Tag Archives: Raul Castro

Day 1, Year 0: Cuba and the USA

A bunch of people have asked about what I, CCG, personally think about recent groundbreaking announcements vis-à-vis Cuba, the US, and their respective release of prisoners. Some of you folks who follow my blog, but also a rash of people who read my dispatch for the Daily News (New York’s hometown paper!), came around querying. So to complacer them, you, and me, I’ll give you some of my thoughts on this, Day 1 of Year 0.

For me, the tangible effects this is going to have on Cuban families (and I mean that in the most expansive, criollo way possible) is the most important issue. Any improvement in trade, telecommunications, travel, postal and embassy (!) services, immigration policies, and transparency, translates into some sort of improvement for Cuban families. Ahora: the question is at what cost those improvements? Therein lies the rub, which is why it deserves is own short discussion.

I’m hearing a lot of static in the international media/blogosphere about the ‘Americanization’ of Cuba. First off, I suggest anyone using this term study up on Simón Bolívar, with a little José Martí thrown in for good measure. Second, the idea that US companies like McDonald’s and Starbuck’s are going to roll in and over the island disregards two very important components of the Cuban political reality: 1) the state remains steadfast in its commitment to complete sovereignty and 2) they’ve been thinking about this day for over 50 years. It also ignores two important factors in Cuban daily reality: 1) there are more pressing material problems than satisfying a Big Mac/Frappuccino craving and 2) policy makers are aware of the health dangers (ie chronic disease) burgers and milkshakes pose and so should work to keep them out – protecting public health is especially important in Cuba where the government maintains a universal, free system and regards health and well being as a human right.

Taking these realities into account doesn’t mean that no US chains will stake their claims here, but I think the Cubans will be strategic about whom they let in. Marriott, Hilton and other hotels, Cargill, ADM, and their big ag interest friends, Home Depot, telecommunications providers – these are all likely candidates for early entry into the Cuban market. McDonalds and Starbucks, not so much. Maybe it’s too rosy a picture, but I don’t think the folks running the show are just going to open the floodgates and let US interests run roughshod over the place.

The ‘run run’ (as we say here) amongst some, is that the policy changes won’t stick or even be enacted. One camp reasons the Cubans will finesse a flip flop, while the other argues the US Congress and/or next President (should it not be a Democrat or Rand Paul), will roll back whatever Obama and company have in store for the next year. These bits of ‘logic’ defy logic. First of all, the Cubans would be completely loco to announce such policy changes and then not pursue them – this is just a recipe for disaster given the current context on the island. And as far as Washington goes, US business interests want in on Cuba, like yesterday. The bottom line (pun intended): The desire for increased commerce and trade will trump any tantrums thrown by hard-line Cubans and Republicans regarding Cuba. As Obama has said repeatedly (paraphrasing Einstein), pursuing the same actions over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. And the embargo is a self-defeating policy – another opinion voiced by President Obama in these past few days.

Leaving politics aside, this is an incredibly emotional moment – especially for those of us who have been adversely affected and working so tirelessly to have this Draconian policy reversed. Obviously, change isn’t going to happen with the flip of a switch. There are a lot of messy threads to untangle, many policies and steps to analyze and tweak. For example, the 50% or so of Televisión Cubana that is pirated from US channels – HBO, Showtime, Discovery, ESPN – is going to go by the wayside, sooner rather than later. But after ‘no es fácil’ (it isn’t easy), our favorite saying here is ‘algo es algo’ (something is better than nothing). And the announcements of this past week are a very big something.

Just now, my 51-year old neighbor stopped by. “I never thought I would live to see the day. I knew The Five would return home in my lifetime, but I never thought I’d be alive to witness the normalization of relations. It is a great, great moment in our history.” She came over to congratulate me on the new era of US-Cuban relations (this is happening all over Havana these days: whether stranger, friend or neighbor, everyone is greeting each other with claps on the back, hugs and shouts of ¡felicidades!) and to let me know she’s already renovating a room in her house to rent to Americans, once they can travel here freely.

Personally, I can’t wait. Vamos bien.

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

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

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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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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Black Market a lo Cubano

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If you follow my blog or any similarly semi-intelligent Cuba-related news outlet, you know that things are fast a-changin’ on this side of the Straits. For those out of the loop: in April, 2011, a series of unprecedented policies – which amount to a new (and not without substantial risk) economic paradigm for the country – were approved at the Sixth Communist Party Congress (see note 1).

Though some of my Cuban friends gripe that change isn’t happening fast enough, I’ve been surprised by how many new policies have come to pass as promised: private sales of homes and cars, relaxed regulations for paladares and casas particulares, and the approval of nearly 200 pursuits and services for private enterprise. Other movement towards so-called normalcy is slower and more complicated still: unifying the two official currencies, salary increases, and phasing out the permiso de salida (see note 2) among them.

What these changes will mean for the most vulnerable remains to be seen and I have not a few friends here tormented by uncertainty, anxiety, and a generalized malaise in the face of it all. Uppermost in their hearts and minds: what might these changes mean for the political, social, and ethical tenor of the revolutionary project so many have fought so long to strengthen and so hard to save?

Some days it feels like it’s all going kablooey – that the Cuba we’ve known is reserved now for dewy-eyed nostalgics fingering grainy photos of the 10 million ton harvest. And this is heart breaking to people who have survived so much drama and tragedy: the rending of families in the 60s and 70s, (plus the Bay of Pigs and Missile Crisis), followed by the Mariel boat lift and collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the 80s which led to the torturous Special Period of the 90s. Then there was Fidel passing the baton to hermanito Raúl which I guarantee looks different from your off-island perspective than from ours here in Havana. And let’s not forget the 50 years of sabotage (both bald-faced and covert) by the behemoth to the north, to say nothing of terrorist attacks by US-sheltered individuals and groups.

So before it all goes kaboom (a day late and a dollar short, perhaps?), I’m determined to document the Cuba I’ve known for the past 10 years and the attendant change as accurately, responsibly, and comprehensively as possible. Today, I turn to an examination of the black market.

Jeans and stilettos, perfume and gas. Cigars of course, but also ice cream (Coppelia, the country’s best), and iMacs, milk and meat: it’s all available on Havana’s black market – if you have the hookup or happen upon someone “repurposing” Cuban Clorox or café. In the interest of full disclosure, I have very little direct experience with the black market (or parallel market as Cubans call it) despite a decade in residence; I have no car, so no need for gas, I buy my meat off the cement, fly-spotted counters at my local carnicería, and would love a Mac but don’t earn enough to join that club. Besides, all that shit is stolen (see note 3) and I’ve had enough stuff vicked in my life to know that if you ain’t part of the stolen goods solution, you’re definitely part of the problem.

But then the moral high ground begins to shift (Cuba is funny like that).

—–

Every once in a while, a kind-faced granny shows up at my door selling either eggs (see note 4) or powdered milk – a key ingredient in the Cuban kitchen. Someone on the block must have told her an extranjera lives in Apt 5 because she came straight to my door that first time, knocked hard and called me La Rusa (“The Russian” – old stereotypes die hard). She’s a bit gnarled and I can tell from the edge in her voice and the fade of her blouse that times are tough for the milk-peddling abuelita. Unfortunately, when I need eggs, she has milk; when I want milk, she has eggs. So even though I was keen to help her out, our supply and demand algorithm never quite jived. Last week, her friendly face appeared anew at my door.

“I have eggs,” she said.

“So do I. How about milk?” I asked.

She didn’t have any that day but promised to “resolve” some; I promised to buy it once she did.

Sitting in my office yesterday whittling a Tweet down to 140 characters instead of working, I once again heard her hearty knock at my door. Smiling big, she told me she had three sacks of milk for sale at $2 a pop (a 50 cent savings over the official store price). I agreed to take one, glad I was finally getting the chance to help out granny. Until she pulled the sachet from her frayed knapsack: I, we both, were taking milk from the mouths of Cuban babes. What my elderly friend was selling was the milk the government guarantees to every child under 7 and I’d just purchased 600 grams of it. I knew that milk wasn’t going to be too tasty. 

—–

This transaction got me to thinking about where all this stolen stuff comes from and put me in mind of my friend Alberto. He has an old Lada on which his livelihood depends. Driving around recently, I noticed a balón de gas (the 20-lb tanks used here for home cooking) wedged behind his seat. Seems Alberto had converted his gas-powered car into a propane-propelled one.

This was a smart investment on his part: although the conversion kit cost $350 and had to be imported from abroad, Alberto fills that tank – which takes him 120 km or so – on the black market for just $5. By way of comparison, that same $5 would buy 15 liters of real gas on the black market; just over four at the pump. I’m glad Alberto has figured a way to enlarge his margins, but wonder about the families who show up to fill their kitchen tanks to be told “no hay” (there isn’t any).

This same pattern repeats itself with steaks and blocks of Gouda, stamps for official paperwork (I was surprised to be asked to produce receipts for my bank-bought stamps on my last visit to immigration) and cooking oil. And while I can appreciate the need for every last Cuban having to do something (or something extra-legal) to make ends meet, the more I parse the situation, the more unsettling it becomes.

And it makes me realize that a certain amount of that aforementioned moral ground is shifting below my feet. At these times I’m forced to ask myself: is this is a part of Cuban culture I wish to participate in? Unluckily for my milk-thieving granny, it is not. But I’m sure she’ll find other clients: as long as there are commodities like oil, meat, and milk to “redirect,” and resell for pure profit, folks will do it.

 As I said: old habits die hard.

 Notes

1. These political powwows are held every so often (the last was in 1997) or mejor dicho: whenever sufficient excrement threatens to make contact with the cooling element, if you know what I mean.

2. All of these issues came to the fore in nationwide public referendum-type debates held in late 2010. The permiso de salida is an exit permit which is mandatory for overseas travel by Cubans and residents. It earns the country revenue, but is also a barrier to travel – an issue that has to be reconciled somehow and soon.

 3. Except the goods in the black market Mac store. None of this is stolen, but rather all new, in-the-box gear with warranty and all, purchased in Miami and spirited into the country.

 4. Eggs aren’t usually stolen either, but rather the product of home-raised hens.

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

Drinking the Capitalist Kool-Aid in Cuba

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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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Cubans Do it Better: Adventures at the DMV Part I

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I’ve never been a fan of the DMV. There’s the bureaucracy of course – a paradigm of grouchy inefficiency with which I’m sure you’re familiar – but it’s more than that. It’s too many hoops to jump through and rules and the petty (but potent) power wielded by the cogs in the department of motor vehicles machine that chap my ass.

So when my US driver’s license expired, my gut seized up and more hairs grayed as I imagined the horror of the Cuban DMV (see note 1). The adventure started when I tried to get a copy of Ley #60 – Cuban rules of the road – to study up. The DMV didn’t have any and after a brief consultation, the nice lady cop suggested I check across town at the driving school.

I hoofed it over there in a McCarthy-era Dodge and walked a dozen long, hot blocks under a blazing Cuban summer sun only to have the dark, heavy-lidded compañera at the reception desk inform me that they didn’t have any. After almost nine years in Cuba, I know not to ask ‘why?’ But my disappointment must have showed, for the desultory lady livened up to say: “the new regulations are being implemented. The books are being printed up now.”

“and they’ll be ready?…”

The somnolent curtain descended again and she shrugged. After a moment she offered to transfer a digital version of the old road rules book onto a memory stick if I had one.

I didn’t.

So it was back to the drawing board, which meant I’d have to go about things ‘a lo cubano‘ or ‘por la izquierda‘ (see note 2). An Internet search brought up Ley #60 (all 67 pages of it) and friends supplied the same classes and practice quizzes given at the fancy, hard-currency driving school.

I set to studying.

Some of the Spanish tripped me up (I had never had cause to use the word contén and can anyone explain to me in plain English the difference between a remolque and semi remolque?!) but luckily, Cuba is a signatory to the 1949 UN Convention on Road Traffic, so most of the US road rules with which I’m familiar applied. I skimmed the rural transit section – surely I don’t need to know the tare weight of a tractor trailer or speed limits for horse carriages. I took the quizzes, did OK, and readied myself for the written exam (see note 3).

I arrived bright and early – a bit nervous, but excited. For no reason, it turns out: the computers were down. I’d have to come back the next day. “Or better yet in two,” said the cop with the boyish good looks and tender smile. He was easy on the eyes even as he delivered the bad news.

My time was running out you see and this unforeseen delay was deeply troubling. I was due to leave soon on assignment and I would have to cover a lot of ground, in a context where a car is compulsory – think LA or the French Riviera. I needed this gig. We needed the money. The debt I imported from my life “before” in the US continued to grow (see note 4) and my income wasn’t keeping pace. This was our money for most of 2011. I couldn’t blow it. I had to get that Cuban license.

Countdown: Four Weeks

I returned two days later to take the written. The system was still down. I asked the comely cop for a phone number (no, not his – faithful readers of Here is Havana know I’m hopelessly devoted to my husband) to call before trudging over again. I phoned the next day to see if thee system was up and running.

Game on.

The waiting room was archetypical Caribbean, sporting coral-colored walls and a phalanx of tropical plants leading to the balcony where new drivers awaited their laminated, holograph-imprinted licenses. That balcony was my goal. Poco a poco.

I waited to be called into the exam room. A nearly life-sized poster of Raúl loomed above me. He wore his poker face and olive greens, but somehow remained avuncular in a way that Fidel can be but isn’t often. The quote emblazoned in red below brother Raúl was new to me: “gossip is a divisive and counterrevolutionary act.” Here was a man after my own heart.

I was summoned into the exam room and let the AC wash over me. A dozen computer terminals occupied by wrinkled grandpas and young studs in bad Hugo Boss knock offs lined the room. This was much more high tech than I expected and more modern than I was used to. All around me I saw furrowed brows punctuated by nervous laughter. Men outnumbered women four to one.

I sat at terminal 3 and began the test. I knew most of the answers but not all. The Spanish was somewhat confusing and I second guessed myself. I got the question about tractor tare weights and failed by one wrong answer – just shy of the required 75 points to pass. Another setback. More stress, which grew when the proctor with a keen eye for cheaters (and there were several) told me I had to wait a week before I could take it again. No exceptions. No overrides of the computer system.

“Study up and come back next Friday at 11am when I start my shift.” Was that a wink or a nudge I saw when she said that? I certainly hoped so and planned to show up next week with a package of high quality, hard currency coffee for the affable cop proctor.

Countdown: Three Weeks

I read every word on each page of the 67-page long law. I highlighted tricky concepts and took copious notes. I checked terms with my husband I didn’t understand. One sign – described, but not pictured anywhere – was a complete mystery to everyone we consulted. It had something to do with railroad crossings, we got that much, but otherwise was a complete puzzlement. The written exam always had a ‘what does this sign mean?’ question, but what were the odds I’d get this one?

I returned the Friday following nervous, but more confident (the coffee weighing down my handbag helped). I hailed Raúl and his sage words for all the revolutionary chismosos and strode into the exam room. The nice proctor was nowhere in sight. I felt stood up and doubted the policewoman with dyed jet black hair and fire engine lipstick would be as kind.

‘Focus, Conner, focus,’ I admonished myself.

Elvira’s Cuban cousin left the room and the kid on my right with a marijuana leaf belt buckle as big as my palm began feeding answers to his socio on my left. Really? Cheating on the DMV permit test? That’s unethical and dangerous; I don’t want to share the road with the idiot that needs to cheat on the written. Should I tell Elvira, I wondered?

‘Focus, Conner, focus.’

Then came question 11. It was a red and white railroad sign with an inverted V below a red X. The mystery sign from the night before. I called Elvira over.

“Hi there. I’m a little confused. I’ve never seen this sign here. Does it even exist in Cuba?”

She laughed and leaned over my shoulder to check out the sign on the screen. “Well, some are international and correspond to the treaty to which Cuba is a signatory, but you don’t necessarily see them around.”

“Oh,” I nodded.

She leaned in again to consult my screen. “Don’t worry. You answered correctly.”

Buoyed, I set to the remaining nine questions. When I’d finished, I started from the beginning, re-reading each question carefully, parsing the Spanish. I went through all 20 again and reviewed my work. I was just about to click ‘Finish and get results,’ when a film crew entered and started shooting. Elvira told the classroom to continue as if they weren’t there. It was the prime time program On the Road where the finer points of Cuban road rules are discussed for a half hour each week (see note 5). Seems yours truly was going to feature.

My hand was sweating. I hovered over ‘Finish and get results.’ I clicked. 95 out of 100, with just one incorrect response: question #11 with the mystery railroad sign. Gracias, Elvira.

Stay tuned for Part II of Cubans Do it Better: The Road Test
.

Notes

1. Officially called the Oficina de Licencia de Conducción, conveniently attached to the local police precinct.

2. Note to self: when a problem needs resolving, best to start “Cuban-style,” consulting with informal channels known literally as doing things “via the left.”

3. This process also included supplying $30 in official stamps, an eye exam (performed at my local polyclinic), a medical exam, and a couple of photos.

4. Note to all would-be expats: this is a really bad move. IRS, student loans, family floats – whatever the debt, try to clean it off your plate before moving abroad.

5. If all this attention to Cuban traffic law – new regulations, prime time TV shows, and the like – seems odd, it isn’t when you consider that the #5 cause of death in Cubans as a whole is accidents (it’s the #1 cause of death in Cubans aged 5-19); the overwhelming majority of these are traffic accidents.

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