Tag Archives: COVID-19 in Cuba

Unpacking the Protests in Cuba

Recent events compel me to post sooner than I otherwise might. First, I’ve received so many questions, including in my professional capacity as a journalist, about what’s happening in Cuba that for efficiency’s sake, it’s easier to condense my thoughts here. Part I is What You Need to Know.

Second, just as many people or more, have contacted me asking how they can help. And while some may be abashed to say it, I’m not: Cubans need help. So for everyone wishing to act in solidarity with Cuba and the more than 11 million people on the island, I’ve put together Part II: What You Can Do. If anyone has other (serious, verifiable) leads for donation, support, lobbying, etc., please feel free to drop me a line or comment.

By way of preface, transparency, and cred: I have built this blog and my not-altogether-smooth writing reputation through a golden rule of only reporting what I’ve seen or experienced first-hand. As a (distant second, seldom-used) alternative, I’ll report what close friends and clear-eyed colleagues have experienced. What follows employs both these mechanisms.

I’m not there now, but I was in Cuba for the November 27 sit/sing-in at the Ministry of Culture and ensuing events through March 2021. Different from what’s happening now, but useful as a baseline for how different things can look when you’re on the ground actually living it, from when you’re watching from afar, observing virtually. I’ve also been in constant, expensive and difficult contact with my friends and loved ones, young and old, in Havana and the countryside.

Obviously, there’s much more to be understood and written about these events, but this is what I’ve got for you right now.  I’ve used numbered, bold sections for ease of reading.  

What You Need to Know

1. Anything on the internet should be considered suspect, false, or doctored until proven otherwise. Cuba and COVID-19 have a lot in common: a perfect storm of historic and novel circumstances converge, fueled by an infodemic and all hell breaks loose. In Cuba’s case, we have 60 years of brewing animosity and policies—on both sides—exacerbated by a pandemic lockdown and four, going on five, years of Trump sanctions. Throw in a rabid, militarized diaspora with some internet savvy (and coaching, I’m sure) and the shit is bound to hit the fan. Oh! Plus the weather.

First time someone has mentioned the weather in relation to recent events? No surprise there. Unless you’ve lived it, weather severity of the type we have in Cuba and how it affects people has probably never occurred to you. But it’s real: two consecutive summers without a beach or pool for cooling off (they were closed both this and last year) , combined with no air conditioning  when there’s a blackout (most Cubans can’t afford it anyway), plus the shortages, plus the lines, plus the economic crisis, plus the MLC stores—of course it’s driving some to extreme lengths.

Conclusion: If it weren’t for COVID-19, we would not be seeing protests in Cuba.  

2. The US and their shills in the exile community are complicit in fueling the violence (and goddamn it: would all of you just stop? You are destroying people and families). We know violence begets violence in a vicious cycle where there are no winners. Think US involvement is some wacky leftist conspiracy theory? This is old hat for Uncle Sam. Just follow the money—to whom it’s distributed and how it’s spent. These are US tax dollars paying for this, which should nauseate you as it does me.

Conclusion: Cuba’s right to sovereignty and self-determination is violated by US sanctions. Obviously, events in Cuba cannot be laid entirely at the door of foreign intervention, but without the money and cage rattling by the US government and exile groups (to mention nothing of the media’s role), I wouldn’t be writing this post.  

3. Too many of us have too short a historic memory and we, as a human race, suffer greatly for it.  Several factors at play today put me specifically in mind of the violent act of war at Girón. Remember Girón? To recap: President Kennedy authorized a military invasion of Cuba by CIA-trained and equipped Cuban exiles, promising air cover once they reached the beachhead. That cover never came and many people died as a result. A tactical oopsie daisy from which I would have hoped policymakers had learned. Wishful thinking. Whatever policy analysis is being done in the US continues to underestimate the will of the Cuban majority to defend their right to sovereignty while overestimating the power and sway of people of Cuban descent off-island.

Conclusion: US Cuba policy continues to depend on counsel from partisan factions and people who are too far removed from what is happening on the ground to make an accurate assessment. This has had fatal consequences like the Bay of Pigs, Brothers to the Rescue and others still classified.                  

4. Pay no mind to the man behind the curtain as he works furiously to distract us from the fact that since the 19th century to right this second, Cuba is a US domestic issue, rather than a foreign policy concern. We need only look at last week: Haiti sinks deeper into chaos and violence, openly requesting US assistance to stabilize the situation and all we’re hearing about is Cuba. Why? And why has President Biden, despite having a ringside seat during the normalization process, despite Dr Jill Biden’s visit to the island, despite his campaign pledges, despite urgent calls to lift sanctions from BLM, Oxfam, the UN and others, refused to change Trump’s policy towards Cuba? Because congresspeople in New Jersey and Florida have his ass over a barrel, posing a threat to his power and the Democrats’ future in mid-term elections. Haiti? Who cares. Cubans? Expendable. Cuba? Capitulate to elected bullies to consolidate power in the Beltway—using florid and moving language, evoking democracy, freedom, and human rights. But only when it fits US interests and narrative.

Conclusion: US policy towards Cuba is about the US, not Cuba or Cubans on the island. As a friend put it recently: the US is ready to sacrifice 11 million Cubans at the Bob Menéndez altar.

5. Too many, including Cuban policy makers, continue to meter todo el mundo en el mismo saco (lump everyone together, ignoring nuance and circumstance). All societies are an organism—a living, breathing, often amorphous and contradictory conglomeration of personalities, individual situations, philosophy, and history. Just like every New Yorker is not a rushed neurotic mess in a perpetual rat race, not every Cuban who has been to the United States is against their own government. Just like not every Floridian is a gin and tonic swilling fogie, not every young Cuban wants to emigrate. Not every Cuban on an overseas scholarship is under the thumb of a foreign government and not every child of Operation Peter Pan is working to destabilize their birth home.

Conclusion: Beware of anything you read that says ‘the Cuban people are doing or feeling X’; such generalizations can’t be applied to any nation and is a blatant tip off that your source is biased. Instead, look for nuance and breaking down of stereotypes—something sorely needed to move us closer to mutual understanding.

6. The limits of Cuban resiliency and creativity are being tested in ways heretofore unseen. Sure, for certain generations and to a certain extent, the Special Period and Bush aggressions were a test. But younger Cubans didn’t live that, they don’t want to live like that and they shouldn’t have to. Their resiliency and creativity are being forged now, during COVID-19. While the pandemic shares some commonalities with the shortages and exposed inequities that typified the 1990s, Cuban youth can’t be expected to channel the same flavor of resilience their parents and grandparents did. They have different sources of resiliency and are as creative, in their own way, but they need a real seat the table and need to be heard—and not only members of the UJC, señores.   

I’ve been writing and talking about waning resiliency for a while. Most Cubans I know are tired, hungry, hot and let me underscore: sad. Everyone I’ve talked to in these past few days—Cubans on the island and off—are crying themselves to sleep at night (when they can sleep) and bone/soul depressed about what is happening. They aren’t in the streets or trolling hate on the internet; they are desperately trying to maintain communication with their loved ones, find food, and keep their mental health from further fraying.

Conclusion: Anyone against violence, anyone wishing to see a peaceful, long-term and sovereign solution, anyone who cares about the health and well being of Cubans and their families, wherever they choose to live, should be promoting resiliency and creativity. How do we avert violence while promulgating respectful, sane dialogue even though we disagree? How do we engage disaffected, disenfranchised or apathetic youth? In some cases is doing nothing better than doing something? Just some preliminary questions that can help inform the road map out of this morass.

7. COVID. COVID. COVID. As a public health journalist, as someone who has lived the pandemic in Cuba and now for the past four months in the United States, the A #1 priority right now is controlling the spread of COVID-19 and treating those that have it.

Conclusion: What is killing Cubans is COVID-19. Not the Cuban armed forces. Not the police. Not the lack of internet or freedom of speech. Not even the hunger, kept at bay via the ration card, as threadbare as it is. It’s the SARS-CoV-2 virus and anything that keeps jabs from people’s arms, medicines from their reach, and food from their table is complicit.

***NOTE: I was not aware when I wrote this that 36-year old Diubis Laurencio Tejeda died during the protests. I regret the omission.***

What You Can Do

1. Promote non-violence. If not, the current shit show could erupt into a blood bath.

2. Don’t be a dot com dolt. Do not share, like or otherwise promote posts, tweets, videos or photos without first verifying the source, date, author and veracity of claims made therein. And see What You Can Do #1 before hitting send.

3. Recharge the phones of your loved ones. This allows you to keep in touch and know they’re safe. Also, phone saldo is used as an ersatz currency that can be sold and traded. I’ve used ding and Fonoma, but there are many others.

4. Encourage critical thinking. Pay attention and actively listen. Dig deeper. Be conscious of subtext including hidden agendas, axe-grinding and hypocrisy. Look for nuance.in

5. Don’t fight on the internet. This is akin to pissing in the wind or fucking drunk: useless, frustrating and messy. Your energy and time are better spent hounding your elected officials for a humanitarian Cuban policy during this traumatic pandemic.  

6. Send money to loved ones. This is more difficult than ever since Trump shut down Western Union to the island but I’ve successfully used Duales which has the option of depositing into a bank account or delivering the money straight to the recipient’s door.  

7. Send food to your loved ones. There has been an explosion of services delivering fresh, canned and prepared food door-to-door in Cuba (side benefit of COVID-19). The ones I’ve used with no problem whatsoever are MallHabana and Katapulk. Not cheap, but assured.

8. Send medicines and syringes to Cuba. Already there are several global campaigns to send urgently needed supplies to Cuba to help control COVID-19, including 30 million syringes so every Cuban can be vaccinated. They have the vaccines because they produced them but they don’t have the syringes. Other options for sending essential medicines and supplies are through the Cuban embassy in your country (except the USA, natch) and now, in your suitcase.

That’s it for now folks. I will update as necessary. Thanks for reading and a huge, grateful hug  to everyone who has reached out with emotional, financial and moral support.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Busting myths about Cuba, Communications, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Surviving Cuba with FE*

(*Familia en el Exterior)

I used to tell people when I’d be traveling—give them a head’s up in case they needed something from a fuera. That was when I first got here, green and eager. It took just a few trips hauling back motherboards, tires, cologne and all manner of sordid (vibrators/lube) and sundry (Dremels/extension cords) cargo to learn to keep my travel plans private. The responsibility became a burden, literally and figuratively, my luggage loaded down with encargos.

Everyone wanted something. But not everyone needed something. It took me awhile and hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned to distinguish between the two.

Some people talk a really good, sweet game. Others take straight up advantage. Often, priorities and similar levels of need compete. Triage is hard—especially in disaster times. The night before I left our tent camp after weeks of living with the Henry Reeve Brigade in post-quake Pakistan, I offered to mule gifts to the doctors’ families back in Cuba. Within a few hours, I had tank tops and underwear, flip flops, dolls, razors, makeup, toy cars and soap—an entire extra bag accompanying me on the long trip home.

As I’m sure/hope you’ve heard, we are squarely in disaster times on the island right now. It’s heartbreaking (Alfredo making chicken foot soup; Elena fashioning her own soap) and there’s blame to lay, but what substantive, long-term good does that do? Not enough, I’m afraid. Does it ease our aching hearts? It does not, I am proof. So this time I’m bringing back as much as my skinny arms, wallet and airline will allow. But I’ve had to set—and stick to—a strict prioritization method.

For me, like most people (most of my people anyway), it’s always family first. I’m talking beyond blood: I’m talking Family, capital F. Cuban-type, capital F type Family, which is broader, more blended, sometimes even including mistresses, bastard children and ex-husbands. Have I been burned? You betcha. Swindled. Double crossed and tricked, by people I thought were family. What a crappy feeling that is, eh? These days I’m studiously careful about whom I consider Family. Because these days, more than most days, all Cubans need FE to survive. And I can’t be a surrogate FE for all these people in need.  

The need is great indeed. Everyone is suffering from the COVID-induced paralysis of disastrous proportions, the reunification of the currency and attendant runaway inflation, plus the US blockade which is right now at its most Draconian since its imposition 60 years ago. So for this (unplanned and bittersweet) trip, I told no one but my Family—this includes my closest neighbors, the Cuba Libro team of course, and my MEDICC Review colleagues. But you know what happens once la bola está en la calle: word starts getting around.

It fast became evident I would need a solidarity hierarchy to complement my regular prioritization mechanism:

  • Family: Within this category I prioritize the sick, elderly, children and new moms. Our pets are also Family (there is so much need for veterinary meds and supplies). Among the items I’ll be bringing back: a cane, shoes, razors, wheels for angle grinders, printer cartridges, a couple of cell phones, bras, toothpaste and brushes, shoes and seeds for home gardens…Just last night my sister-in-law fairly begged for seeds and spices. I’ve got her covered.
  • Medicine: Certain non-family folks jump to the front due to health problems, like the 3-month old with leukemia who lives next door to an old friend and a colleague’s mom who recently had a cerebral hemorrhage. Medications I’ll be bringing back for them, family and friends: children’s cough syrup, Omega 3, glaucoma eye drops, multi-vitamins, B complex, blood pressure, cholesterol, anti-anxiety and Parkinson’s meds, antihistamines. burn cream and lidocaine patches.  
  • Food: You’ve seen how skinny I am? It’s not an eating disorder: that’s stress and food scarcity pure and simple. Smoking doesn’t help and I surely have parasites glomming off my gut, but I love to eat. So much so my Cuban friends dubbed me La Yuma Jamaliche.  But this whole COVID thing combined with the teetering Cuban economy means there ain’t enough to go around. Me and almost everyone else is not getting enough to eat, period. It was annoying enough when every last person was saying how flaca I’d become but it was downright alarming when one of my scientific, vaccine expert colleagues told me the same thing, advising me to eat more (as if it were that easy in Havana, Spring 2021).  I always chow down hard when I’m in the States, aiming to gain 10 pounds, but this trip I’m going for a baker’s dozen (only 2 pounds to go!) by the time I return. And you know I’ll be returning with a valise full of food including: industrial amounts of cumin, cinnamon and garlic powder, nuts and grains of various types, energy bars, rice, pasta, dried fruit, parmesan cheese, tuna and more (RAMEN is my savior!).
  • Gifts, fun and ephemera: A well-known food and social justice activist taught me an important lesson: for years, she was rabidly opposed to any cut flowers, arguing that this and all fertile land should be dedicated to food production. Bouquet flowers were frivolous, ephemeral and perishable—and criminal when people were starving. Then one fine day, someone pointed out to her that flowers feed the soul.

And our soul needs feeding. More than ever these days. Soul burn out is real and lethal. This is especially true for those of us fighting the good fight and dedicating ourselves to helping others. And while cut flowers are still kind of iffy in my mind (better to plant your own), the point is, we all need fun, pretty stuff in our lives. This isn’t an easy lesson for me. My epigenetic code yells Suffer! Deny comfort! Work hard! Form follows function! Not a lot of wriggle room for pretty things within my particular neurosis, but I’m learning and this trip I’ll be going back with: scented candles, two of mom’s ceramic bowls from my childhood, a psychedelic spinning thing for my balcony, all kinds of chocolate/cool magnets/earrings for my family and friends, and a bit of makeup for me ‘cuz you know: I’m getting old and burnt out and it’s beginning to show.

As I hunt furiously for a way to return, people continue to write me asking to bring: belt drives, nutritional yeast, cell phone cases, mouse pads, and more. The need never ends. There’s never enough room or money or time. I’m learning to say no when all I want to say is: ‘hell yes!’ Now if only I could get my body and bags on a plane headed to Havana…

NB: The term FE (Familia en el Exterior) was copped from Peter, my brother from another mother.

Also: These travel gymnastics and luggage nightmares would be fewer and far between if Biden would get OFF HIS ASS and restart the normalization process.

And: For those who got all the way to the end of this post and are left wondering…yes. I mule in money for every family, friend or colleague who asks.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Cuban Dumpster Fires #42-46: COVID & The Blockade

Things aren’t going well in Cuba In fact, the situation is peor que nunca. Rolling blackouts, the antiquated aqueduct system busted, leaving huge swaths of Havana without water, the country is posting record numbers of COVID infections and there’s no pork, rice, coffee, salt…

In short, our world is rocking.

Which means my world—this inconsequential space-time blip I occupy with friends, family and a few random undesirables—is also rocking. Upside down and sideways. It’s COVID. It’s the embargo. It’s the forced separation the combination engenders. If you’ve got any Cuba connection, you know we’re in a long-running, island-set shit show with dumpster fires peppering the stage. The flames rage while bystanders burn.

And I’m sidelined, unable to dowse or dampen the conflagration: I was obligated to leave Cuba two months ago.

My passport sat in a drawer for the whole of 2020 while I faced other calamities and grief. Discovering it a few weeks before expiration was a fluke—like when you look at your lover’s phone for the time to see their gym partner sexting. A fluke that makes you want to puke, that is to say.

Panicking, I turned to the US Embassy in Havana. Por gusto: it was closed in 2017, thanks to You Know Who (in Cuba, consular services were cancelled before COVID-19—a petty and pathetic maneuver, even for this day and age). I called the Embassy and got a recorded message. I sent an email as directed. I received a boiler plate email repeating what was on the phone message and website. For the first—and only—time in my 19-year stay, I presented myself before the Embassy’s 20-foot steel gate. The nice Cuban guard told me to send an email. The bureaucratic loop—call, email, wait, repeat—triggered rage, tears, and feelings of helplessness tinged with entitlement (‘I’m a US citizen god damn it! How dare they strand me like this!’). From her solitary lockdown in Minnesota, my sister called the State Department in DC. No dice. She called the passport office. Ditto.

Dumpster Fire #42 starts smoldering…

And please stop screaming ‘mail it in!’ at your screen: direct mail services between the USA and Cuba, normalized under Obama, are also reeling from the COVID/Humpty Trumpty one-two punch. Besides, would you trust your passport with a foreign mail service during a global pandemic? Or with the gutted, beleaguered US Postal Service?

No Embassy and no mail left me two choices: let my passport lapse or get off the island. I opted for the latter.

Cue Dumpster Fire #44 (I’m choosing to elide over #43 which saw me sobbing on the floor, Toby sniffing at my snot-encrusted face)…

The problem? Cuba was (and is still) closed to almost all air traffic due to an explosion of post-holiday COVID infections; just two flights a week have been flying between our two countries for months now. And they’re booked through August. With mere days left on my passport, my sister (who has a knack for travel), scored me a seat on the oversold, once-a-week JetBlue flight. With a festering case of gastritis, plus sleeper case of hypertension, a panicked clinic visit for a PCR test, and harried kisses for my guy and dog, I left.

_____

Being on far away shores after fighting tirelessly, surviving heroically, and loving fiercely sucks and hurts, giving rise to a toxic cocktail of guilt, relief, nostalgia, and yearning. Not to mention an unhealthy dose of frustration-laced anger. Some of you know of what I write.  

But to hell with the guilt and pain, and idealized nostalgia: I keep on fighting. Unless I’m curled up in a ball bawling (AKA Dumpster Fire #45 & #46), I keep on fighting—to honor mom’s memory, to help my Cuban friends and family, to remain on the side of the just. I keep fighting to maintain sanity, to keep money coming in and out of trouble/jail, to make sure my loved ones stay fed, housed and connected to the Internet. I fight, uncurl myself from that ball, and clear away the tears to face a new day.

Today.

One day at a time.

Fakin’ it till I make it.

I take solace in 12-Step mantras—not because they helped me get (and stay) sober, but because they keep me off the Cuba/COVID/Conner-at-51 ledge. I’m still an addict, but to other things, like work and cigarettes and coffee (the introvert trifecta!) and these have kept me alive and as-well-as-can-be considering the circumstances. As I contain my conflicting emotions and try not to lash out at loved ones, this is what that looks like: 

*Writing ad nauseum about COVID: I often counsel a news blackout or media vacation as a mental health tool for our modern world. But there’s no rest for a health reporter during a global pandemic. Just in the past few months (to say nothing of 2020), I’ve been neck deep editing and re-writing manuscripts about Cuban kids with long COVID and related cardiovascular problems; neuropsychological effects of COVID; and the sickening politics, inequities and egoism of our pandemic-plagued planet. And the hits kept on coming after I was assigned two interviews on the “mono-topic:” with the directors of Cuba’s Center for Clinical Trials and the Molecular Immunology Center, which produces the recombinant RBD for Cuba’s COVID-19 vaccines

As I clocked a week of 14-hour days wrapping my aching head around pandemic-related issues, I was asked to revise the English-language insert for SOBERANA Plus, Cuba’s vaccine for convalescent COVID patients.

Important? Yes. Fun? Not at all.   

*Going deep on the US blockade: Many big and little things are crumbling as a consequence of COVID-19: marriages, mom and pop stores, traditional greetings like our customary kiss on the cheek. Unless these macro and micro implosions affect us personally, they go unnoticed. So it goes with OXFAM, which closed 18 offices around the world, including in Cuba. After 27 years of bolstering food security and sovereignty, strengthening gender justice, fighting climate change, and reducing disaster-related risks, this is a huge blow to the innumerable Cubans who’ve benefitted from OXFAM support and programs the past three decades. OXFAM Cuba’s parting salvo is The Right to Live Without a Blockade, a report on how US sanctions hamstring Cubans’ right to live, learn, grow, develop and dream on their own terms. The report was co-written by moi, along with a multi-talented team. The official release date—in Spanish and English—is May 27. Please help us spread the word!

*Conner says what?!: I was red tagged and sent to detention for my big mouth as a kid. Nowadays, folks are bombarding my socials with all manner of Cuba-related interview requests: women’s issues, LGBTQI+ rights, how my reed-like figure doesn’t excite Cubans, and the embargo, of course. I was reluctant to talk about my expiring passport situation with the New York Times but despite these misgivings, I did—it’s about the message, after all, not me.  The message? The State Department doesn’t give a flying one about US citizens living abroad—rich business people excepted, of course.

***BREAKING NEWS: The NY Times article by Debra Kamin referenced above got the State Department off their duff and (some) US citizens with expired passports can now travel back to the US. Better late than never! Not for nothing: Cuba started it’s paperwork/passport/visa deferral plan at the beginning of COVID-19.

*Popping my Zoom cherry: Living in Cuba, where Zoom is blocked by the US embargo, I skated through 2020 with nary a video meeting, interview or webinar. But as the pandemic drags on and we all struggle not to be dragged down with it, the invitations are pouring in. Despite my technological struggles (VPNs, expensive data, blackouts), I popped my Zoom cherry as a speaker on the Canadian Network on Cuba’s panel to raise funds for medical donations to the island. I found it enjoyable, uplifting even (it was my first one, after all!). If you’re looking for a concrete way to help Cuba confront COVID, I suggest donating to this initiative or the multi-organizational drive to send 3 million syringes to the island for the whole population vaccination effort now underway.

Next up was a webinar series among health experts and virologists from Cuba and the University of Minnesota to share experiences and ideas about effective COVID strategies and policies. Thankfully, US scientific and academic communities are open to collaboration and exchange: another webinar series launches on June 8 between Cuba and the University of Alabama.

*Struggling to be a “real” writer: Pop culture, slang, evolving vocabulary and concepts: a lot of it passes you by when you live abroad for long periods of time, when you’re not on the ground, watching things unfold and taking part. Being woke, Karens and Beckys, the drip, Tuca & Bertie – I didn’t know jack about any of this until I researched or was schooled by friends. So it was with Imposter Syndrome, a term I’d never before heard but from which I definitely suffer (though I’ve always called it good old-fashioned self-hatred). I don’t consider my blog “real” writing. It may be thoughtful and well-crafted, but it doesn’t pay (that dogged yardstick by which too many of us measure worth and success), hasn’t led to any assignments or gigs as far as I know, and doesn’t have a broad audience. It has value, of course, mostly in helping me maintain a semblance of sanity and breaking down myths about Cuba, but it ain’t great literature, investigative reporting, or emotive memoir—the type of writing I dream of publishing.  

And then I wrote a blog post that sent readers swooning; friends, strangers and writers I admire wrote in with accolades and support. They urged me to add a bit of context, flesh it out some, and submit it to major publications, the likes of which triggered some real imposter doubts. The Atlantic, The New Yorker, the New York Times—other level shit for a not-very-real writer. ‘Possible?’ the imposter in me wondered. And what about my tendency to “punt,” as a wildly accomplished writer observed of my tendency to stick to safe terrain and retreat in the face of rejection? Criticize me and I recoil like a set of testes in an Icelandic lake, but once I regroup, I double down. So I rewrote, restructured and retitled that post and am making my way down the list of possible outlets. I’m only two rejections in…stay tuned!

*Saving Cuba Libro:  Something else I’ll have to write about in a “real” way sometime are the last eight years of my life, consumed by this community project I founded. Our philosophy and programming have touched so many, altered life trajectories, and improved well-being. Mine included, though it’s such a struggle it often feels like keeping Cuba Libro alive just might kill me. At no time has this been truer than 2020-2021.  Over the past 14 months, we’ve been able to operate for just two. That’s 14 months of rent and utilities, 14 months of buying overpriced coffee, milk, fruit, syrups and sugar and nearly 14 months of maintaining salaries for our seven full-time staff. To keep busy, we’ve redesigned our space for social distancing, developed new recipes and a new menu, installed a freezer, implemented a reservation system, improved our garden, forged new collaborations, and stepped up our digital image and game.  

None of this would be possible without our seat-of-the-pants fundraising and the generous, unflagging support of our global community. I remember when we were redesigning the space for social distancing in May 2020, we discussed this “temporary” situation, that in three months we’d be able to go back to the “old” café design and earning model. Ha! Here we are over a year later, still closed, still begging for support. It’s depressing, debilitating and deflating, but we soldier on. We sally forth. In that vein, we’ve launched two new initiatives—tax-deductible monetary donations to our 501(c)3 non-profit Friends of Cuba Libro and 100% original, Cuban-designed merch in our Red Bubble store. And on June 3, Dr William Ross (voted Favorite Customer by Team Cuba Libro in 2019) is hosting a fundraising webinar with me (and whomever can connect from Havana), En la Lucha: The Cuba Libro Story. Please tune in/share if you’re able.

Times are terrible in Cuba, I can’t lie. Empty stomachs, limited horizons and broken hearts are foisted upon us thanks to US sanctions, the global pandemic and the island’s inability to withstand the current context for much longer. Our safety net is dangerously frayed. Friends and loved ones plot escape. Indeed, by the time you read this, one of our dearest friends and most ardent supporters will have emigrated. I didn’t get the chance to say goodbye.

I’ve got my new passport, but thanks to the embargo, pandemic and politics, I’m stuck in the Estamos Jodidos until further notice. Coño.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban economy, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

Nuestro Vino es Amargo…

I’m baaaack! Not that I went anywhere. Not physically, anyway. In fact, I haven’t ventured farther than 30km from my apartment in a year. But mentally—spiritually—I’ve traveled some long, dark roads in that time. Who hasn’t? The collective trauma caused by COVID makes 9/11 look like a bad hair day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fortunate. Privileged even. I’ve been able to make rent. I still have my highly-rewarding (albeit low-paying) job. Various old age ailments have beset my better half and me, but otherwise we’re healthy. Plus, I live in a place where the science is sound, people retain a keen sense of humor, and healthcare is free. What’s more, thanks to good planning and foresight, not to mention political will and a superlative biotech industry dating back over 30 years, Cuba has four COVID-19 candidates in clinical trials; whole population immunization begins next month.

It can’t happen soon enough. I’m sure you understand. If you don’t, I’ll go ahead and assume you’re a COVID denier, anti-vaxxer or selfish bastard unfazed by the prospect of infecting innocent people. If one of these applies, let me break it to you not-so-gently: Darwin was right and your days are numbered.

But you didn’t come here to listen to me whine and lecture (although this is kinda my bread and butter; deal with it). Rather, you want to know what’s happening here in Havana. For the short attention spanners among you, it boils down to the old saying ‘nuestro vino es amargo pero es nuestro,’ which basically means: it’s a shit show, but it’s OUR shit show.

What that looks like circa February 2021:

Almost everyone is broke, in debt and gasping for air at across-the-board, sky-high prices – Without going into a macro-economic muela about the why of this category 5 economic storm (for which I’m professionally and intellectually ill-equipped regardless), let’s just say it’s multifactorial and transcends COVID-19.

Certain factors are historical, like the blockade/embargo, combined with inherent inefficiencies in the Cuban system, funny accounting, and the informal economy feeding off them. Other factors are cultural, including farmers and middlemen who’d rather the produce rot than drop their prices and a cannibalistic capitalism coursing through many a Cuban vein (provided the chance to make a nickel, these folks snap to action faster than a homely jinetera espying a group of rich Russians).

One thing is clear: the global recession is rocking everyone’s world. And in no way, shape or form is Cuba exempt from this downward spiral. But just to add a little spice to the party—as Cubans, love ‘em dearly, always do—we are currently undergoing the painful, laborious, decades-in-the-making, unification of the currency here and all that entails.

Many of you may remember the late 90s-early aughts when the US dollar, Cuban peso (CUP) and Cuban convertible peso (CUC) circulated concurrently. I do: it was happening when I moved here in 2002. Oh how gloriously naïve I was! Stumbling along in my so-so Spanish, relying on my energetic husband to shield me from the sausage making, and marveling at how Cubans pivot and resolve! I now realize it was like dining at a fine restaurant when things go sideways: it takes forever for your meal to arrive (the first plating slid to the floor), potatoes were substituted for polenta (the sous chef was snorting a line while it burned), and the coulis tastes more like raspberry than pomegranate (the purveyor couldn’t deliver and was subsequently canned). Nevertheless, it’s beautifully presented, delicious even! But you, the diner, are none the wiser to the mayhem and stress going on in the kitchen.

That was then.

Nearly 20 years on, I am no longer unwitting. I am no longer shielded. And things are much, much tougher this go ‘round. This time it really is sink or swim (or at least tread water like your life depends on it). Cartons of eggs have more than tripled in price. The same with powdered milk—the only kind available. Not that these things are necessary available, no matter how much money you have. Cheese—oh beloved cheese!—is another lost cause. People tell me it’s sold in the dollar stores but I wouldn’t know; I haven’t had cheese since August 2020. So we go without. We go vegan. Shouldn’t that be a choice? I mean, forced veganism: how dystopian.

Lines are long, salaries fall short – So we tread water and stay afloat. How? Anticipating this all-too-predictable inflation, the state has raised salaries in an effort to offset the shortfall. Are the higher salaries enough? No. Are they equitable? They are not. Consider the fact that under the new salary structure, a university professor with a PhD earns less than a parole officer with a ninth grade education and you start to see the dynamic. Again, I’m no economist (thank the dear lord), but this new system smarts of the old—in short: same dog, different fleas and making ends meet is a real hardship, a day-in-day-out struggle.

The hard truth is, most months the ends won’t meet. And you’re truly up shit’s creek if a pipe bursts, a stove part breaks or your kid needs new shoes. But we keep on treading.

Barter is a major player in the COVID-19, post-CUC economy. Toothpaste for cooking oil; coffee for mechanical work; cowboy boots for gas—Cuba is on the cutting edge of the in-kind economy. Just yesterday I traded ibuprofen for onions in a marvelous win-win swap.

Solidarity, now as always, is a complementary survival strategy. Alfredo pedals 25km into the countryside to buy fresh yogurt for our Cuba Libro family. First Dailyn and then Jacqueline gave me kibble when Toby’s food was running dangerously low. Kristen and Abel share their abundant harvest with friends, family, neighbors, and the local old folks’ home; I can’t tell you how many people have enjoyed their organic arugula during COVID! There’s another saying here: ‘quien tiene amigos, tiene un central’ which loosely translates as ‘we get by with a little help from our friends.’ Shock froze my family doctor’s face last week when I told him I completed the 14-day, triple pill treatment he prescribed for my gastritis. During the consultation, he warned me that pharmacy stocks were low and I probably wouldn’t be able to get the medicines. ‘I have a central,’ I told him—it was entirely thanks to my friends that I was able to procure the treatment I needed.

And when all else fails, we stand in line. We’re talking 4 hours in line for bread, the butcher, to enter a store or the bank. Entire WhatsApp and Telegram groups, Facebook pages and word-of-mouth networks are active 24-7 letting people know what store has which products and how long the line is. “Café Guantanamera, 23 y 26. Two kilos per customer. Not many people on line,” is one recent message. “Store on 15 y 26 is taking names for tomorrow’s chicken line,” reads another. “Amiga! Chopped meat at 11 y 4. No line!!!” says the one that literally just came in.

Can’t or won’t stand in line? These groups can help out there, too. “Chicken just arrived at the casa del pollo, 5ta y 42. If anyone is coming down, I’m here on line” (meaning, you can scoot on line with your friend). Alternatively, you can throw money at the problem by paying someone to stand in line for you—recent rates were $1CUC/hour during the day, $5CUC before sunrise—or sidle up and buy the numbered ticket from someone who has already been standing on line for hours ($5CUC/ticket). Or, if you’re really in the money, you can rely on black market resellers who provide door-to-door service selling meat, coffee, oil, soap, sponges, detergent—you name it. Probably the best strategy however, is to have someone ‘on the inside’ of the store. They will call you when certain goods come in, meet you ‘round back and load up your bag away from all lines and prying eyes. You pay for your goods, include a nice tip and away you go, stocked and stoked.

Health measures are changing rapidly and there are no ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards – Maybe it’s just me, but things seemed more organized during last year’s first wave. Adding to the confusion are new measures that are announced and then rescinded or altered, sometimes even before implementation. Does public transport stop at 7pm or 9pm? Can we shop in stores outside of our home municipality? Are they really putting physical barriers in highly trafficked places to improve distancing on line as announced? Can we travel between provinces in private transport or not?

In January, a friend of mine was driving home from her dad’s house across town. It was about 9:30pm. The cops pulled her over informing her that she couldn’t be driving past 9 (this was weeks before the current 9pm-5am curfew, implemented on February 5). ‘What?’ she asked. ‘That’s one of the new measures?’ They skirted the question (typical) and repeated that she could not be driving at this hour. This friend of mine is young, especially bubbly and possesses the most striking sage green eyes, which she employs to great effect. She talked her way out of the ticket.

Last week, Mary—neither bubbly, nor as young, and certainly not as deferential—wasn’t so lucky. Masked up and jogging with her dog in the local park, she was stopped by the police who told her exercising in public is prohibited. She pushed back, gently. Mary isn’t deferential, but she isn’t stupid either: police are a touchy breed anywhere, regardless of the times or troubles afoot and need to be engaged with caution. They repeated: no running in public. They proceeded to put her in the squad car, take her down to the station and put her in a cell where she spent several hours. It was crowded, physical distancing was impossible and everyone had a tale to tell. There was the guy who pulled down his mask to use his asthma inhaler. There was the couple at the hospital trying to get their second PCR test and were taken in for…being in public without having a second PCR test. Everyone behind bars has a story and who knows if they’re true, but I know Mary’s is. She was taken in for exercising in public, spent hours in close quarters with many strangers during a global pandemic and was issued a 2000 CUP fine—half her monthly salary.

Speaking of jail, my good buddy Miguel called yesterday. You may remember him—he’s serving 6 years on a ridiculous charge. If it’s tense out here, you can imagine how it is on the inside. Total lockdown for almost a year and only a few physically-distanced visits from loved ones in all that time. Not being able to hug or kiss or get horizontal with his wife Esther is taking a mighty toll. Food is scarce—most days it’s rice and split peas, maybe an egg but never two. There’s little soap, no toothpaste, razors or deodorant and without the monthly visits and sacks of provisions hauled out to the campo by family and friends, prison commerce has largely ground to a halt. Parole hearings are still held—on paper—but no one is getting it. At least Miguel has periodic access to a phone; thanks to Cuba’s ongoing tech revolution, I was able to recharge his phone card electronically.

Small businesses are screwed – This is a global phenomenon, we are all well aware, proving that COVID-19 is deadly in more ways than one. But for us, it’s not just about COVID: Trumpty Dumpty and his anti-Cuban puppet masters also tightened the screws precisely as the pandemic worsened. They fined financial institutions helping Cuba weather the storm. They turned back planes of medical supplies. And they shut down Western Union, drastically affecting remittances to families on the island. For years, these regime change hawks harped: ‘Cuba needs a middle class. Cuba needs a thriving private sector. We need to support the Cuban people.’ So we’ll just go ahead and cut them off at the knees and sever all sorts of lifelines during a global pandemic. The fucking hypocrisy. Sickening.

Throw in hyper inflation, reduced purchasing power for consumers, zero tourists, no goods coming in via mulas and you have a perfect storm for sabotaging the private sector and the individuals that have shed blood, sweat and tears building small businesses.

But they will not break us. We have our in-kind economy, our solidarity, our central. We have creativity and community and values. This is how Cuba Libro has survived from March 20, 2020 until today, during which we were open two short (but fabulous!) months. Thanks to donations and unwavering support from people who came for our coffee, volunteered, bought books, gifted books, left tips and helped lift our spirits, we were able to pay rent, maintain minimum salaries of our 7 employees, and keep them connected to the Internet while closed.

These are people who believe in our mission and vision. Who believe that good coffee and music, excellent literature and a tranquil garden can build community and contribute to a better future. That together and by example, we can strengthen commitment to others and the environment, build mutual respect despite differences, and create a safe space for all regardless of gender, race, religion, financial possibilities, sexual orientation, age or ability. These are people who believe that doing good for the collective is more important in the long run than doing well individually. Who believe we all have things worth teaching and worth learning and that great things can be accomplished with few resources combined with collaborative action. Who believe that maintaining our donation programs and book sales during the pandemic is more needed than ever.

Some say I’m naïve, a fool, a dumbass for structuring a small business thusly—where some days (bad days!) I take home less pay than the rest of the team. Still others accuse me of having a ‘white savior complex.’ These detractors are at best confused and at worst so ‘woke’ their insomnia is affecting their analytical skills. To these folks I say: lead, follow or get the fuck out of our way.

Certain people say I’m an idiot, moreover, for maintaining minimum salaries for our 7-member team while we’re closed. We don’t have time for these kinds of people – the ‘not our people’ people. The precious time we have we spend working at our side hustles; sharing and pooling resources and making sure they get to those most needing them; keeping ourselves as balanced as we can and away from the deep, dark psychological hole into which each of us, at one time or another, has plunged in the past year. Just today my friend Anita said to me: ‘girl, ever forward. And whenever one of us is down in the depths, we gotta pick each other up and push each other forward.’ Anita is our kind of people, the ones who know that the worthy things in life have to be built, nurtured, fed and shared. The other ones? Those who say it’s foolish to maintain minimum salaries? They’re the ones who think you can buy commitment and community. And love. You can’t. Beatles, 1964. Hello?!

We’re surviving, but it’s wearing thin. Even with their archetypical sense of humor, tendency to not sweat the small stuff, outlook that tomorrow is another day and let’s live today like there’s no tomorrow, Cubans are stressing. The tension is palpable, audible: ubiquitous sirens at night, parents yelling at their cooped-up kids, and dogs barking (more than usual) at anything that moves; granted, not much is moving these days. Even the silence is tense. No music wafts from windows, no kids laughing or skipping along. No dominoes being shuffled and played under the milky light of a street lamp.

But we keep on keepin’ on. And to all who have helped us, helped Cubans, helped anyone, during COVID-19: we thank you deeply, as our barrista extraordinaire Gaby would say in her so-so English. This is the way forward. The only way. In the meantime, we tread.

PS – The day after I wrote the first draft of this post, my friend Ivan gifted me a wedge of blue cheese. There is something to that ‘put it out in the universe’ stuff!

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