Tag Archives: embargo

Cuba Contradictory

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]While other bloggers are making their end-of-year lists, I’m just waiting for this year to end. Loss and sorrow is what 2011 has meant for me and while a turn of the calendar page won’t cure what ails me, you, or the world, it can provide a dose of hope – false and fleeting as it may be – to help us keep on stepping. Like a car with an empty gas tank, the warning light red and taunting, we know we’re running on fumes, but moving forward nonetheless; ‘bound to cover just a little more ground,’ as the song goes.

Havana circa December 2011 feels similar: we may be running on fumes, but at least we’re still running.

But that’s today. Other days, Havana hops with energy and enthusiasm and drive, where the theme song is instead ‘How do you like it? How do you like it? More, more, more’ – more millennial and hip, more sophisticated and noteworthy. This fuel injection comes from new economic regulations permitting private businesses, the buying and selling of cars and homes, and relaxed travel rules by Obama for Cubans in the USA wanting to visit family on the island (see note 1).

So how Havana feels largely depends on the day you measure her. And your outlook, what you see and experience, and who you talk to. Just like anywhere else, I suppose (if you’re paying close enough attention), except this place is like nowhere else. The contradictions are starker, more frequent, funnier.

Here are some that have caught my attention recently:

The Limousine/Ox-Drawn Cart

When Cubans of a certain means and bent get married, the bride and groom tour around town in a convertible festooned with satin bows, the novia perched atop the back seat waving to passersby while the driver lays on the horn (some honk out the wedding march, others the Godfather theme). But a few days ago, I crossed paths with the newest fad of the nouveau riche: the black tinted stretch limo (there’s only one) rented from Rex Autos covered in the same satin bows. There was no horn honking, however, and no visible bride – defeating entirely the purpose of showing off to plebes and passersby. I guess the thrill of a limo ride is reward enough for some and it did turn heads, including mine.

A short time later, I waited as two oxen were maneuvered with coos and stick by their expert handler. They carted behind them the water tank (known as the pipa in these parts), that makes the rounds of neighborhoods without municipal water. The pipa is the savior of all those homes and families which only have water un día sí, un día no (or even more infrequently).

Stretch limos and oxen carts; conspicuous consumption and water shortages: Es Cuba, my friends.

Penthouse Too Big/House Too Small

Estrella lives in a propiedad horizontal – a floor-through apartment. And it’s a penthouse no less. These huge, luxurious flats are found throughout Vedado high-rises and are more reminiscent of Manhattan than Havana. They usually feature phenomenal city and sea views but are also a pain in the ass – hard to clean and maintain, they’re also a real liability during hurricanes when their height, exposure, and plate glass windows put them in direct path and danger of the elements. For these reasons, Estrella is looking to permutar her penthouse for something closer to the ground, a more manageable home in short.

Contrast this with my friend Gloria – 68 and a spitfire who has dedicated her life’s work to helping the revolution work, she shares a bedroom with her 6-year old grandson and 10-year old granddaughter. If you know Cuba and the housing crisis we’re in, you know multi-generational sleeping arrangements are common. Except in Gloria’s case, she not only shares the room with her grandkids, but a double bed with the boy to boot. Sadly, this is also not terribly uncommon.

Both Estrella and Gloria are equally revolutionary and politically committed; this too, is Cuba, dear readers.

Chocolate-filled Churros/Pallid Pizza

As the new economic regulations gel, Cubans are figuring ways to live with the Gordian Knot that is capitalism. Folks with money to invest and a head for business are differentiating their products and services – and making money hand over fist as a result. The full-service car wash that everyone is talking about is one example of entrepreneurial pluck and vision, as is the nearby scuba school. Since I have no car and don’t dive, these are simply a curiosity for me. Not so the cafeteria selling chocolate-filled churros; jamaliche that I am, this development piqued my interest. Using a machine imported from Ecuador, these folks crank out a fried, filled sweet treat that drives Cubans gaga – and all for the nice price of 3 pesos (less than 15 cents). Also taking the city by storm is the burger and pizza joint with one of those inflatable playhouses kids love so much in the yard. While the kids jump and play, their parents nosh and drink, dropping a bundle in the process. According to my sources, this cafeteria is netting 1500 pesos a day (around $62 – not bad for a startup here).

Meanwhile, block upon block of new cafeterias sell the same forgettable hot dogs and egg sandwiches, bread spread with cloying mayo or croquettes. Some of these places serve terrible food – tasteless or cold, on day old bread or presented to customers just after the flies have been swatted away. Last week, I stopped by a new cafeteria in my neighborhood selling the smallest, palest, saddest pizza I’ve ever seen. With cheese congealing (despite being placed beneath an office lamp), the pathetic pizza sold at Rapidos around town look delectable in comparison. No wonder the government estimates 80% of these new businesses will fail within a year.

The contradictions abound caballeros. Every human and society has them. But we’ve recently had many complexities introduced into our reality here on the island which are deepening these contradictions. It’s a confusing time – anxiety-ridden once you scratch the surface – but it seems these complexities have also sparked a new line of critical thinking and reflection.

Over several visits with different friends and families over the past week, discussions have turned on the theory and opinion that what we’re experiencing today can largely be chalked up to the Special Period – that time in the 90s when the Cuban economy crashed and burned, threatening to take the Revolution with it. So that wouldn’t come to pass, people tightened their belts, took a hold of their bootstraps, and sallied forth. But at a cost. These conversations didn’t focus on what the new economy is or isn’t doing for our present, but rather the hard times of the past and how they eroded values, placed the pursuit of things over relationships, and planted the seeds of individual survival over the collective.

“We used to live here so naturally.”

“People changed overnight.”

“It was 180° turn, fast and dizzying.”

These are some of the comments made to me recently about those trying years, but in relation to our current situation. Interesting food for thought and worth recalling, 20 years hence, as we contemplate the changes in Cuba circa 2011.

Notes

1. You should see what folks are bringing in from abroad to start their families’ businesses here – everything from car parts and coolers to snorkel masks and jungle gyms. Permissions for Cuban families from the USA to travel here is being threatened by political (but powerful, ojo) dinosaurs in Congress. Although it seems Obama isn’t going to let this happen, I encourage all Here is Havana readers to keep the pressure on to lift both the travel ban and the blockade.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Cuban Blockade: Cruel & Unusual

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It’s time again for the international community to remind the United States how absurd and futile their blockade of Cuba is. The vote to condemn the blockade is a UN affair (equally as absurd and futile perhaps, since the Cuba policy is largely a US domestic issue and UN votes are notoriously toothless) – the 20th of its kind. Last year, 185 countries condemned the blockade, with 2 nations dissenting: the USA and Israel (surprise! surprise!).

For those needing a bit of a primer, the US embargo was first enacted in 1962 – before many of us were even born. The purpose of the policy, then as now, is to isolate the country to such a degree as to foment regime change (seems they’re a bit obsessed up north with the ‘C’ word – in this case Castro). After about 30 years of the means failing spectacularly to attain the desired end, the policy was strengthened through the Helms-Burton and Torricelli Acts so brutally that today, it violates the most basic human right of 11 million Cubans – the right to self determination.

This chaps my ass. What also irks me is when analysts, academics, and others somehow hitching their wagon to Cuba’s star call the policy an ‘embargo’ when it is, in fact, an economic, commercial and financial blockade. Semantics you say? Not for those of us here suffering under it. And not for those who understand the difference between the two. It’s one thing to prevent your own government, people, and businesses from dealing with Cuba, it’s something entirely, extraterritorially else to penalize other countries for doing same.

Consider this explanation by Peter Schwab in his book Cuba: Confronting the US Embargo:The embargo blockade disallows Cuba from using US dollars in international trade, costing the country additional money for exchanging currencies. US regulations also disallow the export of US products from a third country, while products even developed through the use of US technology or design [emphasis mine] cannot be sold to Cuba.

Not only vicious, the policy is ridiculous in its application: there was the incident at the Mexico City Sheraton, when staff refused rooms to Cuban guests in 2007 in town for a conference; an Oslo hotel owned by Hilton repeated the gaffe with a Cuban trade delegation that same year. In October 2010, Twitter blocked messages originating from Cuban cell phones, citing the blockade as justification. Twitter quickly capitulated, but isn’t the convergence between the “free” market, politics and censorship interesting to consider? Taken together, all the elements petty and severe of the blockade have meant over $100 billion in losses for the island over the years.

What really boggles the mind, however, is the bang-your-head-against-the-wall determination with which the policy has been pursued, despite its failure to reach its stated goal. It puts me in mind of Einstein’s definition of insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

Yes, folks, this is an insane policy. What policytroublemakers in South Florida, Jersey, and D.C. doggedly ignore and don’t want you to know is how this policy lowers quality of life, separates families, and kills people on both sides of the Straits. Before I rant about the specific ways in which this policy makes life harder here as well as there, allow me to extend my deepest condolences to all the families, Cuban and otherwise, who have suffered under the blockade. I’d also like to voice my deepest respect and admiration to all those working towards a change in policy and the 11 million Cubans – 70% of whom have only known life under the blockade – affected daily as a result.

So you might better understand how this translates on the ground, I offer these snapshots of how the blockade has affected me and my loved ones.

I can’t hear you! Can you hear me?! – Phone calls originating from the USA get routed through China, Argentina and who knows where and cost upwards of $1/minute (except to the US naval base at Guantanamo, adding insult to injury). Getting a call to actually connect may take half a dozen attempts and forget wishing someone well on Christmas, New Year’s or Mother’s Day, when over 1 million Cubans living off island are all trying to do the same.

When the call actually does come through, it sounds like my sister is underwater and my mom is in a cave so deep, her voice is echoing off the walls. My PBS producer, meanwhile, may as well be talking into a Dixie cup on a string the delay between what she says and I hear is that long. To give you an idea how severely this affects communication, consider that in almost 10 years living here, only two friends have called me a total of three times – and I have some very devoted, (albeit poor), friends. For all these reasons, you can understand why I maintain my PO Box here, though even letters from the USA sometimes don’t leave domestic soil due to blockade politics. Thankfully, FaceBook and other social media aren’t blocked by either country.

Can I connect? No, you cannot – Recently PayPal threatened legal action and said my account would be blocked for trying to access the site from an ‘embargoed country.’ This is more serious than it may seem: like many freelance writers, I receive earnings from some clients via PayPal, and this prevented me from collecting payment for services rendered. Only I after I enlisted my own counsel and provided voluminous paperwork proving that I’m a journalist with US Treasury permission to be here (another absurdity: the US prevents it’s residents and citizens from traveling freely to the country of their choice, in this case Cuba), did they reinstate my account. I still can’t access it though and so only have use of my funds when I’m off-island. Other sites blocked for the same reason are iTunes and Tiger Direct. LinkedIn is also LockedOut thanks to US embargo.

Cash on the barrelhead – If you’ve been to Cuba, you know US credit and debit cards don’t work here. When I first moved to Havana in 2002, I thought my HSBC card would work. Silly me. Despite being a London-based bank, HSBC has offices in the USA (like most banks worldwide), and therefore cannot do business with Cuba under the terms of the blockade. I love how globalization works for those holding the reins. For the rest of us? Salsipuede.

Think of all the things you do with plastic funds. How would you live without debit and credit cards 24/7/365? How would you pay for webhosting or buy a plane ticket or god forbid, get money in an emergency? Anyone from the USA who travels or is based in Cuba has to do everything in cash – no exceptions (see note 1).

You’re sick and will stay that way – Of the more than 300 major drugs on the market since 1970, nearly 50% are of US origin and effectively blocked from export to Cuba (see note 2). The stories of people on both sides of the Straits who are denied life-prolonging or -saving medication due to the collusion between US big pharma and politics are heartbreaking. There’s the US drug Prostaglandin E1 – used in children born with congenital heart defects – is denied to Cuba. In fact, 90% of the products used to correct these malformations are manufactured by US multinationals or their subsidiaries and therefore are not available here due to the blockade. Anesthesia, diagnostic equipment and parts, and the latest in antiretrovirals to treat HIV are likewise unavailable. Cruel? You tell me.

But sadly, the policy affects US folks too. A dear friend of mine recently died of lung cancer. Had the breakthrough Cuban therapy Cimavax-EGF been available to her, she could have lived up to 5 years longer (if recent clinical trials in Europe are any indication); even if she didn’t respond optimally to the treatment and lived another half decade, the therapy certainly could have improved her quality of life at the end. The same holds true for meningococcal B outbreaks in college campuses across the country. Were the Cuban vaccine for the disease VA-MENGOC-BC available, these outbreaks could be averted. These Cuban therapies and vaccines, along with Heberprot-P, used to treat diabetic foot (a major cause of morbidity in diabetics) and blue scorpion venom used in cancer patients, are unique in the world. Thanks to the blockade, if you’re in the USA, you can’t have them.

The blockade causes pain, suffering, and grief. But it also strengthens our resistance, creativity and resilience. To Obama on down I say: stick with your failed blockade policy. Over here, we have 52 years proving unequivocally that Yes We Can!Notes
1. The Canadian company Caribbean Transfers issues debit cards for use in Cuba and American Express Traveler’s Checks work in some banks here, but for the overwhelming majority of us, we’re forced to live entirely in a cash-based economy. This means carrying drug dealer type wads of cash on any Cuba trip.
2. See The Cuban Cure by S.M. Reid-Henry, pp 39.

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Filed under Communications, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

What Cubans Won’t Say

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The mainstream media has you hoodwinked. The Beeb, Miami Herald, WSJ, CNN – whatever news profiteer you prefer, they’d have you believe Cubans are cowed, afraid to criticize the powers that be and not willing (or able) to speak truth to that power.

Those who’ve been here know that’s a whole bunch of hooey, another of those myths perpetuated to fit an antiquated paradigm and forward a political and commercial agenda. While media control and social coercion once ruled in Cuba and self-censorship was synonymous with self-preservation, that was then.

These days, Cubans and Habaneros (my specialty) especially, criticize a blue streak and are learning slowly, surely, to speak truth to power through neighborhood and national debates, blogs, publications like Temas and La Calle del Medio, as well as TV shows like Libre Acceso. Sitting here in Havana, trust me when I tell you: the evolution of the revolution is happening folks, whether They like it or not. And people are talking about it.

But there’s one thing Cubans won’t say still. From Abbottabad to Boyeros, Port-au-Prince to Perico, I’ve never heard a Cuban say “can’t.” Simply put, there’s no can’t in Cuba. What more, it’s what has kept the dream alive all these years (see note 1).

In a recent PBS special on Cuban healthcare, an executive at Havana’s Genetic Engineering and Biotechnology Center credited the US blockade for Cuba’s ingenuity saying, “it created the challenge for us to try and solve our own problems.” And this is undeniably true in the biotech sector, an industry where patents and inputs controlled by the USA forces Cubans to forge their own solutions – so successfully that today Cuban vaccines, cancer therapies, and generic drugs are among the country’s largest export earners today (see note 2).

In my mind though, the Cuban “can-do” attitude isn’t just due to the blockade; it’s in their blood. Consider José Martí, who organized, fundraised and fought for Cuban independence, only to be shot dead two days into the fracas. Or Fidel Castro’s failed attack on the Moncada Barracks which landed the survivors in jail, not to mention the even more disastrous (and fatal) fight after the Granma landed when only a dozen of 82 survived. As I said, “can’t” isn’t in the Cuban vernacular.

Bay of Pigs?
Yes we can!

Missile Crisis?
Yes we can!

Special Period?
Yes we can (eventually)!

Cubans can invent (and overcome, it seems) anything. Here we call this the ability to ‘resolver.’ These folks can resolve anything and even my mom has taken to saying: ‘It’s Cuba. It can be resolved’ every time I regale her with a new problem or gripe. She doesn’t realize both my husband and I are shitty resolvers.

Not so the guajiro who brought electricity to the clutch of one-room wooden houses in his remote mountain village of Guantánamo by inventing La Cuchufleta. Made from scrap metal and a bicycle wheel, this ingenious contraption sits in a bend in the river where the water flows fast and produces enough juice to power the bare bulbs and sole TV in that previously dark and silent burg.

Then there are the ‘Yank tanks,’ those Detroit dowagers nearly as old as Fidel that are kept together and running with duct tape, wires, and anything else that helps ‘resolver‘ – including a Flintstones vitamin bottle for brake fluid.

McGyver’s got nothing on the Cubans.

One of my favorite Cuban inventions is the rikimbili (see note 3), a motorized bicycle which has grown increasingly rare in Havana unfortunately. They come in different shapes and levels of sophistication, but when you see a bike putt-putt-putting along Calle 100 with a soda bottle strapped to the frame, piss yellow ‘brillante‘ sloshing around inside, you’ve sighted a rikimbili.

Cuban medical missions serving in scores of countries from East Timor to Mali, Bolivia to Botswana couldn’t survive without this inventive ingenuity. I’ve seen it firsthand. In Pakistan, where Cubans were freezing their cojones off during six months of disaster relief, I watched as family doctors constructed a tube of interlocking water bottles from their tent to a trench out back so they could pee without going out into the frigid Kashmir night. My bunkmates, las doctoras, weren’t so fortunate.

In post-quake Haiti, I held a girl’s hand (her only body part not in a cast) as a Cuban orthopedic surgeon adjusted her “traction” – a rope and cinder block invention rigged up at the foot of her bed in the overflowing, fly-infested ward.

Not everything Cubans invent is good however. Recently, a friend was buying veggies at the agro when he spotted a stand piled high with puré. Sold in re-purposed 1.5 liter bottles, this tomato paste is a staple of the Cuban kitchen and an efficient way to dispatch with past-their-prime tomatoes besides. As my amigo spoke to the vendor, he noticed huge sacks of carrots and squash behind the stand. In a wordless exchange (something else Cubans have elevated to an art form) he raised an eyebrow at the sacks and she responded, wordlessly, by pointing her pursed lips in the direction of the bottles. My friend couldn’t figure how the orange root vegetables could be transformed into the bright red paste until he consulted the radio bemba (grapevine): the color was obtained by adding a dash of pulverized brick. Apocryphal? Perhaps. This is Cuba after all.

Good or not so, keep an eye open in Cuba and you’ll discover inventions everywhere. Even after all these years, I’m still learning the extent of ingenuity powering this country. Just last week I was stopped dead in my tracks with a new way to resolver: the 3-legged chair. No stool this, we’re talking a 3-legged chair propped just so.

‘What will they think of next?’ I wondered.

I came across my answer a couple of blocks later: a 2-legged chair, propped against a tree, upon which was seated a none-too-slim parking attendant.

In Cuba, ¡sí, se puede!

Notes

1. The other factor that has kept it alive is the solidarity Cubans extend to each other. Consider this from a blog post listing What Cuban Friends Are Like: “A friend sends you a card and flowers when you’re in the hospital. A Cuban friend stays at the hospital, sitting in a rocking chair at your bedside.”

2. The blockade of Cuba, which is known as a “genocidal policy” here, prevents the island from obtaining badly-needed pharmaceutical products like Sevoflurane (Abbott Laboratories), a general anesthesia for children. Things like this – preventing kids from having anesthetic for imperceptible political gain – gets my Irish way up. It also prevents normal readers like you from traveling to Cuba.

3. There’s a special prize for any reader who can enlighten me as to the origin of this word.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

I Got the Cuba in Me

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Coming back to the States for a visit is always odd. It’s an out-of-place feeling common to most expats I suspect – awkward yet surreal, like watching a movie you know by heart dubbed in Thai or Tagalog.

For years I’ve carried my ‘Cuban-ness’ back with me and it freaks people out. I touch people while in conversation, call strangers “sweetie” or “honey” (our closest equivalent to “mi amor”) and crowd everyone’s personal space. Solidarity flows from within me for the downtrodden and I chat in Cubano with every bus boy, street sweeper, and young thug I can.

But something about this trip is different. I’ve brought more than my touchy-feely Latino tendencies and finely honed español back to New York this time. Suddenly, I’m seeing how much the Big Apple (my birth home) resembles Havana (my adopted home). And not in a good way.

The similarities are disconcerting in no small measure because they represent an entirely new perspective. For years, I’ve parsed the differences between my old and new homes. On those rare occasions when I did examine commonalities, I focused on how Havana resembled Manhattan, not the other way around. But my perception has flip flopped this trip. Have I crossed some imaginary frontier? Is this what happens when birth home cedes incrementally, but irreversibly to new home? Have I gone native?

Looking back, I realize it started as soon as I deplaned in Miami (see note 1). Approaching the escalator to baggage claim and customs, I noticed a white haired woman – old, but in no way frail – hesitating at the edge of the moving stairway.

“Would you like some help?” I asked her in Spanish. She took my arm gratefully and we maneuvered down towards customs together.

“I’m missing a contact lens. It’s hard to navigate the escalator,” she explained though I didn’t ask. Thinking about it now, it seems more likely that she had never before been on a moving staircase – you can count the escalators in Havana on one hand. Besides, she was from Varadero.

Mirta told me she was visiting her son who had left Cuba a dozen years ago. It was her first time in Miami. I told her I’ve lived in Cuba for 9 years, though she didn’t ask.

“I’ve lived there for 74,” she responded proudly.

Once we got shuttled to the customs green line (see note 2), Mirta explained that she had to call her son and tell him where she was.

“He’s too tacaño to park and come find me,” she said touching the point of her elbow – the Cuban symbol for cheap.

I liked Mirta’s spunk (see note 3) and was kind of appalled at her inconsiderate son, but I didn’t have a cell phone. Less than 30 minutes on US soil and already I was a stranger in a strange land. Even so, I couldn’t just ditch Mirta in the middle of MIA like a Cubana would her brand new husband she’d used to emigrate. I felt an obligation to ‘resolver’ the situation.

I spied a guy with a phone hooked to his belt and asked if he would lend it to us for a quick local call. He apologized saying his phone was broken. The second guy I approached was totally embarrassed, explaining that he had no money on his. Strike one and two a lo Cubano: cell phone as fashion accessory and no cash in the account. Luckily, the next guy not only had a phone and spoke Spanish, but was an MIA employee and had a soft spot for little old ladies. Mirta went from my care to his, but not before planting a farewell kiss on my cheek.

Mirta was lovely and I enjoy making deposits in my travel karma account, but I shrugged off the episode: it was Miami after all, with Cubans acting like Cubans down to non-functioning phones. But New York looking like the other side of the Straits gave me pause. And it’s not because Havana is evolving, my friends. Rather, I was seeing that shit happens, things break down, and systems fail, even in all mighty Manhattan.
_____

It had been a long night, but I had places to be. I rolled off my friend’s couch, inhaled some good, strong coffee and hustled off to the PATH train. When I got there, all the MetroCard machines were broken. And there was no attendant in the booth. Hola? Is this Havana? I braced my arms on either side of the turnstile and prepared to hop. It’s not my fault I can’t pay, I figured in that particularly Cuban way.

“The cameras will catch you,” a woman behind me said. “Allow me.” And with one fluid motion, she swiped her card through my turnstile.

I ran to catch the train, ‘thank you!’ streaming down the corridor like a boat’s wake.

As my train shuttled past chop shops and strip clubs, I thought about how weird it was for something as necessary as ticket machines to be broken here. Weirder still was a stranger coughing up a couple of bucks to bail me out.

When I got to Newark, I had time for a bite before my next train. Eating: it’s an all-consuming pursuit of mine, especially since many of my favorite foods are as rare in Cuba as multi-tasking and fidelity. When stateside I’m a junky for Thai food, sushi, tofu, cheese of all types, bagels, pizza worthy of the name, mussels, crème brûlée, asparagus, artichokes, and something known in these parts as an almond horn.

Saliva pooled on my tongue as I approached the case packed with Black & Whites, croissants, crullers, and turnovers. There were macaroons, brownies, blondies, carrot cake, cheese cake and muffins. Danish jammed against bagels, while the bialys yearned to be noticed. But nary an almond horn in sight. Mysterious absence of normal foodstuffs: this felt familiar.

As I tried to contain my disappointment and choose from the (too) many choices, an announcement boomed throughout the station. ATTENTION PASSENGERS: DUE TO A POWER OUTAGE, THERE WILL BE NO TRAINS RUNNING UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE.

A blackout? Of indeterminate duration? Here? The similarities were getting increasingly eerie – and frequent. Later that day, choosing something simple off the diner menu (faced with too many choices again), the gum snapping waiter informed me they’d run out of that dish. This is de rigueur in Havana where you eschew the menu entirely, instead cutting to the chase by inquiring, ‘what’s available?’ But here, in the land of plenty? Things run out? Since when?

Then there’s the ban on incandescent light bulbs. From the “news” coverage I’ve been able to stomach, I gather this is chapping a helluva lot of asses around here. Seems the USA is compelling people (sort of, in a way, only those willing) to swap out energy-draining incandescent bulbs for more efficient compact models. In Cuba, we did this in 2006 (“Year of the Energy Revolution”), when brigades of young folks across the island went door-to-door removing incandescent bulbs and replacing each and every one with the energy efficient curlicues (note 4).

And the potholes. I can’t remember a time when there were so many giant holes pocking New York City’s streets. Everyone is blaming it on the bad winter, but these craters are Diez de Octubre worthy, forcing drivers to swerve and veer in an effort to avoid them, exactly as we do in Havana. On some NY roads, there’s no avoiding them, they all bleed together to form one giant hueco. Is this all the fault of a harsher than usual winter? Regardless, invoking something as nebulous as the weather to justify the crumbling streets seems so….Cuban.

It’s sad – I don’t want my hometown to fall apart – but at the same time, it’s reassuring in a way. Maybe we’re all in the same hand basket, headed hell-ward, no matter if the point of departure is Santos Suarez or SoHo. Or maybe it’s simply that I’ve crossed that imaginary frontier, where my ‘otherness’ is finding its (dis)equilibrium between here and there. Either way, NY no longer feels like home.

Notes
1. As a journalist, I’m legally permitted by the US government to travel to Cuba on the 45-minute, $400 charter flights between Miami and Havana.
2. As we all know: green means go. Once I ended up on the evil red line where a buxom agent threatened to liberate me from my 5 cent cigars. The yellow line is only marginally better (and perhaps worse for all its ambiguity).
3. Dedicated HIH readers know my fondness for viejitas.
4. In the interest of full disclosure, let me say that I refused to swap out our bedroom light (no way I’m fucking to fluorescents) and snuck in some incandescents in my suitcase.

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Things I Miss about the U.S.A.

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I like living abroad for so many reasons – being obligated to become bilingual, the different values, and the required self-reliance among them. But Havana is wholly unique, entirely distinct from other Third World capitals like Guatemala City or Bamako. Here, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, there are simply things you cannot buy. Toilet paper today, butter and flour tomorrow, but other items are unattainable any day like print cartridges, razor blades, high speed Internet. The big, bad Bloqueo strikes again.

But living in Cuba isn’t just living abroad, it’s living in exile – for us Americans anyway. We have no access to our bank accounts for example and getting back on US soil is an expensive, hoop-jumping production with lots of paperwork (thanks to Congress, not the Castros). And that’s without any swine flu or other wrench in the works. To give you an idea, my upcoming flight to NY (home once, but not for many years now and feeling less so each infrequent visit I make) will be a 13 hour affair with a couple of plane changes. This, mind you, for what is a 3-1/2 hour flight as the crow flies. And the price for the privilege?1 We’re talking in the $750 range for a distance that’s like flying New York to New Orleans. To put it in traveler’s perspective, with that same $750 it will take me to travel from one island “home” to another, I could go from New York to Tokyo. Welcome to my world…

I’ve adapted as foreigners must if they’re to survive here. I remember when I first arrived, a Cuban American guy who has lived on Long Island for decades told me, ‘only New Yorkers can live in Cuba – they already know how hard life can be.’ Of course, not all five of us living here are from New York, but I do think we share cravings and miss some of the stuff that makes the USA great in its way.

In no particular order, here is a list of Things I Miss; stay tuned for another list of Things I Don’t in a future post.

 Bathtubs
 Jon Stewart
 Mushrooms, artichokes, and tofu
 Anonymity
 English (especially my extensive repertoire of curse words and the phrase ‘I don’t know’2)
 Wireless
 Being able to pick up the phone and call my best friend, or any friend
 NBA & USTA
 Ginger ale
 Magazines
 Netflix
 Rock ‘n roll (hoochie koo, thankfully, is not a problem)
 Mail delivery
 Gay bars, parades, and queer PDAs
 Cafés
 Seasons
 Indian, Thai, sushi, and good Chinese
 Central Park
 Hiking
 Customer service
 People who can multitask
 Toilet seats
 Garlic cloves of a reasonable size3

Notes

1. In another weird twist of antiquated Cold War policy on the part of the United States, traveling to Cuba is a privilege, not a right for that country’s citizens.

2. While Latin Americans throughout the hemisphere are famous for not uttering ‘yo no sé’, Cubans are over-the-top anti I-don’t-know. I have several theories why this may be so, but the bottom line? It’s a country of know-it-alls. Compulsory education will do that…

3. In Cuba, garlic cloves are the size of a child’s fingernail and cause for anxiety, if not outright insanity. The Hero/ine of any household is the person that peels garlic. In my case, that would be me (although the man of the house is a fabulous and enthusiastic cook).

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