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Nuestro Vino es Amargo…

I’m baaaack! Not that I went anywhere. Not physically, anyway. In fact, I haven’t ventured farther than 30km from my apartment in a year. But mentally—spiritually—I’ve traveled some long, dark roads in that time. Who hasn’t? The collective trauma caused by COVID makes 9/11 look like a bad hair day.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m fortunate. Privileged even. I’ve been able to make rent. I still have my highly-rewarding (albeit low-paying) job. Various old age ailments have beset my better half and me, but otherwise we’re healthy. Plus, I live in a place where the science is sound, people retain a keen sense of humor, and healthcare is free. What’s more, thanks to good planning and foresight, not to mention political will and a superlative biotech industry dating back over 30 years, Cuba has four COVID-19 candidates in clinical trials; whole population immunization begins next month.

It can’t happen soon enough. I’m sure you understand. If you don’t, I’ll go ahead and assume you’re a COVID denier, anti-vaxxer or selfish bastard unfazed by the prospect of infecting innocent people. If one of these applies, let me break it to you not-so-gently: Darwin was right and your days are numbered.

But you didn’t come here to listen to me whine and lecture (although this is kinda my bread and butter; deal with it). Rather, you want to know what’s happening here in Havana. For the short attention spanners among you, it boils down to the old saying ‘nuestro vino es amargo pero es nuestro,’ which basically means: it’s a shit show, but it’s OUR shit show.

What that looks like circa February 2021:

Almost everyone is broke, in debt and gasping for air at across-the-board, sky-high prices – Without going into a macro-economic muela about the why of this category 5 economic storm (for which I’m professionally and intellectually ill-equipped regardless), let’s just say it’s multifactorial and transcends COVID-19.

Certain factors are historical, like the blockade/embargo, combined with inherent inefficiencies in the Cuban system, funny accounting, and the informal economy feeding off them. Other factors are cultural, including farmers and middlemen who’d rather the produce rot than drop their prices and a cannibalistic capitalism coursing through many a Cuban vein (provided the chance to make a nickel, these folks snap to action faster than a homely jinetera espying a group of rich Russians).

One thing is clear: the global recession is rocking everyone’s world. And in no way, shape or form is Cuba exempt from this downward spiral. But just to add a little spice to the party—as Cubans, love ‘em dearly, always do—we are currently undergoing the painful, laborious, decades-in-the-making, unification of the currency here and all that entails.

Many of you may remember the late 90s-early aughts when the US dollar, Cuban peso (CUP) and Cuban convertible peso (CUC) circulated concurrently. I do: it was happening when I moved here in 2002. Oh how gloriously naïve I was! Stumbling along in my so-so Spanish, relying on my energetic husband to shield me from the sausage making, and marveling at how Cubans pivot and resolve! I now realize it was like dining at a fine restaurant when things go sideways: it takes forever for your meal to arrive (the first plating slid to the floor), potatoes were substituted for polenta (the sous chef was snorting a line while it burned), and the coulis tastes more like raspberry than pomegranate (the purveyor couldn’t deliver and was subsequently canned). Nevertheless, it’s beautifully presented, delicious even! But you, the diner, are none the wiser to the mayhem and stress going on in the kitchen.

That was then.

Nearly 20 years on, I am no longer unwitting. I am no longer shielded. And things are much, much tougher this go ‘round. This time it really is sink or swim (or at least tread water like your life depends on it). Cartons of eggs have more than tripled in price. The same with powdered milk—the only kind available. Not that these things are necessary available, no matter how much money you have. Cheese—oh beloved cheese!—is another lost cause. People tell me it’s sold in the dollar stores but I wouldn’t know; I haven’t had cheese since August 2020. So we go without. We go vegan. Shouldn’t that be a choice? I mean, forced veganism: how dystopian.

Lines are long, salaries fall short – So we tread water and stay afloat. How? Anticipating this all-too-predictable inflation, the state has raised salaries in an effort to offset the shortfall. Are the higher salaries enough? No. Are they equitable? They are not. Consider the fact that under the new salary structure, a university professor with a PhD earns less than a parole officer with a ninth grade education and you start to see the dynamic. Again, I’m no economist (thank the dear lord), but this new system smarts of the old—in short: same dog, different fleas and making ends meet is a real hardship, a day-in-day-out struggle.

The hard truth is, most months the ends won’t meet. And you’re truly up shit’s creek if a pipe bursts, a stove part breaks or your kid needs new shoes. But we keep on treading.

Barter is a major player in the COVID-19, post-CUC economy. Toothpaste for cooking oil; coffee for mechanical work; cowboy boots for gas—Cuba is on the cutting edge of the in-kind economy. Just yesterday I traded ibuprofen for onions in a marvelous win-win swap.

Solidarity, now as always, is a complementary survival strategy. Alfredo pedals 25km into the countryside to buy fresh yogurt for our Cuba Libro family. First Dailyn and then Jacqueline gave me kibble when Toby’s food was running dangerously low. Kristen and Abel share their abundant harvest with friends, family, neighbors, and the local old folks’ home; I can’t tell you how many people have enjoyed their organic arugula during COVID! There’s another saying here: ‘quien tiene amigos, tiene un central’ which loosely translates as ‘we get by with a little help from our friends.’ Shock froze my family doctor’s face last week when I told him I completed the 14-day, triple pill treatment he prescribed for my gastritis. During the consultation, he warned me that pharmacy stocks were low and I probably wouldn’t be able to get the medicines. ‘I have a central,’ I told him—it was entirely thanks to my friends that I was able to procure the treatment I needed.

And when all else fails, we stand in line. We’re talking 4 hours in line for bread, the butcher, to enter a store or the bank. Entire WhatsApp and Telegram groups, Facebook pages and word-of-mouth networks are active 24-7 letting people know what store has which products and how long the line is. “Café Guantanamera, 23 y 26. Two kilos per customer. Not many people on line,” is one recent message. “Store on 15 y 26 is taking names for tomorrow’s chicken line,” reads another. “Amiga! Chopped meat at 11 y 4. No line!!!” says the one that literally just came in.

Can’t or won’t stand in line? These groups can help out there, too. “Chicken just arrived at the casa del pollo, 5ta y 42. If anyone is coming down, I’m here on line” (meaning, you can scoot on line with your friend). Alternatively, you can throw money at the problem by paying someone to stand in line for you—recent rates were $1CUC/hour during the day, $5CUC before sunrise—or sidle up and buy the numbered ticket from someone who has already been standing on line for hours ($5CUC/ticket). Or, if you’re really in the money, you can rely on black market resellers who provide door-to-door service selling meat, coffee, oil, soap, sponges, detergent—you name it. Probably the best strategy however, is to have someone ‘on the inside’ of the store. They will call you when certain goods come in, meet you ‘round back and load up your bag away from all lines and prying eyes. You pay for your goods, include a nice tip and away you go, stocked and stoked.

Health measures are changing rapidly and there are no ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards – Maybe it’s just me, but things seemed more organized during last year’s first wave. Adding to the confusion are new measures that are announced and then rescinded or altered, sometimes even before implementation. Does public transport stop at 7pm or 9pm? Can we shop in stores outside of our home municipality? Are they really putting physical barriers in highly trafficked places to improve distancing on line as announced? Can we travel between provinces in private transport or not?

In January, a friend of mine was driving home from her dad’s house across town. It was about 9:30pm. The cops pulled her over informing her that she couldn’t be driving past 9 (this was weeks before the current 9pm-5am curfew, implemented on February 5). ‘What?’ she asked. ‘That’s one of the new measures?’ They skirted the question (typical) and repeated that she could not be driving at this hour. This friend of mine is young, especially bubbly and possesses the most striking sage green eyes, which she employs to great effect. She talked her way out of the ticket.

Last week, Mary—neither bubbly, nor as young, and certainly not as deferential—wasn’t so lucky. Masked up and jogging with her dog in the local park, she was stopped by the police who told her exercising in public is prohibited. She pushed back, gently. Mary isn’t deferential, but she isn’t stupid either: police are a touchy breed anywhere, regardless of the times or troubles afoot and need to be engaged with caution. They repeated: no running in public. They proceeded to put her in the squad car, take her down to the station and put her in a cell where she spent several hours. It was crowded, physical distancing was impossible and everyone had a tale to tell. There was the guy who pulled down his mask to use his asthma inhaler. There was the couple at the hospital trying to get their second PCR test and were taken in for…being in public without having a second PCR test. Everyone behind bars has a story and who knows if they’re true, but I know Mary’s is. She was taken in for exercising in public, spent hours in close quarters with many strangers during a global pandemic and was issued a 2000 CUP fine—half her monthly salary.

Speaking of jail, my good buddy Miguel called yesterday. You may remember him—he’s serving 6 years on a ridiculous charge. If it’s tense out here, you can imagine how it is on the inside. Total lockdown for almost a year and only a few physically-distanced visits from loved ones in all that time. Not being able to hug or kiss or get horizontal with his wife Esther is taking a mighty toll. Food is scarce—most days it’s rice and split peas, maybe an egg but never two. There’s little soap, no toothpaste, razors or deodorant and without the monthly visits and sacks of provisions hauled out to the campo by family and friends, prison commerce has largely ground to a halt. Parole hearings are still held—on paper—but no one is getting it. At least Miguel has periodic access to a phone; thanks to Cuba’s ongoing tech revolution, I was able to recharge his phone card electronically.

Small businesses are screwed – This is a global phenomenon, we are all well aware, proving that COVID-19 is deadly in more ways than one. But for us, it’s not just about COVID: Trumpty Dumpty and his anti-Cuban puppet masters also tightened the screws precisely as the pandemic worsened. They fined financial institutions helping Cuba weather the storm. They turned back planes of medical supplies. And they shut down Western Union, drastically affecting remittances to families on the island. For years, these regime change hawks harped: ‘Cuba needs a middle class. Cuba needs a thriving private sector. We need to support the Cuban people.’ So we’ll just go ahead and cut them off at the knees and sever all sorts of lifelines during a global pandemic. The fucking hypocrisy. Sickening.

Throw in hyper inflation, reduced purchasing power for consumers, zero tourists, no goods coming in via mulas and you have a perfect storm for sabotaging the private sector and the individuals that have shed blood, sweat and tears building small businesses.

But they will not break us. We have our in-kind economy, our solidarity, our central. We have creativity and community and values. This is how Cuba Libro has survived from March 20, 2020 until today, during which we were open two short (but fabulous!) months. Thanks to donations and unwavering support from people who came for our coffee, volunteered, bought books, gifted books, left tips and helped lift our spirits, we were able to pay rent, maintain minimum salaries of our 7 employees, and keep them connected to the Internet while closed.

These are people who believe in our mission and vision. Who believe that good coffee and music, excellent literature and a tranquil garden can build community and contribute to a better future. That together and by example, we can strengthen commitment to others and the environment, build mutual respect despite differences, and create a safe space for all regardless of gender, race, religion, financial possibilities, sexual orientation, age or ability. These are people who believe that doing good for the collective is more important in the long run than doing well individually. Who believe we all have things worth teaching and worth learning and that great things can be accomplished with few resources combined with collaborative action. Who believe that maintaining our donation programs and book sales during the pandemic is more needed than ever.

Some say I’m naïve, a fool, a dumbass for structuring a small business thusly—where some days (bad days!) I take home less pay than the rest of the team. Still others accuse me of having a ‘white savior complex.’ These detractors are at best confused and at worst so ‘woke’ their insomnia is affecting their analytical skills. To these folks I say: lead, follow or get the fuck out of our way.

Certain people say I’m an idiot, moreover, for maintaining minimum salaries for our 7-member team while we’re closed. We don’t have time for these kinds of people – the ‘not our people’ people. The precious time we have we spend working at our side hustles; sharing and pooling resources and making sure they get to those most needing them; keeping ourselves as balanced as we can and away from the deep, dark psychological hole into which each of us, at one time or another, has plunged in the past year. Just today my friend Anita said to me: ‘girl, ever forward. And whenever one of us is down in the depths, we gotta pick each other up and push each other forward.’ Anita is our kind of people, the ones who know that the worthy things in life have to be built, nurtured, fed and shared. The other ones? Those who say it’s foolish to maintain minimum salaries? They’re the ones who think you can buy commitment and community. And love. You can’t. Beatles, 1964. Hello?!

We’re surviving, but it’s wearing thin. Even with their archetypical sense of humor, tendency to not sweat the small stuff, outlook that tomorrow is another day and let’s live today like there’s no tomorrow, Cubans are stressing. The tension is palpable, audible: ubiquitous sirens at night, parents yelling at their cooped-up kids, and dogs barking (more than usual) at anything that moves; granted, not much is moving these days. Even the silence is tense. No music wafts from windows, no kids laughing or skipping along. No dominoes being shuffled and played under the milky light of a street lamp.

But we keep on keepin’ on. And to all who have helped us, helped Cubans, helped anyone, during COVID-19: we thank you deeply, as our barrista extraordinaire Gaby would say in her so-so English. This is the way forward. The only way. In the meantime, we tread.

PS – The day after I wrote the first draft of this post, my friend Ivan gifted me a wedge of blue cheese. There is something to that ‘put it out in the universe’ stuff!

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Periodo Especial: The Sequel?!

I don’t know how the Special Period felt coming on, but I do know how it manifested once in full swing. Transport was so scarce and overcrowded, passengers lunged from bus windows at their stop or simply rode on the roof, hung from the door frame or clung to the back bumper.

Each and every day, the entire island was plunged into darkness; blackouts were so long and common, Cubans, plumbing their deep well of ironic optimism, began referring to ‘light ups,’ those times when there actually was electricity. So few and far between were those electrified hours, neighborhood block parties were held in the street, around a bonfire with a jug of rum (or more often moonshine known as ‘chispa‘e tren/baja tus bloomers’).

Toilet paper was non-existent – we used water or more often, pages ripped from the Granma newspaper. In many homes, squares the size of real TP were cut from the paper and stacked neatly atop the toilet tank. I wasn’t too put off by this. As a life-long camper, I’ve wiped my butt with all manner of material. Nevertheless, I do remember my shock at seeing Che’s face, shit-stained and crumpled, staring up at me from the bathroom wastebasket. It seemed blasphemous then but practical and normal thereafter – in dire/adverse circumstances, you do what you gotta do to survive.

And Cubans did.

They pedaled the 1 million Chinese bikes imported as transport of last resort. They fried “steaks” from grapefruit rinds, they fanned infants for hours with a piece of cardboard during stagnant summer nights. They lost weight, some suffering a neuropathy epidemic for lack of nutritious food. They rigged up kerosene burners for cooking and fashioned homemade matches. They struggled and suffered, finding solace in family, days swimming at El Espigon and nights stretching out on the Malecon. They danced, sang and fucked. They persevered and survived…

Flash forward to 2019. We’re in a different historical moment, a different context than the one I experienced in 1993, but the effects of the Special Period linger, if you know where to look. Not wanting their kids to ever go hungry like they did, parents indulge appetites to the point where child obesity and overweight are current health problems. Bicycles and cycling are stigmatized, reminding people too viscerally of those hard times. Today, hoarding happens and some still prefer newspaper to toilet paper.

The cleverness of Cubans and their deep stores of creativity and inventiveness honed during the Special Period are constantly on display. You see it in the 70-year old Harley-Davidsons zooming down the road, parts hand-hewn in cluttered, greasy garages across the island. You see it in the Russian washing machines cannibalized to make lawn mowers, blenders and coconut shredders. You see it in the burgeoning upcycle movement where the experience of struggle is translated into décor and dollars.

But no one, I mean no one wants to go through that again. And I highly doubt as many Cubans who tolerated it then would now – at least not in Havana. Make no mistake: Cuba learned its lesson from the implosion of the Soviet bloc, which sent the dependent island economy into a tailspin. It diversified, it liberalized, and it looked for and forged alternatives. But we’re seeing signs, folks. We’re not out of the woods yet, not by a long shot. And it’s worrying.

Indeed, the most violent factor was – and is – beyond Cuban control: the nearly 60-year old US embargo cripples all economic and social development in one way or another. And last week the Trump Administration announced it’s considering enacting Title III of the Helms-Burton Act. I’ll leave a full explanation to the economists and wonks, but the important point is: as in 1996, during the deepest days of the Special Period, Jesse Helms and Dan Burton pounced on Cuba’s vulnerability and pushed this Act through Congress “to seek international sanctions against the Castro government in Cuba, to plan for support of a transition government leading to a democratically elected government in Cuba, and for other purposes.” Sensing that same vulnerability like a lioness stalking the weakest of the pack, Marco Rubio is exacting his quid pro quo with Donald Trump via Cuba and Title III.

It’s abominable how this administration is destroying lives at home and abroad. It’s no less shameful how supposed political detractors enable this cabal. Please, anyone in a policy/decision-making position reading this: do the world (and yourselves) a favor and grow some balls/ovaries; history will judge you and you will NOT be absolved.

Unfortunately, I doubt anyone reading this is making US policy. I also doubt that many people reading this realize just how vulnerable right now feels. Major trading partners and allies including Venezuela and Brazil are on the ropes. Trump rhetoric is scaring away investors and tourists. The embargo is still in place and we’ve suffered Hurricane Irma, Sub Tropical Storm Alberto, a devastating plane crash and a tornado, all in the past 18 months.

And we’re feeling it.

There was a massive flour shortage and though we are once again enjoying flour and pizza, there is neither milk (terrible for Cuba Libro) nor eggs. These latter were dubbed salvavidas in the Special Period days because eggs are a cheap, easy-to-prepare source of protein. They were, and are, ‘lifesavers.’ In the past three months, I’ve eaten a total of half a dozen eggs; it used to be a daily (or even twice a day) affair. Monthly egg rations have been cut in half to five per person, per month and when they do appear in stores, customers are limited to two cartons of 36 eggs each. But this is Cuba…

This week, my friend Camilo got word that eggs were being sold at the Plaza de Marianao. He made the trek across town and took his place in the long line. He watched people carting away 6, 7, 10 or more cartons of eggs. The stack for sale behind the crumbling counter shrank. He surmised the egg sellers were paid off to ignore the two-carton rule. The sun beat down, the stack shrank, Camilo was sweating from the heat and attendant low-level panic. Would the eggs hold out until his turn came around? He had waited in line already for two hours. The stack shrank. He asked one of the customers pulling a dolly away with over 400 eggs if he would sell a carton?

‘!Hombre no! This is for my private cafeteria. I need every last one.’

The eggs ran out and Camilo left empty handed. Mad and desperate, he went to a cafeteria near his house to order two egg sandwiches, hold the bread, hold the oil, hold the making of it. When he discovered that same sandwich which used to cost 35 cents, now costs 75, he slumped home egg-less. Today we’re scrambling to procure eggs for Jenny’s grandmother who, ailing and frail, has been prescribed a special diet by her doctor, including two eggs a day. So far we’ve been unsuccessful.

Then there’s the cooking oil situation. Shortages nationwide mean customers are only allowed two bottles per person. To procure those two precious bottles, you have to travel to the store that has it (lucky you if it’s actually in your neighborhood) and spend hours on line under a blistering sun just like my egg-less friend Camilo. As a result, many people I know spent this past weekend rendering chicken and pork fat so they won’t get caught (too) short.

Shortages of flour, eggs, oil – this post was simmering in my overworked brain for a bit but didn’t come to fruition until last night when the smell of gasoline permeated my living room. I emerged from the egg-less, flour-less kitchen (we don’t fry much and our current bottle of oil is a month old and still half-full) to see what was up. Twenty liters of premium gas now sits in a tank in said living room because people see the writing on the wall: gas hoarding has officially begun.

Blackouts are happening too – not as long or as often as I experienced in 1993, but worrisome still. And the economy overall is showing signs of serious distress. Last year the national economy grew a meager 1% and projections for this year are similar.

We may not be headed for a Second Special Period, but things feel tense as we plod through this year, Havana’s 500th anniversary.

Happy Birthday, ciudad querida. I hope smoother sailing awaits.

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