Tag Archives: Fidel Castro

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 Their bread and butter was mostly Hollywood blockbusters several years out of date and the latest soap operas from Brazil and Mexico.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

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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).

—–

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. 

—–

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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