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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.