Tag Archives: private enterprise in Cuba

Apretando Mi Corazón: Cuban Emigration

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All my friends are talkin’ about leavin’, about leavin’

So goes the little pop ditty in heavy rotation on one of the satellite radio stations I favor. I’d bet my life Cuba never crossed the songwriter’s mind, but it so easily could have been written by my friend Alma, my prima Anabel, or my colleague Jorge.

Or me.

The song is entitled Ghosts and we’re surrounded by them here as certainly as the water which hems us in, as omnipresent and nebulous as the bureaucracy that hobbles Cuban greatness.

Can you hear me sighing? Crying? Thankfully not, but somewhere out there, not too far from where you read and where I write, there’s a Cuban pining for the friends that have left or for those they’ve left behind.

Or not.

Emigration is a little like death: everyone has their own way of grieving and no one has the right to judge – least of all me with the relative freedom of movement I enjoy. Some people block out departed loved ones as soon as that exit permit is stamped or the fast boat slips silently from shore. Until they’re due back for a visit, in which case copious gifts are expected. And they always do. Return, because the pull of this patria is too strong to resist indefinitely and bear gifts because the guilt – self-imposed and otherwise – of leaving is heavy. Besides, what better way to prove the grass is indeed greener than to come loaded with loot? (see note 1)

Where will her roots grow? Photo by Caitlin Gorry.

What it amounts to is ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ It’s a wholly common coping mechanism here, in fact. Or rather than a way to cope, it’s simply part of the cultural sofrito. After all, many a liaison – and even marriages – (mal)function due to ‘out of sight out of mind,’ and the related ‘what you don’t know won’t hurt you.’ Until you do, but that’s another story.

Some Cubans, meanwhile, go to the other extreme: they pine and fret and share each morsel of news with every person they meet. Iraida got her driver’s license; Alain saw his first St Patrick’s Day parade; Yoselvis likes Burger King, McDonald’s not so much. This is my approach for keeping close everyone I left behind in my own émigré drama. Willingly taking leave of a lifetime of friendships – most Cubans don’t realize we share this in common.

Emigration is a knotty business, muddled by politics vs. agency, needs vs. desires, illusions and disenchantment, resignation, empowerment, circumstance and happenstance. And I’ve faced a lot of loss and separation on this end. Many of my Cuban friends and family – relationships I’ve fed and nurtured over the past 10 years with all the creativity and passion my heart allows – are leaving. Invariably, I’m tipped off when they suddenly start speaking English and going to every doctor they can, even the dentist.

The details of leaving vary, but the reasons rarely do. Frustrated and fed up, my friends want meaningful work at a dignified salary; yearn to improve their families’ station; and itch to experience something beyond their block, barrio, or province. A leave-taker myself, and with what I know beyond this city, island, and hemisphere, our emigration conversations have been in-depth and interesting.

My 20-something friends ache for independence – from mom and the state – though many are clearly unprepared for the reality fleeing the nest and flying solo imply. My 40-something friends, meanwhile, are tired. Tired of only having water un día sí, un día no; tired of waiting on the bus, permissions, and promises that may never materialize; tired of hunger and boredom and heat without respite, tired of the shortages and struggle and slogans – the endless luchita that erodes the will to go on blackout by blackout.

Just today, after a rash of events that included death of the family dog, a trip to the pediatric hospital and stint at the police station (neither resulting in prolonged care or detention por suerte), a friend reached the end of her rope: “I’m a revolutionary, but there are limits to what a person can take. I can’t take any more. I’m ready to get on any lancha or plane to get me out of here.”

I relate to both groups: fiercely independent, I began working at 13 and left home four years later, so I get my young friends’ anti-dependence stance. What trips me up and out, though, is how they replicate the precise behavior they condemn: they don’t participate in any community endeavors like the block association, because they say the block association doesn’t get anything done. In turn, the association blames ineffectual municipal authorities, who blame overworked and gridlocked provincial authorities and on and on goes the blame game up the hierarchy in a cycle of non-action.

I ask if a renovation or re-thinking of these mechanisms is possible (obviously it’s desirable), but they give me ten reasons why it isn’t practical. When I suggest that they volunteer or campaign for those positions in local government where they might affect change, I get the same response. It’s a vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy a la vez: things won’t get better because the people charged with improvements are ineffective and/or shackled so why even deign to try to fix what’s broken or work towards positive change? So they cross their arms and give in to the inertia – while eating grandma’s home cooking with provisions provided by her and the state, in clothes washed by mom, after which they shower in a bathroom they’ve probably never scrubbed themselves. They are resigned, leisurely.

Out of sight, out of mind? Photo by Conner Gorry.

I know that sounds harsh and as if I’ve written them off. But I feel for this generation. They did get the fuzzy end of the revolutionary lollipop after all. They were born into the hardship of the Special Period, just missing the halcyon Eastern Bloc boom, when you could take your honey out for dinner and dancing on the average salary. The emotional, exuberant revolutionary hey day when the entire country put their backs and minds into creating a more just, equitable society was also before their time. To boot, their lives were proscribed by all kinds of dubious innovations like ‘emerging teachers’, the camello, and reggaetón (see note 2).

But there have been positive changes in their lifetimes, too, and when I ask them about the relaxation of restrictions on private property and enterprise or the very public push for full integration of LGBT Cubans into society for instance, they say ‘too little, too late’ or cite non-causal factors for such strides. Many didn’t participate in the national debates that generated these changes, nor have they read or heard Raul’s speeches specifically dealing with these issues – and even thornier ones like travel and the meager salary problem.

When I point out that not all change is good and ask if they’re prepared to take the good with the bad, they say yes – reflexively. Change for the sake of change is their position. And it leaves me wondering what they believe in; I’m coming to think that even if they know, they aren’t prepared to fight for it.

On the whole, my 40-something friends are nostalgic for the late 80s and agree much has changed since then – for good and not so. Back then, you couldn’t even dream of procuring an exit permit to travel abroad (a restriction the majority believes should be lifted, though this involves complexities not everyone is willing or able to recognize). And they praise recent changes, though often such praise isn’t forthcoming without prompting. It makes their resignation doubly troubling – they have the historical context of how great this country was and the maturity to take the longer view (see note 3) but still they want out. When I ask these friends what they would change, they mention freedom to travel (something my own country doesn’t extend its own citizens – another thing we share in common) and less bureaucracy. Some say they want Liberty, capital L.

Mercurial, that liberty thing. Do they realize tyranny comes in many flavors? And that consumer capitalism, powered by its ‘save yourself if you can’ underpinnings, is among the most bitter?  And if you can’t save yourself? Tough luck.

For many, the choice is reduced to resignation or emigration. Neither of which will deliver the liberty or change they so desire, I’m afraid. To be clear: I wholeheartedly support my friends working towards leaving; after all, I did it myself, I left my country and I can leave this one too when I want to. But I miss them something awful once they’re gone.

To the resigned, I say – if you’re going to stick around, stick up for what you believe in. A better Cuba.

Notes

1. OK, so maybe that’s a little crass. Cubans know better than anyone how hard life is here and generally have a genuine desire to help out those back home. Still, doubt creeps in when I learn about the rent-a-bling businesses in southern Florida which lease chunky gold-plated watches, chains thick enough to moor a boat, and rings for every finger to Cubans returning to the island. These doubts are reinforced when I turn sad watching family ruptures at the airport and friends say: ‘that’s all a show, muchacha. Take it with a grain of salt.’

2. This program trained massive amounts of teachers in the minimum amount of time. The idea was to improve the teacher to student ratio, which took a nosedive as older, more experienced teachers retired – often to offer private, complimentary classes to those students who could afford them. More often than not, these emerging teachers weren’t much older than their charges and depended on videotapes and other teaching aides to compensate for their lack of experience. By all accounts, it wasn’t a good approach. Camellos were double-humped hulks pulled by big rig cabs that held over 300 passengers when packed. You still see them in the provinces, but they’ve been phased out in Havana. If you don’t know what reggaetón is, I envy you.

3. Difficulty in taking the long view is not just limited to Cuban youth, I’ve found.

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Cuban Thanksgiving Starring Pavo Butterball

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That Saturday we spent our customary three hours food shopping. Like multi-tasking, live streaming and other modern marvels, one-stop shopping doesn’t compute in Cuba. After years of it, I try to find the fun in shuttling between vegetable markets for the salad fixings and fruit we’ll need for the week, then on to the bakery, the honey man’s house, and the juice bar where they fill your liter-and-a-half bottles with fresh squeezed OJ or pineapple juice for 7 pesos (a whopping 35 or so cents). Then comes the dreaded dollar stores – dreaded because they’re absurdly expensive, they get mobbed on weekends, and they never have everything (and sometimes nearly nothing) you need.

While it may sound romantic in a Parisian/Manhattan, shopping-the-neighborhood kind of way, in reality it’s a crowded, expensive exercise in frustration where you stand on long lines to buy whatever’s available.

The Saturday in question, however, opened a new chapter in shopping distress: cruising the aisles of one of Havana’s biggest and best stocked grocery stores (see note 1), looking for two items we desperately needed (see note 2), we were brought up short in front of a freezer piled high with Butterball turkeys. My first reaction was ‘how many gringos work in that Interests Section anyway?’ (see note 3). Then I thought, ‘Cubans aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving and they definitely aren’t paying…Holy shit! $30 for a 10-pound turkey?!’ I know it has come a long way (figuratively speaking) and it looks plump and juicy wrapped seductively in it’s blue and yellow Butterball wrapper, but thirty bucks? Yowza. With that price tag, our idea of hosting a Thanksgiving feast for our Cuban and Yuma friends fizzled.

As we fielded calls from American strays wanting to know if our feast was on, my friend Angela – another of those lovely women-over-65 I’m so fond of here – called us to invite us to her house for Thanksgiving. An American who has lived here twice as long as me, Angela is a fabulous cook and great hostess. It looked like all was not lost for Cuban turkey day.

Angela lives in the heart of it. She can walk to half a dozen theaters and as many bars. She takes her dog down the block to the Malecón. She’s also steps from my favorite paladar (see note 4) and on Raul’s commute route. Her building is an architectural prize-winner and the two-bedroom apartments are highly livable. Which is why a bunch of notable intellectuals, poets, and athletes also reside there. It’s not quite Fama y Aplauso, but it’s close (see note 5).

Given the status of Angela’s neighbors, I shouldn’t have been surprised when we arrived at her building and encountered a young Cuban woman with a striking grey-eyed, caramel-coated Siberian Husky. I’m not sure I’d ever seen a dog quite like this, and certainly not here in Havana (if you ask me, such northern breeds should be outlawed in these tropical climes). We stopped to pet the dog and ask about him, which is obligatory when running into Cubans in the street with their kids or pets in tow.

“He’s 8 months old,” his owner told us.

“And a big mouth to feed, eh?” my husband averred with that food security subtext that laces many casual conversations here.

“The problem is, we can’t get him to eat anything. He’s so fussy he won’t even eat steak!” said the young woman who had fed her dog something 11 million Cubans only dream of.

After picking my jaw off the ground I thought: ‘Terry is living on rice and lentils and this woman is feeding beef to her pure bred.’ I smiled weakly. ‘I bet I could buy five Butterballs with what she paid for that pup on the black market.’ Cuban contradictions: they just keep on coming.

The aromas drifting from Angela’s kitchen, through the living room, to the balcony and Malecón beyond were pure home: golden crispy turkey, herby stuffing, fresh-baked pie, drippings, and gravy. As we took it all in, Angela presented us to the other guests: Inés, a very proper black woman who is an urban planner; César, her multi-lingual, globe-trotting husband who is an ecological agriculture expert and set off my Gaydar immediately (see note 6); and Moisés, an accomplished professor and set designer – no Gaydar required.

Everyone had brought something to the party and the sideboard was heavily laden. There was a green salad, an eggplant dish, a squash dish, stuffing (which is a hard concept to explain to Cubans, who, even as they’re eating it, can’t believe stale bread could taste so good), sweet potato pie, and gravy. But the jewel in the menu’s crown was the cranberry sauce.

I believe the world is divided into two kinds of people: those who eat “cranberry sauce” from a can and those who don’t (and won’t). You can imagine which camp the Cook’s Illustrated-subscribing, Epicurious-browsing Angela falls into. So rather than import a can of that…whatever it is, she made one of those clever culinary punts Havana requires: she re-hydrated her Trader Joe’s dried cranberries, chopped in some orange and zest and I don’t know what else and let it stew overnight. It was delicious, and a delicious first, for the majority of the guests.

Meanwhile, the perfectly plucked and tucked turkey sat in all its crispy, golden glory on the kitchen counter. Angela and I chatted as she finished the gravy. Her beloved next door neighbors (so beloved they share custody of her dog and recently surprised her after one of her off-island trips by painting her entire apartment) always partake in the feast, she told me, but never with the other guests. Instead, they take the casserole dishes and salad bowl, gravy boat, and platter of meat down the hall to eat in the comfort of their own home. I was glad Angela gave me the head’s up – otherwise I might have blurted out something off-the-wall inappropriate when a long-haired Cuban loped into the kitchen, scooped the turkey off the counter, and spirited it out the front door. For once, I kept my mouth shut and the turkey arrived 20 minutes later all carved and artfully arranged on two platters: one for light meat, one for dark. Mysteriously, there was no skin on those platters and for a second I wondered if Angela’s neighbors were part of the Husky lady’s clan. Perhaps they were saving the best part not for the dog, but for themselves, I reasoned, though that would go against what I know about (most) Cubans and these folks in particular (see note 7).

Finally it was time to dig in and the two Yuma and four Cubans did what millions around the United States and expats around the world were doing this fourth Thursday in November: we ate, drank, and made merry. And when we couldn’t pack in another bite, the longhaired neighbor with a junkie’s slope shuffled in and carried off the moveable feast. At least another six people were going to sup on that pavo Butterball and try cranberries for the first time.

Inés dozed in the rocker. Angela passed coffees around, while my husband and César swapped Poland travel stories. With the ¡buen provechos! still echoing around the apartment, I realized this was my first Thanksgiving in Cuba that really felt like it. And it had more to do with Angela and César, Inés, Moisés, and my husband than Butterball. For these old and new friends, I’m thankful.

Notes

1. These stores used to be called “diplotiendas” in the 90s because only diplomats and foreigners were allowed to shop there. This was back when dollars were illegal for Cubans to hold. I was surprised when I rocked up to one of these stores in 1993 (at Calle 70 & 3ra, the store in this post coincidentally) and I had to show my passport to gain entry. In another of those innumerable instances here where there’s a rule and 20 ways to break it, my Cuban friends followed close on my heels and we got all giddy and went weak in the knees ogling the bright, shiny products displayed aisle after aisle.

2. For weeks we’ve been trying to get dishwashing soap. Now, coffee has gone missing: we’ve been to 7 stores in the past 3 days searching for coffee. Needless to say, my jones has already kicked in. As I write this, our house has neither dishwashing soap nor coffee – a situation we’ll have to resolve somehow, fast.

3. Until 1977, the two countries had no diplomatic representatives in their respective capitals. That year, US and Cuba opened what are called Interests Sections instead of consulates or full blown embassies in Havana and Washington. Also, in the writing of this post, I learned there are just 51 US citizens employed at the US Interests Section in Havana. They can’t all be buying turkeys can they?!

4. Paladares are privately-owned and operated restaurants found in most cities across the island. You read right: privately owned and operated, and these, along with other legal private enterprises in Cuba (renting out rooms, taxis, cafeterias) are making some Cubans very rich. So when you read about everything in Cuba being owned and run by the state and all Cubans being poor, think again.

5. Fama y Aplauso is a 20-story high rise on the corner of Infanta & Manglar in a nondescript pocket of Havana near the Estadio Latinoamericano. Some of Cuba’s most famous musicians, athletes, and policy wonks live here, in lovely 2- or 3-bedroom apartments with expansive views over the city. The residents’ star power is why the building is nicknamed Fame and Applause.

6. In Cuba, homosexuals are one thing, while men who have sex with men (MSM) are in a category all their own. Machismo – that complex ingrained, learned, and replicated construct that has effects on everything here from household chores to condom use – means few men identify as homosexuals, even as they fiddle the flesh flute of their extramarital boy toys. In fact, it’s not uncommon for Cuban men to have a wife and kids and male lovers. I know several.

7. I’ve just learned from my husband that it’s a cultural thing: eating bird skin just doesn’t appeal (and it is weird if you think about it). Still, that doesn’t keep Cubans from sharpening their elbows when it comes to apportioning the glistening, saffron-hued skin of a freshly roasted pig.

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The Virtues of a $5 Haircut

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I know, I know. You get what you pay for. But I’ve had some very good Cuban haircuts for five bucks. Unfortunately, Paco pissed me off so royally some years ago, (for non hair-related reasons), I swore never to return. And I haven’t. Yo sé, yo sé. Cutting off my nose to spite my face (seems like my penchant for quotes, axioms, and aphorisms is carrying over to this post). I also got a tolerable $2 cut in the Merida market.

But I hold the Cubans to a way higher standard than Rosa in the Mexican mercado. Cubans have what we call “swing” here in Havana – a kind of tropical taste and sensibility that’s captivating in a smutty, unsophisticated kind of way. We’re talking Spandex, Daisy Dukes, and Lucite stilettos (usually all at once), plus Dolce & Gabbana knock-offs so bad the t-shirts look like they say D&C – which is something else entirely.

Nevertheless, there’s a strata of Cuban women who favor linen over Lycra and maintain some seriously stylish ‘dos. These fashionistas led me to the private-salon-that-shall-remain-nameless in question. The owner had lived abroad for nearly a decade – surely some of that sabor internacional had rubbed off. Indeed, the salon was the fanciest I’d seen here outside of a five-star hotel: there were fat issues of not-too-outdated French Vogue lying around and the two stations were crowded with expensive Italian product. There was even a professional hair washing sink – improperly mounted so it gave you a wicked crick in the neck, but it was the first I’d seen in a private Cuban salon (see note 1).

Needless to say, I was encouraged as I flipped through Vogue and the owner lathered up my husband’s voluminous locks. I noticed the framed photos of hot hair models on the walls, the professional photo lights standing off in a corner awaiting the next shoot, and the matching, logo-emblazoned aprons worn by the owner and the hairdresser (see note 2). I did notice, however, that Anabel – henceforth referred to as ‘the hairdresser from hell’ – didn’t have a particularly attractive hair cut herself. Red Flag #1. And she was steamrolling my husband (no small feat) with her opinions about how to control his wild child hair – most of which involved expensive product. Red Flag Número Dos. When he rose from the chair looking like the bastard child of Prince Valiant and Ronald McDonald, I got that sinking feeling.

I admit I have a bit of a Sampson complex. No doubt it took root at the age of 8 when my unlovable grandfather thought it a good idea to take scissors to my head (cocktails were surely involved). With a few quick snips, that viejo wrecked my third grade and threw my fledgling self-esteem askew. This is the same man who locked me (briefly) in the trunk of his car and told my mother (his daughter), that her ‘life would improve immeasurably if she got serviced by a man.’ Since then haircuts have made me uneasy, queasy even – as if I were headed for the stirrups and speculum instead of the snip, snip of the salon.

I also remember when I was 11 or so, Laura – the tough talking, coke snorting Italian broad who cut my mom’s hair in Manhattan – refused to cut my hair again after I unleashed a string of invective on her (see note 3). Years later, as an adult no less, I made Honaku cry when I lambasted her for the ‘generic white girl bob’ she had just given me. I didn’t care how swanky her downtown salon was – I let that poor Japanese stylist have it.

So I’ve got a bit of an historic problem with the hairdressers. And it doesn’t matter the cost or country. From Guatemala to Greenwich, two dollars to a hundred – I’ve bitched and bickered about haircuts no matter the place or price. (No wonder hippie philosophies so appeal to me).

And it’s not about the cost, though the pragmatist in me much prefers to pay $25 or less for something that a) takes all of 15 minutes and b) should be done every 4 to 6 months – although Havana’s hairdresser from hell recommended every 2-3 when I asked (Cubans can be such shameless capitalists). At the same time, I’ve got this wacky idea that paying more should translate into higher quality goods and services. Honaku proved me wrong on that one with her $110 bob and Havana disabuses me of the notion on a daily basis. From where you’re sitting, I’m sure $5 sounds outrageously cheap, but consider this: that’s more than a week’s salary for the average Cuban. Who in their right mind would pay a week’s salary for a haircut (see note 4)?

And now, five dollars later, I’m living yet another haircut nightmare. I was going for rock ‘n roll. Unfortunately, Richie Sambora wasn’t what I had in mind (see note 5). Serves me right: when you want a ham and cheese sandwich, you don’t go to a Kosher deli and when you want cool, you don’t go to a hairdresser with Julio Iglesias on the hi-fi and the Playboy bunny logo blanketing her ass. I think the BeDazzler also might have been involved somehow.

All right. I’ll stop. I know it’s all relative and we have Honduras, climate change, and health care to worry about. But I’m damn glad I had the author photo for my forthcoming book squared away before the butchering and thank god hair grows. Until then, I’m avoiding mirrors and embracing hats.

Notes

1. Usually hairdresser here just spritz your head wet and get to cutting. That’s how Paco handled it and though his ‘salon’ was just a chair facing a mirror in a crumbling Centro Habana walk up, the man had moves. The “spritz and go” method was also employed by Javier, another fantastic hairdresser who had no salon but something better – he made house calls, all for $5.

2. At this point, I should have been mindful of some of my other favorite sayings: “all sizzle and no steak”; “all hat, no cattle”; and as we say here “más rollo que película” – literally “more roll than film.”

3. They say cursing is a sign of limited vocabulary, but I’ve found it can be quite effective in the hands of a writer, even at the tender age of 12.

4. Apparently a lot of people are willing to pay this. And a whole lot more

5. I always wanted to be a guitar god, but not necessarily look like one.

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