Tag Archives: US Cuba relations

‘To Don’t List’ for Emigrating Cubans

Amaya; Otto; Giulietta; Jonas; Alejandro El Mesero, Alejandro El Informático: all these friends (and more) have left these shores in the past six months in search of something bigger, better, brighter or simply different.

We always send friends and family off with well wishes and congratulations (yes: getting a coveted work visa or bewitching a foreign spouse is still celebrated here the way I imagine prisoners celebrate an Early Release Date), but it’s sad too, despairing even. Tears are shed – in private or at the airport, before during or after. Yet once they dry, Cubans face leave-taking the way they face bureaucratic absurdities, violent hurricanes, chronic shortages and all-day blackouts (yes: we still have them. We’re in the thick of one as I write this, in fact, beads of sweat pooling between breasts). Mal tiempo, buena cara.

Living in Cuba is a lesson in constants: constant contradictions, constant challenges, constant rupture. And I’m still learning. I mourn the loss of my friends who, once they leave, get sucked into a dimension of fast food and FaceBook, big box stores and demanding bosses. It’s wonderful for them to have experiences they’ve only dreamt of and deserve, but it still feels like abandonment to me. Cubans seems to be less ‘trágica’ about it. I guess they have to be. It makes sense – intellectually. I know (too) many Cubans who’ve flown the coop, so to speak; the nostalgia and longing can be crippling, painfully so. As an immigrant myself, I know this feeing intimately. Mal tiempo, buena cara.

But emotionally? It sucks to have your social structure stirred up like a stamped on ant hill. Then there’s brain drain, the negative birth rate (many émigrés are women of child-bearing age), dearth of eligible bachelors, and all the other practical implications of immigration.

Rather than wallow however, I try to be of service. It helps me work through the missing. Not ready for my medicine? Tough luck.

For all my Cuban friends considering or in the process of leaving, I offer this check list of things you’re used to doing in Cuba that you cannot do once you arrive at your foreign destination of choice or default. This should be especially helpful for those moving to La Yuma.

launch snot rockets (AKA the Farmer Hanky)
– pop your lover’s zits in public
– have an open container in a car
– toss cans and other garbage out of a moving car/bus/train
– tssst tssst to get the waiter’s attention
– shoot birds with a sling shot
– pick your neighbors flowers or poison your neighbor’s dog (yes: this is pretty common here)
– saunter away from a steaming pile of your dog’s shit on the sidewalk
– flaunt your mistresses
– smoke cigarettes – anywhere (unless you enjoy pariah status)
– believe everything you read on the Internet
– steal the toilet paper
– throw soiled toilet paper in the garbage
masturbate in movie theaters
– use cooking oil as sexual lubricant
– wear stilettos to the beach
– wear shorts so short your ass cheeks hang out
– forget to write. We miss you!



Filed under Americans in cuba, bureacracy, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad

Conner’s Cuba Rules

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Since I’m from the Estados Unidos (more fittingly known as ‘Estamos Jodidos,’ or the independent republic of ‘We’re Screwed’), very few friends have visited me here on the “wrong side” of the Straits (see note 1). The lengths the US goes to keep Cuba down makes me indignant, but also sad since my peeps haven’t been able to experience this place for themselves and draw their own conclusions as to how good (or not so) things are in my world.

Last week however, the friend blockade was broken by some dear old amigos who finally made the leap and turned up for a visit.

As you might expect, they had lots of questions about governance and control, salaries and employment, the burgeoning private sector, tourism, race relations, emigration and myriad other aspects of Cuban life. Their curiosity and desire to better understand the sometimes unfathomable reality that is Cuba, forced me into a thoughtful analysis of the mundane, germane, and slightly insane features of life here.

Since the contemporary Cuban reality is so complex and different from what most people know, I’ve developed several rules of thumb for travelers wanting to maximize their Cuba visit. Part philosophical, part practical, the following complement Trip Tips: Havana Independently, posted in these pages some time ago.

– 8 out of 10 people approaching you on the street want something. ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Where you from?’ and ‘Hello, my fren! Francia?! Italia?!’ are the most common lines used on new arrivals by jineteros. These are always asked with a good dose of charm in some of the best English you’re likely to hear in Cuba and it usually takes a couple of days before visitors get clued in to the hustle.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #1: Deny hustlers an easy opening by eschewing clothing or accessories that identify your nationality and learn a few deterring phrases. These might include ‘déjame en paz’ (leave me alone) or for those who won’t take no for an answer: ‘no te metes conmigo, coño’ (don’t mess with me damn it). If you’re a hustler magnet (or hater), consider steering clear of tourist hot spots in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana altogether. In the end, all foreigners are seen as rubes and marks regardless of station, education, or experience.

– Cubans tell you what they think you want to hear. As a rule, foreigners receive the ‘poor oppressed us’ line first. A sympathy ploy laced with political assumption, this tactic is tiresome for its banality and blatant disregard for facts. You’ll be told, for example, about the stiff penalties incurred for killing a cow, but this ‘woe’s me’ contingent will conveniently leave out the part about the government guaranteeing milk for all children under 7, pregnant women, and other vulnerable groups – the reason cows are protected property. Cubans renting rooms in their houses are notorious for this type of incomplete picture peddling, complaining to clients about the taxes levied upon their business. What they neglect to mention is that their income-earning homes are provided by the government virtually rent-free. Wanting a rent-free property to run a business and be tax exempt? That’s chutzpah.

But this cuts both ways. If, for instance, you evidence respect and awe for the Cuban Revolution, you’re likely to hear about free education and the wonders of organic farming. What you won’t necessarily hear about are the overcrowded dormitories with shitty food and water shortages or the country’s experiments with genetically-modified crops.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #2: Cubans tend to see things as black and white, when the truth more often resides in the gray. When picking a Cuban’s brain, always consider the source and listen to the complainers very closely: you’ll likely hear the axe they’re grinding loud and clear.

– You can’t ‘fix’ Cuba. There’s an especially annoying type of tourist who after two weeks here is convinced they’ve got it all figured, that they know precisely how to fix what’s broken (see note 2). Their simplistic ideas often disregard the complexities of Cuban society and illustrate a woeful ignorance of history, geo-politics, even the weather. For example, if you think hurricanes have little connection to health and housing in Cuba, you might be this type of visitor. Even after living here for 9 years, I can’t figure it all out and while it’s possible some tourist is better positioned to analyze Cuba, it’s not likely.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #3: The more you know about Cuba, the less you understand. Remember: it’s better to remain silent and appear a fool than open your mouth and prove it. If you’re truly keen to learn, read widely before your trip, ask lots of questions once here, and avoid declarations.

– The more things change, the more they stay the same. Huge, watershed changes are taking place here, but at its core, Cuba is still Cuba. It’s a cultural constancy that may be drawing to a close as market forces gather momentum, but I’m not so sure. Consider this quote:

 It is plain there is a good deal to be learned here…Things which we cannot do without, we must go out of the house to find, and those which we can do without we must dispense with. This is odd and strange, but not uninteresting and affords scope for contrivance and the exercise of influence and other administrative powers…I must inform myself on the subject of this strange development of capital over labor.”

– Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

 What’s so interesting about this observation is that it could have easily been made yesterday, but dates from 1859.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #4: Cuba is evolving, but not necessarily in the direction or way you or I might think (or want). Though the steps people take to maintain balance might change, the fact that the ground is always moving never does. Do like Cubans and roll with it.

No coge lucha. Threats to national sovereignty notwithstanding, Cubans don’t take too much too seriously, preferring to get and go along over fussing and fighting. I’m convinced it has something to do with the weather – this heat is enough to wither anyone’s defenses – but is probably also related to the fact that there is so little housing and employment movement here, if you piss a neighbor or co-worker off, you’re in for a lifetime of problems.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #5: Don’t get your knickers in a twist if things don’t go as planned or a government drone isn’t cooperating. Have a sense of humor, laugh it off and follow the old axiom: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Writing all this, I realize I’d be wise to take my own advice!


1. For anyone new to this blog +/o US-Cuba relations, the freedom for US citizens and residents to travel to the island has been restricted for 50 years. As I type this, the House Appropriations Committee has just voted to reverse the small opening Obama offered US travelers wanting to travel to Cuba.

2. These types really chap my ass, almost as much as the Cuban émigré who hasn’t been here in 20 years or worse, the person sitting at their computer who has never been here.


Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

DIY Project – Where We’re At

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August, 2012

It has been a while, friends, and quiet on this particular collaborative front. I’ve been crazy busy with all sorts of projects and plans and hadn’t been to my post office box in too long, when I popped in last week. Holy cojones! was there alotta loot in that cajita of mine. Here’s a recap and thanks to these nice folks for taking part; your postcards are in the mail soon!

Letter sent by K Clark

Sent from: New Orleans, 05 Mar 2012

Received: 27 March 2012

Highlight: It’s from NOLA, that’s highlight enough for me!

Letter from R Martynuik

Sent from: Alberta, 28 April 2012

Received: 15 May 2012

Highlight: This was a long, funny letter from someone who caught the Cuba bug, bad not too long ago. I was delighted to receive something from Alberta since Ive been cooking up an article based there for about a decade now…This letter has put gas in my tank to get on it. Thanks chica!

Labor Day Update

So Ive been kind of remiss in my upkeep of the DIY project. Sorry about that folks. But Im back in the saddle and I have to admit, things are arriving (both here and there) with an alacrity hertofore unknown. Case in point:

card sent from reader John
Sent from:Abbotsford, Victoria, Australia on May 20 (that’s how far behind I am!!)
Arrived Havana: June 14, 2010
Highlight: At 15,000+ kilometers, this is the longest travelled contribution to the project.

Shortly after John’s card arrived (and for those of you shaking your head about my slacker approach to the DIY project, please note in comments below that I DID comply with promised card from Havana to Oz, which arrived within 20 or so days. not bad for half way ’round the world!), I got one from DRUM ROLL PLEASE…..


Funny thing is, it was sent from said station (so says the stamp) on June 30, 2010, but arrived in Havana on July 1, 2010. Two days to hop the Straits? Me thinks there was a lot of blue smoke billowing about that Bonnaroo post office!! Thanks C & N for the card. love it!

NOTE TO READERS: Next year is 10 years of Bonnaroo. Ive never been able to attend. I WANT IN. I have a ride. I have the gear. I have the gumption and you KNOW I have the dancing shoes. I am looking for a sponsor to help get me and the hubby (rock festival virgin! help pop his cherry!) to TN. Ill blog about it. Ill write articles about it. You’ll be the famous patron! You’ll create the memory of a lifetime. Whaddya say?! Contact me here if you’re interested!



Went to old 6464 yesterday. What a haul! A new issue of Good
and three postcards.

Seems things are going along smoothly:

1. From Heathrow

2. From Connecticut

3. From Moscow

All postcards took 2 weeks to arrive.

thanks for participating folks!


It’s been a long while since I’ve been to the old PO Box – since before Haiti, which in psychological time is like dog years. It’s not as if I haven’t been thinking about it. On the contrary. My dear friend A out in LA told me she sent me a package – full of well-crafted novels and thought-provoking magazines no doubt – which is my porn (and as rare here in Havana).

So it was with baited breath (and sweat-slicked back: summer has suddenly descended on Havana and things are heating up. Coming out of the shower sweating is a bitch – something I’ll kvetch about in a subsequent post) that I rolled up to Box 6464 at Havana’s main post office. I should point out here that my movements were being recorded. Not by any sinister state apparatchik, but by journalists Ken Hegan and Robin Esrock.

Seems I may be leaping on to the boob tube sometime in the future and we spent a day together filming us doing Cuban things – resolving, shopping, smoking – to see if I’m what? Photogenic? Informed? Funny? It was a gas, no matter. Anyway, these two cool cats are here for FIT, the over-the-top dog and pony show of a tourism fair in Cuba – more on this in a later post as I’ve much to say on the issue.

Back at the post office, they were as excited as me, I think, to see what treasures the box held. Lo and behold, major treats awaited! One was a letter from a reader participating in this DIY postal project whereby we’re testing the Obama and Castro administrations’ pledge to improve postal services between the two countries. This little card is significant for several reasons: first, it’s from someone I don’t know, so that’s a first. Second, it’s from South Florida. We’re talking 90 miles away people; this innocuous envelope took over 3 weeks to get here. It was sent on March 8 (International Women’s Day incidentally, when I was dancing salsa with my doctor friends in our Port-au-Prince tent camp) and arrived on April 1. This means it traveled, on average, 3.75 miles a day. Joke’s on me, I guess about improved postal relations.

Thanks O Anderson of Ft Lauderdale for participating in our little experiment. A postcard from Havana is on its way!

The other surprise was the arrival of my issue of Good Magazine. If you don’t know this publication, get with it NOW. This is the Slow issue, dedicated to slowing down, slow cities, slow food and all that jazz. It was slow in getting here too, but I’m not complaining. Better late than never. And as I started pouring through its fascinating pages (this is after Ken, Robin and I had freckle bonded and gorged ourselves on Coppelia. That is to say, long after the camera was switched off) and what do I see on page 12, in the Dialogue section? A postcard I sent to the editors on September 29 last year imploring them to keep publishing the print version.

I feel like a butterfly somewhere just flapped its wings and the wider world is going to start (re)exploring the art and joy of letter writing. Sometimes I can’t tell if I’m retro or pre-curve. Can I be both?


UPDATE FOUR! (post Haiti)
Finally! One of my postcards sent up north arrived (and with comically large pope stamp which contrasted nicely with the B&W image of the rebel army in the Sierra Maestra).
Sent from: Habana Cuba on February 14 or so, 2010
Arrived in Queens, NY: March 23, 2010

Well folks, I’m hours away from taking off for Haiti but I wanted to let you know I had a nice little (record-breaking!) surprise in my PO box today. In the interest of brevity (haiti prep continues apace!):

Card with lovely family photo from A Lee
Sent from: Albany, NY on December 10, 2009
Arrived Havana: February 19, 2010 (slowest to date!)
Highlight:Stamped with a never before seen message in bright red ink: “Missent to Bermuda.” This is one well traveled card!

A Lee – you’ll have to wait for me to return from Haiti for your missive from here. So far, none of the people below have received theirs as far as I know


Hi folks! New development on the DIY project front…

Postcard from LP colleague Zora O’neill
Sent from: Bali, Indonesia on January 20, 2010
Arrived Havana: February 13, 2010 (note: this is the date stamped on the postcard as being received at my post office, not the day I went around to collect it)
Highlight: The stamps are beautiful, four color floral affairs and the 1657 temple on the postcard is a wonder. Also, this is the first item I’ve received from someone I’ve never met.
Upshot: Nora, fellow LP writer/blogger and New Yorker is a fast rising star – thanks for taking out the time from Forkin Fantastic to participate in our little project! Also, her postal travel time is neck and neck with the goodies from LA – and came WAY farther.


I’ve got mail!

Well, a big hola to all my readers (and writers) from across the Straits. I’ve at last been able to visit the old P.O. Box and what a haul! Our little DIY US-Cuba postal collaboration is bearing its first fruit. Interestingly, only items from the two coasts have arrived (once again, proving that middle America is a wasteland. Kidding!). Interestingly de nuevo, only items from people I already know happened to get here. Random, but at least it was speedy.

So here are the preliminary results:

Package from my dear friend AD
Sent from: Los Angeles on December 14, 2009
Arrived Havana: December 28, 2009
Highlight: A package! What more do you need to know? OK, it contained a collection of essays by David Foster Wallace that I can’t wait to read (can I BE him? please?) and a super cool envirosax reusable shopping bag unit with 10% of the sale going to the surfrider foundation (www.surfrider.org). I had to pay 1.5 pesos (that’s about 6 cents USD) to get the package from the nice lady behind the glass. Like all packages entering Cuba, this one was opened by customs, inspected and resealed with the aforementioned official form inside detailing what is/was in the package and the state in which it was found. Interestingly, for the first time, there was a problem with the form. Namely, it wasn’t mine! Instead, the form corresponded to Zeida Paez Garcia in Matanzas. Her package contained bags and jars, books, magazines, catalogs, and postcards. I like the contents of my package much better, sorry Zeida.
Upshot: Nothing cheers up like a package from a friend! AND it seems LA PO wins for speedy delivery – just two weeks (or maybe that it was a package had something to do with it)

Long, fun letter from my creative friend AL
Sent from: NY, NY on December 16, 2009
Arrived Havana: January 12, 2010
Highlight: So many! This letter was written in stages during AL’s performance piece enacted during 24 hours riding the F train – I especially enjoyed reading about her pulling into Coney Island at 3:37 am and awaiting the next train, wondering if it will be on time, observing all the other New Yorkers wondering the same thing. (It pulled in promptly at 3:41. Rudy Giuliani – he did get the trains running on time). Bonus: the original Keith Herring Free South Africa postcard, circa 1985. Thanks A!
Upshot: Anything arriving in under a month is pretty good in my opinion.

Postcard from my old friend C
Sent from: Westchester, New York on December 23, 2009
Arrived Havana: January 28, 2010
Highlight: Hubby out in a blizzard at the Jet’s game – some folks never give up hope!
Upshot: Took a month, but hey, it’s the holidays.

So far so good. To post offices and their employees on both sides of the straits, I say: keep up the good work! (If anyone is reading this in Miami or elsewhere in southern Florida, I invite you to participate in our little project: it would be fun to see how long it takes for a card or letter to travel that interminable 90 miles) And to my correpsondents: your postcard is on its way!


So have you heard Obama and Company espousing ‘change’ towards Cuba? Newsflash! It’s a whole bunch of hooey, (despite pundits’ claims to the contrary). OK, maybe not a whole bunch, but mostly. For instance, absolutely nothing floated so far by the United States is bringing my dear friends Karna and Joseph any closer to my doorstep or my husband any closer to my Mom’s (see note 1). Nor has anything changed that would help bring life-saving medicines to Cuban kids with cancer or allow me to access my bank account. My knickers do tend to get in a twist, therefore, when I read about the supposed strides being made. From where I’m sitting, it’s the same old story, save for a new protagonist of color instead of the rich, old white dudes who have been ruling the free world for what seems like forever (see note 2).

But I can tell you from years of firsthand experience that things have improved markedly in one area: mail service. Sounds terribly unsexy and 19th Century, I know, but if you’ve ever had a smile sneak across your lips or a flutter erupt in your gut when a letter from a friend or lover graces your mailbox, you know receiving mail can be one of life’s small but great pleasures. Letter writing is also one of our few remaining acts of pure reciprocity – usually you have to write a letter to get a letter.

And living where I do, without YouTube or podcasts, Skype and webcam capabilities (see note 3), it’s a downright thrill to receive something “from the other side.” Imagine my delight peering into my post office box (a gilded iron affair with the Cuban coat of arms on the door) recently to behold a little pink envelope sent by my youngest niece from summer camp. No matter that she was already assembling her Halloween costume by the time it reached Box 6464 at Havana’s main post office. Or the record-breaking postcard sent by my good friend Claudia from the heights of Denver that took a full three months to reach me.

But arrive it did, which brings me to the pollo of the arroz con pollo of this post: I contracted my post office box in 2002. In those early years, I received magazines, recipes, letters, photos – even boxes packed with paperback books and CDs friends had culled from their collections. A sheet of paper tucked inside each of those incoming packages informed me that the box had been opened and inspected by Cuban postal authorities. It was all very official, with the standardized, column-filled form itemizing the contents and their condition upon arrival, plus whether any prohibited items had been removed. None ever had and nothing was ever stolen or damaged.

Then, after 3 or 4 similar packages and a couple of years of postal elation or deflation depending on what, if anything, my P.O. box contained, my mail lifeline was choked off. I’d get the occasional postcard from China or South Africa from globetrotting friends and family, but nothing from my compadres up north. Letters were getting lost somewhere in transit. Postcards sent from California, Colorado, New York, and New Hampshire never graced Box 6464. Mom resorted to sending newspaper clippings about the Knicks’ new coach and New Yorker cartoons just to see if they’d get here. Few did. I was dismayed – these handwritten, stamped gestures are like Red Bull for the expat soul (without the nasty taste) and I wanted to know what was up with my dose.

I went to talk to the postmistress. I explained the sudden death of my correspondence.

“But if you’re sending money through the mail…” she commented with a raised eyebrow and ‘what do you expect?’ shrug.

This is the type of foreigner-as-village-idiot comment Cubans sometimes make that gets my Irish up. My first inclination is to look the woman straight in the eye and ask: “¿¡tengo cara de boba?! (do I look like an idiot?!) But since this will likely be my postmistress for life, I must be careful not piss her off.

“No, no. Nothing like that. Just postcards and letters and such.”

I inquire as to whether there have been any staffing or procedural changes at the post office that may account for the lapse.


After months of missives gone missing, people stopped writing. Oh, I’d get a postcard from Kenya or Cambodia now and then, but these were few and far between. More often than not, I’d walk the long marble hallway to the bank of boxes, lean in and see nothing but a dark, empty slot. And so it went until one day, in some obscure way, the information reached me that George W had decreed postal services to Cuba would cease, indefinitely. I imagine there’s some P.O. purgatory somewhere up north piled high with pink envelopes addressed to Cuba by beloved campers and secret banana bread recipes that never found their new home.

Fast forward to 2009. My magazine subscriptions started arriving again and Mom’s clipping about the ongoing Kilauea eruption (see note 4) came at last. Then I got a letter from an old friend.

Finally!! I was experiencing direct, positive results from regime change in the USA.

So I’d like to get some evidence as to how well the US-Cuba mail service accords are working, make it scientific, if you will. Drop me a line and we’ll see how long it takes for a simple letter or postcard to cross the 86 miles of water separating us (see note 5). Some will surely never arrive, but those that do will receive a response from yours truly here in Havana. I’ll be sure to keep readers posted on the results.

Send all letter love (and please! nothing inflammatory or flammable, edible or fragile, dangerous or dissenting) to:

Conner Gorry
Apdo 6464
Habana 6
Habana CUBA


1. Something that typically gets lost in all the venom and rhetoric is that the US routinely denies tourist visas to Cubans unless they’re over 70, an artist, or musician. My husband and several of my friends – although they traveled to the US on occasion prior to 2002 – can now only dream of visiting because of this unstated, exclusionary policy.

2. In no way do I mean to minimize Obama’s achievement. His election was triumphant and exultant and not wholly expected in that underdog, tear-jerking Hoosiers kind of way. But when it comes to Cuba, he’s singing the same tune – perhaps with more rhythm and style – but in the end, it’s the same regime change, capitalism-is-better-just-admit-it-and-surrender song and dance we’ve been subjected to for 50 years.

3. People (Cubans and foreigners alike) who can afford to use the WiFi at hotels (cost: $7/hr, 2-hr minimum) or access the Internet through a private provider (cost: $36 for 30 hours/month minimum) do have wider access than me to some of these services.

4. Kilauea on Hawaii’s Big Island has been erupting since 1983 – the longest recorded eruption in history. If you have never been to the Big Island, go there, now. And take my guide with you!

5. But wait! Please join in even if you live in Canada or Argentina, France or Hong Kong. After all, the blogosphere has no borders, why should our experiment?


Filed under Americans in cuba, Uncategorized