Tag Archives: Fidel

Cuba: What You Know but Don’t Realize

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

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

Which is part of what sparked this post.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let Us Pray

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] I ventured once again outside my comfort zone yesterday here in Havana: I went to mass. It was as oppressive (and let’s be frank – hypocritical) as I remember from Jesuit high school (see note 1), although this one was presided over by the big Catholic kahuna himself, Pope Benedict XVI. It was also mercifully short.

While I’m sure you’re oversaturated with ‘The Pope in Cuba’ news up your way, one of the indelible lessons I’ve learned in my 10 years of island residency is that the picture you get of here from there – especially when refracted through the lense of reporters sent to cover such an event – does not accurately reflect what we’re experiencing on the ground. It’s not only that every media outlet from The Militant to FoxNews has an agenda. The view is skewed also because Cuba newbies rarely grasp the complexities of our context (see note 2), nor the attendant history influencing those complexities. You don’t get this perspective unless you’ve been around and stick around and only if you speak Spanish – even a translator is no guarantee (see note 3).

So let me tell you about the mass I attended yesterday under a blazing sun, delivered by a frog-like man in a funny hat.

What folks are saying: One of the pervasive myths about Cubans is that they’re afraid to speak their minds or offer opinions, and that self-censorship is rampant. While it’s undeniable that people keep their heads far below the parapet in the workplace and have the tendency to adjust responses to what they think people want to hear, I’ve always found Cubans to be fiercely opinionated – once you get to know them. Or more to the point: once they get to know you.

The Pope’s visit confirmed this impression.

“I’m so sick of this Pope.”

“Wasn’t he a Fascist?”

“I’ll come by your house once The Almighty Pope leaves and things calm down.”

“Son of a b@&*h! The Pope took our Internet.” (see note 4)

“Faith, hope, and peace: that’s what it’s all about.”

Rocking our rum-pork-party holy trinity: Another element piquing my interest was how Cubans approached this whole Papal visit. Essentially, yesterday felt much like hurricane preparation and landfall: people laid in stores and stayed home watching events unfold on TV, with some chicharrones and a bottle of rum close at hand. Except – and this was a rude awakening for several of my unprepared friends – authorities instituted a booze ban the evening before, which lasted until the Pope Mobile and its cargo were safely at the airport. So those who didn’t lay in the ron were homebound with pork, friends, and family, but no curda. In my decade here, I only recall a few alcohol-free events: election days are always dry and if I’m not mistaken, they did the same during the Non-Aligned Summit here in 2006. Let me tell you: no rum makes Havana kinda grumpy.

Revenue coup: The cleverness of Cuba never ceases to amaze me and yesterday didn’t disappoint once I saw the huge numbers of tourists in the Plaza for mass. My first clue was the distinguished older gentleman of means dressed in khakis, a pink Oxford, and penny loafers, with not a gin and tonic in sight; clearly not one of us. I started looking closely at the crowd and their clothes and distinguishing different accents. Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile, Panama, the DR, USA, PR, Mexico, Venezuela – flags from all across Latin America snapped in the wind whipping across the Plaza and I realized that aside from the pride and so-called “soft power” the Papal visit signified, it also represented a hugely-needed and greatly-appreciated influx of tourist cash. There wasn’t a hotel room to be found; paladares overflowed; extra charter flights were added from Florida. And all Habaneros (save for cops and docs), were given a paid day off. This is the type of devotion we could use more of and we thank you for supporting the cause.

The US matters less: After Juan Pablo II’s visit in 1998, Bill Clinton’s White House issued a press release announcing new policies ostensibly resulting from this historic trip. Most importantly, the release approved people-to-people visits in order to foment “regime change” and “promote a peaceful transition to democracy” – concepts mentioned no fewer than six times in the short document. Blatantly threatening the national sovereignty of an independent and peaceful country thusly is absurd enough, but that Obama maintains precisely the same policies and parrots exactly the same rhetoric 14 years later – that’s just loco. While the US is embarrassingly and unjustly static in its policy, the world and importantly, Cuba has changed, is changing still. Raúl is a different bird from his brother and that manifests itself in many ways, including less of the ping pong policy-making that based decisions on what the bully to the North was doing. That’s how it looks publically anyway.

holy jama!


As anti-climactic as the Immaculate Conception: I’m sure you’ve already divined that the religious importance of having his Holiness here held no interest for me and in this I’m not alone: I’ve never seen an event so thinly attended in the iconic Plaza de la Revolución in my 10 years here. In fact, we strolled into the central area just a few moments before the 9:30 mass kicked off and were going against the current of people streaming away from the square. “I came and took the pictures I wanted; I’m going home,” a friend I ran into said. The curiosity seekers and thin crowds were surprising but make sense: as a whole, Cubans just aren’t that church-y. Religious and faith-bound, yes, but that’s different from kneeling before a man in a dress and goofy hat while he proselytizes a doctrine peppered with sins bound to doom your mortal soul. Cubans just aren’t down with that, but they do love a spectacle: one of my favorite moments was when a women who wanted to taste the host tried to fake her way through the motions while the priest held the wafer aloft. When he caught on, he patted her on the head and returned the host to his jaba. Though the Pope himself failed to inspire, Cubans never do.

Notes

1. This, Fidel and I have in common, except those same Jesuits expelled me my junior year (another story entirely!)

2. A simple example: journalists arrive here and compose some flaccid or purply prose (even leading with it occasionally, dios mío) about all the old cars rumbling about. For those of us with continuity here, that’s ‘dog bites man.’ The more compelling, ‘man bites dog’ story is the unbelievable amount of new cars on the road and what that means for traffic, transport options, pollution, etc.

3. The press conference by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez upon the Pope’s arrival is case in point: his response to an English-speaking reporter about “freedom of consciousness” was elegant and sweeping in the original Spanish, mangled and less inspired in English.

4. Cuba has limited bandwidth due to the US embargo-cum-blockade which prohibits the island from connecting to underwater cables running nearby. Instead, the connection for the entire island is provided by a sole, slow Italian satellite. This bandwidth was prioritized for visiting press so they could report live from Cuba. It’s back now, thankfully, obviously.

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Drinking the Capitalist Kool-Aid in Cuba

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

I’m not sure what news about Cuba is being made over your way, but I assume you’ve heard changes are afoot. I’m talking big, game-changing adjustments that surely have Che spinning in his grave (to say nothing of Marx and Lenin). The reasons are many and complex why I’ve put off writing about “the changes” (sounds like a euphemism for menopause which isn’t a bad metaphor for today’s Cuba I should think) but suffice to say, I can no longer keep quiet.

A sort of financial shock therapy, these changes are deeply personal and downright frightening for many Cubans. However necessary (and dare I say it?) inevitable, the greatest free market experiment since 1959 is a sink or swim proposition: if it does work, Havana will start looking more like Santo Domingo or Miami. But if it doesn’t work, millions of people will bear witness to generations of work going down the tubes.

This predicament, the very real possibility of economic failure translating into socio-political failure is causing anxiety, anger, breakdowns and break ups. Of course, the changes give hope to some, but I’m not among them. From where I’m sitting, they’re an unworkable solution. Salvaging the Cuban economy by allowing private enterprise and other too little, too late measures is an impractical workaround I call ‘Shutting Barn Door, Horse Long Gone’ (see note 1). The Cuban economy was, is, and always shall be struggling. It’s geography, politics, history and fate. It’s The Way it Is.

So I take exception to the theory and the timing. But even more so, I question the mechanism. Pandora’s Box is being thrown wide with this headlong dive into the shallow end of the free market pool. I call this last gasp for cash ‘One Foot on the Slippery Slope.’

I’m a capitalism refugee. I know viscerally that money is the root of all evil. It corrupts, ruins friendships, ruptures families, crushes love, and damages the environment. And make no mistake: this genie has a one-way ticket out of his bottle.

A fascist anti-materialist (see note 2), I moved to Cuba in part to escape the unchecked consumerism and dollar lust that grips my old world. An error in judgment, faulty analysis or both since I quickly learned that money and stuff (along with sex, transportation, and protein) are uppermost in Cubans’ minds; in fact, most days are dedicated to their pursuit. Still, I loved how time was made for friends and conversation, how freely people shared. This will all roll away down the Slippery Slope once the real money lust sets in, I’m afraid. When taxes and employees and suppliers must be paid and profits are squirreled away for baubles – this is when things will get ugly de verdad.

Already the fury for iPods and 2 inch acrylic nails, nights dancing at the Salon Rojo, navel piercings, and tramp stamps (see note 3) are eroding values and substituting style over substance, form trumping function. The market, I have no doubt, has the unique capacity to undermine most everything the Cuban revolution stands for.

The feeding frenzy is already in full scrum. I have friends who procured licenses under the new regulations to train dogs, sew and sell dresses, and even make ice – home delivery extra. In any neighborhood nowadays I can browse CDs & DVDs, shoes, guayaberas and house wares set out for sale on people’s porches. Every few days, an old guy walks my block shouting: “I buy empty perfume bottles.” I guess I should be glad that Havana garages hold perfume factories instead of meth labs – for now at least.

What scares me most is the fundamental economic concept of supply and demand: if there’s enough of the latter, someone will step up to provide the former. And if there’s one thing we have a surplus of here, it’s demand. I call this the ‘Special Period Hangover’ (see note 4).

Worrying me these days is more than the simple human desire for things. It’s the confluence of factors making free market free-for-alls particularly toxic and potent here: the US embargo which keeps Cubans in a permanent state of want and need; the indelible psychological effects of the Special Period; the new opportunities to amass cash; and the myriad different and novel ways to spend it.

Now, before you get your knickers in a twist, let me say that I fully and clearly understand how easy it is for me to disparage the lust for stuff, having had my chance at it. But I feel nauseous when I think about this socio-economic ‘perfect storm’ and what it means for the future – our future – the future being forged for Cubans, by Cubans.

Consider what I call the ‘Miami Effect:’ throughout southern Florida and especially in Miami, there are businesses dedicated to renting thick gold chains and ghetto hoops, rings for every finger and gold-plated watches – all gauche to the extreme. Men’s signet bracelets are also in high demand at these shops which exist solely to rent gold and bling to Cuban Americans returning to the island to visit friends and family.

Who cares if the 14k bracelet says Tito and your name is Yamel? The important thing is to arrive in Havana (or Holguín or Camagüey) looking like an old skool NY guido who just hit the Lotto. Thanks to these businesses, you can achieve your look at a reasonable price (just don’t forget to relinquish those jewels upon your return). Has it not dawned on these folks that their money is better spent on cooking oil or a pair of decent sheets for family back home? Maybe some quality sponges, batteries or other utilitarian items every Cuban home needs?

I invite my readers to take a moment to ponder the absurdity of a poor person visiting even poorer people and budgeting for bling (see note 5). I mean, I know ‘form follows function’ is a foreign concept in Miami, but this boggles the mind. And it scares me that this is part of the Cuban character. This type of materialist twist and bent is my nightmare. After 9 years in Cuba, I dread waking up to it.

A friend said to me years ago that if the Yanquis want to kill the revolution, all they have to do is drop a jabita stuffed with Levi’s, Converse, and Lancôme at every doorstep and everyone will roll over. I hope she’s wrong because that is just too fucking depressing.

Notes

1. Surely Cubaphiles will have caught the double meaning here: Fidel is sometimes referred to as ‘el caballo.’

2. For example, my blood pressure spikes when I watch my neighbor walking her two Siberian Husky puppies – the new breed of choice down here. I find it cruel and unusual for these dogs to suffer a Havana summer just because their owner wants a couple of status symbols. Then there’s all the kitschy Ed Hardy knock offs that make me shudder and groan. Maybe I should start importing Bedazzzlers – the Cubans will go gaga over a tool that allows them to bling everything from baja chupas (tube tops) to blumers (underwear). To get a better understanding of just how anti- I am about all this, check the Church of Life After Shopping link on my Blog Roll.

3. To put things in perspective, consider what these non essentials cost here on the average Cuban salary: iPod = 4 to 20 months salary; acrylic nails = 1 month’s salary; night out at the Salon Rojo = 2 months salary (minimum); navel piercing = 2 weeks salary; tramp stamp = 1.5 months salary.

4. Once the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba’s almost total economic collapse was swift. Nearly 85% of foreign aid disappeared, Cuban adults lost 20 pounds on average and the first experiment with private industry was launched. This era (1993 to depends-who-you-ask) was dubbed ‘A Special Period in Time of Peace.’

5. I welcome input from other immigrants and expats – have you found this to be true of folks from your country or where you live?

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