Tag Archives: cuba libro

Havana, We Have a Problem: Stray Cats & Dogs

If you’ve been to Havana, you’ve seen them. The poor bitch in heat lying prostrate on the sidewalk trying – unsuccessfully – to prevent another macho from mounting her. Packs of roving cats scouring garbage night after night. Bony and mange-ridden, Havana’s strays have a hard row to hoe. Here, where food is rarely thrown out and the majority face daily pressures more urgent than a dumped or unwanted animal, street creatures have to be really scrappy to survive. They have to dodge the pet police, avoid getting poisoned (a shockingly, all-too-common practice here; when your dog barks too much or causes too much fuss, your neighbor just might feed her some meat mixed with crushed light bulbs or a fatal dose of BioRat, domestically-produced rat poison), and forage enough food to live another day.

lindapreop

Although Habana Vieja has a program for spaying, neutering, vaccinating and tagging strays, this is not the case throughout the rest of the city. Coincidence that the country’s #1 tourist destination is the only place with a functional animal protection policy? You be the judge. Animal rights activists here are trying to get a protection law considered – to present it to parliament, they have to collect 10,000 signatures from Cuban voters. And they almost made it; more than 8,000 people signed the petition to legislate spaying, neutering and vaccinating strays so they might be adopted. But the initiative went to shit when internal divisions (over money, I’m told, which isn’t at all hard to believe), split activists, leaving the petition en el aire, as we say here. Today, there are at least two groups still actively pushing for legislation: PAC (Protección de Animales de la Ciudad) and CEDA (Cubanos en Defensa de los Animales). There are also foreign associations – from Canada and Belgium for example – which help fund local animal protection efforts and come periodically to spay and neuter strays for free. These initiatives are admirable, but speaking from personal experience, wholly inadequate.

Toby. Linda. Tucho. Yoko. Luther. Belle. All of these cats and dogs are part of our family. Don’t worry. I haven’t turned into some crazy cat/dog lady; I don’t live with all these animals, but rather say ‘our family’ since here in Cuba we still speak more collectively than individually (let’s see how long that lasts; in Havana at least, the “me” mentality is starting to root). And each of these wonderful pets are rescues. At different times, under different circumstances in different parts of the city, they were saved from life on the mean city streets.

tony-and-marylou

Toby wandered into Cuba Libro, dirty and sorry-looking, in 2014, soon after his young owner headed into military service, whereupon he cast Havana’s most beloved terrier mutt into the streets. I’ve got empathy for abandoned dogs, but as my father once wisely observed: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus.’ Besides, I live in a three-flight walk up – hardly ideal for a dog. So Toby lived in Cuba Libro’s garden, eating pizza and spaghetti until one fateful day when a violent tropical storm ripped open the Vedado skies, sending down thunderclaps and lightening, a hard pelting rain, and almonds from considerable height. And then my conscience kicked in: ‘that very cute dog is waiting out this storm alone. I better go check on him.’ When I got the locks off the gate and entered the garden, Toby was in the corner, soaked-to-the-bone and shivering, with a heart-broken look on his face. Did I have a choice? No folks, I did not. I plopped him into my backpack, strapped it to my chest and rode him home on my bike. Every day since, we’ve walked from our apartment to Cuba Libro, where he is more famous than me.

Tucho, salvaje!

Tucho, salvaje!

yoko

Tucho, the dog, like his friend Yoko, the cat (her partner, John, went the way of the actual Lennon, unfortunately), were found dumped in garbage cans, on the verge of starvation before my friends Lis and Alfredo took them in. Luther, meanwhile, was rescued outside the maternity hospital in Marianao. Lis and Alfredo discovered him when they came upon a gaggle of mischievous kids pelting the kitten with pebbles. Following a proper chewing out for their cruel behavior, my friends provided house and home for Luther (named for Dr King, who Cubans revere). This is one superior kitten who scales trees and walls like a superhero, can leap through windows better than a thief, and who already has his very own fan club with a President and card-carrying members, of which I am one.

Local heroes, Liz & Alfredo (and Tucho!)

Local heroes, Liz & Alfredo (and Tucho!)

luther

Belle, a gorgeous mutt with a good dose of German shepherd, was found abandoned in a coop, her fur so infested with chicken lice she couldn’t stand herself. Or even stand. Belle was taken in by my friends at the organic farm Finca Tungasuk where they tried all manner of non-chemical applications to cure her. Seems these were some hyper-resistant bichos: they finally resorted to spraying her with Lo Maté!, Cuban roach and bug killer. This is some strong stuff (manufactured by Cuban convicts, by the way). ‘If this doesn’t kill these lice, nothing will,’ they figured, letting the aerosol fly, taking great care to keep it from her head, mouth, eyes and ears. These are CUBAN bugs, remember. Rather than die, they hightailed it to Belle’s nose where they formed a writhing black mass like something from a sci-fi movie. Grossed out but determined, my friends eventually relieved Belle of her vermin, now contained on her nose, using a small brush. The good news is, today Belle is a beautiful, healthy, and happy farmhouse dog. In fact, she has just given birth to six gorgeous puppies sired by Huracán from the adjoining farm.

belle1

belle2

There’s Belle and then there’s Linda. Similar names, completely different experiences. Linda was found in San Miguel de Padrón at death’s door. This is no Cuban drama-rama or exaggeration: this one-year old mutt with baby doll eyes was lying on the sidewalk literally more skin-stretched-over-bones than dog, unable to lift her head. Seems her owners (strike that: abusers) had kept her on a choke chain so tight, a one inch band around her entire neck was raw and bloodied, with tendons exposed. Meanwhile, the ring on the chain had opened a nickel-sized hole in her throat so any sustenance proffered (she was beyond foraging for herself), went into her mouth and came out the hole.

lindaoperacion2

lindaoperacion

Likely she had only a few days of life left when Alfredo and Lis (the same friends who took in Tucho, Yoko, and Luther) carried her home. What ensued was a modern fairy tale mixed with grisly, gory reality TV – a three hour surgical procedure to close her perforated pharynx (during which she flat lined twice), intravenous antibiotics multiple times a day, changing of bandages, intramuscular vitamin injections, and a special high protein diet, among other measures (yes, she was allowed to sleep in the bed!) to help nurse this helpless animal back to health. It put my friends in the poor house with all the transportation, medication and care required, but you should see this beautiful, grateful pooch just a week after her surgery. Hair growing back, eating like a horse, she’s constantly wagging her tail and setting her soft, gratitude-filled eyes on every human she comes across. And she and Toby have fallen in love. Exactly six days into her post-op recovery, she came into Cuba Libro bundled in a sheet carried by Lis. Toby immediately began licking Linda’s stitches and kissing her nose. He swiftly moved to sniffing her butt and before we could intervene, he mounted her. And she liked it. I swear they were both smiling. We’re now considering the possibility of mating them once she’s fully recovered. After Cuba’s cutest puppies are born, she’s getting spayed and he’s getting neutered.

linda-que-linda

Spaying and neutering: this is the #1 issue any Cuban animal protection campaign should attack head on. Where I come from, responsible pet owners spay and neuter. It’s hard to overstate how vehemently most Cubans reject this basic obligation – to the animals, to their neighbors, their city, and themselves. It’s part ignorance, part machismo (‘you can’t take away his manhood!’ I was told repeatedly when I announced I was going to neuter Toby. ‘I can’t? Watch me,’ I told dissenters). If more Cubans followed this standard practice, we wouldn’t have buried newborn kittens left in a box by the bodega last week.

Don’t like cats +/o dogs? Allergic? No problem. There are other animals left to the streets with alarming regularity – a duck took refuge in Cuba Libro’s garden a few days ago and Shiva, a tortoise, was rescued from a Centro Habana sidewalk by another friend a couple of years back. When she reached to scoop up the animal, she was chastised: ‘don’t touch that! It’s brujería!!’ (tortoises are used in various Afro-Cuban sacrificial ceremonies). She paid them no heed and today, Shiva is as big as a football and an integral part of her family. There are myriad reasons for leaving street animals to fend for themselves towards likely death. But there’s no excuse for putting a pet on the streets (a fairly common practice among Cubans preparing to emigrate) and one very good reason for rescuing them: it’s the right thing to do.

shiva
liz-and-shivas

NB: Friends of Cuba Libro, the 501(c)3 I founded to fund projects of high community impact, is launching an initiative to help activists defray costs of animal rescue and raise funds for a proper animal shelter in Havana. Please drop a line if you’re interested in receiving more information.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

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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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, environment, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Getting Screwed in Cuba’s New Economy

It will take a bit for me to create the physical time and psychic space to write a long form piece on private businesses here – but trust, me: I’ve got plenty to say on the subject. In the meantime, I’ll channel my cathartic necessities through the relating of my washing machine saga, AKA “The Yoyi Affair.”

_____

I am extraordinarily fortunate to own a washing machine. Anyone who has hand washed a queen-sized sheet, scrubbed towels on a washboard (common to Cuban laundry sinks), or tried to wring out a pair of skinny jeans (and pray for sun because otherwise those clothes are going to smell funkier than a frat boy’s laundry bag) knows what I’m talking about. I lived years here drowning in that routine and now I can’t glimpse a clothesline heavy with recently-scrubbed laundry without wanting to knock on the door and offer the lady of the house a glass of something cool and a rocking chair. It’s terrifically hard work keeping a Cuban household running (forget about smoothly); as you may imagine, laundry is a sticky bitch in the equation.

Luckily, a few savvy Havana entrepreneurs have pinned their cuenta propista hopes on privately-operated Laundromats, where dirty duds are returned to you clean as a whistle, for just a couple of CUCs a kilo. I hear the one in Miramar is making bank, but their folding lacks attention to detail. There are (dark, uninviting) state places too, with cute names like Little Laundry or no name at all. You just have to know they exist and where they are. These are cheaper than the private outfits, but with unreliable hours and workers who filch your soap. I’ve been down that road and while it’s a more sane solution than trying to wring out your Levis by hand, taking my place in line at 6am for a service which takes two days is not my idea of a good time. So when my mom bought her blushing-bride-of-a-daughter a fully automatic LG washing machine as a wedding gift, it was pure euphoria.

That was almost a dozen years and what seems a lifetime ago, but it has worked beautifully and without complaint since. Ah! To wash sheets at the touch of a button! To have jeans nearly extracted dry! I loved that machine even after it developed a high-pitched squeal like a Christmas pig having its throat cut. It was so loud and piercing, callers often asked: ‘what’s that sound in the background? Are you keeping pigs?!’ ‘No, just the rinse cycle,’ I’d explain. I could live with the squeal – after all, I didn’t have the time, energy or inclination to fix it. I had bigger problems – like deadlines and ant infestations and inspectors. And I was tired: we’re working 60 hours a week, easy, at Cuba Libro, where we go through a dozen individual hand towels a day. And more than the pile of dirty laundry, these towels are the sticky bitch in my equation. ‘Whatcha doing tonight, boss? Washing little towels?! Heh, heh, heh,’ is a common conversation starter among our staff. (Note to self: dock pay for every snarky Saturday night towel comment. Just kidding!) It’s sad, but true however: I spend many an evening listening to my querida machine squeal little towels around as I wait for the dial-up internet to hop to. It only makes me weep on occasion.

One of those occasions was when the machine ceased, definitively, to have a spin cycle. Of course, it happened during an insanely busy week: long-time, well-loved staff departing for foreign latitudes; training newbies; hosting groups; friends’ birthdays; multiple deadlines; and my trip to New York. Have you ever traveled with a suitcase of soiled clothes? Not pretty, but a nice little ‘gotcha!’ for the folks rifling through luggage on this side of the Straits and Homeland Security on that one. For reasons more important than this, however, my immediate priority was Getting My Washing Machine Fixed.

I put it off, but the second time I was forced to look into that towel and soap soup, and rinse and wring out each toallita individually, I knew procrastination was no longer advisable. True, I was drowning in work, bureaucratic bullshit and administrative tedium. In short: I didn’t have one atom of extra energy to confront the jodedera of getting a major appliance fixed in today’s Havana. And then I met Yoyi. He was an affable guy with gold teeth, cafe au lait skin, and an efficient, confident air. His workshop is in a garage a couple of blocks from Cuba Libro, the driveway choked with washing machines in various stages of decay, disrepair and death. When I explained to him the problem, he boiled it down to one of three parts. ‘Let’s go to your house. I’ll assess the problem and if you agree, I’ll bring the machine here to the workshop, fix it and you’ll have it back in 24 hours.’ Transport, parts, labor and a one-year guarantee included. Efficient, professional and good looking private enterprise? Hell yeah, bring it on!

Flash forward to my apartment where two strange men are shimmying the machine away from the wall and peering into its nether regions. “It’s the clutch,” Yoyi tells me. Of course it’s the clutch, the most expensive part, for which Yoyi quoted me $150CUC. This is a total rip off, I’m fully aware. Yoyi was showing me what’s known in Cuba as ‘cara dura’. I was getting the Screw-The-Yuma price (and female to boot! Cha ching!) and I knew it, but I needed that machine in working order like, yesterday. I’m used to Cubans fucking me for my non-Cuban status in terms of pricing, but fucking me up the ass in terms of pricing? This is something else. ‘$150 CUC. That’s rough. You can come down a bit, surely,’ I told Yoyi with a smile.

We settled on $130CUC and away he went with my machine. The next day I went to his garage storefront at the appointed hour where I, along with his employees (who couldn’t reach him on his cell), waited until it grew dark. Yoyi finally rattled up in an old Lada, wedged the machine in the trunk and off we set for my apartment. After he and his pierced, tattooed helper lugged it up to the third floor, they plugged the old girl in and ran it through the spin cycle. Success! There were smiles, handshakes and goodbye kisses all around. I was impressed: within 24 hours, I had a working washing machine installed in my house, plus a one-year guarantee from Yoyi and his guys.

_____

The next day, I loaded up the machine, turned on the water, added detergent and pushed the magic button. I was answering yet another email from a clueless journalist here on assignment with no Spanish, no contacts, no guidebook or map even, and only a vague idea of what to write about when the machine started beeping. This wasn’t the steady ‘wash is done!’ beep but the frenetic ‘spin cycle won’t kick in!’ beep – the exact same annoying beep that drove me to Yoyi in the first place. Beads of frustration sweat popped to my brow as I went to inspect. It had worked yesterday. Why not today? I tried to restart it, trick it into going through different cycles, and taking out some clothes to lighten the load. Nada. When I looked closely, I noticed Yoyi had switched out my drum for a smaller, inferior one. De pinga.

I returned to his appliance workshop one, two, three days in a row. The place was shut tighter than the doors of the US-Cuba negotiations. Yoyi and crew were gozando with my $130 CUC no doubt. My mind went to a dark, destructive place: I was ready to open a can of NYC whup ass on the dude. On Day 4, I went with a gaggle of Cuban friends to back me up (what a motley bunch of muscle we made: a fellow so skinny his nickname is Periodo Especial; a too-good looking gay friend hitting on the too-good looking mulatto friend, a quiet pacifist, a philosopher…). When we rolled up on Yoyi, he admitted to not having tested the spin cycle with actual water. Duh. And he fessed up to switching out the drum. He promised to return to my house, retrieve the machine and fix it properly. I was peeved, but encouraged – his one-year guarantee had some validity, it seemed.

Then I went to NY. My mighty Cuban muscle paid several visits to Yoyi, but he was as scarce as butter and cheese in Havana circa 2015. That is to say: nowhere to be found. Then Havana got flooded. The pictures were frightening from where I was sitting stateside, but I knew the reality was much more horrifying: collapsing buildings; ruined keepsakes, furniture, electronics; stranded seniors. And I doubted there was hope for returning to a working washing machine.

Two days before arriving back in Havana, I got word: Yoyi fixed the machine, it was back at my house and ready to roll. I sent silent (none have email, alas) thanks and praise to my Cuban muscle and didn’t bother wasting my precious family and friend time in NY washing clothes; I’d do that in Havana and serve up another gotcha! to all airport personnel who deigned to inspect the contents of my luggage.

You see where this is going?

I got home, hugged the dog, and unpacked a small – teeny, really, so as not to overwhelm her – load of dirty laundry into the machine. As it did its thing, I began extracting from my luggage all the teas, spices, shoes, small electronics, feminine products, vitamins and the rest of the pacotilla with which I always travel: every trip Cuban friends and family give me a list of things they need but can’t get here (currently I’m procuring: baby bottles; children’s NyQuil; a lint brush; a motherboard; lubricant and coin wrappers). And guess what?! The machine worked! No frantic beeps! A proper rinse cycle! It was extraordinarily satisfying – $130 CUC satisfying, I’d say.

Fast forward two days. Another night spent alone washing little towels. As I was counting my blessings, the evil beeps started. The rinse cycle didn’t. I was peering again into little towel-soap soup. My knees and resolve to work with this guy weakened: I just don’t have the energy to interface with Yoyi again – in spite of the year guarantee. But when I do, I’m not going to bring him my machine for a third time. Instead, I’m going to bring all my NY Irish to bear and open that can-of-whup-ass all over him and his private sector business. Stay tuned.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Trilingual in English, Cuban and (Now) Dog

Dependent, smelly, costly and often filthy (all that butt sniffing/rolling around in dead things?!), flea-bitten, tick-ridden, and prone to humping whatever they can get their legs around – can you tell I’m not a dog person? They’re such a burden, nothing like their haughty, independent feline counterparts who you can leave with a bowl of kibble for days while you go off the grid and they’ll ration it, killing birds or rodents once it runs out. So no, I’m not too keen on dogs, but now I’m in deep – over my head deep. More proof that the universe is conspiring against me…

Two days before my 45th birthday, a stray dog wandered into Cuba Libro. Like I needed something breathing-eating-shitting extra to stress about. Within a day, the kids who work with me named him Toby. It was all over, I knew. I’m sure there are parents out there who know exactly what I’m talking about: once the kids you love give the flea-ridden, tick-bitten beast a name, you’re responsible, no backsies. He was awfully cute, it must be said. Adorable, to-die-for, irresistibly cute, but no one who works at Cuba Libro has the living conditions or lifestyle conducive to caring for a dependent – no matter how cute.

toby cubalibro

I was resigned to letting “Toby” live in the Cuba Libro garden, but two events changed all that. First, a friend walked in one day claiming: ‘I know this dog. He lives in my building.’ This seemed more than a bit far-fetched: Ariel lives in 10 de Octubre – at the other extreme of sprawling Havana – and besides, dogs are to some humans what Yuma are to some Cubans: they all look alike. But when Ariel picked up the phone and said, “señora, your dog is here in Vedado,” and she responded, “Oh! That’s not my dog. It’s my son’s. He’s doing his military service, but I’ll tell him” I knew this wasn’t a simple case of mistaken identity. An hour or two later, young buck Carlos showed up and was plastered with wet kisses by “Jason”. It was obvious the dog had once known and loved this fellow. But with nowhere to place Jason when he went into his military service, Carlos let loose the dog into Havana’s mean streets. As you may imagine, I thought Carlos an ass – not only had he given his dog a dumb dog name (J is pronounced H in Spanish), but he’d abandoned the animal, leaving him to his own devices. I may not be a dog person, but I’m not cruel.

Savvy pup that he is, Jason-now-Toby traveled clear across the city to cross our threshold with fleas, ticks, parasites and a sad look in his amber doll’s eyes. Just like Wilbur was “Some Pig,” I started getting the feeling that Toby was “Some Dog.” But I resisted – threatening to send him to the campo (in my case, this is not a euphemism: I was actively looking to place him with a farm family in those first few weeks). As my father once observed: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus,’ something I agree with wholeheartedly and cite often.

El Coquito was born.

El Coquito was born.

Toby’s second fate-deciding event happened one stormy day after about a week of eating spaghetti and living in Cuba Libro’s makeshift doghouse (a large suitcase donated by a neighbor for this purpose). Our weekly bike polo showdown was cut short when the skies opened up and started drumming a hard, cold rain across Vedado. And I remembered there was a dog I was somehow sort of responsible for. When I went to check up on the perrito, he was huddled in a corner of the garden shivering, ears plastered back as thunder and lightening crashed all around, every hair standing on end, soaked to the roots. I haven’t got much of the maternal/pet gene (if you missed that detail), but even I couldn’t resist his vulnerability (or cuteness). So I stuffed him in my knapsack as best I could, strapped it to my chest, and pedaled home through the rain. That was five months ago and we’ve been making the 6-day a week trek between my apartment and Cuba Libro ever since. And I’ve been forced to speak ‘dog.’

There’s a bark for ‘I have to pee.’
There’s a bark for ‘I have to poop.’
There’s a bark for ‘I’m hungry/horny’ (more on that later).
There’s a bark for ‘I’m scared.’
There’s a bark for ‘someone is at the door.’

As far as I can tell, it’s all the same damn bark. Thankfully I have a professional interpreter in Amaya who is Toby’s co-mother. She’s more than a dog whisperer: she’s a dog witch who anticipates his needs and directs his energies in a way I admire and hope to learn. Some things I’ve come to understand, like the one, two, three turns alternated with sniffs that I’ve dubbed the ‘doody dance.’ Meanwhile, standing on two hind legs and hugging me with the front two while he mews means ‘I missed you!’ But the other conversational pieces? They’re lost on me.

And as cute and adaptable and sociable as this dog is, he lived in the streets for at least 6 months we figure, and I wonder: what was his life like before? What mental and emotional baggage is he carrying from his previous life/lives? Deconstructing Toby’s personality isn’t helped by his slew of nicknames, different ones invoked depending on whom is addressing him and under what circumstances. At turns he is: Toby, El Tobito, The Tobes, Tobias Maximus, Tobito El Coquito (Toby the Little Coconut), Toby the Tuffy, El Peluche (The Stuffed Animal), El Macho, El Guapo, Ese Perro Toby, and Bipolar. This last arose after we caught him staring at walls, barking at dust and chasing his tail in an over-the-top, manic manner.

Beyond the communication problems, having a dog in Havana (something I never thought I’d be experiencing or writing about) is a challenge. Strays and pets (many trained to guard and attack) can be ferocious and we’ve taken to walking him armed with sticks and rocks after several run ins; dog food is sold, but only at very select stores and boutiques reserved for the super rich, so dog food has to be purchased and cooked almost daily (The Tobes is on a diet of rice and liver, with a little pizza and cake thrown in every so often because he’s too cute to resist 100% of the time); and Cubans are rabidly anti-neutering.

Little did I know that the neutering issue would kick up so much drama and debate – though given the machismo here, I should have expected it. I have to admit it’s kind of novel seeing testicles on a dog (where I come from, “fixing” pets is par for the course), especially Toby since he has the ‘one-eyed salute’ thing going on whereby his tail sticks straight up and you get a full-time, full-on view of his bunghole and junk. What’s more, he’s almost completely white, but his balls are black. When I announced my decision to fix him, citing concerns of rampant reproduction by any bitch he mounted, combined with the desire to tame his macho, aggressive tendencies, I got major pushback from all corners.

‘Why castrate him?! You’ve got the male dog. If he was a she, sure, but…’
‘It will make him fat and lazy.’
‘You can’t take away his manhood!’

When the vet came to examine Toby (yes, in Cuba, pet and people doctors make house calls), even he said it was emasculating to fix him and suggested a vasectomy instead. Doggie vasectomies?! For real? Then I learned that some pet owners up north actually have synthetic balls surgically attached to their neutered dogs. WHAT?! This was all a bit much and if you’ve seen how many neglected street dogs live in Havana, snipping him seemed like a no-brainer to me. But after 13 years here (this month!), I’ve ‘gone native’ in certain respects and I got to thinking: the vet estimates Toby to be between 1-1/2 and 2 years old. Has he ever had sex? Hard to know for sure, but likely not. Can I deny him this? Even if it’s not for pleasure, what about instinct? And do female dogs get knocked up every time they do it? What if it does make him fat and lazy? I don’t know anything about dogs and I was receiving conflicting information (if this happened to you, you’d likely hit the internet and find thousands of sites devoted to dog sex and fixing, but alas, a dial-up connection is not conducive…)

atbeachtoby

And then Dina, the dog who lives five houses up the way from Cuba Libro, went into heat. And Toby went into hysterics. He wouldn’t even run through the gate to greet Amaya and Douglas as he’d done every single work day. Instead, he’d run straight to Dina’s and pant and pace in front of her fence, planting himself there for hours with a sad, spurned suitor look on his face. ‘Just let them screw,’ you’re thinking. That’s what I was thinking, anyway. Until we learned that Dina is epileptic and El Macho could kill her with all that excitement. Which is why Toby spent many tormented days licking her swollen, red privates through the fence. ‘At least he’s getting something!’ people said. ‘Poor Dina,’ others said. ‘All she gets is oral’ (as if this were an altogether bad thing!). I thought we’d be able to ride out the horny epileptic episode until someone told me bitches stay in heat for three weeks. And Toby was going mad – like off his meds psychotic, following the owner (the owner, not even Dina, who was kept penned in for the duration) for blocks and blocks, across major intersections and trying to go into stores with her while she shopped. And she’d drag him back attached to her leg, whining and dry humping and making a fuss. So I had to leave him home a few days until it blew over.

The day we made our triumphant return to Cuba Libro, he disappeared for a bit (he has the run of the immediate neighborhood all day long) and returned, cool as a cucumber and plopped down. I swear he was smiling and I was sure he’d gotten laid. I wanted to offer him congratulations and a cigarette. Will there be little Tobies running around our little piece of Vedado soon? Maybe. And while I’m determined to get him fixed, I know his puppies would be damn cute.

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As an old friend of mine so sagely observed: Darwin was wrong. It’s not survival of the fittest; it’s survival of the cutest. And Cubans know how to survive (and keep things cute). So I’m keeping Toby.

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Havana: The Land of Big Ideas

Dear friends, family, readers new and not, informants, and detractors:

I’ve been (too) quiet here lately and for this, I apologize. It’s for worthy, horizon-broadening reasons however, and for that, I’ll never seek pardon. But enough with the ‘justificaciones’ as my friend and Havana Bike Polo champ Tomás likes to say.

To the grano:

I had this idea for a bookstore/café a couple of years ago. Like many of my ideas, it was ambitious, quirky, and against the grain. Furthermore, it was quite possibly impractical and practically (but not quite) impossible. I cooked it up slowly, adding ingredients and letting it simmer while I built momentum and strength (see note 1).

When I roped my Cuban family into it, I never imagined all the valuable experience and lessons – all the magic – we would live in the three short months since opening Cuba Libro (see note 2). And those experiences and magic were imparted and shared by some extraordinary people of all ages and genders, orientations and many nationalities, too. Being Cuba, every color of the skin spectrum has walked through our doors – another thing I love about this island. We’ve even imparted/shared with a little person (i.e. a dwarf), who had a voice delicious enough to eat – I could have talked to him all Havana day long.

In short (no pun intended), the people we’ve met and talked to, read and laughed with, are inspiring and surprising us daily.

Cuba Libro: serving up Havana's best juice!

Cuba Libro: serving up Havana’s best juice!

There’s Marta, the English teacher at the grade school across and up the street. And I do mean across and up: the school is divided between two Vedado mansions a block apart and the cute, uniformed kids are shuttled between the two – single file, hand-in-hand – a few times a day by Marta and others. When Marta came in to see about the possibility of getting some bilingual dictionaries (neither the school nor the teacher has one), we hatched a donation drive. Thanks to some folks visiting from afar, we made the first, small delivery of a few dictionaries a couple of weeks ago (see note 3).

Then there’s the guy in the orange-tinted, 70’s porn star sunglasses peddling black market coffee (see note 4), his breath perennially laced with Planchao. One morning around 11, he came in, plopped into the Adirondack chair under a palm tree, began mumbling drunkenly and nodded off. We rousted him gently and ushered him on his way. The combination between comfort and coolness at Cuba Libro is why we don’t sell any booze. If we did, we’d have people passed out in the hammocks, on the couch, the bathroom floor…

The avocado seller is another memorable character in Cuba Libro’s world. One day he saw me standing in front of the gate and asked: ‘Hey Blondie! Why’s someone as pretty as you all alone?’

‘I don’t know. I guess no one can tame the beast,’ I responded, laughing.

He sidled over with a gap-toothed smile. ‘I know how to tame the beast. Love and tenderness.’

When he saw me a couple of days later he said, ‘remember Blondie! Love and tenderness!!’

It’s still avocado season, but he hasn’t been around in a while. I miss him.

There’s the rough-around-the-edges fellow who passes by at the same time every single day pulling two boxes on a chivichana. We hear him before we see him:

‘CREMITA DE LEEEEEEEECHE!!’

‘BARRA DE GUAYABAAAAAA!!’

If you know some enthusiastic, deep-throated pregoneros, you know we can hear this sweets seller for blocks and blocks and blocks and…here he is now!

Doctors and students, parents, grandparents, expats and diplomats. They’re coming in droves. But it’s the artists – from scriptwriters to sculptors, composers to poets – keeping things frisky. We’re getting all kinds: painters, photographers, actors, costume designers, puppet makers and musicians. Some famous, all talented.

me and santi

I’ve taken a personal shine to Samuel. Red-haired, with big green eyes (a striking combination in any context, more so in Cuba), he’s a violin player who showed up at our most recent art opening. He lives in the neighborhood and was just passing by he told us. The party was in full swing, just comfortably shy of packed.

‘Would it be okay for me to play a while in the garden?’ he asked.

‘OK?! It would be phenomenal!’ I told him, blue eyes meeting green.

So he unzipped his case, grabbed his bow, tuned up, and ripped in. Samuel is 16 years old.

Then there are the little kids, many of them Cuba Libro regulars. Nikki (I’m not sure how to spell her name but given the Cuban penchant for funky, medio cheo names, this is probably close) is a handful and already a troublemaker at the tender age of eight (see note 5), but cute and charming. She’ll go far in this life.

ninas

We also have a tribe of 10-year old guapos coming in. They like to break rules, brag about fantasy conquests, and steal the condoms we offer free for the taking – but not for balloon making, which is what these kids use them for (see aforementioned fantasy conquests).

But it’s sweet, polite Jonathan, a tow-headed kid who says por favor and gracias while looking you in the eye shyly, who has won my heart. In his first year of pre-school (also across the street, but contained in one building por suerte), he came in with his grandmother Aracely a couple of months ago. Havana was still in that weird monsoon vortex where we’d get hours-long, sheets-of-water downpours every day, but that afternoon was sunny. I set Jonathan up swinging in a hammock and started talking to Aracely.

Like Cubans do, she said right out and straightaway: Jonathan is six, an only child. His mother, (Aracely’s daughter-in-law), died of a heart attack in March. She was 27. I touched Aracely’s arm and said ‘how awful.’ I told her how sorry I was. I asked after her family, after her son, after Jonathan. Her eyes went soft and moist as she confided that they were doing the best they can.

They came in a week later during another break in the rain. As Jonathan dashed for the hammock, Aracely told me: we were walking to school the other day. It was 7:30 and he was all excited, pointing as we passed by: ‘look abue! That’s where I drew with the colored chalk. In that garden. Let’s go back!’

And they’ve been in several times since. Jonathan always gets a lollipop, a box of colored chalk, and plenty of driveway-cum-canvas to draw his heart out. And Aracely always gets a cafecito on the house.

This is some of what and whom have kept me from writing lately. And that’s just fine by me.

PS – This post was ready two weeks ago but no manner of internet gymnastics/expense allowed me to post it. GRRRRRR.

Notes

1. 2011-2012 was a hell of a time for me, with great and multiple personal losses – hence the need for strength-gathering.

2. It actually started in earnest about 6 months ago when we started fixing the space up.

3. Anyone interested in donating, please drop a line to cubalibrohavana@gmail.com.

4. We don’t buy it, of course. That would be illegal. Regardless, it clogs our espresso machine. How did we discover that black market coffee clogs the machine? Don’t ask; don’t tell.

5. Not unlike another female Scorpio I know. Ahem.

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Today’s Cuba Reveal: Cuenta Propismo

I know more than a little about ‘cuento propismo,’ which in Cuba means freelancing (see note 1). I’ve been a cuenta propista writer since my grad school thesis was published and while writing is qualitatively different from slinging soggy pizzas from a Centro Habana tenement, many of the same principles apply. Tax burden and penalties; supply and demand; competitive advantage; 7-day work weeks and phantom vacations; plus a good dose of self-discipline, accountability and responsibility all come in to play when you’re your own boss. You also need to hone or have a knack for selling your product.

Here in Havana, where small businesses are sprouting like zits on a teenager, the learning curve is steep. Marketing is largely limited to twinkly lights, decals, and flyers and it’s not uncommon to see half a dozen or more cafeterias selling the same greasy grub on a single block. To date, over 400,000 people have solicited licenses to run or work at private businesses (tellingly, statistics released by the government fail to mention how many of these businesses have closed or failed since the licenses became available), the majority for food sales, preparation and services. It’s an experiment in market capitalism unfolding as I write this and it’s changing the face and feel of the city.

Some of the transformations are good, others are bad, and a few are ambiguous – for now anyway. Like a ‘sleeping shrimp,’ I’ve been swept along, but Havana is starting to feel vastly different for both individual and societal reasons and whenever I get this ‘oh shit, the roller coaster is about to dip and bank’ foreboding, I know it’s time to write about it.

Because I’m consciously, doggedly trying to emphasize the positive, I’ll start out with the good changes first.

The Good

More choice – For too long, Cubans have had to settle for what was available, when and if it was available. This is a result of severe scarcity on a national scale, for reasons well known (see note 2), coupled with centralized control of every sector of the economy. Today, you can choose from where you buy (state or private) and from whom – a friend, neighbor, family member, the muchacha you have a crush on, or the little old man trying to make ends meet. Both purveyors and consumers are still learning about how competition combines with supply and demand to drive choice, but at least now there is a choice – for those who can afford it (more on this under ‘The Bad,’ later).

Higher quality goods and services – The quick learners fast realized that they needed to provide quality products and services if they were going to survive. The savviest of Havana’s new small business owners – many from the Diaspora returning to the island to get a jump on the post-socialist Gold Rush – provide guarantees for their services and inculcate in their staff the philosophy that the customer is always right (not an easy feat in the Independent Republic of Saben lo Todo). On the consumer end, Cubans are starting to appreciate the value of paying more for higher quality – in other words, ‘you get what you pay for’ is starting to take hold.

Greater control and room to breathe/dream – One of the benefits to all this private enterprise – as intangible and unquantifiable as it may be – is that people working in the cuenta propista sector feel they have a modicum of control over their lives and destinies. This isn’t very practical in the state sector where the rule of thumb is ‘we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us (a pittance),’ and decisions can be made without explanation and seem absurdly arbitrary as a result. Striking out on your own, meanwhile, takes courage, fortitude, and a semblance of vision; how you dream your future can’t be arbitrary. It’s particularly nebulous, this ‘dare to dream’ benefit of the new economy, but I think it’s one of the critical changes we’re undergoing here. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of 20-somethings lately and this craving to ‘create your own reality’ is especially relevant to them. Working in the private sector puts money in their pocket – decent money, often for the first time – and habilitates dreams of how to spend it, teaches them to budget and save, and plants the seed that if you work hard, you’ll have the means to make bigger dreams a reality (see note 3).

Now The Bad…

Haves vs Have Nots – All those choices and quality goods, not to mention that entrepreneurial get-up-and-go? It’s only available to those already with the means. Sure, the government has started providing small business loans, but what’s really driving the new economy is that part of the population with the money to buy what’s on offer, invest in a great idea, or renovate a killer location for their new venture. Examples abound: fancy private gyms and spas; lounges a la London or New York serving $25 highballs; multi-bay car washes; and dog boutiques (yes, you read that right). And on the consumer end, we have ‘tweens with the latest iPhones, packed 3-D movie theaters, even paintball at $10 a pop. It’s the classic burgeoning middle class, but for every giddy kid with a new tattoo he’ll surely regret (I know of what I speak!), there’s a sad-eyed child wanting one of the fancy pastries in the window and an angry youth playing soccer barefoot. While I hardly register the flashy moneyed folks, each grim-faced granny and struggling single mother sticks with me. And I’m seeing more and more of them these days.

Life on fast forward – It’s amazing how slow, lethargic Havana has picked up speed of late. New cars hightail it through residential backstreets as if kids weren’t playing there; cafeteria patrons drum the counter top saying ‘I’m in a rush, hustle it up’; and ‘time is money’ is taking root as an economic/life concept. The digital boom fuels this and while I’ll be the first to champion faster internet, I worry the day will come (for some it’s already here), when we no longer make the time to spend time with the ones we love. I have to admit I’ve been guilty of this from time to time.

Prices are outrageous – Since the free(ish) market is brand new, charging ‘what the market will bear’ is being taken to absurd new heights. Agricultural cooperatives charge 10 pesos for four plantains (just a year or two ago these cost half this or less), while young men with bad hair charge 10 CUC for fixing a cell phone on the fritz; total labor: 15 minutes, meaning they make in a quarter hour what many make in a month. Service-based businesses are especially guilty and often don’t post prices, preying on the desperation of the customer who needs their phone fixed/car washed/business cards printed. I actually had this happen recently and when I took the guy to task, he said: ‘next time I’ll tell you the price beforehand’ (see note 4). I let him know there wouldn’t be a next time because I would be taking my business to the (more transparent) competition.

Key items go missing – When products suddenly disappear from store shelves here, we say they’re perdidos – lost or missing. And many things are missing of late since private restaurants and the general population shop at the same stores. This is a real point of contention for cuenta propistas who (rightfully) complain that they have to buy all their materials at retail prices, heavily compromising their profit margin. For the rest of us, certain items are increasingly hard to find – coffee, butter, cheese, toilet paper – as they get snatched up by restaurateurs stocking their larders. This creates even more societal friction and deepens the rift between the haves and have nots.

I don’t know how The Good and The Bad will eventually shake out, but I think we’d all be wise to buckle up because I predict The Bad is bound to get Worse. On the positive tip, there are a whole lot of creative, resourceful, intelligent and determined forces being released and connected right now which I admire. Whatever happens, you can bet I’ll be writing about it. Until then…

Notes

1. The literal translation is ‘by one’s account’ and in today’s changing Cuba refers to all small businesses from grannies selling bras and barrettes to Olympic stars running chic, expensive bars. These small business endeavors are permissible under what’s known in English as the Economic and Social Policy Development Guidelines, which began to take effect about two years ago.

2. Namely, the US blockade, the collapse of the Socialist bloc and ensuing Special Period, scarce resources in general and mismanagement.

3. As I write this, an email arrives in my inbox with this bit: “follow your dreams is sometimes a bit of a load of crap since your dreams don’t always pay the rent”. So far, so (pretty) good following my dreams, but point taken.

4. My bad for not asking the price ahead of time, but I needed the service provided desperately.

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