” (Marcia, documentary filmmaker);

“Who are these new people? This is OUR hangout and they’re in MY hammock! (Maria Carla, Cuba Libro regular and future famous playwright).

We were one of (if not THE) first business with a loyalty reward program

We were one of (if not THE) first business with a loyalty reward program

I speak for the collective when I say: we’re extremely proud of what we’ve achieved at Cuba Libro, very much a labor of love, very much a success – as defined by us. Although there are days we lose money, when the bureaucracy and inspections and blackouts and difficulties seem too much, there are days like last week when I looked around the garden, full of Cubans and a smattering of foreigners laughing, playing Scrabble and the guitar, reading Rolling Stone, and sipping 100% Cuban coffee and realized we’re not only creating community, we’re creating meaning in our lives and the lives of others. Douglas caught me smiling and read my mind: “this is what you dreamed of, right?” Yes, Dudu, this was the dream, the dream we’re making a reality in our shady little corner of Vedado, every day.

Last day before August vacation; they look happy, but these regulars (Cuban all, except me) grumbled!

Last day before August vacation; they look happy, but these regulars (Cuban all, except me) grumbled!

This post is dedicated to all our supporters from around the corner and around the globe, who have helped us survive and thrive over the past two years, proving the improbable is possible and that you can live your dreams. Thanks to you, we’ve found the motivation, positive energy, solidarity, and resources to do all of this in two short years:

– Over 5200 condoms distributed, free!
– Over 1600 book donations to Cuba Libro from around the world
– Dozens of bilingual dictionaries donated to the local elementary school
– One dozen bilingual dictionaries donated to a private English teacher
– Several large donations to family doctors and administrators
– One large donation of coloring books, crayons and age-appropriate games to Centro Habana Pediatric hospital
– 12 art shows of emerging Cuban artists + rocking parties to inaugurate each (free to public!)
– One live music event with musicians from USA & Cuba (free to public!)
– 6 cine debates (Cuban documentaries presented by the filmmakers followed by debate; free to public!)
– 3 book launches (free to public!)
– 121 official people-to-people groups received from the United States
– One semester-long conversational English class, taught by a certified, native English-speaker
– Visitors from more than 3 dozen countries
– One marriage
– Providing study space and caffeine for half a dozen medical students, now doctors
– Innumerable friends made (including those with benefits!)
– One baby on the way (due Oct 24th; congrats Gaby & Raudel!)
– One stray street dog adopted
– 132 frequent client cards filled (buy ten coffees or other drink, receive your next drink free)
– Planted 6 trees
– Launched organic farm share with Finca Tungasuk, reaching dozens of local families

Rescued, November 2014!! Senor Tobias, resident CL pet.

Rescued, November 2014!! Senor Tobias, resident CL pet.

It has been one hell of a ride and we’re steeling ourselves for Fall 2015, when we’ll be expanding the organic farm share, hosting a week-long American Sign Language workshop (taught by a Cuban), hosting two art openings and one cine debate and launching a book about Pope Francis (while he’s in Havana!) and my new book Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor. Our work regularly exhausts us but always motivates us to do more and better. Thank you Cuba Libro community for making our work meaningful. Here’s to the next two years!!

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