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Cuban Psyche 2010

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“You must be a very patient person,” my friend said in reference to living in Cuba.

He doesn’t know the half of it. Standing in line for bread, the bus, ice cream, hard currency, hats or whatever other random thing appears on the shelves. Or losing my youth waiting for my 50k dial-up to giddy up and connect me (see note 1). These things don’t require patience. They demand resignation. Quite simply, we have no choice (see note 2).

Most days I can live with that. Most of the time I’ve got the trade offs in perspective.

In my previous life, I had to step around mother and son sleeping on the sidewalk and was awoken by gunshots. I watched and worried as friends got hooked on heroin or tried to recover from sexual assault or a nasty crack habit (now that’s redundant!). Waiting for a bus? A small price to pay for peace of mind and the freedom to wander the streets without all that armor urban America requires.

I’m not patient. I’m resigned. And relieved. But tucked into that chasm between relief and resignation lies frustration. I believe frustration is one of the truly equitable things in Cuba and while it may manifest itself differently for different people, anyone who tells you otherwise is apathetic, inattentive, or both. (Incidentally, denial is another wholly human trait that finds firm foothold on the island and is also in this mix).

So what’s so frustrating? There are innumerable little things like lack of red meat and tedious Friends re-runs, but some people can afford steaks and others adore the antics of Phoebe and Ross. So instead of ranting about the picayune or personal, I’d like to cast the net wide and look at the top 5 frustrations I see contributing to the Cuban Psyche 2010. In no particular order:

1. Bureaucracy, capital B. Exit permits, house papers, customs processes, and entrepreneurial permission slips: it’s getting people down. Not just the paperwork and hoop jumping – after all, every society has them. No, it’s not simply the bureaucratic bloat, but rather the informational black hole that is so frustrating. Not knowing where to go to get the right form or who to approach to hold the right hoop is time consuming and irritating as hell. There are no 800 numbers or customer service representatives in Cuba. Many times there isn’t even a low level pencil pusher willing to answer the phone (see note 3). No websites walking you through all the bureaucratic bullshit or a handy ‘contact us’ button as last resort.

Finding out how to get something done in Cuba is often more laborious and time consuming than actually doing it. To give you an idea of just how wildly out of control Cuban bureaucratic bloat is, consider the fact that China, population 1.3 billion, has nine governmental ministries while Cuba, population 11.2 million, has some two dozen (see note 4). Bottom line: you’ll go gray and flabby trying to navigate Cuba’s too big bureaucracy populated by people exercising the little power they have.

2. Economic hardship. Owners of $250/night casas particulares notwithstanding, almost all Cubans experience this in one way or another. We’re not talking about the distended bellies and death-by-diarrhea misery that plagues other developing nations, but rather lentils and rice six days running and no new shoes for baby. There are so many different and complex reasons (from without and within) the Cuban economy is on the skids but regardless, no mother wants to deny her daughter a new bra if she needs it and psychological hunger runs a close second to the physical variety. Bottom line: low salaries are eroding goodwill and commitment. People want to earn what they’re worth and live a little.

3. Inadequate/insufficient/inappropriate housing. Chronic and fairly widespread, the housing problem in Cuba is like the health care problem in the US: intractable and inequitably harsh (see note 5). Again, there are many complex reasons for this, from the weather (hurricanes knock down hundreds of homes a year) to shortages of supplies (blame the embargo, the Cuban government, or the guys “helping” cement fall off the truck, the end result is the same: building materials in Cuba are in absurdly short and expensive supply). This housing crunch translates into five generations living in a two-bedroom apartment, 10 people crammed into a one-room solar, generations being raised in albergues (what are supposed to be temporary, post-hurricane shelters), and lovers who can’t find any privacy to get jiggy (see note 6). Bottom line: Major housing problem needs major fixing.

4. The embargo. It costs my sister more than a dollar a minute to call me in Havana, yet she can shoot the shit with Esteban in Brazil for three cents that same minute. But it’s not only the price. In this case, financial frustration is compounded by technical frustration since calls from the USA to Cuba get routed through third countries (the base at Guantánamo Bay excepted of course). This means that sometimes we’re sharing the line with a Korean housewife or an Argentinean carpenter. But at least we have that – it can take a dozen attempts over half an hour or more to place a call to Cuba from the United States. Bottom line: politics preventing families from communicating is frustrating (and cruel).

5. Good old-fashioned exhaustion. Cubans have fought, worked, and withstood. They have suffered and struggled. They have also triumphed, but they are, quite frankly, pooped. Ironically, one of the most divisive decisions in recent years didn’t get much press – the raising of the retirement age (funny how foreign correspondents jumped on Cuba’s liberalization of cell phones like a Beagle does a bitch in heat, but gave short shrift to this big story affecting millions of Cubans countrywide). In early 2009, the government held spirited debates across the country regarding the idea and despite some dissent, raised the retirement age by 5 years for men and women (to 65 for men and 60 for women). These would-be retirees are the same folks that built the Revolution from Day 1 and they are, in large part, pissed. Retirement in Cuba isn’t only a time to kick back a bit and hang with the grandkids. It’s a time to finally make some money. Those aforementioned perpetually low salaries are rivaled only by perpetually low pensions and folks of retirement age often work in parallel markets to augment their meager earnings. Bottom line: it’s great there are pensions, but people want them like, yesterday, not five years from now.

I don’t have any answers, but I know 2010 is going to require a lot of patience, on everyone’s part.


1. Anyone who doubts there’s a digital divide in today’s iPad/YouTube/Twittering world should come to Cuba where the scintillating beeps and squeaks of dial-up are just enough to keep us connected (sort of – it’s so slow even streaming audio is impossible). More than once in the past 8 years, I’ve had young ‘uns up north give me a blank stare when I tell them my connection is measured in kbps. ‘What’s that?’ they ask me.

2. Like anywhere and everywhere, moneyed people in Cuba can create choice. Pay double the price for a loaf and there’s no waiting in line for bread. Shell out ten times the bus fare and you can ride downtown swiftly and comfortably in a 1956 Chevy. And yes, $7 an hour will get you a (slightly faster) WiFi connection in the fanciest hotels. Alas, while that choice is available to some Cuban bloggers, I’m not one of them.

3. In all my travels, I have never seen a people more able to ignore a ringing phone than Cubans.

4. Ongoing consolidation of ministries should help, but it’s causing other types of frustration not limited to job losses.

5. Housing in Cuba and healthcare in the US share another parallel in that neither problem is black and white but rather an awkward shade of gray. True, there is no one sleeping on the streets in Cuba. Likewise, no one in the US will be turned away from an ER for lack of insurance. This does not mean, however that this type of housing and that type of care is good or desirable.

6. This last is particularly hard on gay folks. While parents typically allow their grown (or nearly) breeder children to bring home their honeys for some loving, queer kids/adults usually don’t have that luxury. Since it’s extraordinarily difficult for Cubans of any age to get their own apartment, if Mama don’t like homos, you ain’t getting any in your own bed. I personally believe overcrowded housing and lack of privacy have tangible knock-on effects elsewhere in the Cuban reality from HIV prevalence (it’s hard to negotiate condom use during a back alley quickie) to divorce rates. Over 50% of marriages on the island fail (60% in Havana), giving Cuba one of the world’s highest divorce rates. Not surprising: what would you do if you had to live with your in-laws?!


Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban Revolution