Tag Archives: Henry Reeve

What Cubans Won’t Say

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bay of Pigs?
Yes we can!

Missile Crisis?
Yes we can!

Special Period?
Yes we can (eventually)!

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

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

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

McGyver’s got nothing on the Cubans.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Cuba, ¡sí, se puede!


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

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

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


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

Visions of Port-au-Prince

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

That spontaneous little tent camp that abutted ours? They razed it the other day to make way for the new Ministry of Public Health. So they say. Regardless of what’s constructed in the bulldozed plot, I don´t know what the families who were surviving there will do, or where they´ll go. For now, they´re squeezed into a narrow strip of no-man´s-land where chickens wade in standing water picking at garbage and bulldozers mound detritus closer and closer to their makeshift kitchen.

It has been raining all night. “How did you sleep?” I ask my neighbor, a doctor from Guantánamo who has been serving in Haiti a year already and treats her patients in capable Creole. “OK, but I wake up tired.” This is common: sleep is elusive, especially when it’s raining. With each drop you think of a different person – the malnourished four month-old; the young girl caring for her three smaller siblings; and the 12-year old boy who is now the head of his household, made fast a man by the earthquake. No matter how much good the world is doing Haiti, regardless of the size and sincerity of the tender outpouring, no one can control today and tomorrow and the next day’s most pressing problem: the rain. Perhaps more than any other place on earth, in Haiti March 2010, you don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.

Outside the gate of the Cuban camp, that wind is laced with an acrid smoke from all the burning garbage. Mixed with the dust, it makes a toxic cocktail. There are people living in cars of course and tents pitched in the middle of rubble-edged streets. Even folks whose homes are intact prefer to sleep in tents in the driveway or family courtyard. The earthquake is too fresh in their minds, the 6.1 aftershock fresher still. Signs on the outside of partially crushed homes read: ´Help us! We need water and food´ in three (or more) languages.

You´ve seen the destruction already, repeatedly, on one of your 150 channels. But living among it, with the dust and dirt filling your eyes and nose and mouth is something else entirely. Flies swarm over garbage, shit, and people. Four-story buildings are flattened like millefeuille pastries with chunks of concrete-encrusted rebar dangling from skewed balconies like Christmas lights or strings of rock candy. Thinking about what lies beneath isn’t advised. People are starving literally to death, yet there are mounds of food for sale everywhere: fried chicken, grilled hotdogs and corn on the cob, fresh fruits, vegetables, bread, and rice.

Inside the camps, conditions are not fit for cattle, truly. But the children. Smiling and laughing and dancing in spite of it all. They’re adorable and wide eyed and play alongside garbage heaps shouting ‘ blan! blan!’ (whitey! whitey!) with affection when I walk by. I joke with them, flashing the peace and thumbs up sign and dancing to music only I (and maybe they) can hear. It’s my only way to communicate beyond my high school French. More often than not, they’re barefoot and bare bottomed. It’s heartbreaking. I make them smile, just for now, but Patch Adams I am not.

Back within the walls of our encampment, vendors set up shop, peddling boots, golden-colored watches and fine shirts encased in plastic. They´ve got the Cubans´ number. The sneakers are name brand and spotless, though many are used – or to be precise, no longer of use to their owners who are dead. Some lovely pharmacists who arrived with me just over a week ago are already approaching their 30 kilo baggage allowance, having shopped within our walls to the limit permitted under their contract as part of the Cuban emergency medical team. Meanwhile, Wilfred, a Haitian who worked at the Military Hospital before the quake, runs a commissary where we buy sort of cold Cokes and Colt 45. Prestige, the Haitian beer, is in high demand and runs out fast. One friend, who has been in Haiti for more than two years, takes a long pull on his beer and tells me: “best to stay anaesthetized.” If only.

And I thought Cuba was surreal.


Filed under Here is Haiti, Uncategorized

First Daybreak in Haiti

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

It´s dark still but I can´t sleep. The low drone of heavy earthmoving equipment, the lingering smell of burning garbage, the symphony of cell phones chirping with incoming messages all conspire me from sleep. But above all, guilt is due the old ¨gringo alarm clock¨ – cocks crowing incessantly. It´s amazing, the number of roosters, hens, and chicks running around our camp at the defunct military hospital in Port-au-Prince (see note 1). I never understood how owners of free-running (see note 2) chickens keep track of them. Here in post-quake Haiti I´m even more baffled by chicken behavior – how can they run around willy nilly with so many hungry people about?

When I emerge from my blue igloo, the sun hasn´t yet come out. No matter: I´m sweating like a pig. The type of muggy here is like none I´ve known save for on a pre-Giuliani subway in August. Though there´s still no sun, an ominous light I don´t like hovers above the clearing where clothes lines are strung. I walk over to the dangling bras, jeans, and t-shirts to check if the metallic, cold light is the effect of fluorescents – the generators have already started up and the tubes have been flicked on around the camp. But no, it´s just an ugly filtered light hanging there over the piles of dried almond leaves covering the ground.

There´s a spontaneous refugee camp just adjacent to the Cuban installation, a few families is all, and the women and children fill their water buckets at the spigot at the far end of our camp. Since (some) Cubans share genetic similarities with Haitians (note 3), it´s hard to know who is who. I cover all bases with the smiling fellow sweeping up the almond leaves this morning, starting with bonjour followed quickly by buenos días.

Good day? Let´s hope so. Welcome to Haiti, March 2010.

Next up: Visions of Port-au-Prince…

1. Their brethren ended up on my plate twice yesterday, so I guess getting roused at 5:45 in the morning is a small price to pay.

2. I´m talking about chickens that have free reign, not free ranging like in the US. These birds rule the streets, parks, and patios of the developing world. How do their owners identify them? How come they aren´t stolen? How come they don´t make a run for it, the dumb birds? Interesting side note: I have decades of Latin American experience, but still am baffled by simple Latino chicken behavior.

3. And some – like the guy from Villa Clara did, moments before typing this – deny it.


Filed under Here is Haiti