Tag Archives: economic changes in cuba

Havana Changes for the Good

Some readers may remember my predictions for 2014, where I mentioned that we’re going to have to fight to maintain balance – here, there, everywhere. Work, play, love, lust, family, friends, menial tasks like housecleaning and random responsibilities like jury duty, babysitting, passport renewal: all of these priorities are competing for precious time this year. Given that there are only 24 hours in a day (see note 1) and in those too few hours I’m meeting deadlines, running a bookstore, consulting travelers and policy makers, playing bike polo, and updating my app, I’m terribly behind on that key activity called sleep (and many aforementioned menial tasks/random responsibilities).

So that elusive balance? Tough to find, let alone forge, in today’s Havana, which moves to a new rhythm (note 2), thanks to the economic “updating” (to use the official vernacular) we’re experiencing. While I’ve written some about the troubling aspects this updating engenders, I’m going through a sort of Marriage Encounter phase with my adopted city, whereby my enchantment or something similar, is being rejuvenated. This is taking a conscious effort, I’ll admit, but also seems to be occurring naturally, for which I’m grateful.

If you sense that I’m adverse to change, I am – when that change is inequitable, disquieting, violently +/or stressfully attained or more bad than good. And I’m quite clear that I need to embrace Cuba’s changing socio-economic landscape in a positive, proactive way. Those of us who don’t are doomed – to angst, bitterness, depression, anxiety, addiction, denial and other not-so-desirable states. The long and short of it? I’m trying to love the new Havana even as foreigners move here in droves, rush hour traffic worsens, and the unfortunate combination of wealth and bad taste (note 3) conspire to give the city a flavor that’s starting to feel like Hialeah. So I don’t get swept away by the black cloud called Progress, I dedicate this post to the great things about our economic renewal.

Ice cream, you scream, we all… To say Cubans are fond of sweets is like saying Warren Buffet is well off. You need only look at the rapid proliferation of bakeries (some quite good) as testament. Or the line at Coppelia. As an ice cream fanatic myself, I’ve braved that colossal line – regularly running to an hour or more in the summer – many a time. Following on this delicious tradition is the recent emergence of several outstanding heladerias wholly (or partially) privately-owned and -operated.

I’d heard about the new ice cream place next to El Palenque, but it took a while to jinetear a ride all the way out there to the upper class suburbs to give it a try. Once I stepped into the cool, air-conditioned parlor with ice cream cone chairs and 25 different flavors – hazelnut! tiramisu! pistachio! – I knew I’d found my temple (see note 4). It’s a state-Italian venture as far as I can tell and a hell of an addition to Havana’s gastronomical scene. The same can be said for the spiffy new ice cream place on Calle 84 near 5ta B in Miramar. Creamy, dense, in all sort of assorted flavors – this is what folks tell me Coppelia was like back in the day. One recommendation: someone should open these types of parlors ‘for the hoi polloi,’ closer to the more densely populated (and less affluent for the most part) barrios of Marianao, Centro Habana, Lawton, etc. Even though the stuff is wicked expensive at 1 CUC a scoop, Cubans will always find a way to finance their sweet teeth. [ed note: to discover these and other interesting places to visit around town, please check out my Havana Good Time app for iPhone and Android.]

Late night noshing – Used to be that if hunger struck at midnight, you were shit out of luck. Just a few years ago, dinner after 11 would inevitably mean a microwaved package of overcooked El Rápido spaghetti with watery tomato sauce or some dry on the outside, pasty on the inside croquettes at Ditu (see note 5). News flash: those days are as long gone as Alicia Alonso’s eyesight. In today’s wee hours, you can choose from Swedish, Russian, KFC-type fried chicken (our crispy coating, however, is made with plantains and officials put the kibosh on the drive-thru window), sushi, pizza (delivered to your door in under 30 minutes or it’s free), Mexican, tapas, and my personal favorite: old fashioned comida criolla. I get that extended hours, KFC wannabes and delivery pizza may not be your idea of innovation and I mostly concur. However, the Cuban in me says ‘sushi?! Now that’s progress.’ Plus, there are rumblings of some real foodie inroads being made, including vegetarian cajitas (little boxed meals for a buck or two), protein/veggie shake shacks and various permaculture projects. Now if only the concept of Sunday brunch with Bloody Marys would catch on…

At your service: It’s amazing how many new, small private businesses are providing one service or another. Your Samsung Galaxy not receiving messages? Need your bikini line (or back or upper lip) waxed? I can hip you to half a dozen places within a mile of here to fix you up. Car need a wash? Maybe your dog does. Or perhaps you’re too uncertain or mono-lingual to make that casa reservation in Santiago de Cuba. No problem: in the “new” Havana someone will do it for you – for a fee of course. Today, you can get your iPhone unlocked, your navel pierced, Botox injections (this is actually a state enterprise; I don’t know if private individuals are also doing it, though I wouldn’t doubt it) and many more services we never dreamed of a decade ago. Having such services available bestows a sorely needed veneer of normalcy and efficiency on our corner of the world.

Touchy-feely intangibles – Some of the positive aspects being felt after three years of economic updating are unquantifiable and quite possibly ephemeral (depending on what the future holds). However, in the right now, relaxing restrictions and regulations has unleashed a torrent of pent-up creativity, which is exciting. More importantly, it gives people the space to dream, to put their ideas into practice and test their mettle. Furthermore, the possibilities provided by the 200 and something authorized economic activities give people breathing room, broaden their horizons, and help loosen the (real or perceived) noose of control that many Cubans feel outside or inside forces exert over their lives. This liberty, for lack of a better word, has taught a lot of people, fast, the meaning of hard work (see note 6), which my proletarian background obligates me to view, always, as a good thing. It’s empowering and for the first time, Cubans are getting a sense of individual agency (as opposed to agency as a nation). It’s refreshing. Now however, the trick is to turn all these touchy-feely intangibles into something good and sustainable and not just a mechanism for making money on the backs of their/our/your neighbors.

Notes
1. When I’m in charge there will be 48-hour days, no laugh tracks or white people with dreadlocks, plus Styrofoam will be illegal.

2. Once again, let me make it clear: what I write is about Havana – not Bayamo or Puerto Padre or Sandino. I wish I had the time and opportunity to visit these (and more) places across the island more often, but alas…

3. More on this money and tacky taste issue in future posts. Currently I’m thinking of launching a documentary project called Havana: Crimes Against Architecture focusing on how the nouveau super rich are tearing down residential jewels and throwing up Miami style McMansions.

4. I exaggerate. Coppelia, known in these parts as the ‘Cathedral of Ice Cream,’ will forever be my preferred spot to worship and gorge.

5. So notorious is the mystery meat croquettes and variants peddled at Ditus around the country, it led to a popular joke: when someone says ‘ditu’ (tell me about it), the response is ‘no es de pollo’ (it isn’t chicken).

6. Before certain readers get their knickers in a twist like they did with one recent post, let me say that many Cubans I know are very hard working – amongst the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Here, however, I’m talking about the younger generation who really are clueless about what a true hard day’s work entails, and about people who think running a small business is easy money.

Advertisements

20 Comments

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

Cuba: What You Know but Don’t Realize

Over the years, I’ve dedicated (probably too) many hours analyzing, writing, editing, and commenting about the differences between here and there. The ‘there’ of which I speak is the US – from where I hail – but could easily be anywhere North, whither Big Macs and reality television conspire to make people fat and stupid.

Did I just say that? You betcha. I’m sorry if that applies to you, but my internal editor has been on sabbatical ever since a guy richer than Croesus got all up in my grill dissing Cuba like he actually knew what he was talking about.

Which is part of what sparked this post.

There’s a type of visitor here – usually imperious, moneyed men skidding down the hill of middle age towards moldering (and the aforementioned rich fulano fits the bill) – who has Cuba all figured after four days here. Sometimes even before getting here. Cuba is more complex than you could have imagined, you’re more close-minded than you care to admit, and your facile analysis belies the intelligence I’m sure you evidence in your back home life. For those in this category, I’ve crafted this post to clue you in. Just a little.

First, we’re facing a wave of economic, paradigmatic change here without precedent. It roils with an energy confusing, contradictory and encouraging (in its way), towards our shores. Indeed, already it’s breaking on our eroding sands. Like a tow surfer (see note 1) whose very survival depends on accurately calculating wave height, speed, and interval, while accounting for hidden (i.e. underwater) and surface (i.e. other surfers and their support crews) factors, we’re gauging the wave, trying to maintain balance, remain upright, and most importantly, keep from being sucked under.

But as any tow surfer will tell you: surviving a 75-foot wave and riding it are two entirely different experiences – as different as summiting Everest with throngs of weekend warriors as attaining the peak without oxygen. One simply takes money and some machismo and motivation; the other requires experience, training, skill, meticulous preparation, and a measure of karma and respect born of intimacy with the context.

So as this monster, freak wave feathers and breaks over Havana, I want to ride it, not simply survive it. And to do that, I – we – have to measure and analyze the conditions, bring our skills and knowledge to bear, channel positive energy, and ensure our fear is healthily spiked with faith. The first step in successfully positioning ourselves to ride this wave, it seems to me, is to understand the culture, in all its contradictory complexities, which brought us to…right…now…

While many emphasize the differences between here and there, between the land of Big Macs and the tierra de pan con croqueta, I take this opportunity to explain how we are the same:

Opinions vary: One of the questions I field most often is: do people like Fidel/Raúl/socialism/the revolution? This is as absurd as asking do people like Obama/capitalism/federalism? Setting aside the fact that the question itself is unsophisticated and dopey (governance and mandate are not about like or dislike but rather about measurable progress and peace within a society, plus, any –ism is just theory; it’s how it works in practice that counts), I posit that it all depends on whom you ask. Up there, a brother from the Bronx is unlikely to share views with a Tea Party mother of two. Similarly, an 18-year old from Fanguito won’t agree with a doctor from Tercer Frente.

It’s obvious, but visitors tend to forget that here, like there, you must consider the source when posing such questions. Less obvious is that here, it also depends on how you ask the question. But that’s a more advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

People like stuff: On the whole, Cubans are voracious shoppers – always have been, always will be. Whether it’s shoes, books, handbags, wooden/porcelain/glass/papier mâché tschotskes, fake flowers, clothes, or packaged food, Cubans will buy it. Or at the very least browse and touch and dream of buying it. Some folks – like the ones who inspired this post – deny capitalist, consumerist culture ever existed in Cuba before now, revealing their lack of knowledge. I’m embarrassed for them; on the upside, it means many up there are clueless to fact that if you dropped a jaba bursting with a new pair of Nikes and Ray Bans, iPod (or better yet, Pad), some Levis, a pound of La Llave, gross of Trojans, and a couple bottles of Just For Men on every Cuban doorstep, with a note instructing them to come over to the imperialist dark side, a lot, the majority even, would do it. Being Cuban, a lot would pledge to ditch and switch just for the swag, of course, but that too, is an advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

Until that day, folks here are gobbling up stuff as fast as the shelves can be stocked. In short, todo por un dolar is rivaling hasta la victoria siempre as most popular slogan around here.

It’s all about the kids: Here, as there, parents want a better life for their kids. While what constitutes “better” (again, here as there) depends on whom you ask, this desire to leave a more comfortable/equitable/safe/luxurious life and legacy to one’s kids is human nature. It drives people to rickety rafts, May Day parades, and long, hard overseas postings. It makes parents compromise their own mental health, spend beyond their means and completely subsume their own lives to their children’s. Case in point: have you ever seen what a Cuban goes through – psychically, financially – to celebrate a daughter’s quince? Hundreds, thousands of dollars and days, months, years of preparation are spent for the all-important photos, party, clothes, and gifts for their darling little girls. Families living six to a room in Centro Habana spending $5000 for their 15-year old’s celebration remind me of US folks who scrimp, struggle, and sacrifice to pay for their kid’s wedding/down payment/tuition. Children first – at all cost and any price, here as there.

We are the best in the world: Drop in anytime, anywhere in Cuba or the US and whomever you encounter will profess their country is the best. Greatness or weakness such bravado and pride? A little of both, I figure. That such hubris has contributed to where we are today, riding the wave, I have no doubt.

Notes
1. I’ve just finished reading The Wave, a spectacularly, adventurously researched and highly readable book on giant waves and the guys – tow surfers – who live to ride them. Check it out.

31 Comments

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

Do You Have the Cojones?

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]
If I had a peso for every email I get from someone saying they want to live in Cuba, I could take the six month sabbatical I need to finish my book. Hard as it may be for some of you to believe (or stomach), people do indeed write me all the time professing that they want to live here. These wannabe transplants mention the music usually, the slower, easier pace sometimes, the social safety net often, but Cubans and their idiosyncrasies always. It’s the Cuban ser – their way of being and living – that is so infectious, they tell me. As if I didn’t know. After a decade living here, believe me, I know. And it’s not always pretty or fun. So before you do something rash or costly or dumb, ask yourself this:

Can you be passably nice to people you can’t stand; have betrayed you; or are inept?
Sure, things are changing fast down here with unprecedented economic reforms having sparked a capitalistic furor and all the multi-tasking, efficiencies, and work ethic the best of such furor engenders. But really, it’s the same dog with new fleas. Bureaucratic habits and vice; the cradle-to-grave airbag of state support (i.e. a not always effective, and often painful savior); and the absurdist criteria for job security are die-hard tendencies everyone has to navigate.

Such tendencies, coupled with Havana’s small size and an ingrained system of sociolismo – whereby who you know helps keep you afloat – force us to deal daily with perfidious lovers, mentally challenged office drones, and crabby clerks. Getting all New York uppity or asserting that ‘the customer is always right’ will backfire (trust me) and just make everything harder in any and all future dealings with the aforementioned lovers, drones, and clerks.

Which is more important: sex or drugs?
You’re shit out of luck if it’s the latter. Cuba’s zero-tolerance policy and strict interdiction laws mean jail time for a joint, limiting recreational options to island-produced vice: rum and prescription speed, sedatives, and the like.

If it’s the former, than c’mon down because sex of all types and stripes is better on the island. While I’m still parsing the reasons why, I can say with certainty that it’s related to the lack of shame Cubans have about natural, bodily functions; the absence of Puritanical underpinnings found in other societies (you know who you are!); and the prowess of Cubans en sí. Even if you were to relocate with your spouse or partner, I predict my findings would be confirmed.

Can you tell/enjoy a good joke – especially when you’re the butt of it?One thing that chaps my ass are all these Cuba wonks (including locals – yes, Yoani Sánchez, I refer to you) who write about island life, history, politics and even travel and fail – utterly – to reflect the wicked sense of Cuban humor. This is a funny people, people. No matter who you are or where you’re from, Cuban friends, family, and colleagues will constantly darte chucho y cuero. Loosely translated, this means you will be the butt of many jokes. You are expected to laugh along and what’s more, reciprocate.

To take an example from the weekend-long International Harley Rally I participated in recently….

I rode on a 1953 hog driven by compañero Vladimir (Note: name has been changed to protect the guilty). Like most Cubans, he took the 3-hour ride as an opportunity to flirt and shower me with compliments – the scripted Cuban prologue to getting into a girl’s pants. Not a chance did Vlad have, but that never stops an island guy from trying. I was clear on this point, as were the other 100 or so Harlistas and their backseat Bettys, but poor Vlad tried his damnedest regardless. On the last night, there was a big fiesta, the booze flowed, Vlad got stupid drunk, and ended crying in a corner. His friends rallied, rousted him, and escorted him safely to bed. Upon their return, they passed me this note:
[
(Coni I love you. You betrayed me. I never thought you’d do that to me. Whatever. It doesn’t matter. I love you. A kiss)

Uproarious laughter ensued – we all knew Vlad’s blubbering had nothing to do with me and everything to do with dropping his bike in a drunken mishap. Lips pursed and blowing kisses, I snatched the forged note from Rodolfo’s hands, preventing him from making good on his threat to post it on Facebook.

Which is more important: food or sleep?
Automatic fail if you answered either because you’ll will go without both at some juncture here. Obnoxious reggaetón at 5am; pre-dawn Revolutionary Square rallies; and all-night parties will rob you of the latter, while shitty/non-existent restaurant service; midnight munchies with nowhere to sate them; and food just not worth ingesting, will rob you of the former.

Do you have personal space issues?
If ‘yes’ even crosses your mind, cross Cuba off your list: chronic housing and transportation shortages mean you’ll share rooms and beds, seats, sweat and oxygen with friends and even strangers at one point or another. Culturally, Cubans have a completely different approach to personal space – kissing, touching and rubbing up against each other is de rigueur, regardless of relation or circumstance. Even in the dog days of summer, folks greet each other with a kiss on the cheek, leaving behind a wet slick of sweat, a reality I’m still not sure how to deal with: do I let it ride and dry or swipe it away with a perdóname smile?

Are you more of a tits or ass person?
Cuban preference falls squarely on the latter which is a boon for bosom-challenged me, though I’m sorry to report that implants are making major inroads here, tweaking the standard of beauty towards the bust.

How do you feel about second-hand smoke?
Personally, I’m tired of tourists giving me dirty looks as I enjoy my habitual cigar. More than sex, rum, salsa, and solidarity, Cuba is known for its world-class tobacco. If you’re going to be here for any length of time, you’ll have to accept the fact that at one time or another, in places appropriate and not (e.g. windowless clubs, in hospitals, on buses), you’ll be breathing in the piquant, cancer-causing smoke of uncut black tobacco cigarettes and one peso cheroots.

Are you a hygiene freak?
If you’re one of those folks who has a trial-sized Purell bottle clipped to your bag, this isn’t the place for you. From stepping in street juice and gutter detritus to tolerating bugs or hair in your food (or as part of your food, as often happens with chicharrones), you’re going to experience it here. What’s more, every Cuban observes the five second rule: food dropped on the floor is entirely edible, as long as you retrieve it within five seconds. To wit: a couple of days ago I went to the panaderia for my daily ration of bread. As a nice neighbor helped me deposit the rolls in my sack, two fell to the sidewalk. Without pause the baker said: ‘give me those; I’ll replace them.’ He did, but only after placing those two tainted rolls back on the rack alongside the rest to be sold. Whomever came after me got those fallen rolls, none the wiser, poor soul. This happens all the time, and you will eat food that has kissed the ground, whether you know it or not.

Can you go without toilet paper/tampons/Internet/butter/speaking your native language for indeterminate and sometimes extensive, amounts of time?
We all go without these items down here, since to be in Cuba requires an adaptability many visitors I know simply don’t have but which Cubans possess in spades. No toilet paper? No problem – we use water like billions of other people around the world or the Communist daily cut into handy-sized squares. A diehard Tampax user before my move, I switched to pads a decade ago and many Cuban women still use swaths of cotton. Baking notwithstanding, oil is a good enough substitute for butter and while there is no substitute for Internet, being disconnected has its advantages – like actually interacting with real human beings.

On the language front, I’m embarrassed for expats who move to foreign countries and ensconce themselves in enclaves of their native tongue. These folks also like to foist that tongue on locals by talking REALLY LOUD or s-l-o-w-l-y in the odd, delusionary, and insulting belief that these strategies will result in success. If you’re going to live here, you need to speak Cuban, coño, which as any Spanish-speaking visitor knows, is an entirely different ball of wax from straight up Castellano.

Do you wither in the heat?
If so, don’t come here: you won’t be able to take it and frankly, you griping about it bums us out. We, on the other hand, can complain about it long, hard, and better than you – a right earned through innumerable August blackouts with no fan, AC, or ice water.

How is your tolerance for contradictions?
Every society has them and if you think otherwise, you’re not paying close enough attention. But the Cuban flavor of contradiction is particularly special. Married men, for instance, can keep multiple lovers (sometimes of both sexes). Married women? Not so much. Meanwhile, government laws promote private business but the bureaucrats charged with upholding those laws squelch incentive and drive; sex is the national pastime but making carnal noises the neighbors can hear and nude (even topless) sunbathing are taboo; artists keep profits from their work abroad but athletes don’t see a cent; and a taxi driver/tour guide/waitress/hairdresser earns more than a neurosurgeon. The media bears much guilt as well: you’ll very rarely hear trova legend Pablo Milanés crooning his immensely popular songs of love on the radio or TV, but sleazy reggaetón by the likes of Osmany García who beseeches chicas to suck his pinga gets airtime. Some of these contradictions are trying to work themselves out, but are proving as hard to cure as bed bugs and herpes.

Finally, do have untapped stores of inner strength (i.e. cojones)?
I hope so because to live here, you’re going to need them.

68 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, cigars, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, Living Abroad, Relationships, Travel to Cuba