Tag Archives: medical diplomacy

What Cubans Won’t Say

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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!

Notes

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.

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

Those Faithful Cubans

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Back in the 1850s, when everyone from priests to sugar barons were fighting for their piece of the pie (and their piece of mulatta ass, let’s be frank), this island was known as “la siempre fidelísima Isla de Cuba.” The forever faithful island of Cuba.

As a yuma married to a Cuban for going on nine years now, I can tell you this fidelity question has nagged me long and hard. And I’ve finally reached the tipping point. It took some time, though.

I remember when I was a tenderfoot on these shores – all bright-eyed and basking like a well-fed turtle, not bothered by termites in my bed or even reggaeton (see note 1) – and how much I still had to learn. On one of those fine sunny days way back when, I was seaside with some friends (a pair of ex-pat Europeans who bailed long ago) having a few cold drinks and taking the ocean air.

‘But don’t you wonder where he was?’ my friend asked. She’s one of those naturally beautiful, smart women who always seems to get what she wants even when she’s not entirely sure what that is.

‘Nah.’ I said. ‘I trust him implicitly.’ Did I really just say that? More to the point, do I really believe it? Me, who has only trusted implicitly five people my whole life, four of whom share my last name? It slipped out, but it was true. At least I wanted to think it was true.

The distinguished gent across from me, a rich well-traveled Turk who was living in Cuba on a lark, raised his eyebrow and his glass. ‘I wouldn’t trust anyone here implicitly, querida,’ he said sipping his Bucanero.
_____

It was my first summer here – 2002. I’d never even seen a spit-roasted pig or the inside of a hospital (see note 2) and my husband and I were spending August camping around the island. I was blissfully unaware of the depth of my ignorance about Cuba – had I known then what I know now and I had known how confused I’d still be all these years later, I may have run away and quit before my Cuban odyssey ever really started.

The car packed high with tent and stove, kitchen kit and several gallons of water, we went way off the beaten path. Making our way across the country we’d just pick a place on the map and go. This is how we found ourselves kicking up dirt on a deserted road heading towards Punta Covarrubias in god forsaken Las Tunas (see note 3). We saw nothing for miles – no birds stirred the air, nary a lizard snuck out his tongue. Not one car or person appeared in the 90 minutes we were on that rutted road. Finally the sea grew into view and with it came gales of laughter.

When we pulled up between pines as thin as a Cuban campesino, we saw a panel truck and a party in full swing. The beach and lone hotel were deserted – closed for the season or some other confounding Cuban reason – but these folks had come to let their hair down and hot dog!, roast a pig.

My husband busted out a bottle of rum and we took turns rotating the pig. Dominos materialized of course. We got to know our hosts in that way Cubans have of making fast friends. They were lovely people, country folk who worked hard and had the calluses to prove it. With the sun dipping low, we swapped addresses (none of us had phones in our homes) and I promised to send Eliades the photos we’d taken.

“On no! Don’t send them to me. My wife will kill me if she finds out!”

And here I’d thought the buxom brunette with the sunburned collarbone he’d been fondling all day was his wife. Silly me.
_____

Not long thereafter, I was on the 100 bus going to a meeting. It was one of those oppressive Havana days when tempers are short, the sun’s rays are long and you’re sweating as soon as you step from the shower. In sum, a typical July day in these parts. The 100 bus, I should mention, ‘tiene sus cosas‘ as we say here – it has it’s thing going on.

This bus runs through Marianao – a very working class, very black neighborhood run thick with bling and babalawos – from where it descends to the seashore in Miramar. In summer, this bus is an asses to elbows, hips to groin crush of humanity desperate to get to the “beach” (no sand, just a nasty species of shoreline rock known as diente de perro). At these times, boys ride the 100 shirtless and the girls are more scandalously clad than usual (if that’s possible). It’s so crowded daredevils hang from the windows, hitching a ride from the outside.

On this day, I was all up in it inside the bus. There was no choice but to squash up against the strangers squeezing in around me. I tried to angle away from any erogenous zones – theirs and mine. As we crossed Calle 51, the crowd crushed in tighter and I felt a warm rush of air on my face.

“Come to the beach with me baby,” a young, chiseled guy chuffed in my ear. I turned away, making sure to steer clear of his bulge.

“I don’t think my husband would approve,” I snapped.

“You’re married? So what?” the kid responded, pressing in tighter against me.
_____

Some years ago, I was let in on a secret. It wasn’t really a secret (a concept which is completely foreign to most Cubans) but rather one of those things that people know about but no one mentions: the two family phenomenon. I had drawn breath 32 years before I’d ever known that there were men who keep two families. Not Big Love style, but two secret families – one on one side of town, the younger on the other.

I have one friend, the poor soul, who discovered the ignoble injustice as her dearly beloved lay on his deathbed. On that day, she had brought him his breakfast and coffee just like every day since he had been hospitalized. She kissed him goodbye and turned to leave just as a second woman came in, breakfast and coffee thermos in hand, trailing two kids. The Other Wife with The Other Children who had no idea they had a half-brother and -sister on the other side of town. The bastard died not long thereafter. My friend and I don’t talk about it.

The same thing befell another friend, Josue. As an adult, he discovered his father had kept another family secreted away, also with kids – two brothers Josue spent a whole life not knowing.

I wonder about men who are so weak and insecure they need two women, two sets of kids, two lives. I imagine it must be extraordinarily stressful and hard to keep straight. I wonder how they look themselves in the mirror.
_____

Don’t believe for a second it’s only the men. Rosario is a perky (natural) blond with the hips of a mulatta and the ass of a negress. Her husband Julian is not only hot, he’s a talented, super successful musician to boot. They have a beautiful son together. One morning Julian woke up to an empty house. Turns out Rosario had married a Mexican on the side to leave the country and took the boy with her. She ditched the Mexican as soon as possible of course; she and the boy now live in Miami.

And what I’ve seen during my work abroad, covering the Cuban medical missions? Por favor. These folks serving two years in godforsaken places are like sailors on shore leave the way they hook up with one another. And the longer and harder the posting, like Haiti or Pakistan? Let’s just say it’s far from ‘la siempre fidelísima Isla de Cuba.’

For someone like me, faithful as a damn dog, this is all pretty disturbing. What does ‘faithful’ mean here, I wonder? Does it even translate? Does giving head count as cheating? Getting it? How about a mercy fuck? I’m not sure I want to know. What I do know, now that I’ve learned a little about Cuba, is that I wouldn’t necessarily say implicitly…

Notes
1. For the record, I have always been bothered by cold water showers and turds at the beach.

2. Since then I’ve been regularly employed as a journalist (take that OFAC!) by MEDICC Review which has thrust me inside all sorts of Cuban hospitals – from pediatric to post-disaster.

3. Very near here is one of the points of highest illegal immigration to the United States in all of Cuba. So common and scheduled are the super fast speed boats that pick up Cubans to zip them across the Straits to Florida they’re called ‘Yutongs’ – our equivalent of a Greyhound.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, camping, Cuban customs, Cuban phrases, Living Abroad, off-the-beaten track, Relationships