Tag Archives: Fidel Castro

Cuba Libro – In Peril?

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

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

Then there are the Cuban journalists…

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

Which brings me to the subject of this post.

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

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

My bad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

El Paquete: Opiate of the Cuban Masses

I’m not a particularly heavy consumer of the “package” (love the typically Cuban double entendre) but I know what I want, my ‘Paquete’ guy knows what I want, and I stray only for research and on recommendation. Samantha Bee; Transparent; Lie to Me (swoon, swoon Tim Roth); The Lobster; Sully; Captain Fantastic – here, we get any series you’re watching for $1 a season. Another buck gets me six or seven films playing in a theater near you.

What first turned me on to The Paquete in a hot and heavy way was when I discovered it also contains all manner of professional sports. My Paquete guy, Yuri, knows: any Knicks or Golden State game and all pro tennis, bring it on! I’ll take a Redskins game or any old Monday Night Football once in a while, too. I’m a life-long sports fan and active participant, still, and if you ask me, sports transcend. Watching and playing sports – the most democratic and unequivocal of all human pursuits – thrills me. I know some of you don’t get it and actively reject organized athletics. That’s cool, but I do think it’s your loss.

Enjoying sports via The Paquete however, has its quirks and downsides. Lots of it comes from ESPN en español, so none of the sportcasters are familiar, they’re using Spanish sports slang I’m still learning, and they can be terrible chismosos. Listen, I don’t want to hear about Carmelo Anthony’s new car – just call the game asere! Another downside is when you’re fast forwarding through the commercials, the total length of the program is indicated on the menu bar. So if Team X or Player Y is getting walloped, the length of the menu bar serves as spoiler and at a certain point it becomes obvious that a mid-game rally or late match come-from-behind is impossible. Knowing which side will reign victorious before or mid-way through the game takes a lot of the fun out of it. But ‘del lobo un pelo’ as we say here: something’s better than nothing.

For a fairly new phenomenon (within the past 8 years or so), The Paquete is making a huge impact. When I moved to Havana in 2002, most neighborhoods had a person – young, old, home-bound – with an impressive VHS (remember those?!) collection who made a few extra bucks renting them out. Their bread and butter was mostly Hollywood blockbusters several years out of date and the latest soap operas from Brazil and Mexico. The more technologically savvy and those with more financial resources eventually transitioned to DVDs and soon thereafter, businesses cropped up where the movies or series or soaps you wanted were copied directly on to a memory stick (‘pingüitas’ in Conner slang, for their form and propensity to catch viruses). The soaps and flicks were then re-copied and re-copied as you shared them with friends. The final stage of this digital evolution is The Paquete.

In the simplest terms, The Paquete is one terabyte of media downloaded (mostly via a super speedy connection provided by the State and motivation a-plenty for some people to hang on to their low-salaried State jobs) every Monday and then shared the length and breadth of the island via private businesses dedicated to just that. I’m fairly certain this is a ‘grey market’ activity, but according to ABC News, The Paquete is the #1 employer in Cuba today.

Accessing The Paquete is easy: within a 5-block radius of Cuba Libro, for instance, there are no fewer than half a dozen private businesses – usually in the entryway to a residential home or building rented out for this purpose – where you can go every Monday to download the entire terabyte of new offerings on an external hard drive. Or you can pick and choose what you like. Different distributors organize their offerings differently and prices and quality vary. Some folks I know price by the gig – 8 gigs for 10CUP (about 35 cents) is one of the cheapest I’ve found – others, by the number of movies or episodes you want. Some movies have been hand-filmed in cinemas (where you can hear audiences laughing at the funny bits and get a glimpse of the guy returning from the concession stand with his popcorn), while others are BluRay or high definition. There is also home delivery service of The Paquete where the distributor arrives at your door and copies directly on to your computer whatever you request (free anti-virus included).

It’s worth mentioning that The Paquete contains more than just sports and Hollywood movies and series – the funny (and not so) tapes from Havana’s police cameras; digital magazines produced in Cuba (of which there are many, Vistar being the most high-profile); erotica (AKA soft porn); La Voz; music videos; computer games and more. Super events like the Stones concert in Havana and the Chanel show are also popular and usually available in days following the actual extravaganza. Recently, Zoológico, a Cuban-produced soap opera deemed unfit for broadcasting on state-run TV has been a popular Paquete request.

Games of Thrones, The Walking Dead, West World: visitors are often shocked at how plugged in and current Cubans are. Me? I’m still shocked at the pervasiveness of the ‘Cuba frozen in time/stuck in amber’ myth. There’s now Wifi the entire length of the Malecón (to give you an idea of the type of tourist here nowadays, I actually had someone ask me last week what the Malecón was. Dios mío) and in parks from Mariano to Nueva Gerona, Quivicán to Guantánamo. A pilot project will install broadband in 2,000 Habana Vieja homes soon and Cubans will begin receiving data on their mobile phones this year. Every medical professional has full internet access via Infomed and those accounts are often “shared,” multiplying users two- or three-fold. In universities, the national network of Joven Clubes, at work: Cubans are way more connected than you ever imagined.

I know a lot of readers may have expected and wanted my new post to be about Fidel’s death and I’m sorry to disappoint. Rest assured, I’ll get around to it (once I’ve further wrapped my head around it). But I will provide you with this bit of intel straight from my friends who work distributing The Paquete: during the 9-day national mourning period, these folks made money hand over fist, working double time, until midnight most nights, copying movies and series and sports for Cubans anxious to watch anything besides the ‘round-the-clock Fidel documentaries being shown on State TV.

I gotta go.There’s a hot Murray-Djokovic match I’m in the middle of watching.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Pushing Your Luck in Cuba

The querida phenomenon; why locals love iron bars and pure-bred dogs; and the story behind those ridiculous ‘dos: Here is Havana is your go-to resource for the inside scoop on all sorts of Cuban cultural minutiae.

This place is so intriguing and complex, I’m constantly heeding Mom’s advice to ‘learn something new every day.’ If you’ve been here, you know this perpetual learning curve of which I speak, surely. Or maybe you live somewhere/somehow that, like Cuba, allows – indeed forces – you to learn something new every day. If so, I salute you.

What’s holding my fascination and providing ‘ah ha!’ moments lately is the long-standing, deeply-rooted Cuban tradition known as La Bolita.

From Ciego’s piña-studded campo to the listing wooden houses of Regla, Cubans are playing the numbers. Like an underground Powerball, La Bolita is technically illegal but in practice allowed to function (not unlike other things here including the world’s oldest profession; two houses sharing one phone line; and foreigners buying property). Not only does it function, La Bolita flourishes as a twice-daily gambling habit nursed across the country.

I was quite surprised to discover how many people I know play La Bolita – work colleagues, neighborhood doctors, Harley dudes, government guys, grannies, ballet dancers. So diverse are the Cubans playing the numbers, I think it may be one of the most genuinely and naturally integrated and equitable systems in contemporary Cuba. La Bolita leaps across class, race, gender, and geographical lines and though I haven’t made a point of asking, I’m sure my LGBT friends are also placing their daily bets (see note 1). In short: La Bolita doesn’t discriminate.

First a little background: Most HIH readers know that until los barbudos rolled into Havana in 1959, Cuba was a viper’s nest of dissolution – rotten with drugs, prostitutes, gin joints, and gambling (no wonder Hemingway called it home!). In those days, fun seekers and ne’er-do-wells from the US used to hop down to use the island like college kids do Cancún and the ghetto: a place to score, get sloppy and slum, before returning to safe, cushy lives back home.

The Revolution put an end to all that (mostly, technically, anyway) and gambling was especially targeted and vilified. Big, lucrative casinos in nightclubs like the Tropicana and Sans Souci and hotels including the Riviera and Capri were shut down, along with smaller enterprises in the back alleys of Barrio Chino and out in Boyeros. La Bolita, however, was a national pastime, a traditional pursuit and while publically and officially banned, has survived all these years. The daily numbers, for those wondering, are drawn in Miami and Caracas, if my sources are correct (see note 2).

From why folks emigrate to how Cubans (mis)behave at all-inclusive resorts, I find all aspects of culture intriguing here. But La Bolita captures my fascination beyond what may be rational. To wit: I recently placed my first bet. I thought this was just a question of picking a series of numbers from the 100 in play and laying down my money á la the NY Lotto. Silly me. This is some really complicated shit and I needed a tutorial from my friend Aldo to place my bet correctly.

>Here’s what I learned:

Numbers range from 1 to 100. Nothing complicated there. But each number corresponds to a symbol – think Mexican lotería.
loteria mexicana
The symbols are key and transcend simple number-figure association, however. For instance, Cubans often play numbers appearing in dreams: if you’re chased by a Doberman while dreaming, you should play 95 (big dog), if it’s a Dachshund, 15 (little dog) is more appropriate. Beware dreams of 63 leading to 8, because that will land you in 78 and finally 14 (murder, death, casket, cemetery). Scary. When this happens, do you play these numbers, just in case?

Folks also bet numbers they see in their daydreams – I’m sure you know someone who hopes to get a 100 or some 38 (car, money) or a Cubana who has already made their dreams come true through a 62 (marriage) to a foreigner.

The numbers and their corresponding symbols have also passed into common vernacular. Fidel is called the caballo (1) for obvious reasons and for those who doubt my claim that Cuban Spanish can stump even fluent, native speakers, what would you do if your taxi driver said you owe a fish and a nun? Would you hand over $5? $20? $50? You’d be ripping either yourself or him off if you did (see note 3).

My life (like everyone’s if we choose to pay attention) is riddled with symbols and I had no problem knowing what numbers I would play. In fact, I determined not to let this year go by without playing La Bolita as soon as I learned 43 (my age) stands for scorpion (my sign). What could be more propitious?

But how to play? I knew I’d have Aldo place the bet because I didn’t want to show my foreigner face at any of the neighborhood ‘bancos’ – Cuban for Bolita bookie – lest I make them  nervous; it is illegal after all. So I’d play 43 and if I needed to pick a bonus number, I figured I’d go with 52 in honor of my beloved Frances.

Were it that easy.

As it turns out, there are all kinds of variations you can play, including the ‘parlé’ (a type of trifecta); a fixed number with additional jackpot numbers; and other combinations which still confuse me. There’s also a specific way to note your numbers on a piece of paper that needs to be folded a special way when you place your bet. The minimum bet is 1 peso cubano (about 4 cents)  but most people wager more; payoffs can be huge – Aldo recently hit for 700 pesos and another friend’s uncle once won 5,000. Of course, he’d bet much more over the course of his lifetime, but that’s the gambler’s carrot and curse, no?

En fin: like many things Cuban, I’m sure La Bolita is played differently in different latitudes (see note 4) – including in South Florida where it thrives. What I relate here is simply how it went down in my corner of Cuba. I ended up playing scorpion-San Lazaro-machete (43-17-94) in keeping with various symbolic occurrences lately. Alas, my 37 (brujería) proved powerless: I lost my 25 pesos.

Oh well, there’s always tomorrow for learning something new (and placing another bet).

Notes

1. Let me take this opportunity to wave the rainbow flag: every May, Cuba celebrates the ‘jornada de anti-homofobia’ known as IDAHOBIT globally – and it’s one helluva good time. This year’s festivities kick off May 7 and run through May 18 in Havana and this year’s host province, Ciego de Ávila.

2. Over several years of writing this blog, it has become clear that Here is Havana readers are hip, informed, and sit upon a wealth of knowledge; if anyone has light to shed on the mecánica or history of La Bolita, please share!

3. A nun is 5 and a fish is 10; your taxi ride cost $15.

4. While researching this post in fact, a friend of mine and closet bet-placer, told me about La Charada (traditionally la charada china). This predates La Bolita, which takes its first 36 numbers (horse/caballo through pipe/cachimba) from the older chinese tradition. This numbers game dates from the 1800s when Chinese workers arrived on these shores. According to one source, in 1957, Cubans wagered between $90 and 100 million on La Charada, la Bolita and other numbers’ games.

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Filed under Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad

Black Market a lo Cubano

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

If you follow my blog or any similarly semi-intelligent Cuba-related news outlet, you know that things are fast a-changin’ on this side of the Straits. For those out of the loop: in April, 2011, a series of unprecedented policies – which amount to a new (and not without substantial risk) economic paradigm for the country – were approved at the Sixth Communist Party Congress (see note 1).

Though some of my Cuban friends gripe that change isn’t happening fast enough, I’ve been surprised by how many new policies have come to pass as promised: private sales of homes and cars, relaxed regulations for paladares and casas particulares, and the approval of nearly 200 pursuits and services for private enterprise. Other movement towards so-called normalcy is slower and more complicated still: unifying the two official currencies, salary increases, and phasing out the permiso de salida (see note 2) among them.

What these changes will mean for the most vulnerable remains to be seen and I have not a few friends here tormented by uncertainty, anxiety, and a generalized malaise in the face of it all. Uppermost in their hearts and minds: what might these changes mean for the political, social, and ethical tenor of the revolutionary project so many have fought so long to strengthen and so hard to save?

Some days it feels like it’s all going kablooey – that the Cuba we’ve known is reserved now for dewy-eyed nostalgics fingering grainy photos of the 10 million ton harvest. And this is heart breaking to people who have survived so much drama and tragedy: the rending of families in the 60s and 70s, (plus the Bay of Pigs and Missile Crisis), followed by the Mariel boat lift and collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the 80s which led to the torturous Special Period of the 90s. Then there was Fidel passing the baton to hermanito Raúl which I guarantee looks different from your off-island perspective than from ours here in Havana. And let’s not forget the 50 years of sabotage (both bald-faced and covert) by the behemoth to the north, to say nothing of terrorist attacks by US-sheltered individuals and groups.

So before it all goes kaboom (a day late and a dollar short, perhaps?), I’m determined to document the Cuba I’ve known for the past 10 years and the attendant change as accurately, responsibly, and comprehensively as possible. Today, I turn to an examination of the black market.

Jeans and stilettos, perfume and gas. Cigars of course, but also ice cream (Coppelia, the country’s best), and iMacs, milk and meat: it’s all available on Havana’s black market – if you have the hookup or happen upon someone “repurposing” Cuban Clorox or café. In the interest of full disclosure, I have very little direct experience with the black market (or parallel market as Cubans call it) despite a decade in residence; I have no car, so no need for gas, I buy my meat off the cement, fly-spotted counters at my local carnicería, and would love a Mac but don’t earn enough to join that club. Besides, all that shit is stolen (see note 3) and I’ve had enough stuff vicked in my life to know that if you ain’t part of the stolen goods solution, you’re definitely part of the problem.

But then the moral high ground begins to shift (Cuba is funny like that).

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Every once in a while, a kind-faced granny shows up at my door selling either eggs (see note 4) or powdered milk – a key ingredient in the Cuban kitchen. Someone on the block must have told her an extranjera lives in Apt 5 because she came straight to my door that first time, knocked hard and called me La Rusa (“The Russian” – old stereotypes die hard). She’s a bit gnarled and I can tell from the edge in her voice and the fade of her blouse that times are tough for the milk-peddling abuelita. Unfortunately, when I need eggs, she has milk; when I want milk, she has eggs. So even though I was keen to help her out, our supply and demand algorithm never quite jived. Last week, her friendly face appeared anew at my door.

“I have eggs,” she said.

“So do I. How about milk?” I asked.

She didn’t have any that day but promised to “resolve” some; I promised to buy it once she did.

Sitting in my office yesterday whittling a Tweet down to 140 characters instead of working, I once again heard her hearty knock at my door. Smiling big, she told me she had three sacks of milk for sale at $2 a pop (a 50 cent savings over the official store price). I agreed to take one, glad I was finally getting the chance to help out granny. Until she pulled the sachet from her frayed knapsack: I, we both, were taking milk from the mouths of Cuban babes. What my elderly friend was selling was the milk the government guarantees to every child under 7 and I’d just purchased 600 grams of it. I knew that milk wasn’t going to be too tasty. 

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This transaction got me to thinking about where all this stolen stuff comes from and put me in mind of my friend Alberto. He has an old Lada on which his livelihood depends. Driving around recently, I noticed a balón de gas (the 20-lb tanks used here for home cooking) wedged behind his seat. Seems Alberto had converted his gas-powered car into a propane-propelled one.

This was a smart investment on his part: although the conversion kit cost $350 and had to be imported from abroad, Alberto fills that tank – which takes him 120 km or so – on the black market for just $5. By way of comparison, that same $5 would buy 15 liters of real gas on the black market; just over four at the pump. I’m glad Alberto has figured a way to enlarge his margins, but wonder about the families who show up to fill their kitchen tanks to be told “no hay” (there isn’t any).

This same pattern repeats itself with steaks and blocks of Gouda, stamps for official paperwork (I was surprised to be asked to produce receipts for my bank-bought stamps on my last visit to immigration) and cooking oil. And while I can appreciate the need for every last Cuban having to do something (or something extra-legal) to make ends meet, the more I parse the situation, the more unsettling it becomes.

And it makes me realize that a certain amount of that aforementioned moral ground is shifting below my feet. At these times I’m forced to ask myself: is this is a part of Cuban culture I wish to participate in? Unluckily for my milk-thieving granny, it is not. But I’m sure she’ll find other clients: as long as there are commodities like oil, meat, and milk to “redirect,” and resell for pure profit, folks will do it.

 As I said: old habits die hard.

 Notes

1. These political powwows are held every so often (the last was in 1997) or mejor dicho: whenever sufficient excrement threatens to make contact with the cooling element, if you know what I mean.

2. All of these issues came to the fore in nationwide public referendum-type debates held in late 2010. The permiso de salida is an exit permit which is mandatory for overseas travel by Cubans and residents. It earns the country revenue, but is also a barrier to travel – an issue that has to be reconciled somehow and soon.

 3. Except the goods in the black market Mac store. None of this is stolen, but rather all new, in-the-box gear with warranty and all, purchased in Miami and spirited into the country.

 4. Eggs aren’t usually stolen either, but rather the product of home-raised hens.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Raul Castro, 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.”

Notes

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.

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Storytelling in Cuba

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Anyone who has been to Cuba or knows Cubans is familiar with cuentos cubanos. These often hilarious and frequently revealing stories make the rounds at parties, in meetings, on lines, and in the street. The best tales – especially in the hands of master tellers – become legend, like the one about the hick mason (from Pinar del Río, claro) who bricks the cement mixer into the theater he’s just finished building.

Other cuentos are just building momentum, like what occurred recently at Guamá, a recreated Taíno Indian village replete with bohíos and young bucks in loincloths. Tourists file through the huts to ogle the loin clothed-lads sitting Indian style on the floor. Instead of them pounding yucca or talking about moon phases in keeping with their roles, I heard one confide to the other: “that blond chick?! Careful, she’s a sewer rat.”

Then there are the tired, old stories about the whereabouts of your Cuban boyfriend/girlfriend/wife/husband/lover, but that’s another type of cuento altogether.

Tirando cuentos’ is part pastime, sport, and diversion, and there’s a certain type of Cuban with both the knack and need for storytelling – our oral historians of a sort. The following are three totally true cuentos, as told to me recently by different, but equally comic and charismatic, Cubans.

Racquetball with Barbarroja

If you live in the Bronx or Kendall, you likely know the fury Cubans have for handball. Here across the Straits, racquetball is equally (if not more) popular and enjoys an active fan base.

Back in the early 80’s, my friend – we’ll call him Juan Carlos – had a standing game with Comandante Manuel Piñeiro, known in these parts as Barbarroja. No small potatoes, this compañero was Vice Minister of the Ministry of the Interior, charged with strategic intelligence. In addition to being one of Cuba’s most popular cats, he had the ears of Fidel, Che and other revolutionary hot shots.

By all accounts, Barbarroja was a force to be reckoned with and respected – extremely intelligent, with cracker jack analytical skills and the confidence and station to speak truth to power, he was also gregarious and fun-loving in the best Cuban tradition. He was what we admiringly call a ‘tremendo jodedor’ or jokester extraordinaire.

After one of these regular matches, with Juan Carlos on the losing end once again (see note 1), Barbarroja made my friend a gift of three brand new racquetballs. The gist came with counsel: practice before their next meeting. Juan Carlos, being an entrepreneurial fellow with empty pockets, traded the bright yellow balls for a couple packs of Popular cigarettes.

Fast forward to the next match, where Juan Carlos again played poorly and lost. This time Barbarroja had another present, especially chosen for Juan Carlos: a carton of Popular cigarettes, gifted with a wink and a smile. Talk about hand on the pulse…

Painting the Pastor’s House

For several decades, Revolutionary Cuba was officially an atheist state. In addition to human rights violations, including internment in labor camps, religious adherents experienced discrimination in schools, the workplace, and society in general (see note 2).

So it came as no surprise that when the new pastor – we’ll call him Reverendo Lázaro – moved into a working class neighborhood, there was a good dose of wariness laced with suspicion. But over time, the humanistic pastor won over the neighbors with his moving revolutionary sermons, vigils to the sick and dying, and open door policy for all – believers or not.

When the local government initiated a neighborhood improvement plan back in the 80s, the cornerstone of which was a house painting program, residents rejoiced. But enthusiasm waned once everyone learned that the church and modest pastoral house where the Reverend lived with his family didn’t qualify for new paint. The neighbors rallied, singing the praises and merits of Reverendo Lázaro and petitioning the local government to reconsider. The paint and required labor were denied still.

The neighbors pressed on, informing officials that if they didn’t paint the pastor’s house, no one would agree to have their house painted. As a result, the entire neighborhood was denied paint. Undeterred, the neighbors raised money independently for paint and labor, which they donated to the pastor and his church. In the end, those were the only buildings painted that year of neighborhood improvement.

If I were writing this cuento for my book (and maybe I will), this is how it would have ended. Truth is, this story actually ended the way many things do around here – in a standoff and the paint went to a different neighborhood, presumably one sans charismatic pastor.

Silvio’s Baby Food

If you know Latin America, you know Silvio Rodríguez. Often called the ‘Bob Dylan of Cuba,’ Silvio was in the vanguard of the nueva trova movement of the 60s and 70s and continues to write and perform politically-charged songs. He’s an icon and touchstone for many Latin Americans and is especially beloved by Cubans.

Not surprisingly, musicians from all genres invite Silvio to play on their records since his talent and fame lend credibility and boost sales. Such was the case of a famous choral director some years ago. It was a simple request for the trovador to lay down a couple of tracks with the chorus, which he did.

While the record was still being mixed, Silvio received a visit from the studio manager.

Tengo tremenda pena, but we have to charge you for the studio time on the tracks you laid down.”

“Really?” Silvio responded.

“It’s only $50 – our usual rate. It’s for my baby, she needs food.”

Without a word more, the superstar agreed. The following week, Silvio (who knows a cuento when he hears one) complied, sending $50 worth of baby food to the studio manager.

Notes

1. Juan Carlos didn’t tell me if he lost on purpose, though given Barbarroja’s position, wouldn’t you?

2. In 1992, Cuba amended the Constitution rescinding the atheist nature of the state, allowing full religious freedom, including permitting adherents to enter the all-important Communist Party for the first time. It’s important to note that religion was never illegal in Cuba and today, all manner of churches are present and active throughout the island.

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In the Mix: Café Cubano

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Alicia Alonso. Santería offerings. Sunday supper. There are some people and things you just don’t mess with in Cuba. This includes coffee. More than a simple stimulant or mere morning habit, coffee here is history, tradition, and ritual rolled into one.

All manner of human affairs are conducted over teeny cups of the black, sweet elixir: friendships are forged, pacts made, and lovers wooed (or booted or double crossed) while sipping the stereotypically strong brew. Indeed, every proper visita to a neighbor or friend’s begins with coffee and even meetings – from the most ad hoc to high level ministerial pow wows – include café. No matter how powerful or poor, behind schedule or the eight ball, in Cuba, coffee is an ice breaker and friend maker. As iconic as rum, as ubiquitous as cigars.

But as I’ve said before, changes are afoot. Whereas any move by Cuba in the past 50-plus years had to be analyzed through a kaleidoscopic prism of political cause and effect, changes today are undertaken and evaluated according to economic cost and benefit (see note 1). The recent announcement of the resurrection of café mezclado is an illustrative example of this ‘new normal.’ And it’s got Cuba’s collective panties in a twist.

On May 3, it was announced that coffee distributed to all Cubans on the ration card would once again be “blended.” This is an old concept known to poor java junkies the world over: by mixing ground coffee with something else (e.g. chicory), you stretch your resources and enjoy more, albeit weaker, coffee. Cuban campesinos have long had a tradition of blending coffee with chícharo (see note 2) and the state adopted this approach throughout all these lean economic years.

There was the euphoric, dare-to-dream moment during Chavez’ halcyon days when oil money flowed throughout the Global South and Cuba was able to upgrade from café mezclado to café puro. This meant that 11 million Cubans were receiving near-free, pure coffee via state-provided rations guaranteed to all citizens (see note 3).

But reality is upon us anew and our cupboards once again harbor coffee blended with chícharo. But this time is different. Tolerance for ‘suck it up just a little longer’ is ebbing and indeed may be at an all time low (except among those reaping the rewards of the new economic regulations, of course). This is compounded by the fact that Fidel isn’t at the helm, which has had various ripple effects – not monolithically good or bad, not all visible – which are felt acutely when it comes to morale boosting during such ‘suck it up’ special periods.

Then there’s the blend itself.

Pre-petrol dollars gracias a Chavez, the blend distributed on the ration card (see note 4) was 40% coffee and 60% chícharo. It had a particular, not bad flavor and I enjoyed plenty of it with my little old lady cabal. Today’s blend, however, splits the difference right down the middle – 50% coffee and 50% chícharo.

More coffee, less chícharo. An improvement one would think.

But this is Cuba, where digging deeper, reading between the lines, and parsing the details are essential for truth finding. And so it is with café mezclado. Whereas the old 40/60 blend contained less actual coffee, it was superior Arabica, recognized worldwide as the best tasting, today’s mix uses hardier and more caffeinated but less toothsome, Robusta. And therein lies the rub.

“It’s bitter, acidic and muy fuerte.”

“If you ask me there’s more than 50% chícharo in there.”

This is what folks around here are saying about the new blend. And even as analysts and quality-control specialists go on TV to explain in excruciating detail the cost, taste, and agronomic differences between Robusta and Arabica, people remain skeptical and critical.

And scared. Fear isn’t a trait I typically associate with Cubans, who are amongst the most courageous people you’ll ever meet. However, this café mezclado is rocking our world and not just for its shitty flavor, but rather something much more sinister: the blend makes coffee pots blow up.

According to those aforementioned analysts and quality-control gurus, instances of exploding cafeteras (the stovetop espresso pots used by 99% of us) have been documented. The new blend is to blame. They assure us that all should be fine if we follow the brewing instructions on the package – necessary no doubt, thanks to the coffee bombs created by café mezclado. I mean: what Cuban needs a lesson in how to brew coffee?!

So we suck it up, follow the instructions on the package, and trust Them when They say the blending strategy will be evaluated and tweaked over time – dependent on economic feasibility, of course. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few more episodes of exploding cafeteras and a limp economy conspire to strike coffee from the ration card altogether.

Buckle up babies: it’s gonna be a bumpy ride.

Notes

1. The complete absence of political discourse/orientation in the new and revolutionary lineamientos is of great concern and wide comment on this side of the Straits. The other issue which people are anxious about – and the single most debated point in the lineamientos – is the eventual reduction or elimination of rations. Stay tuned.

2. The international press – which jumped on this story like an old Italian on a lithe mulatta – translates chícharo as pea. While you may be thinking ‘sugar snap’ or Jolly Green Giant style, this is the dried legume and looks more like a small garbanzo.

3. Currently the coffee ration is 115 grams and costs 15 cents. The other change is that Cubans aged 0-6 no longer receive this ration.

4. In hard currency stores you can buy 100% pure café cubano, whole bean or ground. The most popular brands are Cubita or (in my opinion), superior Serrano. This is the coffee served in bars and restaurants, hotels and clubs and what the overwhelming majority of visitors are drinking. Only in someone’s home (not a casa particular – there’s a world of difference) or in a private peso cubano cafeteria are you likely to get a taste of café mezclado.

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Cubans Do it Better: Adventures at the DMV Part I

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I’ve never been a fan of the DMV. There’s the bureaucracy of course – a paradigm of grouchy inefficiency with which I’m sure you’re familiar – but it’s more than that. It’s too many hoops to jump through and rules and the petty (but potent) power wielded by the cogs in the department of motor vehicles machine that chap my ass.

So when my US driver’s license expired, my gut seized up and more hairs grayed as I imagined the horror of the Cuban DMV (see note 1). The adventure started when I tried to get a copy of Ley #60 – Cuban rules of the road – to study up. The DMV didn’t have any and after a brief consultation, the nice lady cop suggested I check across town at the driving school.

I hoofed it over there in a McCarthy-era Dodge and walked a dozen long, hot blocks under a blazing Cuban summer sun only to have the dark, heavy-lidded compañera at the reception desk inform me that they didn’t have any. After almost nine years in Cuba, I know not to ask ‘why?’ But my disappointment must have showed, for the desultory lady livened up to say: “the new regulations are being implemented. The books are being printed up now.”

“and they’ll be ready?…”

The somnolent curtain descended again and she shrugged. After a moment she offered to transfer a digital version of the old road rules book onto a memory stick if I had one.

I didn’t.

So it was back to the drawing board, which meant I’d have to go about things ‘a lo cubano‘ or ‘por la izquierda‘ (see note 2). An Internet search brought up Ley #60 (all 67 pages of it) and friends supplied the same classes and practice quizzes given at the fancy, hard-currency driving school.

I set to studying.

Some of the Spanish tripped me up (I had never had cause to use the word contén and can anyone explain to me in plain English the difference between a remolque and semi remolque?!) but luckily, Cuba is a signatory to the 1949 UN Convention on Road Traffic, so most of the US road rules with which I’m familiar applied. I skimmed the rural transit section – surely I don’t need to know the tare weight of a tractor trailer or speed limits for horse carriages. I took the quizzes, did OK, and readied myself for the written exam (see note 3).

I arrived bright and early – a bit nervous, but excited. For no reason, it turns out: the computers were down. I’d have to come back the next day. “Or better yet in two,” said the cop with the boyish good looks and tender smile. He was easy on the eyes even as he delivered the bad news.

My time was running out you see and this unforeseen delay was deeply troubling. I was due to leave soon on assignment and I would have to cover a lot of ground, in a context where a car is compulsory – think LA or the French Riviera. I needed this gig. We needed the money. The debt I imported from my life “before” in the US continued to grow (see note 4) and my income wasn’t keeping pace. This was our money for most of 2011. I couldn’t blow it. I had to get that Cuban license.

Countdown: Four Weeks

I returned two days later to take the written. The system was still down. I asked the comely cop for a phone number (no, not his – faithful readers of Here is Havana know I’m hopelessly devoted to my husband) to call before trudging over again. I phoned the next day to see if thee system was up and running.

Game on.

The waiting room was archetypical Caribbean, sporting coral-colored walls and a phalanx of tropical plants leading to the balcony where new drivers awaited their laminated, holograph-imprinted licenses. That balcony was my goal. Poco a poco.

I waited to be called into the exam room. A nearly life-sized poster of Raúl loomed above me. He wore his poker face and olive greens, but somehow remained avuncular in a way that Fidel can be but isn’t often. The quote emblazoned in red below brother Raúl was new to me: “gossip is a divisive and counterrevolutionary act.” Here was a man after my own heart.

I was summoned into the exam room and let the AC wash over me. A dozen computer terminals occupied by wrinkled grandpas and young studs in bad Hugo Boss knock offs lined the room. This was much more high tech than I expected and more modern than I was used to. All around me I saw furrowed brows punctuated by nervous laughter. Men outnumbered women four to one.

I sat at terminal 3 and began the test. I knew most of the answers but not all. The Spanish was somewhat confusing and I second guessed myself. I got the question about tractor tare weights and failed by one wrong answer – just shy of the required 75 points to pass. Another setback. More stress, which grew when the proctor with a keen eye for cheaters (and there were several) told me I had to wait a week before I could take it again. No exceptions. No overrides of the computer system.

“Study up and come back next Friday at 11am when I start my shift.” Was that a wink or a nudge I saw when she said that? I certainly hoped so and planned to show up next week with a package of high quality, hard currency coffee for the affable cop proctor.

Countdown: Three Weeks

I read every word on each page of the 67-page long law. I highlighted tricky concepts and took copious notes. I checked terms with my husband I didn’t understand. One sign – described, but not pictured anywhere – was a complete mystery to everyone we consulted. It had something to do with railroad crossings, we got that much, but otherwise was a complete puzzlement. The written exam always had a ‘what does this sign mean?’ question, but what were the odds I’d get this one?

I returned the Friday following nervous, but more confident (the coffee weighing down my handbag helped). I hailed Raúl and his sage words for all the revolutionary chismosos and strode into the exam room. The nice proctor was nowhere in sight. I felt stood up and doubted the policewoman with dyed jet black hair and fire engine lipstick would be as kind.

‘Focus, Conner, focus,’ I admonished myself.

Elvira’s Cuban cousin left the room and the kid on my right with a marijuana leaf belt buckle as big as my palm began feeding answers to his socio on my left. Really? Cheating on the DMV permit test? That’s unethical and dangerous; I don’t want to share the road with the idiot that needs to cheat on the written. Should I tell Elvira, I wondered?

‘Focus, Conner, focus.’

Then came question 11. It was a red and white railroad sign with an inverted V below a red X. The mystery sign from the night before. I called Elvira over.

“Hi there. I’m a little confused. I’ve never seen this sign here. Does it even exist in Cuba?”

She laughed and leaned over my shoulder to check out the sign on the screen. “Well, some are international and correspond to the treaty to which Cuba is a signatory, but you don’t necessarily see them around.”

“Oh,” I nodded.

She leaned in again to consult my screen. “Don’t worry. You answered correctly.”

Buoyed, I set to the remaining nine questions. When I’d finished, I started from the beginning, re-reading each question carefully, parsing the Spanish. I went through all 20 again and reviewed my work. I was just about to click ‘Finish and get results,’ when a film crew entered and started shooting. Elvira told the classroom to continue as if they weren’t there. It was the prime time program On the Road where the finer points of Cuban road rules are discussed for a half hour each week (see note 5). Seems yours truly was going to feature.

My hand was sweating. I hovered over ‘Finish and get results.’ I clicked. 95 out of 100, with just one incorrect response: question #11 with the mystery railroad sign. Gracias, Elvira.

Stay tuned for Part II of Cubans Do it Better: The Road Test
.

Notes

1. Officially called the Oficina de Licencia de Conducción, conveniently attached to the local police precinct.

2. Note to self: when a problem needs resolving, best to start “Cuban-style,” consulting with informal channels known literally as doing things “via the left.”

3. This process also included supplying $30 in official stamps, an eye exam (performed at my local polyclinic), a medical exam, and a couple of photos.

4. Note to all would-be expats: this is a really bad move. IRS, student loans, family floats – whatever the debt, try to clean it off your plate before moving abroad.

5. If all this attention to Cuban traffic law – new regulations, prime time TV shows, and the like – seems odd, it isn’t when you consider that the #5 cause of death in Cubans as a whole is accidents (it’s the #1 cause of death in Cubans aged 5-19); the overwhelming majority of these are traffic accidents.

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Excerpt: Here is Havana, Chapter 3

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Hola Readers. In anticipation of Saturday’s big May Day celebration (always a hoot), I’m posting this second excerpt from my work-in-progress Here is Havana. If you’re interested in reading more, I’ve got several bits up on my website.

You’ll no doubt notice that this excerpt is dated in its way; this section was written in reference to the event that took place on May 14, 2004. Workers of the world unite!

—–

The buses start rolling up at around five. Birds are already chirping though night’s darkness has yet to lift, and I can smell my neighbor’s coffee brewing. Honking horns and gleeful singsong reach us from the street as an interminable line of trucks rumbles past, their flatbeds a sea of straw hats. They’ve been pouring into Havana for the big show since before three this morning. Sleep, needless to say, is elusive.

The night sky has already bled purple, then pink and orange into dawn by the time we’re on the street angling for a bus. All my neighbors look different from their workaday selves: Grandma Sylvia is sporty in her sneakers and jeans and even Tania – famous for her spiked heels and micro-minis courtesy of one Italian lover or another – wears sensible shoes and a sun hat. The street teems with groups of factory workers in matching t-shirts, moms with babies strapped to their chests, and young boys excited to be sprung from school for the rally.

Lanky, whistle-blowing cops usher dangerously-crowded buses to the curb, convinced that a few more people can still squeeze on. Today, few private cars ply the main highway leading to Havana, now choked with trucks and buses packed with the boisterous faithful, making their way towards Vedado. It is after six and already the morning heat is steaming off the pavement when we finally get on a bus. The bumper to bumper traffic goes from a crawl to a standstill and the stagnant air inside the bus hangs heavy with cheap cologne. My neighbor works her fan, wafting ripples of perfumed soap my way.

After twenty minutes we’ve only gone three blocks; our tolerance eroded a block ago. No one can remember the last time Havana saw this type of traffic and the bus chatter quickly turns to marches past. Tens of thousands for Elian and the Pope, many more to protest the Helms-Burton legislation. Cubans mobilize proudly, enthusiastically: 45 years protesting US policies designed to choke or change you will do that. Still, each rally feels different from those that came before and it’s especially true today since George W Bush is viewed as even more cruel than his father.

Nearly an hour later and only a mile or so along, we decide to get off and walk, even though it will add two miles to an already laboriously long parade route. We wade into an ocean of people heading north and west to the Malecón. The pulsating crowd waves small Cuban flags on wooden sticks or big placards depicting Bush as a Nazi, complete with an em dash moustache and SS uniform. We grab flags from a man handing them out in the middle of the street, the current of people flowing around him, and stop for one peso coffee shots on a street corner.

“Hey Chino!” I call out, catching sight of our neighbor leaning against a chipped pillar.

“How’s it going?” he asks, kissing my cheek and clapping my husband on the back.

“It’s hot, eh?!” I comment in that Cuban way that says ‘Damn! I love this infernal place.’

We take pulls of icy fruit drink from Chino’s thermos before melting away into the burgeoning crowd. All around us people are dancing to coronet blasts fattened by a cajón backbeat and laughing despite the heat, long walk, and little sleep the night before. It’s just past 8 o’clock when we’re near enough to the Malecón to smell the sea. Helicopters whoop overhead, drawing our collective gaze to a black man joyously two-stepping on a rooftop overlooking the millions.

The sun is already punishing the crowd by the time we push as close to the parade route as possible, alongside the fancy ice cream parlor facing the Malecón. Mothers console their children with rationed sips of water from old plastic soda bottles wrapped in newspapers to keep it coldish. “Hang in there,” they tell the kids as they hop from swollen foot to swollen foot. More people are arriving all the time, packing us in to a tight, motionless mass.

We can’t see anything beyond the backs and heads in front of us and that nauseating flutter of claustrophobia threatens. I look around to shake the trapped feeling. Fat beads of sweat tremble on the neck folds of the woman to my left. Just in front of her a devilishly handsome young man with hazel eyes and café con leche skin rearranges his arms around his girlfriend. His thinning red t-shirt from marches past reads ‘En Defensa del Socialismo,’ but the only thing he’s defending right now is his girlfriend’s ass from the feral stares of men in the growing, surging crowd. Reedy but round in the right places, with hip bones poking out between low rider jeans and a tight pink camisole, she might be a model somewhere else. She’s laughing in her boyfriend’s ear, showing bright, white teeth. The sweat bead finally drops into the folds of the woman’s neck nearby. I fight the urge to look at her watch or mine. The wait feels interminable.

Nearly three hours have passed since we staked our claim in front of the ice cream parlor and we’re no closer to the official parade route. It’s as if a million of us showed up at the DMV together. My gaze wanders to a shrinking old lady on my right and I almost burst out laughing, punch drunk from the wait, heat, and hunger. She’s wearing cushy orthopedic shoes and a polyester wash ’n wear housecoat – the uniform for women of a certain age here. But what’s so funny is her vintage Diane Von Furstenberg headscarf, tastefully festooned with mauve grapes and muted green leaves. Surreal and odd is the little old lady in classic couture waiting for Fidel. She is looking faint as her husband guides her crepe-y elbow to the curb. When she sits, a pissy smell rises from the gutter. My nose is wrinkling when the loudspeakers boom,

“¡¡Compañeros! y Compañeras!!”

The crowd falls silent. The Diane Von Furstenberg lady stands to attention and the girlfriend breaks from her lover’s embrace. Rapt faces point towards the voice, half a mile off at the “Protestódromo,” but coming in loud and clear over the monitors at our corner.

It is a rousing speech, reverberating with that ardent conviction I’d only heard about, despite having witnessed hours of Fidelista discourse over the years. Styled as an open letter to President Bush, the personalized rhetoric is enormously persuasive – much more so in its way than the laundry list of statistics that usually issue forth. The atmosphere is electric, the crowd around me conducting the energy in silent exaltation.

In less than 45 minutes, the legendary orator transforms an impossibly bored multitude into a riveted crowd, going wild in its condemnation of US policy. When he tells Bush “you cannot mention the word democracy…everyone knows you became President of the United States through fraud,” a roar rises from the crowd, along with a million little Cuban flags. The Malecón is transformed into a rippling sea of red, white and blue. Chants of “Fidel! Fidel! Fidel!” erupt when he bellows, “Cuba fights on the side of life in the world; you fight on the side of death.” Then he brings down the hammer, giving me a glimpse of those heady days in the early 60’s: “Since you have decided that the die is cast, I have the pleasure of saying farewell like the Roman gladiators poised to fight in the arena: Hail Caesar! Those who are about to die salute you!” The cheers are deafening and the crowd waves their flags ecstatically as the municipal band strikes up. In these parts, Bush is still known as Caesar.

Suddenly, after more than four hours, we’re moving towards the Malecón. It only takes a few minutes for our small crowd of thousands to feed into the tens of thousands streaming along the waterfront. The breeze tempers the unrelenting sun as we pass the Hotel Nacional and the turreted mansions that were once the seaside refuges of the rich. Finally, our goal is in sight: concrete and sterile, the US Interests Section looks like a high security prison, incongruous among the dowdy, chipped paint abodes of today’s rank and file. Members of the Young (and Not So) Communists line this part of the route, keeping the crowd compacted for full visual effect, encouraging us to wave our flags high. On the Malecón wall, the international press angles for that elusive best shot: the crowd is so enormous, undulating several miles from Vedado to Havana Vieja, it’s hard to capture. A helicopter buzzes the seawall and journalists hanging out the door-less maw capture the spectacle for world viewing, should any network choose to air it.

The crowd is spreading out and breaking up, heading home for a nap or to a cafeteria for cheap, watery beer and burning shots of rum. There is always a fiesta somewhere after rallies, when people get together to tell jokes, analyze events, share a meal, and get shitfaced.

“Do you want to go to Caridad’s party?” I ask my husband as we pass the famous billboard: ‘Señor Imperialists: We are Fearless!’

“Sure,” he responds.

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Slippery Okra & Sleeping Shrimp: Classic Cubanisms

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One thing I’ve learned my nearly eight years in Havana is that Cubans have a way with words. Many a lass for example (present company included) has been seduced by a poetry-reciting buck borrowing from the likes of Silvio Rodriguez and Cintio Vitier. And who isn’t hip to the oratory artfulness of Fidel, that hypnotist of crowds from New York to Durban?

In fact, Cuba is a country full of semantic artisans willing and able to sprout ‘flowers from their tongues’ as we say here. This oral aptitude is nothing new or novel. Since Martí and the Mambises, Cubans have honed their mesmerizing way with words. This extends to dichos, popular sayings that use metaphor, irony, and double entendre to encapsulate life’s promise, problems, and perversities. Learning a dicho or three in your armchair or actual travels is a simple way to peel away a layer of the Cuban psyche.

An all time classic that has particular relevance during the dog days of summer and other ‘special periods’ is “entre col y col, una lechuga.” Between all that cabbage, a little lettuce is akin to our ‘variety is the spice of life.’ It’s not surprising one of the most popular sayings uses a metaphor based on leafy greens and cruciferous veggies – Cuban psychological hunger runs deep.

Another food-related dicho that anyone who has been to Cuba has likely experienced is: “donde come uno, come dos (o tres),” which means to say: where there’s food for one, there’s food for two (or three). What can be likened to our ‘the more the merrier’ is in fact, the cornerstone of Cuban hospitality (see note 1).

But hands down, my favorite food-related saying here is “pasando gato por liebre.” While ‘passing off cat as rabbit’ may sound like a Chinatown food nightmare, this saying is applied to all sorts of Cuban chicanery, from serving $3 mojitos made with rock gut rum instead of Habana Club to selling Selectos as Cohibas (see note 2). Being agile to this kind of trickery is part and parcel of being Cuban, embodied in another of my preferred sayings: “camarón que se duerme, se la lleva la corriente.” Or ‘you snooze, you lose.’

But enough of all this food and fauna. Let’s talk about sex, another cornerstone of Cubanilla. While there are many dichos referencing carnal undertakings, (and I could dedicate an entire post to piropos, the ingenious and often hilarious come-ons Cubans invent for catching the ear and eye of the opposite sex), my favorite is “quimbombó que rebala, pa’la yuca seca.” Literally this translates as ‘for dry manioc, use slippery okra.’ Hardly the sensuous flowering phrase you’d expect from hot-blooded Cubanos y Cubanas itching to get their groove on. But anyone who’s familiar with okra knows how slippery, slimy it gets if prepared incorrectly. And yucca, from Havana to Asunción, is dry and unappetizing unless gussied up with mojito (see note 3). So while okra is slippery by nature and yucca is dry, get the two together (or more accurately, the body parts for which they serve metaphorically) for erotic results.

Gracias a dios I’ve got no problem where yucca and okra are concerned, but there is one dicho bien Cubano that I’ve yet to internalize. Maybe it’s because I’m a New Yorker or has something to do with being a Scorpio or perhaps it’s just the state of being Conner (god help us!), but I just haven’t been able to master ‘a mal tiempo, buena cara.’ Putting on a good face during bad times just doesn’t seem to be in my make up.

Seems I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Notes

1. According to the expert in everything (that would be my husband), this saying has roots in the Cuban countryside, where hospitality knows no bounds. But it can also be traced to the island’s Haitian community, which arrived on Cuban shores in the early 19th century. Seems Haitians of the time had the custom of setting an extra place at the table, Caribbean Elijah-style.

2. Selectos are the/my five cent cigar of choice, sold in bodegas (where Cubans procure their rations). Many a tourist has been duped into buying what are touted as Cohibas when really they’re just Selecto dirt sticks wearing the signature yellow and black bands of Cuba’s most famous cigar.

3. Visitors sometimes confuse mojito, the minty potent potable, with mojito the garlicky bitter orange-spiked sauce used to dress root vegetables that is as delicious as it is addictive. While plain old manioc yucca is pasty and not-so-tasty, yuca con mojo is irresistible.

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