Tag Archives: cuba libro

Travel to Cuba, Trump Style

I’ve got some shit to get off my chest so best buckle up. Pour a stiff one, bust out the vape or tuck in with a nice, hot chai – whatever helps you chill and focus.

A lot has been written about Trump’s “new” regulations regarding “legal” travel to Cuba for US citizens and residents. The long and short of it? ALL of you can still come to Cuba. Please share this link; together we might be able to cut through the scare tactics and “alternative facts” floating about. Unfortunately, the scare tactics work, no matter that – I repeat – ALL of you can still come to Cuba.

And while for many of you this may be an abstract policy affecting a faraway land, for us, it’s human suffering on a national scale. It’s small businesses, once thriving, now shuttered. It’s families going hungry(ier). It’s hopes and horizons dashed. It’s exposure to new ideas (on both sides) now censored.

Some people are still coming to Cuba, but often, it ain’t pretty. What follows are all recent experiences we’ve had at Cuba Libro:

The “Influencers”: You know who you are. Perhaps you don’t know what you are, so I’m here to “bell the cat” as we say. Vapid. Banal. Opportunistic. You’ve heard about Cuba Libro on the news; you’ve seen our scene on social media; you’ve verified that we’re among the top 5 things to do on TripAdvisor; and you realize we’re one of the most authentic, chill places in town. So you come in, talk to no one, rebuff our friendly staff and snap some photos. You exit. You’ve experienced nothing. You’ve contributed nothing (your influence isn’t quite what you’ve been led to believe). You’ve missed the point – of Cuba Libro specifically and Cuba in general. Uncool.

The Cheapskates: We see it every day. You lounge in our garden, reading, drawing, meeting new people, petting Toby. You’ve pumped us for useful information – where to eat, where to dance, how to connect, how to get around. You’ve enjoyed the best/cheapest cortadito in town, while swinging in a hammock with the dulcet tones of Billie Holiday or the deep grooves of Cimafunk as soundtrack. After a couple of hours, you request the check, are charged 90 cents and pay with 1 CUC (or a 20 bill – happens all the time. We’re not a bank people.) That 10 cents change? It goes right into your pocket. As one of our veteran barristas observed: Do they think Tip is a town in China? Also uncool.

The Insulters: You are cousins to The Cheapskates, but take it to a new level. Witness a Certain US Tourist from Last Week: she rolled up in a classic car and nary looked askance at our friendly server’s offer of a menu (in this case, me).

‘I have my driver waiting,’ she said with a wave of her hand. Instead of relaxing with a refreshment, she asked if we sold ‘knick knacks.’

I explained that our strength is coffee and literature, but I showed her the pins made by a local artist that we have for sale. Something you can’t find anywhere else and made with creativity and care. I told her the price for each pin – $3CUC. She looked them over. She hemmed. She hawed.

‘We have some others in the office. I can get them if you like.’ I offered her a seat and spread out the other pins. She looked them over. Some had become rusted and spotted, victims of our oppressive humidity.

‘If you like one of those, I can sell them to you at cost – $2CUC. This is what we pay the artist.’

She fingered several. She hemmed. She hawed. ‘I like these,’ she said, indicating two. ‘Can’t you sell them to me cheaper?’

‘?!?!?!?!’

‘I’m sorry but $2CUC is what they cost us.’

She left in a huff.

The Abhorrent/Entitled: She strode in, butt cheeks peeking out from her too-short denim shorts and made a beeline for the living room couch.

‘How many CUC should I get for US dollars?’ she asked in rapid-fire Stateside English.

The four young Cubans enjoying their coffee exchanged glances during the ensuing awkward silence.

‘Eh, ah….’ one said, no one with sufficient English to answer.

I turned from shelving books to help out, quoting the official USD-CUC rate.

‘Oh! You speak English! Where can we get beef here? Or chicken? It’s all pork, pork, pork.’

I directed LaTonya (my pseudonym for this fauna) to the fried chicken joint around the corner. She thanked me but not before asking me about ‘that alley where there’s all kind of art and religion and stuff;’ this is Latonya’s second trip to Cuba to ‘buy cheap art and sell it for a lot of money in Amerika.’

Before heading off for some pollo chifla’o and Callejón de Hamel, she decided to sit in our little copse at the entrance – ‘the jungle’ in Cuba Libro parlance – to have a cool something to drink. I asked Alfredo to give her a menu and resumed my conversation with Maria Teresa at the dining room table. After a beat or three, Alfredo walks in, throws the menus down in front of us and declares: ‘I’m not serving her. Sorry, but that’s just disgusting!’

‘?!?!?!?!’

Maria Teresa and I give him the ‘WTF happened?’ look.

‘That girl just hawked up a ball of phlegm, leaned over and spit it at the entrance to the café. Not in the bushes or a plant – she’s only surrounded by them! – but right where people walk in. Not once, but twice. Who DOES that? I’m not serving people like that.’

‘All right. I’ll handle it. Not to worry.’

‘You’re so Zen right now!’ Maria Teresa, who knows me well, observed.

‘Yeah. I don’t know what’s come over me today.’ In reality, what was I going to do? To clean up that public health threat, I had to bust out the bucket and broom and swab down the entire entrance, right where she was sitting. I’d do it once she left.

Maria Teresa and I continued our conversation while Charlie whipped up LaTonya’s frappuccino. I served the drink and returned to the table. Talking to Maria Teresa about our next special event (Cafe Trivia Thursdays, she’s the Coordinator), I catch a movement out of the corner of my eye.

It’s LaTonya exiting the bathroom and cutting through the kitchen where Charlie is preparing another frappuccino.

If you’ve never been to Cuba Libro, let me explain that the kitchen shortcut is a) totally verboten – do you waltz into kitchens in other establishments? and b) really uncomfortable since there’s only room for two people (or three, if you’re like us, like family) in the very narrow NYC-style galley kitchen. But this lacra walks right in, grabs a cup off the drying rack, jams her hand into the bag of ice Charlie is manipulating to make the next order and grabs a fistful of ice. This is a person, you’ll recall, who has no compunction about spitting balls of phlegm inside a business and right in the path of patrons – AND has just exited the bathroom. We’re guessing she’s not a meticulous post-piss hand washer…He immediately threw out that bag of ice.

More ‘WTF?!’ looks go ‘round, this time with Charlie joining in.

Before finally departing, LaTonya shattered the frappuccino glass (accidents happen, but hell, girl) and paid for her beverage in US quarters – totally useless here since they can’t be changed in banks. And just our luck! She’s staying right up the block. Fortunately, on subsequent visits, she took her drinks to go. We were more than happy to oblige.
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Let me be clear that not all visitors are like these –we recently hosted an amazing quintet from Dallas (thanks for the donations and the tip, Randy and crew!); a family from Oregon in the care of Soltura Travel; some kindly queer folk from Canada; and more. And we need people coming to Cuba, no doubt about it. I commend those that do.

But to all the Influencers, Insulters, Cheapskates, and Abhorrent/Entitled travelers out there, here’s some advice for when you come to Cuba/Cuba Libro:

– Treat people you meet with respect;
– Experiential travel is much richer and more rewarding than its voyeuristic counterpart;
– When you’re hosted at someone’s home or business, treat it as you would your own; and
– Tip your servers, damnit! We don’t live on air and good humor alone.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban economy, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Periodo Especial: The Sequel?!

I don’t know how the Special Period felt coming on, but I do know how it manifested once in full swing. Transport was so scarce and overcrowded, passengers lunged from bus windows at their stop or simply rode on the roof, hung from the door frame or clung to the back bumper.

Each and every day, the entire island was plunged into darkness; blackouts were so long and common, Cubans, plumbing their deep well of ironic optimism, began referring to ‘light ups,’ those times when there actually was electricity. So few and far between were those electrified hours, neighborhood block parties were held in the street, around a bonfire with a jug of rum (or more often moonshine known as ‘chispa‘e tren/baja tus bloomers’).

Toilet paper was non-existent – we used water or more often, pages ripped from the Granma newspaper. In many homes, squares the size of real TP were cut from the paper and stacked neatly atop the toilet tank. I wasn’t too put off by this. As a life-long camper, I’ve wiped my butt with all manner of material. Nevertheless, I do remember my shock at seeing Che’s face, shit-stained and crumpled, staring up at me from the bathroom wastebasket. It seemed blasphemous then but practical and normal thereafter – in dire/adverse circumstances, you do what you gotta do to survive.

And Cubans did.

They pedaled the 1 million Chinese bikes imported as transport of last resort. They fried “steaks” from grapefruit rinds, they fanned infants for hours with a piece of cardboard during stagnant summer nights. They lost weight, some suffering a neuropathy epidemic for lack of nutritious food. They rigged up kerosene burners for cooking and fashioned homemade matches. They struggled and suffered, finding solace in family, days swimming at El Espigon and nights stretching out on the Malecon. They danced, sang and fucked. They persevered and survived…

Flash forward to 2019. We’re in a different historical moment, a different context than the one I experienced in 1993, but the effects of the Special Period linger, if you know where to look. Not wanting their kids to ever go hungry like they did, parents indulge appetites to the point where child obesity and overweight are current health problems. Bicycles and cycling are stigmatized, reminding people too viscerally of those hard times. Today, hoarding happens and some still prefer newspaper to toilet paper.

The cleverness of Cubans and their deep stores of creativity and inventiveness honed during the Special Period are constantly on display. You see it in the 70-year old Harley-Davidsons zooming down the road, parts hand-hewn in cluttered, greasy garages across the island. You see it in the Russian washing machines cannibalized to make lawn mowers, blenders and coconut shredders. You see it in the burgeoning upcycle movement where the experience of struggle is translated into décor and dollars.

But no one, I mean no one wants to go through that again. And I highly doubt as many Cubans who tolerated it then would now – at least not in Havana. Make no mistake: Cuba learned its lesson from the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which sent the dependent island economy into a tailspin. It diversified, it liberalized, and it looked for and forged alternatives. But we’re seeing signs, folks. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. And it’s worrying.

Indeed, the most violent factor was – and is – beyond Cuban control: the nearly 60-year old US embargo cripples all economic and social development in one way or another. And last week the Trump Administration announced it’s considering enacting Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. I’ll leave a full explanation to the economists and wonks, but the important point is: as in 1996, during the deepest days of the Special Period, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton pounced on Cuba’s vulnerability and pushed this Act through Congress “to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.” Sensing that same vulnerability like a lioness stalking the weakest of the pack, Marco Rubio is exacting his quid pro quo with Donald Trump via Cuba and Title III.

It’s abominable how this administration is destroying lives at home and abroad. It’s no less shameful how supposed political detractors enable this cabal. Please, anyone in a policy/decision-making position reading this: do the world (and yourselves) a favor and grow some balls/ovaries; history will judge you and you will NOT be absolved.

Unfortunately, I doubt anyone reading this is making US policy. I also doubt that many people reading this realize just how vulnerable right now feels. Major trading partners and allies including Venezuela and Brazil are on the ropes. Trump rhetoric is scaring away investors and tourists. The embargo is still in place and we’ve suffered Hurricane Irma, Sub Tropical Storm Alberto, a devastating plane crash and a tornado, all in the past 18 months.

And we’re feeling it.

There was a massive flour shortage and though we are once again enjoying flour and pizza, there is neither milk (terrible for Cuba Libro) nor eggs. These latter were dubbed salvavidas in the Special Period days because eggs are a cheap, easy-to-prepare source of protein. They were, and are, ‘lifesavers.’ In the past three months, I’ve eaten a total of half a dozen eggs; it used to be a daily (or even twice a day) affair. Monthly egg rations have been cut in half to five per person, per month and when they do appear in stores, customers are limited to two cartons of 36 eggs each. But this is Cuba…

This week, my friend Camilo got word that eggs were being sold at the Plaza de Marianao. He made the trek across town and took his place in the long line. He watched people carting away 6, 7, 10 or more cartons of eggs. The stack for sale behind the crumbling counter shrank. He surmised the egg sellers were paid off to ignore the two-carton rule. The sun beat down, the stack shrank, Camilo was sweating from the heat and attendant low-level panic. Would the eggs hold out until his turn came around? He had waited in line already for two hours. The stack shrank. He asked one of the customers pulling a dolly away with over 400 eggs if he would sell a carton?

‘!Hombre no! This is for my private cafeteria. I need every last one.’

The eggs ran out and Camilo left empty handed. Mad and desperate, he went to a cafeteria near his house to order two egg sandwiches, hold the bread, hold the oil, hold the making of it. When he discovered that same sandwich which used to cost 35 cents, now costs 75, he slumped home egg-less. Today we’re scrambling to procure eggs for Jenny’s grandmother who, ailing and frail, has been prescribed a special diet by her doctor, including two eggs a day. So far we’ve been unsuccessful.

Then there’s the cooking oil situation. Shortages nationwide mean customers are only allowed two bottles per person. To procure those two precious bottles, you have to travel to the store that has it (lucky you if it’s actually in your neighborhood) and spend hours on line under a blistering sun just like my egg-less friend Camilo. As a result, many people I know spent this past weekend rendering chicken and pork fat so they won’t get caught (too) short.

Shortages of flour, eggs, oil – this post was simmering in my overworked brain for a bit but didn’t come to fruition until last night when the smell of gasoline permeated my living room. I emerged from the egg-less, flour-less kitchen (we don’t fry much and our current bottle of oil is a month old and still half-full) to see what was up. Twenty liters of premium gas now sits in a tank in said living room because people see the writing on the wall: gas hoarding has officially begun.

Blackouts are happening too – not as long or as often as I experienced in 1993, but worrisome still. And the economy overall is showing signs of serious distress. Last year the national economy grew a meager 1% and projections for this year are similar.

We may not be headed for a Second Special Period, but things feel tense as we plod through this year, Havana’s 500th anniversary.

Happy Birthday, ciudad querida. I hope smoother sailing awaits.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Cuba Libro – In Peril?

I’ve always had an inkling, but now I know up close and personally why people shun and malign journalists. This new knowledge is particularly ironic given the fact that I’ve been a full-time, accredited journalist here in my adopted home for more than 15 years. I would say my recent experience was also particularly instructive if it hadn’t been so damaging – I have to douse smoldering fires before I can fully learn the lesson provided by recent events.
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One Cuba Libro phenomenon (among many!) which taxes our team and especially me personally, is the random, drop-in journalist. Normally, these are foreign correspondents, some with exceptional, deep experience around the world, in war zones even, who come to me in a panic, behind schedule, deadline looming, fairly pleading with me to provide story ideas, contacts, leads and the like. More often than not, they don’t speak Spanish, further complicating matters. Always they underestimate the difficulties of reporting from Cuba. They may or may not have the proper visa. These types of unexpected visitors spike when there’s a major news story like Fidel’s illness/death; a papal visit; or constitutional referendums (happening right now, as I write this).

A flood of such reporters descended upon us when the normalization process with the US was announced in December 2014, followed by the Obama visit a few months later. To the drop-ins must be added the phone calls, emails and Facebook messages I receive requesting contacts and/or interviews with me. It saps too much time and energy truth be told.
To handle this efficiently and with a modicum of aplomb, I’ve developed filters and a triage system for these folks. The ones without journalist visas make it easy – I don’t talk to them. They’re breaking local laws. Those with an axe to grind also don’t make the cut (I’m still quite old school, believing in objectivity, accuracy and the Fourth Estate when it comes to reporting. How antiquated, right?), nor those who haven’t properly prepared. That leaves those who have the authorization, a clear idea of their angle, and the maturity and organization/preparation to warrant my help. Sounds haughty, I know, but I’ve clocked a decade and a half of in-the-trenches experience – I’m not giving that away free to just anyone.

Then there are the Cuban journalists…

The filters still apply to them but I must admit I have a soft spot for the young cub reporters with bright ideas and insatiable drive. Everyone needs a hand when starting out and unless they’re really off the rails or egregiously misrepresenting reality (including by omission), I will sit down and talk to them.

Which brings me to the subject of this post.

It wasn’t the first interview I granted to El Toque. Staffed by young Cuban journalists, this is a locally-produced, non-state news site. It has its flaws. And it’s on a learning curve. A steep one. But when they approached me to talk about Cuba Libro’s green initiatives for a series on the environment they were publishing, I was game. Encouraged even – Cuba has made strides in environmental protection since I moved here, though I see egregious digressions every day still. If you’ve been here, you’ve seen them too. So I sat down with fulana (Cuban for Jane Doe – I honestly don’t know her name) and gave her an overview of our policies and practices promoting environmental protection.

I never saw the resulting article. Along with thousands of Cubans, my internet connection is via 28.8 dial up. I don’t have the time (or inclination) to spend an hour accessing everything written about me, my writing, or Cuba Libro.

My bad.

When fulana crossed our threshold last month requesting an interview about the new regulations for private business here, I acceded. I spent an hour talking to her about how we’ll comply and how it’s likely to affect our business model.
This time I didn’t need to tax my paltry dial-up looking for the article.

The Cuba Libros Literary Café [sic] (at least its essence) will disappear on December 7, 2018, when a “series” of new regulations for private business owners come into effect.”

This was the lede, mind you. The piece, published in Spanish, picked up by other outlets and translated into English, went viral. I was bombarded by messages, Facebook queries, phone calls and walk-ins lamenting our closure.

The “journalist” (yes, the quotes are necessary) or editors cut everything I said about long, official meetings to figure out how to remain true and legal to our mission. She cut the explanation about exploring alternatives with the Ministry of Culture and related entities to keep offering superior coffee and English-language literature – what Cuba Libro has been doing since 2013. She failed to mention our community-building and robust, free cultural programming and how we intended to not just maintain it, but grow it. Nor did she include our donation programs, our free condom initiative (17,000+ given away to date), or our ethically- and socially-responsible philosophy which includes profit sharing and collective decision making. She did, however, include a damning quote from a supposed regular who opined that without books, Cuba Libro would be just another generic cafe. No one who works at or frequents the cafe recognized the guy quoted and calling him a regular? Puhlease: all our regulars know about our social mission because they are participants – joining us on our periodic volunteer days, taking advantage of our free English classes, spontaneously planting trees and donating plants as part of our environmental stewardship, or receiving donations of pre-natal vitamins, menstrual cups or cold and flu medicine.

It was impossible for me to contain the damage while the article was posted and re-posted across the World Wide Web in both languages. My internet is too slow, my real work too pressing. Nevertheless, little by little I responded to emails questioning the impending closure of Cuba Libro. Again, I employed triage, posting a response on the most trafficked websites. I clarified the situation on our Facebook page. But weeks on, we’re still experiencing the adverse effects. Our book donations have slowed to a trickle. A customer came in the other day and in a disrespectful manner not uncommon to men (mostly) of a certain age from the developed north, ranted at me, asking me offensive, invasive questions about the economics of Cuba Libro, about why we were closing, about my origins, about my personal life.

“Are you a LESBIAN?!” he fairly shouted, standing so close I could see his nose hair needed a good trimming.
“Are you bi-polar?!” I should have responded, but didn’t, instead opting to hold my tongue.

He interrupted the documentary being filmed in the living room, ignoring our whispered requests to maintain his distance. He was so insistent and disruptive that the person being interviewed had to shoo him away. He got on my last nerve, that guy.

But apparently, there was more in store. At 6pm, on my birthday, mind you, a call came in with a 305 area code. Florida. My biological father (or as my friend Peter says of his: The Sperm Donor) lives in that hell state. It crossed my mind that it might be him, but unlikely – I can’t remember the last time he recognized my birthday. But no, it was worse: a journalist from Radio Martí wanting comments about the new private enterprise regulations. Where did she get my cell phone number I wonder? Fucking El Toque, probably. I wished her a good day and hung up.

In case there remains any doubt: Cuba Libro is neither closing nor getting rid of our wonderful books. See you there one day soon.

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

Inside a Cuban Prison: Part IV

It’s dark, a bit damp, the birds aren’t awake or even singing, let alone my neighbors. I rush to make coffee and walk Toby before the horizon lightens over Vedado way. It’s 5am – too early for me, except on May Day when I shuffle to the Plaza de la Revolución with 500,000 or so others in the pre-dawn calm. But today isn’t May 1st. Today I’m returning to the Combinado to visit Miguel.

I’ve been to Havana’s biggest prison several times with Miguel’s wife Esther, but today is different: today, we’re taking their 7-year old nephew. It will be the first glimpse the kid gets of his uncle since he was put behind bars over a year and a half ago.
Today is different too because it isn’t February 12, 2014, but it feels like it. That was the day my sister was moved from the ICU to the “step down” unit. A happy, relief of a day, when she could sense release from the oppressive whoosh of machines keeping people alive, the perfunctory and invasive rounds by strange doctors and students, the tests and needle jabs and jabbering nurses. She could smell freedom but couldn’t have it – not yet. Today feels similar because after 18 months in prison, Miguel has been transferred to his own step down unit, Area Zero or el campamento, as it’s known in Cuban prison-speak.

Two days after his 34th birthday he got word. He was bullied into quickly gathering his personal effects – other convicts immediately called dibs on anything left behind, snatching at them. Suddenly, Miguel couldn’t find his flip flops or lighter, undershirts or extra pens. ‘Hurry up man! You’re going home!’ As if drinking parasite-infested water in minimum security, bent double hacking grass with a machete, torpid day after torpid day held any semblance of home. But it was closer than the hard timers would ever get and besides, the more Miguel rushed, the more he was likely to forget, which would be divvied up faster than you can say ‘life sentence.’

When he called with his ‘step down’ news, we immediately began to see flashes of the old Miguel – a discernible familiarity we’d been missing. He had much more phone time for starters, and was as loquacious as ever, talking to everyone at Cuba Libro for such long periods he would ask us to hold on while he greeted prisoner friends walking by. Now, we were the ones who said we had to go rather than in his maximum security days when he’d hang up with a brusque, heavy click followed by a hollow silence. In classic Miguel style, he was also complaining: the sun was brutal; he had open, nearly oozing sores on his machete hand; and other prisoners got five day passes – he was only due to get three, sometime in November. Coño mi hermano, we said: three whole days on the outside, sleeping in his own bed, in his wife’s arms, pissing in a bathroom with a door. It was like talking to the Miguel we knew and loved, defects and all.
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So here I am on visiting day, up before dawn making coffee for me and Miguel and walking Toby. I dress appropriately (no shorts or tank tops) and head to Esther’s house to pick her up, 7-year old Junior in tow. He’s got ants in his pants, anxious to see Miguel. He’s chipper, flashing his gap-toothed smile at the sleepy adults. It’s the same long drive to the verdant outskirts of the jail, followed by two hours waiting while they check our IDs and go through the sack of sardines, hot dogs, crackers, puffed wheat and more, item by item.

“The campamento is different, mi amor,” the guard says to Esther. “You don’t need all this food and really: you should be eating it yourself.” Esther is still woefully thin – her hip bones push sharply through her dress and as a fellow flaca, I know how grating these well-intended comments from strangers can be.

“You also shouldn’t bring it in the huge rice sack. It’s almost a kilometer to the visiting area.”

Esther looks at me and I know we’ll be sweating and flushed once they herd us onto the blazing hot road, the heavy sack sagging between us. Junior is jittery and asks us when we’re going to see Miguel as we wait in the last holding area before the long walk. There are more kids than on visiting days for the max unit, several babies in arms and a couple of very pregnant women. I assume their bulging bellies are the product of the monthly conjugal visits granted well- behaved prisoners. One mother nurses, another changes a diaper, her infant son cradled on her lap and many people chuff on filterless cigarettes. I offer my seat to an elderly woman here with multiple sons – the genetic lineage is so clear, I’m sure I’ll recognize their prisoner when we enter the visiting area. Suddenly there’s movement and everyone is crowding around the single door leading to the outside, wondering why they don’t open both.

‘TIC,’ I think. ‘This is Cuba,’ where things are often harder than they need be.

After a few hundred meters under the ferocious sun, it’s obvious we can’t carry the sack, the other big bag packed with lunch for the four of us, our purses and hold Junior’s hand all at the same time. To our relief, a stalwart visitor with a wrestler’s physique offers to carry the sack. He hefts it on his shoulder, we wipe our brows and Junior wants to know if we’re almost there. We’re not…
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Junior is doing the too-hot, too-tired two step as we approach a pavilion with a roof, crowded with prisoners lingering outside in street clothes hugging their loved ones, cuddling their babies and squinting against the sun to see if their people are making their way towards the anticipated union. And there’s Miguel, just like the old days on the outside; he’s wearing brick red Bermuda shorts, a white t-shirt and grey Vans. The only difference (besides the mental/spiritual one; more on that later) is both his head and face are shaved close – gone is his ass-length mane and goatee. Miguel was the first Havana hipster, sporting a man bun and facial hair before it was all the rage, before he was busted.

We hug fiercely (I always give Esther first dibs, of course) and Junior is wearing that blank look of non-recognition – the same face I wore when I first saw Miguel behind bars.

“It’s me Junior! It’s me!”

The kid looked up at him like, ‘you can’t fool me cowboy. You aren’t Miguel.’

But after a few more words of cariño and a full-on laugh that was unmistakably Miguel, Junior’s face lit up with that million dollar gap-toothed smile.

The street clothes make an incredible difference –here is the Miguel we know and love! I don’t know who that other guy was I visited repeatedly in his prison greys, but I was glad to be sitting across from my old friend again. As Esther dished out congrís and fried pork steaks, I took in the scene. The pavilion was open on two sides, the palm trees and some pines providing green relief and I could see straight into the prisoners’ dormitory – two long lines of bunk beds, two tiers tall. Towels and flip flops, shirts and shorts are draped and strewn about; it reminded me of summer camp. There are no guards here, only prisoners serving as guards and they too, are in street clothes. In the campamento visiting area, men and women are allowed to sit next to each other, caressing, gently cavorting. I catch more than one couple out from the corner of my eye making out, the prisoners slipping hands under skirts.

We dig into our lunch with plastic forks (another bonus of Area Zero: prisoners are allowed real cutlery, something we didn’t know that until this visit) while Miguel catches us up. He has more friends from the outside, here in the campamento – three who are serving a year sentence for having a joint. While the bathroom has a door, it’s always propped open. The food is the same (ie: shitty) but there’s more of it thanks to the prisoners here working in the kitchen. Medical care is still sporadic and getting medicines to prisoners not systematized.

Miguel is on grounds detail, meaning he wields a machete a few hours a day, beaten tired by the sun and exertion. He’s a machete virgin and has never done manual labor before. He shows us a quarter-sized patch of raw skin between his thumb and forefinger. Despite the large straw hat we’d given him the week before, he is now the technical definition of a redneck, with freckles splashed across his cheeks. He complains about the beastly sun after having been deprived of it for a year and a half. He’s upbeat and laughing, hugging and cuddling and kissing Esther and I revel being in their aura of love. More than once I avert my gaze and am ashamed to admit I didn’t leave the table and take a stroll outside; I’m sure they would have appreciated the semblance of privacy. Prison etiquette isn’t my strong suit, but I’m learning.

I do a double take at the elderly prisoner trailing a three-month old puppy doing that adorable trot-cum-dance they do. Street clothes; metal utensils; a bathroom door; a puppy – semblances of real, outside life. It was intoxicating.

It was also exhausting. At one point Miguel says: ‘let’s slow the roll on this conversation. All the information overwhelms me a little.’ It’s true we’ve covered a lot of ground – details of the penal and sentencing systems; proposed constitutional reforms; and plans for his first weekend pass in November. I change the subject.

“Hey! Let me see your tattoo!”

When Esther told me he got his body inked for the first time, I fairly gasped. It wasn’t so much the design that worried me – prison tats can be decent and besides, we know several kick ass ink artists who could resolve any bad tattoo. What worried me were the health and hygiene implications. I especially wanted to know what they used for ink. It wasn’t pretty: Miguel’s tattoo (and many others happening right now, as I type this) was done with the melted plastic handles of blue disposable razors, the plastic burnt to liquid onto a piece of paper, scraped up and mixed to the right consistency with I don’t remember what; I stopped listening at ‘melted plastic.’ He raises his arm, palm up to show me his inner bicep. It was surprisingly well-lettered, spaced and placed. I stare at it a beat longer than normal.

“Is it right?”

YOU HAVE ONLY ONE LIFE TO LIVE. DON’T LET THEM BREACK YOU.

I loved the message, but the writer in me cringed. Or as my friend Peter says: it made my eyes bleed.

My gift to Miguel on his weekend pass? A trip to Zenit Tattoo.

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Inside a Cuban Orphanage

If you know me, you know I get terribly bored (and sometimes in trouble) if I’m not learning anything new. If you know my writing, you know that one of the things I love about Cuba is that I’m learning new things all the time. It’s stimulating, humbling – an eternal education, vaya. A recent experience was particularly educational when Cuba Libro, together with our family of Harlistas Cubanos, paid a visit to the Guanabacoa orphanage.

orphanage

Here’s what I learned:

1) In Cuba, orphanages are not called orfanatos like in other parts of the Spanish-speaking world. Here, they’re called casas de niños sin amparo filial (literally children without family protection; more proof that Cubans are masters of euphemism. This is something I knew from my days volunteering here during the ‘Special Period in A Time of Peace,’ – how Cubans refer to total economic catastrophe);

2) In Cuba, these children aren’t called orphans. They’re called niños de la patria (how’s that for euphemism?);

3) There are some very dedicated, loving and compassionate people working in this sector (all are women at this particular orphanage, something I suspect is par for the course across the country);

orphanage5

4) I knew before this visit that there are few orphanages in Cuba (thanks to a variety of factors, including free, safe abortions), but I learned this weekend that the most common reasons children end up here are: neglect, their parents are in jail or addicted to drugs or they’re abandoned outright;

5) Orphanages in Cuba are divided by age – there are orphanages for infants who are still breast feeding, others for children from 1-1/2 to 11 years old; and others for kids 12 to 18;

6) Some children arrive at orphanages having never seen a doctor – despite Cuba’s free, universal health system. A 5-year old boy at the Guanabacoa orphanage, for example, arrived with an undiagnosed degenerative childhood disease. His muscles will atrophy until he dies, before reaching adulthood. He’s now receiving appropriate medical attention, but his is a bleak diagnosis. In addition to full medical care, the government provides these children with food, clothing, beds and linens, soap and toothpaste (a bar and tube, respectively, for each child every month), school uniforms, and a monthly stipend;

orphanage4

7) Every opportunity to place orphans with foster or adoptive families is investigated and made. Although the process is incredibly long and arduous, requiring all kinds of background checks, character testimonies, home visits, and documentation, several of the 20 children at the orphanage we visited were with their foster families for the weekend. Additionally, one 4 year-old girl was with her adoptive family which was finalizing her adoption;

8) The chance to visit the Guanabacoa orphanage and learn how all of this works in Cuba was possible thanks to a donation initiative by Havana Harley-Davidson riders and Cuba Libro. Most Here is Havana readers already know about Cuba Libro’s robust, targeted donation programs but this was our first donation to an orphanage. We’re incredibly thankful to have friends and family among these generous bikers who provided the opportunity to learn what orphanages most need in Cuba:
– infant and boys’ and girls’ clothes;
– sneakers and shoes;
– washcloths and shower scrubbies (caretakers are prohibited from having skin-to-skin contact with the children); and
– white knee socks – part of the official school uniform.
Thanks to this initial donation (organized by our Donation Coordinator, Yenlismara), Cuba Libro will be continuing to support the wonderful staff and children at this orphanage. If you would like to participate in this or other donation programs administered by Cuba Libro, please drop us a line;

orphanage2

9) The last thing I learned was the provenance of this house – a mansion really, with multiple gardens, a pool and Jacuzzi, three-car garage and so many bedrooms I lost count. Several years ago, an official police video made the rounds (you can get the new fuzz reels every week from any little storefront business selling the paquete) about a massive bust in Guanabacoa. The video showed all manner of ill-gotten goods – including eight cars, gold and jewels, appliances, electronics, the works. They even found bricks of cocaine stashed around – it was really some Cops Miami type shit. The culprit? A half-assed Cuban rapper wanted in the United States for a giant Medicare scam which fleeced boatloads of money from the federal program. I had never heard of Gilbert Man before I saw the video, nor after – until we were preparing the kids’ donations. Turns out that after he was caught, charged, sentenced to 17 years and imprisoned, the Cuban government converted his house into this orphanage. Upon visiting and beholding the f-ugly furniture, gold and brown brocade drapes, god awful porcelain vases and gilded mirrors, I learned that Gilber Man may have been (temporarily) rich, but had perennially bad taste.

I also learned that wonderful things can be sown from nefarious seeds and soil.

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Who the Hell Am I? A Confession

A Californian passing through Cuba Libro recently asked me if I felt more American or Cuban after 16 years in residence. The question, though common, sort of blindsided me; these types of existential/identity inquiries are interesting, but of little use when you’re a journalist on deadline, finishing two books and keeping a small business afloat. I hadn’t thought about my identity in these terms in a long time.

That was my first clue about how distanced I’ve become from my birth culture: people on that side of the Straits are spending way too much (misdirected) time and energy on identity politics.

But because I have the nagging sense that I’m at some kind of turning point (or point of no return – like if I don’t rein in this Cuban-ness, I soon won’t recognize myself at all), I eked out a moment from my chaotic work schedule to consider her question.

Maybe this is why I didn’t bristle and correct her when she asked if I felt more Cuban or American. Before, I would have quickly observed (with a nearly audible sneer, I confess), that every one of us, from Canada to Tierra del Fuego, are ‘Americans’ but I let it slide. Before, I would have delivered one of my pat answers – ‘depends on which day you ask’ or ‘a decent mix of both.’ But when she asked, I stopped to consider her question carefully because I realized I’m feeling pretty confused lately.

How the hell, after 16 years here can I still be confused? If you know something about Cuba, you probably understand.

I think it’s due in part to the recent historic elections here, in which I was invited to vote. It turned out to be a bureaucratic mix-up (I have no right to vote) but it stopped me short. Wait. Elections? Cuba? Electoral college? Veneer of democracy? Where am I? Who am I? Am I experiencing a shift in my core values?

After so much time here, I talk with my mouth full and have zero problem conversing about menstruation in mixed company. The first is an embarrassment and really poor form, I know, but the latter makes me proud. Just today I heard a piece on NPR about birth control and how some US women aren’t comfortable telling their doctors that their birth control is killing their sex drive. This is absurd, counter-productive and one of the many ways in which women are complicit in the misogynist construct: having body shame about completely natural parts and functions (menstruation, vaginas, uteri, orgasms, etc) does us all damage. This type of neurosis I definitely left behind in the US and am glad I did – especially once I had my first pap smear in Cuba. The lovely doctor took a long drag on a filter-less cigarette clamped between her gloved fingertips, flicked the butt expertly out the window and said ‘ok, honey! Feet in the stirrups.’ Sex toys, condom use, hemorrhoids, HIV – it’s all part of the conversation here.

SHOUTING! Through closed doors, from the balcony, across the hall, down the block, over impossibly loud music – Cubans are very loud and I’ve totally adopted the habit. Make no mistake: I arrived here half deaf from too much rock n roll, plus I’m the product of a boisterous NY family where to be heard or get a word in edgewise, interrupting and volume give you an advantage. But there’s loud for practical strategy and there’s loud as rude; I fear I’m entering into Cuban-loud (ie rude) territory.

I’m not talking about when we’re shouting at each other for sport and play, that kind of intellectual sparring and sharing of dubiously sourced facts which is far from fighting here. No, I’m talking rude loud as in shouting across a room to get someone’s attention rather than walking over to them or carrying on a conversation at full volume when someone nearby is trying to study, nap or meditate. Note to self: tone it down.

Time management and punctuality are two US characteristics to which I cling desperately, but try not to inflict on others. Cubans are chronically late and it’s useless to get your knickers in a twist over it. Most Cubans arrive between 15 and 30 minutes late to whatever meeting, event or appointment. Plan accordingly and avoid the frustration. I made the mistake recently of criticizing my hubby for his shitty time management. We had a calm, measured and adult conversation about it. Still, hours later, I was venting to a Catalan friend of mine with many years of Havana living under his belt. “Darling, you can’t get mad at a Cuban for being Cuban. You knew shitty time management came with the package when you bought in.” Note to self: focus on the things you can change.

Sometimes Cuba and Cubans make me want to pull my hair out and I start wandering that dark, dangerous path wondering: “why do I stay here? This isn’t my lucha. These aren’t my people.” And then something like Parkland happens. And a 12-year old from Connecticut visiting Cuba Libro tells me his friend told him to buy a bullet proof vest for his Cuba trip because “they shoot people down there.” And then I realize, why yes, this is indeed my place and Cubans – loud, rude, late and unfaithful – are my people. And no one has a gun. I feel I have to share this information with the misinformed tweens of the world.

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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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