Tag Archives: special period

COVID-19 & Cuba: The Good

Greetings readers. I hope you’re as well as you can be given the shit show that is Planet Earth, 2020.

In my first chronicle about the coronavirus in Cuba, I led off with a (necessarily short) paragraph about some of the positive aspects of the ‘new normal’ here in Havana, followed by an all out rant about the negative. This time, I’m flipping the script, leading off with what is chapping my ass these days, before launching into the rays of light I’m witnessing in these otherwise deep, dark times.

Physical distancing is still—and always will be—a challenge in Cuba. The factors are multiple and varied, from cultural and historical to practical and meteorological. Yesterday’s meat hunt is illustrative. For those out of the loop: pandemic food procurement is one of the biggest stressors and threats to physical and mental health here.

We were out the door by 6:30am, already late by today’s standards: only the earliest birds get any worms in these COVID-19 times. Lines at stores where meat (usually chopped in a tube or pressed in a can) might be available but not guaranteed, begin forming at 4am. Folks on the hustle camp out at stores likely to release some kind of protein—canned sardines, corned beef loaf, hot dogs or the insanely coveted chicken—to be the first in line…and sell their spot to later comers. Typically, several friends and family members do this as a group so they can sell their turns in line, plus make their own purchases. Many of these items end up on the ‘informal market’ at a 100%, 200% or even 300% markup. Today, a tube of Colgate toothpaste is between $10 and $12CUC (up from $5) and 36 eggs cost $7CUC (up from $3). When you can find them.

The same dynamic is at play at carnecerías (open-air butchers) all over Havana.

Yesterday, instead of braving the crapshoot that is the stores, we opted for the butcher’s. This is more about Toby than us: we’re happy eating vegetarian, he is not. And the tubed/canned meat wreaks havoc on his health (for those not in the know: kibble in Cuba is reserved for the 1% who can source and afford it; the rest of us have to cook for our pets). When we arrived at 6:45 and asked for el ultimo, the line looked manageable. This was an illusion: the young man in front of us had marked in line for himself and three cousins, the woman before him was holding place for four neighbors and when meat finally went on sale at 9:15am, the line magically trebled as people cut in, jockeyed for position and called in favors with the meat purveyors.

During our four-hour, successful odyssey (we got some pork chops for us and bones with bits of meat for Toby), some of us maintained physical distance, but many more did not. Securing your place in line while keeping the cutters at bay, arguing with those who tried, theorizing about what meat might be for sale and when, all conspired to violate the two-meter distancing rule. And then it started to rain. Cue bunches of people huddled under a narrow awning trying to stay dry. COVID-driven anxieties notwithstanding, this scenario kicked off all my deep-seeded food insecurities bred during a childhood where too many mouths to feed and too little money had us arguing over who had more ramen noodles in their bowl and cruising the refrigerator or pantry for food was strictly verboten…

Although I miss my family horribly and there are days when people improperly using masks (obligatory here since late March) or my husband crowding me in the kitchen engenders thoughts of violence, I feel very safe in Havana. And there are some very good things happening.

If you’ve stayed with this post for this long, THANK YOU! Here goes:

  • Air quality and noise pollution: While we don’t have jutía frolicking in front yards or manatees sidling up to the Malecón, the air quality has become noticeably better. A fraction of cars, trucks and buses plying the streets, reduced work hours, and telecommuting, all contribute to improved air quality. In Havana, a lot of heavy industry is located within residential neighborhoods: I lived my first six years here directly behind the cigarette factory at 100 & Boyeros and this was (and is) a toxic environment. Even a slight reduction in the work day at pollution-spewing factories like this one helps the environment. Noise pollution—from vehicles, loud-mouthed neighbors and passersby, construction, and speaker-toting reggaetoneros—has also diminished considerably. For me, this is an extraordinarily welcomed increase in quality of life.

 

  • Bicycle boom: Bicycles and cycling culture are more complicated than you might think due to stigma from the economic crash (AKA Special Period) when pedal power was transport of last resort. But make no mistake: there is a small, but strong and growing, cycling movement afoot which predates COVID-19. Nevertheless, since the pandemic and attendant health measures limiting public transportation, bikes are coming out of garages, being rescued from backyard weeds, and off walls—yes, some people use them as décor which is absurd and makes me vomit in my mouth a little every time I see this. But the resurgence in cycling is wonderful to witness. Anyone with a bike knows these two wheels are a ticket to freedom. You can get anywhere your two legs will take you, plus it’s great exercise! Private businesses, including Cuba Libro, which enjoys and supports a large cycling community, are putting in bike racks and lobbying for bike-friendlier cities; hopefully this COVID-19 experience will stimulate more government support for cycling in general (ie not just for tourists). On the downside, if you want to buy a bike in Havana these days, it will cost 30%-50% more than it did pre-pandemic.

 

  • Kitchen creativity: This global phenomenon is taken to new heights in Cuba where the only items you might have on hand are rice, an egg and some tomatoes (if you’re lucky!). To keep things interesting, I’ve had to master Cuban classics like red bean potaje and ropa vieja, plus find new ways to prepare eggplant, bok choy, cabbage, carrots and more. I have to give a huge shout out to the Cuba Libro family in this regard for two very specific reasons: 1) someone very generously donated Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian a while back. My mom and sister have long been Bittman fans, but I didn’t know what I was missing; his books are such fantastic tools and well-written to boot and 2) our regulars at the café are creating their own coffee drinks at home, leading us to launch our CUBA LIBRO EN DA HOUSE competition—enter to win by June 6.

 

  • Better veggies, more sustainability: There are some silver linings to the food nightmare we’re living. First, in my experience, the fruit and vegetable markets here in Havana have been pretty well stocked the past two and a half months. Although I have to head out early, walk a half an hour and stand on line once I arrive, I’m almost sure to find watermelon, pineapple or mango; carrots, eggplant, peppers and onions; yucca or plantains (sweet potato has become a rare commodity for reasons still not understood); sesame and sunflower seeds, guava paste and peanuts; and with a little luck, basil and parsley. You never know what you’ll find, but even in smaller markets tucked along the Playa/Marianao border, I’ve found gorgeous bell peppers and tomatoes of unusual size. Chatting up the veggie seller, he told me this is ‘tourist produce,’ grown specifically for hotels and resorts, but made available to the public since Cuba’s borders were closed at the end of March. I glanced at the small, sad limones, with the bumpy skin that means they have no juice. ‘Tourists don’t eat lemons,’ he said laughing.

 

  • Growing your own: Here, like elsewhere, Cubans have started planting on balconies, along the small patches of dirt between sidewalk and street, on windowsills and roofs. Even me, with my notorious brown thumb, has a made a go of it. My garlic and bell peppers died in typically spectacular fashion, but…the pineapple I planted is going strong! I don’t expect a harvest, but it makes for a nice ornamental. Thankfully, my very forward-thinking friends in Guanabo started a community garden last year and are now harvesting like mad. Every week or so they drop off (mask in place, physically distanced) overflowing bags of fresh organic produce to friends, family, neighbors and community centers. Yesterday they popped by with fennel, arugula, parsley and wait for it…broccoli!! All of this conspires to help us eat healthier—the plate of chicharrones I put away last night notwithstanding.

 

  • Diversifying suppliers: I see a lot of this going on in the USA (bravo!) as people realize that megaliths like Amazon, although efficient and cheap and sometimes a necessary evil, are making a fortune off of us and their workers, and pursuing inhumane labor practices while ringing the death knoll for smaller mom and pop places. Here, we have had to pivot on suppliers, not for social justice considerations but because store supplies have constricted so drastically. Suppliers have also had to pivot since there are no tourists and private restaurants, previously their bread and butter, can only do takeout or delivery. As a result, we just ordered 2 kilos of artisanal goat cheese—a kilo of basil goat cheese and another kilo of oregano/garlic/black pepper goat cheese. This will be shared among several families and we’ll have to wait two weeks for it to be delivered to our door, but still! I am doing a serious dance of joy (cheese is another nearly impossible item to find these days). While not cheap, there are few things in this life for which I will pay whatever it takes. Cheese is one of them. And presented with the choice between meat or cheese, I choose cheese. Every. Single. Time. Some people won’t understand, but if you know, you know.

 

  • Solid solidarity: The willingness to help others, extend a hand, share what’s on hand and pull together, is very much a Cuban trait and vividly on display right now—globally and locally. Despite or because of all the very serious problems with the food supply (compounded by the cruel and failed US embargo), sharing and bartering is deeply woven into the fabric of Cuban culture. Let’s say the store where you’re on line has oil. You don’t need oil, but you buy your two allotted bottles anyway, to share with neighbors, give to friends or trade for tubed meat with the stranger you met on the four-hour line you stood on to buy it. In the past two weeks alone, I’ve traded: rice for flour, coffee for chicken, even soy sauce for chocolate! I’ve gifted banana muffins, coconut-mango bread and toothpaste (Note to self: take mother-in-law’s country wisdom to heart: ‘there are times when you don’t even share your water with your oxen.’).
  • Then there’s the Henry Reeve Contingent, Cuba’s specialized medical team now fighting COVID-19 in two dozen countries. I love when internet dissenters flaunt their ignorance, flaming me about Henry Reeve. I lived with this team in their tent hospitals in post-quake Pakistan in 2005 (they year the Contingent was founded, in direct response to Hurricane Katrina) and again for a month in 2010 after the earthquake in Haiti. Covering their work in the field is one of the highlights of my career as a health journalist. Signatures are now being collected to nominate the Contingent for the Nobel Peace Prize.
  • Solidarity is also pulsing through Cuba’s younger generations who are participating in volunteer movements to care for the most vulnerable—particularly the elderly and disabled people who live alone and can’t navigate the store-food situation. This is their moment: they missed the triumph of the Revolution, the Literacy Campaign and the Special Period (for the most part, the worst part). What we’re facing with COVID-19 is terrifying, horrifying, but it’s also motivating young people to pitch in and help out in ways heretofore largely unknown. We will need this moving forward.

And last, but certainly not least:

  • Nooners, booty calls & other carnal activities: Here we talk a lot about sex and bodily functions. These are things that distinguish my birth culture from my adopted culture and Reason #69 why I groove to Cuba. It’s all natural! What’s to be ashamed of? So we’ve been talking quite a bit about coronavirus sex. Conclusion? Whether you’re in a new, long-term, open, multi-partner or casual relationship, everyone’s action has dropped off. Some single people I know have stopped screwing altogether. Meanwhile, other people I know are now pregnant. So it’s a mixed bag. And when you’re greeting your booty call with an elbow bump, you know the main act is going to be different (no kissing or oral, for starters). Front-to-back positions are surging in popularity and encouraged. Cuba Libro is distributing a lot of free condoms. Since we’re in this at-home-all-the-time loop, there has been a happy uptick in nooners and daytime sex in general, plus the opportunity for multiple sessions. Creativity is another bonus with toys, role playing, and moving things out of the bedroom for variety having their moment. This is when we have the energy to actually get it up; this isn’t all days by any stretch of the imagination. But the carnal act is more intentional now, and that’s another good thing.

 

I should wrap this up—my guy just sauntered by wearing something sexy—but the whole point is: some of these positive elements of COVID-19 won’t have staying power, some may linger and fade (a la NYC post-9-11), and a few might stay as we realize how important they are for our collective health and well-being. It really is up to us to recognize, embrace, and multiply the good. You in?

19 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

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.

27 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Habana Brats

Okay, people. I know I (semi) committed to writing about Cubans’ belligerent resistance to healthy/sane/considerate cologne application. If you haven’t been to Havana, trust me when I tell you the problem is generalized, acute, and worsening. When you can taste the chemicals wafting off a shaved metrosexual half a block away and instead of his taut ass in tight jeans all you see is that icon of stink Pepé Le Pew, you know the issue is serious.

But that’s going to have to wait because there’s another little drama happening over here which has my panties in a twist – I’m talking my underthings are in a massive, up-the-crack bunch thanks to what I call Habana Brats.

These cubanitos are chapping my ass. I need to write about them. It will help me move on. Hopefully. The stinky Cuban diatribe will have to wait.

They’ve always existed, these better-off, entitled, vacuous kids (e.g., certain military/political offspring who rolled up at high school during the Special Period in their own Ladas), but the phenomenon is spreading like an outbreak of VD in a freshman dorm around here lately.

First of all, these kids are clueless, which is annoying enough (see note 1). They don’t know what it means to pay an electricity bill – much less what’s involved when there’s no money to pay said bill. Nor do they know the exhaustion that comes from working a double, (let alone a triple), shift. They don’t know how to food shop or menu plan, some don’t even know how to make a pot of rice. They’ll need these life skills. Most of them anyway – the really rich ones will just hire help to do their grunt work and trust me, you don’t want me to start ranting about that. At the very least, knowing how to manage money, cook, and perform other mundane, but necessary, tasks of adulthood will make them more attractive mates. I pity them. As mom always says: ‘pity: it’s the basest coin in the realm.’

This new generation is a whole lot of hedonism, which is fun, to be sure, but unproductive – both for them as individuals and society as a whole. Unproductive and detrimental. I repeat: for them personally and us as a collective. They spend their days walking their pure-bred dogs, primping at private salons, and shopping (not for the evening meal, obviously). Nights are dedicated to bar hopping from one wannabe “lounge” to another, spending two weeks’ of a teacher’s salary on cheesy cocktails like Blue Hawaiians and Appletinis. I feel like telling them to grow a pair and graduate to vodka on the rocks (see note 2). They get giddy smoking cherry-flavored tobacco from hookahs (Havana’s new fad) and pursuing deep (insert ironic cough) conversations about where to buy designer clothes and pirated iapps (including mine).

hgt banner

I don’t know where they get the money to pursue this lifestyle, but young friends of mine (the thinking kind, thank you), posit that it probably comes from their parents +/o Miami. So shame on them too for enabling their brats. I’m sure these kids are the envy of their peers – equally worrisome if you ask me.

Returning to the point about this generation being vacuous: in my (thankfully) passing experience with this class of kid, the most demanding thought to skip across their minds is what to wear to the Ernesto Blanco concert or the superior photographic capabilities of the iPhone 4s (the iPhone 5 has yet to be seen in the hands of a Cuban in these parts). You may not find this problematic, but if you don’t find it boring, you’re probably one of them.

But what really rankles, the trend that makes me want to grab these brats and shake them like a chequere, is how they talk, loudly, obnoxiously, about their first-world problems (i.e. bullshit), throughout an entire set of music. Cuban musicians are globally-renowned for a reason: They are fuck-all talented and are products of a long tradition of formal musical education (and informal: Benny Moré was an autodidact, as was Arsenio Rodriguez). Many are prodigies and/or award winners – Montreaux, Grammys. We’re talking giants of music. Moreover, they’re playing their hearts out for peanuts. And these little ingrates are chattering away ad nauseam, drowning out greatness with their banal drone.

I first noticed it during a double set at the Café Miramar by Aldo López-Gávilan – one of the country’s most talented young pianists. An intimate club with good audio (see note 3), this is one of the popular spots on the new Miramar bar circuit favored by these nouveau rich kids. As Aldito and his conjunto ripped through one tune after another, these chamas couldn’t be bothered to listen. I actually had to move right alongside the piano to be able to hear the music over their din.

Aldito en el Cafe Miramar

Disgraceful and disrespectful a la vez.

The same thing happened at a packed Casa de las Americas gig recently. The concert, billed as Drums La Habana, was particularly unique in that it showcased Cuba’s most accomplished young drummers – Oliver Valdés and Rodney Barreto. To call these guys talented is like calling an anorexic lithe. These two are monstruos as we say here, producing percussive feats that your mind, eyes, and ears are hard-pressed to process.

The concert was unbelievable – the musicians were in the zone, Cheshire Cat grins plastered across their faces as they pounded their kits and poured their hearts out. Unfortunately, this virtuosity was accompanied by a low, constant thrum emanating from the back of the historic Che Guevara auditorium. I’m pretty sure I saw sax player Carlos Miyares grimace in their general direction at one point and I wonder how many artists are bothered by these bad manners and lack of listening skills? People around town have criticized Santiago Feliú for walking off stage recently two tunes into a set because he couldn’t be heard over the chatter. For those who don’t get it: have you ever performed live for an audience who thought their conversation was more important than the music you were making? It’s degrading. Creating art in front of a live audience is a brave act. Cubans used to respect that. Many still do, but they tend to be over 40.

I know a lot of what I’ve written here applies to youth the world over. But Cubans have distinguished themselves by being different. And this is getting lost and eroded little by little, day by day. Sometimes I wish all these kids would just emigrate and join their homogenized, opiated tribe up there and leave the island to those who are still interested in forging new paths, exploring frontiers, and listening, quietly, with appreciation, to some of the world’s best music.

Notes
1. If you’re new here, let me repeat: what I write at Here is Havana does not apply to all Cubans. I’m not implicating an entire pueblo, of this I’m very conscious, so save your comment for some other blinder-wearing blog. On a related note: although I’ve been based here since 2002, there’s a reason this blog is called Here is Havana: what I write applies only to what I know, that is to say, only to the capital. I really have no idea what happens in the provinces.

2. A new Russian bar, Tovarishch, is about to open up on Calle 20 and 5ta. I hope the bartender laughs openly at every kid who orders any pastel-colored or fruity vodka drink. I know that sounds mean, but I’ve had one too many run-ins lately with the annoying chamas. I promise to return to my upbeat self as soon as you arrive at the end of this sentence. OK, I lied. These kids have bad taste, to boot. 

3. Except behind the two wide pillars in the middle of the room; come early for a table with clean sight lines and clear sound.

23 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Havana Bad Time (see note 1)

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Times are exceedingly complex and anxiety-ridden on this side of the Straits. This is part of the reason I’ve chosen to accentuate the positive lately – both personally and generally. No one needs me griping about the small things and adding to the angst, I figure. Besides, here, like everywhere, you take the good with the bad, which is my stock answer for those who don’t believe (or cotton to) my choice to be in Cuba. And for me, the good has heavily outweighed the bad for 10+ years.

But these days, my life has gone a bit pear-shaped (see note 2), sending me to my surest, safest refuge: pen and paper (see note 3). Indulge me this one post and we’ll return to issues of more import, (not to mention fun), soon. Te prometo.

¡Apagones cojones! – Once upon a time, I was one of the 11 million here who withstood 10 hour black outs. Years later (before we’d hooked up with Hugo), the apagones were shorter – a couple, three hours – but still a fact of life. And in hurricanes, the electricity is cut when winds reach 40 miles per hour – one of the reasons Cuba suffers minimum loss of life compared to other places since many storm-related deaths are due to downed live wires. So I’ve known my share of blackouts.

But none of this explains why I came home last week after sol-to-sol meetings to a dead answering machine in my sala and defrosted pork parts in my freezer. Did my neighbors have lights? Yes. Had I paid my bill? Yes (see note 4).

‘Tis a puzzlement as the King once said and not in an intriguing, brain teaser kind of way, but rather in that ‘how am I going to cook dinner and keep cool?’ kind of way. The head scratching intensified once I located my meter amongst 18 others downstairs and found it in working order. Next, I went to the circuit breaker inside my house and found it in the ‘off’ position. I switched it to ‘on.’ A light sputtered to life, but I didn’t even have time to yell “Yay!” before it threw the breaker again.

I waited a bit before switching it again to ‘on.’ The light flickered and held. No electrician has been able to explain the mystery – I have no new appliances or anything additional plugged in – but I dare not turn on my old Russian AC. Send help if you don’t hear from me by August.

The concert that wasn’t – One of the undeniably greatest things about living here is the quantity of quality music happening almost always. So was the case last Saturday night when X Alfonso, Raúl Paz, Kelvis Ochoa, and Decemer Bueno were all playing at different, fabulous venues across the city.

How to choose?

For me, it was easier than most since I’ve seen them all perform multiple times and Decemer’s concert promised something special: invited guests included Israel Rojas from blockbuster group Buena Fe, plus Xiomara Laugart – an exile making her return to the Cuban stage. 

I highlighted his concert on my Facebook page. I invited friends and family and pedaled over some time after 10. I took my time: Cuba isn’t a particularly punctual place and these cats less so. I cruised up and ran into friends on an inaugural date, thrilled they’d chosen this concert over the others…

Once the clock reached 11:15 and the doors still hadn’t opened, my friends bailed. I hung in there and was relieved when they (finally!) started letting people in at midnight. I grabbed a Tu Kola at the swinging bar and headed into the theater where a full house waited. And waited. And waited and waited. At 1 in the morning, I bailed myself, my night of getting down, gone down – in flames (see note 5).

Yes You Can!=No You Can’t! – I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: my life changed when I got a bike several months ago. It’s fun, it’s fast, it’s practical and represents independence and freedom – coveted states no matter where you live. But I still nursed a hangover from my first Cuban bike in 2002, when I had been stranded one time too many with nowhere to park my chivo.

Bike parking lots were as ubiquitous here during the Special Period as wannabe iMac users are today, but most car lots circa 2012 are reticent to accept bikes and those specifically for bicycles are few and far between. But so far, I’ve only had one run in – with a too-cool-for-school parqueador more concerned about his dwindling keratin supply than the vehicles he was paid to guard. Then I rolled up to the car/moto/bike lot adjacent to Coppelia. Here things took a fast turn for the douche absurd.

ME: Buenas tardes, compañera. I’d like to park my bike.

HER: Sure, put it right there in the rack. (She ties a chapita to the frame and hands me a matching metal ‘ticket,’ which I pocket).

ME: Great. Just need to lock it up.

HER: Oh no! You can’t lock it.

ME: ?!?!

HER: No, no. No locks.

ME: Compañera. I don’t understand. This lock provides added security for both of us.

HER: No. You can’t use a lock here. If you want to use a lock, do it on the street.

ME: But that’s illogical. Why wouldn’t you want more protection for me and you?

HER: Because we’ve had ‘situations.’

ME: What kind of ‘situations?’

HER: People have abandoned their locked up bikes here.

ME: ?!?!

So I wheeled Frances three feet away, on the other side of the rope from the official parking area, locked him to a tree and headed off for ice cream. Your 5 peso loss, lady.

Doggin’ me – This last was really the icing on the cake, the ill effects of which I’m still suffering. Last Sunday afternoon, like those before it, I was making my way to play bike polo. But this time I was escorting a friend, which is good news: our league suffers from a chronic shortage of bicycles. We had just made it around Havana’s hairiest rotunda at Ciudad Deportiva and turned onto the access road to our court. I glanced behind me to make sure my friend had made it through the rotary and when I turned around, there was a stray, mangy dog directly in front of my tire. 

I had no time to react – no swerve or brake or little hop was happening. I ran squarely  over him, passing with a thud over his flan-colored midsection, first with the front tire, then the back. He yelped. I fell. Folks nearby gasped. The dog ran off, leaving me with a badly sprained ankle and a serious hitch in my giddy up. If I wasn’t a dog person before…

Notes

1. This post was suggested (somewhat tongue in cheek) by Havana Good Time user Annabelle P after a visit here. Thanks chica!

2. And what follows is only what Politics, legal considerations, and my personal ethical code permit me to air publically.

3. For all two of you who were wondering: I still do all my first drafts the old fashioned way – by putting pen to paper.

4. The electric and phone company here are merciless when it comes to non-payment, cutting service one day past due. I experienced my share of cold nights and interrupted phone service growing up due to unpaid bills, but I don’t ever remember ConEd or AT&T being that cut throat. Ironic, eh?

5. Turns out they took the stage at 1:30am, having had to wait for the sound guy who was working one of the other concerts which also ran late. To boot, there was a short in Decemer’s mic, so he was getting shocked through his six song set before calling it quits. Friends tell me they’re going to make it up to their pissed public with a free concert soon.

26 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Expat life, Living Abroad, Uncategorized

Black Market a lo Cubano

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

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.

25 Comments

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

How to Cope Like A Cuban

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]I’ve got a friend – I’ll call her Lucia. Life has been a bitch for Lucia in that special Cuban kind of way with family torn asunder by bi-lateralpolar politics; dramatic affairs of the heart and all the ardor and betrayal that implies; and the exhaustion inherent in raising three kids – the oldest two during those hard, indelible times known as the Periodo Especial, when stomachs growled and cramped with hunger and entire days were spent in blackout. The Special Period was also when mobs of people cast their fate to the wind, water, and sharks on slap-dash rafts with a 50/50 chance of making it across the Straits.

Many of those poor souls failed in their attempt to escape, dying outright en route or otherwise kept from stumbling into the open arms of Uncle Sam (see note 1). With a forced smile exemplifying the Cuban dicho ‘mal tiempo, buena cara,’ Lucia waved goodbye to friends and family, colleagues and acquaintances as they emigrated north. Due to circumstances financial and otherwise, many of Lucia’s people – including her only sister and two childhood friends – can’t return to visit Cuba. Like so many people I know, Lucia dreams of sharing a Cristal wet with sweat in the honeyed Havana light with her loved ones.

Paddling away on a raft or zipping off in a lancha (regular weekly departures for $10,000 a head) is the most dramatic and dangerous means of escape, but there are others: marrying a foreigner is perennially popular, as is the slower (but somehow less tedious) application for the bombo (see note 2); securing a Spanish passport if your family descends from those parts; or quedándose on a trip abroad. That is: going overseas for work or as a tourist (yes, some Cubans do travel for shopping pleasure) and neglecting to get on the plane back. To give you an idea of how profoundly the emigration question touches Cubans, consider ‘La Visa,’ the latest schoolyard game whereby a ball is thrown in the air and a country shouted out – Yuma! Mexico! España! The kid who catches the ball ‘gets’ the corresponding visa.

But contrary to what the world has been led to believe, there are more Cubans who don’t want to leave than do. Like Lucia. Like my husband and his family. Like many of my co-workers. But just because they aren’t scheming their great escape doesn’t mean they don’t feel trapped now and again. Hemmed in by water, but also bureaucracy, Third World economics, politics and other factors quite beyond one’s control – who wouldn’t be? It’s trying at times and requires figurative escapes – coping mechanisms to mollify the madness and loosen the psychological pretzel island living engenders.

In no particular order:

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll: The Cuban penchant (and talent) for sex is legendary and sexual freedom in the form of multiple partners and the pursuit and conquest of same is part and parcel of our daily landscape. Not only is hooking up freeing in the personal sovereignty sense in that it affirms (however hollowly), one’s individual choice and control, but it’s also free entertainment. The flirting and dancing and piropos (pick up lines and compliments) and foreplay help keep boredom (however temporarily) at bay and serve as an escape from all those factors beyond our control.

Drugs – illicit or not – serve the same purpose and despite Granma’s assertion that drogas aren’t a health problem here, 10 years of living in Havana paints a different picture. I know more than a handful of hardcore drunks for example, and prescription pills are in such high demand family doctors have been trained how to handle patients angling for scripts. Marijuana and cocaine can be had at no small risk and price (see note 3) and I’ve heard about Cuban acid trips and X adventures. Rock ‘n roll (coupled with rolls in the hay) is my personal drug of choice and in this, I’m largely up shit’s creek here since Cuba has crappy rock, though regular gigs by accomplished cover bands like Los Kents provide certain succor.

The Novela: Soap operas are addicting, which you well know if you’ve spent any amount of time in Cuba, where ‘round about nine o’clock the city quietly retreats inside to catch the next installment. Brazilian, Argentine, Cuban – it doesn’t matter the origin, as long as the cast is beautiful, the food abundant and the tragedia delicious. These fantasy worlds provide needed escape for islanders of all stripes, from housewives to priests, cowboys to convicts. On December 31st, a hallowed night spent with family here, the clan licked pork fat from their fingers and waited to pop the cider that stands in for champagne here when all the women mysteriously melted away. ‘La novela,’ someone said when I asked after them. Even Fidel has interrupted one of his televised speeches to assure viewers he wouldn’t run over into the soap opera. If you think I’m kidding about soaps as serious escape, consider that two TV households aren’t uncommon here: one for those who want to watch the novela, another for watching pelota. Homes with just one set become divided and bicker-ridden when the soaps and baseball are simulcast.

DVDs: Even before the explosion of private entrepreneurs selling pirated DVDs descended upon us, Cubans habitually rented and copied movies (or entire seasons of their favorite soap), on VHS and now on DVD and in digital formats. Last week as I looked to buy a 5 movie combo from my neighborhood pirate, the saleswoman nodded knowingly when I told her I was looking for something to ‘desconectarme,’ to ‘saca el plug.’ Whether at home or in the theater, cinematic escape is familiar to all Cubans and the saleswoman had no trouble plucking a DVD from the rack with Moneyball, New Year’s Eve, and three other recent releases.

Sports: Technically (and for all the old timers), baseball may be the national sport, but football/soccer is making a play for the title. Every day in the park near my house, local kids field two full teams and kick up the dirt in bare feet as they drive towards the goal. When Barça or Real Madrid play, the bars are packed with fans wearing their colors who unleash a fury once reserved for the Industriales baseball club and national volleyball team. I’m not surprised that booting a little black and white ball about for millions of dollars while having all the super models, fast cars, and sprawling properties your heart desires is the escape-cum-dream package for so many Cubans.

And that’s what it’s all about, friends: the dream. Not the American one or the European one. Nor the dream of fame and fortune those places symbolize (but rarely actualize) for so many from points south. Just the dream, in and of itself regardless of time, space or place. This is what’s essential. We all have them. We all have the right to them. I encourage everyone, everywhere to embrace, as I have, my mom’s sage advice: ‘live your dreams.’ No matter what they are or where they may take you.

In the words of Blondie: “I’ll build a road in gold just to have some dreaming. Dreaming is free.”

Notes

1. The USA has an extra special immigration policy for Cubans known as ‘wet foot/dry foot’ whereby any Cubano who is able to touch toe to hallowed US ground is granted automatic residency in the Land o’ the Free. This ‘advance to Go, collect $200’ dangled before Cubans (and only Cubans) means would-be immigrants from this island are even more reckless than their nothing-left-to-lose brethren from other latitudes, risking life and limb to reach the USA. Again and again, it has proven fatal (Elián González ring a bell?).

2. Other extra special Cuban immigration rules coming from the USA include this emigration visa, 20,000 of which are pledged under current accords (Obama re-instated this old policy suspended by Bush Hijo).

3. I strongly advise everyone reading this against trying to procure illicit drugs here; see Locked Up Abroad.

20 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

Cuba Contradictory

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]While other bloggers are making their end-of-year lists, I’m just waiting for this year to end. Loss and sorrow is what 2011 has meant for me and while a turn of the calendar page won’t cure what ails me, you, or the world, it can provide a dose of hope – false and fleeting as it may be – to help us keep on stepping. Like a car with an empty gas tank, the warning light red and taunting, we know we’re running on fumes, but moving forward nonetheless; ‘bound to cover just a little more ground,’ as the song goes.

Havana circa December 2011 feels similar: we may be running on fumes, but at least we’re still running.

But that’s today. Other days, Havana hops with energy and enthusiasm and drive, where the theme song is instead ‘How do you like it? How do you like it? More, more, more’ – more millennial and hip, more sophisticated and noteworthy. This fuel injection comes from new economic regulations permitting private businesses, the buying and selling of cars and homes, and relaxed travel rules by Obama for Cubans in the USA wanting to visit family on the island (see note 1).

So how Havana feels largely depends on the day you measure her. And your outlook, what you see and experience, and who you talk to. Just like anywhere else, I suppose (if you’re paying close enough attention), except this place is like nowhere else. The contradictions are starker, more frequent, funnier.

Here are some that have caught my attention recently:

The Limousine/Ox-Drawn Cart

When Cubans of a certain means and bent get married, the bride and groom tour around town in a convertible festooned with satin bows, the novia perched atop the back seat waving to passersby while the driver lays on the horn (some honk out the wedding march, others the Godfather theme). But a few days ago, I crossed paths with the newest fad of the nouveau riche: the black tinted stretch limo (there’s only one) rented from Rex Autos covered in the same satin bows. There was no horn honking, however, and no visible bride – defeating entirely the purpose of showing off to plebes and passersby. I guess the thrill of a limo ride is reward enough for some and it did turn heads, including mine.

A short time later, I waited as two oxen were maneuvered with coos and stick by their expert handler. They carted behind them the water tank (known as the pipa in these parts), that makes the rounds of neighborhoods without municipal water. The pipa is the savior of all those homes and families which only have water un día sí, un día no (or even more infrequently).

Stretch limos and oxen carts; conspicuous consumption and water shortages: Es Cuba, my friends.

Penthouse Too Big/House Too Small

Estrella lives in a propiedad horizontal – a floor-through apartment. And it’s a penthouse no less. These huge, luxurious flats are found throughout Vedado high-rises and are more reminiscent of Manhattan than Havana. They usually feature phenomenal city and sea views but are also a pain in the ass – hard to clean and maintain, they’re also a real liability during hurricanes when their height, exposure, and plate glass windows put them in direct path and danger of the elements. For these reasons, Estrella is looking to permutar her penthouse for something closer to the ground, a more manageable home in short.

Contrast this with my friend Gloria – 68 and a spitfire who has dedicated her life’s work to helping the revolution work, she shares a bedroom with her 6-year old grandson and 10-year old granddaughter. If you know Cuba and the housing crisis we’re in, you know multi-generational sleeping arrangements are common. Except in Gloria’s case, she not only shares the room with her grandkids, but a double bed with the boy to boot. Sadly, this is also not terribly uncommon.

Both Estrella and Gloria are equally revolutionary and politically committed; this too, is Cuba, dear readers.

Chocolate-filled Churros/Pallid Pizza

As the new economic regulations gel, Cubans are figuring ways to live with the Gordian Knot that is capitalism. Folks with money to invest and a head for business are differentiating their products and services – and making money hand over fist as a result. The full-service car wash that everyone is talking about is one example of entrepreneurial pluck and vision, as is the nearby scuba school. Since I have no car and don’t dive, these are simply a curiosity for me. Not so the cafeteria selling chocolate-filled churros; jamaliche that I am, this development piqued my interest. Using a machine imported from Ecuador, these folks crank out a fried, filled sweet treat that drives Cubans gaga – and all for the nice price of 3 pesos (less than 15 cents). Also taking the city by storm is the burger and pizza joint with one of those inflatable playhouses kids love so much in the yard. While the kids jump and play, their parents nosh and drink, dropping a bundle in the process. According to my sources, this cafeteria is netting 1500 pesos a day (around $62 – not bad for a startup here).

Meanwhile, block upon block of new cafeterias sell the same forgettable hot dogs and egg sandwiches, bread spread with cloying mayo or croquettes. Some of these places serve terrible food – tasteless or cold, on day old bread or presented to customers just after the flies have been swatted away. Last week, I stopped by a new cafeteria in my neighborhood selling the smallest, palest, saddest pizza I’ve ever seen. With cheese congealing (despite being placed beneath an office lamp), the pathetic pizza sold at Rapidos around town look delectable in comparison. No wonder the government estimates 80% of these new businesses will fail within a year.

The contradictions abound caballeros. Every human and society has them. But we’ve recently had many complexities introduced into our reality here on the island which are deepening these contradictions. It’s a confusing time – anxiety-ridden once you scratch the surface – but it seems these complexities have also sparked a new line of critical thinking and reflection.

Over several visits with different friends and families over the past week, discussions have turned on the theory and opinion that what we’re experiencing today can largely be chalked up to the Special Period – that time in the 90s when the Cuban economy crashed and burned, threatening to take the Revolution with it. So that wouldn’t come to pass, people tightened their belts, took a hold of their bootstraps, and sallied forth. But at a cost. These conversations didn’t focus on what the new economy is or isn’t doing for our present, but rather the hard times of the past and how they eroded values, placed the pursuit of things over relationships, and planted the seeds of individual survival over the collective.

“We used to live here so naturally.”

“People changed overnight.”

“It was 180° turn, fast and dizzying.”

These are some of the comments made to me recently about those trying years, but in relation to our current situation. Interesting food for thought and worth recalling, 20 years hence, as we contemplate the changes in Cuba circa 2011.

Notes

1. You should see what folks are bringing in from abroad to start their families’ businesses here – everything from car parts and coolers to snorkel masks and jungle gyms. Permissions for Cuban families from the USA to travel here is being threatened by political (but powerful, ojo) dinosaurs in Congress. Although it seems Obama isn’t going to let this happen, I encourage all Here is Havana readers to keep the pressure on to lift both the travel ban and the blockade.

21 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Cuban Tourism 2.0

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

New tourism figures were released by Cuba recently and the news isn’t good: arrivals are up (as fans are quick to point out), but revenues are down (as detractors never fail to underscore). Regardless of your love/hate bent (see note 1), the seeming contradiction between more arrivals but less profits makes sense since a Canadian can fly into Varadero and stay a week at an all-inclusive resort for less than a Toronto-Havana plane ticket alone. 

Visitors up and profits down isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the short term save for one small detail: many first timers who visit Cuba say they won’t return.

So what’s a little island to do?

Followers of Here is Havana know my feelings about the golf course strategy Cuba is doggedly pursuing to attract foreign investment and visitors, so I won’t flog that dead horse further. Medical tourism is another growth sector reaping rewards, if the number of Cuban Americans passing through the doors of Cira Garcia (the foreigner hospital here) is any indication. But I’ve recently seen another side of Cuban tourism and it looks a lot like the DR.

_____

One element of Cuba’s tourism strategy many people don’t know about is the push to get locals into the mix (see note 2). In theory it’s a great tactic: offer unbelievable deals for the domestic market and watch those precious CUCs migrate from under mattresses and into the national coffers. In practice however, it looks more like this:

Voluminous flesh rolling from scanty beachwareCuban fashion is a force majeure under the best of circumstances, but take it to the seashore and it’s a Frederick’s of Hollywood train wreck. Lucite stilettos and lamé swimsuits with cutaway sides and gold buckles of unusual size, plus ridiculously shredded ‘cover-ups’ providing full on views of what four decades of congris does to a woman’s body – like a car crash, you want to look away, but can’t.

Drink, Eat, Sleep – There’s something of the spectacular watching Cubans scrum at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Let’s just say there isn’t a plate big enough for the piles of protein and starch they crave. As a work-around, friends and family members divvy up duties and fan out to the different stations, regrouping at their table with multiple plates so heavy they take two hands to hold: rice for 15, bread for a baseball team, mountains of pork chunks and potatoes, and coma-inducing towers of lard-laden sweets. Once the feeding frenzy begins, it blows over quickly, like a late afternoon thunderstorm. From the table, each diner to a one lumbers towards the nearest chaise lounge and passes out. Look for the beer bellies, listen for the snores.

Cost cutting & control – It’s not as bad as the old days when silverware had to be chained to the tables, but almost – on a recent visit to a beach installation that will remain nameless, it became clear that the cornerstone of the national tourism strategy is to maximize profits while limiting losses and cutting costs. I first realized it cruising the buffet. No exotic cheeses and pasta or steak stations like at other all-inclusives. For us it was claria and hot dogs, butter-less bread and shredded cabbage – more like a ‘comedor obrero’ (worker’s lunchroom) than a resort buffet, right down to the single salt shaker for the 200+ crowd. Other penny pinching measures included ‘honey’ that was really sugar water à la Special Period and to wash everything down, the choice of water or water (boiled, not bottled). No matter – the guajiro behind me at the buffet kept repeating breathlessly ‘está riquiquisisimo. ¡Riquiquisisimo!

Tipsy entertainers – If you’ve ever been to a Cuban all-inclusive resort, you know they’re gaga for animación – entertainment from pool volleyball to salsa classes provided by gregarious, often gorgeous, Cubans known as animadores. At the low-budget place where we went, the animadora was a sweet ‘temba’ (35+) who downed not one, not two, but three screwdrivers before leading the crowd in a rousing round of karaoke.

Then there’s the reggaetón and overall pachanga of which Cubans are so fond – partying and kanoodling, dancing and romping about – often in public places. Not helping matters any are the plastic plates littering the beach, along with cups and fluorescent plastic straws, napkins and even a dirty diaper or two – in spite of the garbage cans spaced along the shore like birds on a wire or lovers on the Malecón (see note 3).

 I wasn’t surprised that this resort was virtually foreigner-free (present company excepted). But I did realize on this trip that the most effective enforcer of so-called tourism apartheid is the almighty Market itself.  

Money talks, bullshit walks – welcome to the Cuba Tourism 2.0.

Notes

1. Longtime Cuba followers know three cardinal rules apply when analyzing any news item: 1) consider the source; 2) read between the lines; and 3) after applying rules #1 and #2, accept the fact that you’ll probably never know the full story.

2. Prior to 2008, Cubans were not permitted to stay in hotels and resorts, leading many to brand the policy ‘tourism apartheid.’ That policy was reversed by Raul Castro

3. Cubans’ aversion to trash cans is rivaled only by their aversion to flushing perfectly functional toilets. What up with that?

42 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban idiosyncracies, environment, Expat life, Living Abroad, Raul Castro, Travel to Cuba

Drinking the Capitalist Kool-Aid in Cuba

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

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?

63 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro

Slippery Okra & Sleeping Shrimp: Classic Cubanisms

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

One thing I’ve learned my nearly eight years in Havana is that Cubans have a way with words. Many a lass for example (present company included) has been seduced by a poetry-reciting buck borrowing from the likes of Silvio Rodriguez and Cintio Vitier. And who isn’t hip to the oratory artfulness of Fidel, that hypnotist of crowds from New York to Durban?

In fact, Cuba is a country full of semantic artisans willing and able to sprout ‘flowers from their tongues’ as we say here. This oral aptitude is nothing new or novel. Since Martí and the Mambises, Cubans have honed their mesmerizing way with words. This extends to dichos, popular sayings that use metaphor, irony, and double entendre to encapsulate life’s promise, problems, and perversities. Learning a dicho or three in your armchair or actual travels is a simple way to peel away a layer of the Cuban psyche.

An all time classic that has particular relevance during the dog days of summer and other ‘special periods’ is “entre col y col, una lechuga.” Between all that cabbage, a little lettuce is akin to our ‘variety is the spice of life.’ It’s not surprising one of the most popular sayings uses a metaphor based on leafy greens and cruciferous veggies – Cuban psychological hunger runs deep.

Another food-related dicho that anyone who has been to Cuba has likely experienced is: “donde come uno, come dos (o tres),” which means to say: where there’s food for one, there’s food for two (or three). What can be likened to our ‘the more the merrier’ is in fact, the cornerstone of Cuban hospitality (see note 1).

But hands down, my favorite food-related saying here is “pasando gato por liebre.” While ‘passing off cat as rabbit’ may sound like a Chinatown food nightmare, this saying is applied to all sorts of Cuban chicanery, from serving $3 mojitos made with rock gut rum instead of Habana Club to selling Selectos as Cohibas (see note 2). Being agile to this kind of trickery is part and parcel of being Cuban, embodied in another of my preferred sayings: “camarón que se duerme, se la lleva la corriente.” Or ‘you snooze, you lose.’

But enough of all this food and fauna. Let’s talk about sex, another cornerstone of Cubanilla. While there are many dichos referencing carnal undertakings, (and I could dedicate an entire post to piropos, the ingenious and often hilarious come-ons Cubans invent for catching the ear and eye of the opposite sex), my favorite is “quimbombó que rebala, pa’la yuca seca.” Literally this translates as ‘for dry manioc, use slippery okra.’ Hardly the sensuous flowering phrase you’d expect from hot-blooded Cubanos y Cubanas itching to get their groove on. But anyone who’s familiar with okra knows how slippery, slimy it gets if prepared incorrectly. And yucca, from Havana to Asunción, is dry and unappetizing unless gussied up with mojito (see note 3). So while okra is slippery by nature and yucca is dry, get the two together (or more accurately, the body parts for which they serve metaphorically) for erotic results.

Gracias a dios I’ve got no problem where yucca and okra are concerned, but there is one dicho bien Cubano that I’ve yet to internalize. Maybe it’s because I’m a New Yorker or has something to do with being a Scorpio or perhaps it’s just the state of being Conner (god help us!), but I just haven’t been able to master ‘a mal tiempo, buena cara.’ Putting on a good face during bad times just doesn’t seem to be in my make up.

Seems I’ve still got a lot to learn.

Notes

1. According to the expert in everything (that would be my husband), this saying has roots in the Cuban countryside, where hospitality knows no bounds. But it can also be traced to the island’s Haitian community, which arrived on Cuban shores in the early 19th century. Seems Haitians of the time had the custom of setting an extra place at the table, Caribbean Elijah-style.

2. Selectos are the/my five cent cigar of choice, sold in bodegas (where Cubans procure their rations). Many a tourist has been duped into buying what are touted as Cohibas when really they’re just Selecto dirt sticks wearing the signature yellow and black bands of Cuba’s most famous cigar.

3. Visitors sometimes confuse mojito, the minty potent potable, with mojito the garlicky bitter orange-spiked sauce used to dress root vegetables that is as delicious as it is addictive. While plain old manioc yucca is pasty and not-so-tasty, yuca con mojo is irresistible.

5 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad