Tag Archives: cuban baseball

Conner’s Cuba Rules Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] About six months ago I wrote Conner’s Cuba Rules, a super popular post that raised the ire of some readers. Rereading my musings six months later, I better understand some of the dissent offered by commenters. Given that much has changed here in Havana since then and I’ve had several opportunities to travel outside of the capital thanks to my day job, I’ve compiled a new, hopefully more positive, set of rules to complement the first ones.

The Revolution will be televised: I’ve met a lot of visitors (and even some foreign residents) who have never seen Televisión Cubana. Granted, there are only five channels here, but you’re missing out on a big chunk of Cuban culture if you don’t surf those five at least occassionally. For the intersection of politics and journalism, check out the Mesa Redonda (see note 1) and the prime time news. The latter is important in and of itself for the weather report; pay special attention if Dr José Rubiera is forecasting. Meanwhile, a good baseball game can rivet entire households, the novela even more so. Only if you watch TV here will you understand what Cubans mean when they say: “it was like the Saturday night movie” (see note 2). Meanwhile, the music shown down here – videos, documentaries, concerts and jam sessions – can be as moving as the live thing. I’ve seen Chucho Valdés, Clapton and Queen, the Festival of Modern Drumming and some guy from Uzbekistan singing Talk Boom, a riveting song I’m still trying to track down – all in a single night on Televisión Cubana. Watch it; you’ll like it (or at least get a good laugh or song lead).

Pack a sense of humor: It always amazes me when I read something that disregards, overlooks, or otherwise fails to recognize the Cuban sense of humor, which ranges from the side splitting to the sublime. The writer can be someone who knows and loves Cuba long time or a visitor who has parachuted in and out on vacation. No matter the source, the frequency with which folks miss the funny stuff here is alarming. It’s true, a lot depends on speaking Spanish (or a crackerjack translator), but however you resolve the language question, if you’re comparing Cuba to China, Vietnam, or the defunct USSR, you’re missing one of the most important ingredients in the Cuban character. These folks love to share stories, jokes, and the occassional tall tale, and use their verbal prowess to enliven, laugh, and woo; it is what has enabled these people to resist so much for so long. Even without Spanish skills or a translator, if you’re not laughing a lot on a visit here, you’re doing something wrong in my personal and professional opinion (see note 3).

Use pesos cubanos: If you know even a little about Cuba, you know we operate on a dual currency system with pesos cubanos and pesos convertibles circulating side by side. Since one of my goals of Here is Havana is to bust myths, I always take the opportunity to debunk one of the most pervasive: that foreigners cannot use pesos cubanos (AKA Moneda Nacional, MN), but only pesos convertibles (AKA divisa, chavitos, CUC). This is 100% false. Anyone can use either currency. It’s what each can buy where the difference lies. Certain goods and services, for example, are only available in CUC including cooking oil and butter, hotel rooms and the internet. But fruits and veggies, surprisingly pleasant cigars, fixed route taxis, movie tickets and lots of other stuff are sold in pesos cubanos – if you know where to look. My advice? Change some CUCs into MN (1:24) to experience firsthand how much pesos cubanos can buy and how the double economy works.

So as to avoid confusion +/o more myths: you can always pay for goods and services priced in pesos cubanos with hard currency pesos convertibles but never the other way around. And some services (interprovincial buses, concert and ballet tickets) are sold in pesos cubanos to Cubans and residents, but in hard currency to visitors.

Bring your own reading material: Rarely a week goes by when someone isn’t griping to me about the lack of English-language books and magazines here. What is available is largely limited to historical and political titles and they are very expensive (and make for dull beach reading besides). The Kindle can be handy in this regard, but the bonus to bringing print publications is that you can pass them along to some avid English reader (like me!) upon departure. Drop me a line if you have some good (ie no romance novels or sci fi pulp) English-language reading material to donate to the cause.

Hightail it out of Havana: This may seem contradictory, given that I have an iApp to the city and I recommend in my guidebooks and elsewhere that visitors consider basing their entire trip in Havana. But things are changing fast here and though I’m a city girl by birth and breeding, I’m back peddling a bit on that advice. Havana, with its dirt, garbage, and graft, noise and air pollution, and materialistic ways (I did call Habaneros ‘logo whores’ after all) is distorting Cuba’s image. In short, Havana is not Cuba, which can be said of every major city around the world from New York to Manila, Managua to Dakar. But since visitors often request recommendations for “authentic” experiences and how to discover the “real” Cuba, I now find it prudent to advise getting out of Havana and exploring farther afield. With more flights, both charter and commercial, to provincial capitals like Holguín, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba, this is also a more practical proposition than ever.

Above all, have fun and keep your head about you!


1. The Mesa Redonda (Round Table) is a nightly “debate” show which discusses a topic (US aggression overseas; Latin American intregration) on which all four guests and the modeator agree.There are many jokes in these parts about the program; the shortest and sweetest calls it the Mesa Cuadrada, meaning ‘Square Table’ in literal Spanish, but meaning something more along the lines of ‘Dogmatic Table’ in Cuban.

2. The Saturday night movie here is prefaced by a parental warning, the most common of which alerts viewers that the Hollywood action shlock about to be shown contains Nudity, Violence, & Foul Language. To wit: the old, slow, over-crowded camello buses (of which I took many), were always called ‘the Saturday night movie.’ [NB: did it annoy you to have to scroll down to read this note? Yeah, me too, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to hyperlink notes within posts; if someone has a solution, please get in touch].

3. Trying to connect to and use the internet excepted. Even casual visitors know that connectivity is no laughing matter here. Indeed, I flirted with the ledge and sharp knives today as I frittered away several hours trying to connect. Once I “succeeded,” it topped out at 9.6kbps – not nearly fast enough to load even a simple web page before timing out.


Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Travel to Cuba

How to Cope Like A Cuban

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]I’ve got a friend – I’ll call her Lucia. Life has been a bitch for Lucia in that special Cuban kind of way with family torn asunder by bi-lateralpolar politics; dramatic affairs of the heart and all the ardor and betrayal that implies; and the exhaustion inherent in raising three kids – the oldest two during those hard, indelible times known as the Periodo Especial, when stomachs growled and cramped with hunger and entire days were spent in blackout. The Special Period was also when mobs of people cast their fate to the wind, water, and sharks on slap-dash rafts with a 50/50 chance of making it across the Straits.

Many of those poor souls failed in their attempt to escape, dying outright en route or otherwise kept from stumbling into the open arms of Uncle Sam (see note 1). With a forced smile exemplifying the Cuban dicho ‘mal tiempo, buena cara,’ Lucia waved goodbye to friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances as they emigrated north. Due to circumstances financial and otherwise, many of Lucia’s people – including her only sister and two childhood friends – can’t return to visit Cuba. Like so many people I know, Lucia dreams of sharing a Cristal wet with sweat in the honeyed Havana light with her loved ones.

Paddling away on a raft or zipping off in a lancha (regular weekly departures for $10,000 a head) is the most dramatic and dangerous means of escape, but there are others: marrying a foreigner is perennially popular, as is the slower (but somehow less tedious) application for the bombo (see note 2); securing a Spanish passport if your family descends from those parts; or quedándose on a trip abroad. That is: going overseas for work or as a tourist (yes, some Cubans do travel for shopping pleasure) and neglecting to get on the plane back. To give you an idea of how profoundly the emigration question touches Cubans, consider ‘La Visa,’ the latest schoolyard game whereby a ball is thrown in the air and a country shouted out – Yuma! Mexico! España! The kid who catches the ball ‘gets’ the corresponding visa.

But contrary to what the world has been led to believe, there are more Cubans who don’t want to leave than do. Like Lucia. Like my husband and his family. Like many of my co-workers. But just because they aren’t scheming their great escape doesn’t mean they don’t feel trapped now and again. Hemmed in by water, but also bureaucracy, Third World economics, politics and other factors quite beyond one’s control – who wouldn’t be? It’s trying at times and requires figurative escapes – coping mechanisms to mollify the madness and loosen the psychological pretzel island living engenders.

In no particular order:

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll: The Cuban penchant (and talent) for sex is legendary and sexual freedom in the form of multiple partners and the pursuit and conquest of same is part and parcel of our daily landscape. Not only is hooking up freeing in the personal sovereignty sense in that it affirms (however hollowly), one’s individual choice and control, but it’s also free entertainment. The flirting and dancing and piropos (pick up lines and compliments) and foreplay help keep boredom (however temporarily) at bay and serve as an escape from all those factors beyond our control.

Drugs – illicit or not – serve the same purpose and despite Granma’s assertion that drogas aren’t a health problem here, 10 years of living in Havana paints a different picture. I know more than a handful of hardcore drunks for example, and prescription pills are in such high demand family doctors have been trained how to handle patients angling for scripts. Marijuana and cocaine can be had at no small risk and price (see note 3) and I’ve heard about Cuban acid trips and X adventures. Rock ‘n roll (coupled with rolls in the hay) is my personal drug of choice and in this, I’m largely up shit’s creek here since Cuba has crappy rock, though regular gigs by accomplished cover bands like Los Kents provide certain succor.

The Novela: Soap operas are addicting, which you well know if you’ve spent any amount of time in Cuba, where ‘round about nine o’clock the city quietly retreats inside to catch the next installment. Brazilian, Argentine, Cuban – it doesn’t matter the origin, as long as the cast is beautiful, the food abundant and the tragedia delicious. These fantasy worlds provide needed escape for islanders of all stripes, from housewives to priests, cowboys to convicts. On December 31st, a hallowed night spent with family here, the clan licked pork fat from their fingers and waited to pop the cider that stands in for champagne here when all the women mysteriously melted away. ‘La novela,’ someone said when I asked after them. Even Fidel has interrupted one of his televised speeches to assure viewers he wouldn’t run over into the soap opera. If you think I’m kidding about soaps as serious escape, consider that two TV households aren’t uncommon here: one for those who want to watch the novela, another for watching pelota. Homes with just one set become divided and bicker-ridden when the soaps and baseball are simulcast.

DVDs: Even before the explosion of private entrepreneurs selling pirated DVDs descended upon us, Cubans habitually rented and copied movies (or entire seasons of their favorite soap), on VHS and now on DVD and in digital formats. Last week as I looked to buy a 5 movie combo from my neighborhood pirate, the saleswoman nodded knowingly when I told her I was looking for something to ‘desconectarme,’ to ‘saca el plug.’ Whether at home or in the theater, cinematic escape is familiar to all Cubans and the saleswoman had no trouble plucking a DVD from the rack with Moneyball, New Year’s Eve, and three other recent releases.

Sports: Technically (and for all the old timers), baseball may be the national sport, but football/soccer is making a play for the title. Every day in the park near my house, local kids field two full teams and kick up the dirt in bare feet as they drive towards the goal. When Barça or Real Madrid play, the bars are packed with fans wearing their colors who unleash a fury once reserved for the Industriales baseball club and national volleyball team. I’m not surprised that booting a little black and white ball about for millions of dollars while having all the super models, fast cars, and sprawling properties your heart desires is the escape-cum-dream package for so many Cubans.

And that’s what it’s all about, friends: the dream. Not the American one or the European one. Nor the dream of fame and fortune those places symbolize (but rarely actualize) for so many from points south. Just the dream, in and of itself regardless of time, space or place. This is what’s essential. We all have them. We all have the right to them. I encourage everyone, everywhere to embrace, as I have, my mom’s sage advice: ‘live your dreams.’ No matter what they are or where they may take you.

In the words of Blondie: “I’ll build a road in gold just to have some dreaming. Dreaming is free.”


1. The USA has an extra special immigration policy for Cubans known as ‘wet foot/dry foot’ whereby any Cubano who is able to touch toe to hallowed US ground is granted automatic residency in the Land o’ the Free. This ‘advance to Go, collect $200’ dangled before Cubans (and only Cubans) means would-be immigrants from this island are even more reckless than their nothing-left-to-lose brethren from other latitudes, risking life and limb to reach the USA. Again and again, it has proven fatal (Elián González ring a bell?).

2. Other extra special Cuban immigration rules coming from the USA include this emigration visa, 20,000 of which are pledged under current accords (Obama re-instated this old policy suspended by Bush Hijo).

3. I strongly advise everyone reading this against trying to procure illicit drugs here; see Locked Up Abroad.


Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Re-Entry’s A Bitch

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Faithful readers will have noted my prolonged absence from the great (and not so) blogosphere. It’s not that Cuba has driven me to slit my wrists (see note 1), but rather a quick trip to the singular city and state of mind that is New York which has kept me and my pen quiet for a piece (see note 2). No doubt these infrequent escapes “home” serve to temper any suicidal tendencies, but they also trip up my psyche, stirring up stressful emotions of otherness: I’m no longer from there, and will never be from here, but am caught turbulently in between. It’s making me a little loopy.

Back in the Big Apple, my compatriots were fretting about baseball and Bloomberg. The Yankees were in the World Series (again, imagine that!) and a collective breath was held to see if The Best Team Ever could bring the big win back to the new stadium. Mayor Bloomberg, meanwhile, wasn’t taking any chances: to assure his election day triumph, he abolished term limits (see note 3) and spent like a drunken sailor during Fleet Week on his re-election bid – we’re talking over $100 million dollars. The foregone conclusion was reached reluctantly – he beat out his closest competitor by less than 5%, and that guy spent a mere $8 million on his campaign.

Baseball and politics are similarly hot topics on this side of the Straits, albeit more complex. More complex and also more disheartening: to start, Cuban baseball is in crisis. Or close to it. I’m not one of those fanatics who parses the sports page (yes, it’s just one page, but the entire paper is only 8, so that’s a pretty good percentage) and eavesdrops on the ball debates raging daily in Parque Central (see note 4). But I know poor play when I see it and Cuba’s lackluster showing in recent international competitions is cause for serious concern and perhaps (gasp!) some sports reform.

Here’s the scorecard. First, several high profile defections in 2008 and 2009,coupled with the many (non-superstar but still solid) players leaving the country every year is having an impact on Cuban ball. In short, even when you’re playing against the country’s best, that quality is relative. But it’s not just emigration taking its toll. The Cuban system, remember, is pulling from a population the size of Ohio. And while that system is phenomenal at scouting, training, and supporting its talent…Do I think a Cuban team today could beat a US major league club like happened in 1999 against the Orioles? No, I do not.

Then there’s the no trade policy. In Cuba, you play for the club where you were born (relocation is rarely, if ever, an option), meaning good players may never make it to great. Especially when their local team sucks. If you’ve ever played a sport, you know you tend to “play up” – performing better against superior opponents. If you’re the best player on a bad team here, you’re kind of doomed to the middle ground.

The state of Cuban baseball has a lot of people pissed around here. The exorcism of baseball from the Olympics – the island’s greatest international sports stage – has even more people more pissed. I think if there’s one facet of daily life that could unite the masses against the powers that be, it may just well be Cuban baseball’s slow decline. The disappearance of onions is another (see note 5).

But I digress (she says trying to sideline the politics portion of our programming).

From where I’m sitting, things seem…restive. My Cuban friends tell me this is a permanent state of shifting ground, not much different from other unquiet times. They’ve got me cornered with that argument since I arrived in 2002, so I don’t know how it was before. Or before before (see note 6).

But for those who claim these times are igual or casi casi, let’s review. In the past few years alone, Fidel has retired to the dugout; three hurricanes ripped across the island in a month, taking $10 billion worth of food and goods with them; a global economic crisis began sinking its teeth into every country big and small; and there have been some highly charged and wholly unexpected political layoffs that took intelligent and experienced young Cubans out of the game. What’s more, 2009 imports are down 36% (an incredible 80% of that is food, exacerbating my psychological hunger); tourist arrivals have increased, but the same can’t be said for corresponding revenues, which have dropped; nickel prices are down; and there’s talk of axing the ration book. I can’t imagine Cubans paying for sugar. In fact, add purchasing sugar to the list of agitating factors alongside bad baseball and AWOL onions.

So anxiety is high for me here in Havana. As it was up north, sitting around with my friends talking about the state of their lives and nation. All are still employed and housed, so we give thanks for that. But I kept hearing the same stress-ridden refrains, regardless if it was my hipster high school teacher friend, my small business owning sister, or my like-a-brother bartender talking:

‘If I get sick, I’m fucked.’

‘I pay into social security, but I’m sure it won’t be there for me when I need it.’

‘The taxes are killing us (so we decided to get married).’

‘I don’t know what I’ll do when I’m old and retired, so I have to work like a dog now while I can.’

‘I’ve consolidated my loans so they wouldn’t garnish my wages; now I’ll be paying for another 20 years.’ (This from yours truly).

What’s comically tragic is that we’re all in the same boat. Except I’m over here, with a whole other set of factors contributing to the stress pie (the least of which, let’s be frank, is baseball-related). I had hoped my two weeks away would have changed something, but they’re still fumigating house to house against dengue, the electric hot water unit continues to shower us in sparks meaning we’ve regressed to the bucket shower, and there’s nary an (affordable) onion to be found.

“Cheer up!” a Cuban friend tells me.

“You can’t go on like this,” says another. “What are you gonna do? Put a bullet in your head?”

I ponder this.

“The problem is there are no guns.”

In the meantime, I continue to tread water here in the small pond.


1. I would be neither the first nor the last: Cuba, both pre- and post-revolution, has one of the world’s highest suicide rates. An intriguing construct, made more so by the determination it takes to pull it off – the sheer lack of garages, guns, and ovens makes it a mean feat. If you’re interested in the complex reasons of the why and the creativity of the how, see Louis Perez’ comprehensive tome (we’re talking 480 pages on Cubans killing themselves!) To Die in Cuba: Suicide and Society.

2. Yes, I still write with pen and paper.

3. Funny how US politicians condemn others for lesser measures (eg, Chavez who extended his stay via popular referendum and Zelaya who simply suggested a vote on the idea even though it wouldn’t have applied to him) but barrel ahead with dictatorial policies when it suits. This double standard pragmatism is a deeply troubling pattern in US foreign policy. Global warming? We caused most of it, but you deal with it you dirty developing countries. Nuclear proliferation? We’ve got our arms, but you best not go there Israel. Whoops. I mean Iran.

4. Known as La Esquina Caliente (The Hot Corner), these open air baseball debates occur in parks around the country and have been called the most democratic spaces in Cuba. If you’re ever in Havana, especially during the season (October-April, which makes it exactly the reverse of the big leagues, meaning Cuban players could, in theory, play both here and there, but that’s best left for someone else to tackle), head to Parque Central for an earful.

5. For about 6 weeks and counting here in Havana, it has been extraordinarily difficult to find onions – one of the single most important ingredients in the Cuba kitchen. Difficult, but not impossible: those who can afford $1 a pound for onions have them. As you may imagine, these people are in the great minority in a country where the average monthly salary is $20. The onion farmers, meanwhile, are dancing a jig of joy since they’re getting rich. This has precedent: in the brutal days of the economic crisis known as the Special Period, fortunes were made by garlic farmers who kept the capital city in its preferred herb. This earned them the moniker “garlic millionaires.”

6. This is only partially true: I first washed up on these shores in 1993, the heart of the harshest part of the Special Period when 8-hour blackouts were de rigueur and people lit bonfires in the streets to pass the dark nights. But it’s one thing to pass a month volunteering and another to live it day in, day out, like I’ve been doing since 2002.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

Things I Love about Cuba

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I have the tendency to wallow. I know it’s counterproductive. I know it’s no fun to be around. I know it produces ulcers and zits, but all these years, try as I might, I’m still a focus-on-the-bad-shit kinda gal. So I’d like to take this opportunity to look on the bright side and be a positive force for once.

There is much to love about this island. Here are some of my favorite things.

 The way the palm trees smell after it rains

 5 cent cigars

 No McDonald’s, Wal-Mart, or Mormons

 Drinking little cups of sweet, black coffee around the kitchen table with friends

 Yucca with mojo

 The music – from Pancho Amat to Pancho Terry, Los Van Van to Los López-Nussas.1

 How anything under the sun can be fixed and rendered functional

 Young men helping little old ladies off the bus and other helpful gestures among strangers

 The Malecón (of course)

 Going to the stadium and watching the Industriales lose!2

 Summer thunderstorms

 How it can’t be considered a party unless people are singing and dancing

 Cucuruchos3

 Almost anything grows (artichokes and asparagus notwithstanding)

 Having turquoise water and white sand beaches 20 minutes away

 Free health care – what’s better than that?!

 How affectionate men are with each other

 Recycling every single thing

 Rocking chairs

 Organic veggie markets

 Telling the US to put it where the monkey put the shilling for 50 years – something no other country has had the ability (not to mention the cojones) to do.

1. Pancho Amat just sends me. A virtuoso tres player and musicologist, this guy is a must see/hear. I’d hyperlink to YouTube or something for easy listening, but my dial up can’t handle it.

Pancho Terry is formally trained as a violinst, but rose to greatness as director of the orchestra Maravilla de Florida and later as a chequere player. Recognized as the world’s best, he’s played with the inimitable Tata Güines, Changuito, and Bebo & Cigala.

Los Van Van are a super star salsa group known as the “Rolling Stones of Cuba,” they’re that great. I’ve seen tons of free concerts by these folks over the years; you might get lucky the next time you’re in town.

Los López-Nussas are an entire family of musical prodigies. Ernán López Nussa is a jazz pianist, while his brother Ruy López-Nussa is a jazz drummer. In turn, Ruy’s son Harold López-Nussa is a classical/jazz/rock pianist who won Montreaux at the absurdly young age of 22 and his brother, Ruy Adrián is a virtuoso drummer.

2. The Industriales are the NY Yankees of Cuban baseball. Either you love ’em or you love to hate ’em.

3. Cucuruchos are cones of sweetened coconut sold along the highway en route to Baracoa in Guantánamo Province.

This is dedicated to the one I love…..


Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad