Posts Tagged ‘castro’

His name was Ricardo. He was speaking to my group of American Students in a private home on the south side of Havana. It was our last day in Cuba and these students had seen the poverty of the streets, the crumbling conditions of once beautiful buildings, the unhealthy conditions of rural hospitals. They met a man who had been incarcerated for nearly three decades for his opposition the Castro regime and they had viewed the Libreta (ration booklet) of a family that could not afford to supplement the government’s meager allotment of food. But Ricardo was the first man who had agreed to speak with them freely.

“I’ll answer your questions honestly,” he said.

There were conditions, of course. There always are. First, the students had to agree not to write about him or to use his name on the Internet. He told of a friend whose family suffered a long string of “problems” after the friend’s opinions were published on the Internet. Second, the students could not take pictures or video of him. (Well, maybe a few pictures if you give him a copy.) Third, his children really need shoes.

I was only half listening to the interpreter, so I wasn’t sure what he was saying about shoes. He didn’t ask for shoes. He didn’t ask for money for shoes. No Internet. No video. And, by the way, his children don’t have shoes.

As he began to tell about his life and his work in the sugar fields, I noticed something being passed around among the students. When it got to me, I saw that it was an envelope stuffed with dollars and chavitos (Cuban Tourist Dollars). It simply said “shoes”  on the envelope. Apparently my students understood perfectly what he was saying.

“Do most Cubans want the Castros to die or lose power?” a student asked. I was stunned by this abrupt introduction to the Q and A, but our guest was not fazed.

“Many do, but many don’t,” he said without elaboration.

“How can some Cubans not want something better?” another student asked.

I was with them. How can it be that some still believe Fidel’s smooth tongue after fifty years of broken promises and unfulfilled rhetoric? How can they buy Raul’s promises of a more open system and a better economy? How can it be that they won’t fight for better health care, or freedom of speech? I didn’t understand. Ricardo was as interested in hearing the questions as my students were in hearing his answers. He explained the history and economy of Cuba and the “diabolically brilliant” mind of Castro.

“Fidel has convince many people that the problems of Cuba are the result of the American ‘blockade.’ He tells them that if they give in, the U.S. will take Cuba and its heritage and destroy it. People will be without health care and food. The rich capitalists will use up Cuba’s resources and leave it in worse condition than ever.”

He had a point, I thought. It brought to mind our involvement “helping” other countries.

“But I’ve heard that Raul Castro has made changes,” said one student with his native sarcasm. “He’s had public meetings to seek input for a more efficient system, loosened restrictions on access to tourist destinations, and allowed cell phone use. Right?”

“Yes, some of the rules have changed,” Ricardo agreed, “and that’s good for the image of Cuba abroad, but it changes nothing for me. A night in a hotel – a cheap hotel – costs three months of my salary. And while I’d love to have a cell phone, I could have had one before if I had a rich Miami relative and put it in his name. Legal or not, I cannot afford a phone and my ability to afford one is controlled by the Cuban government. We have a phrase: Raúl Castro es el mismo perro con diferente collar,” he said. Same dog, different collar.

“Oh, and we have a joke about those public meetings,” he said. “At the first meeting, a party leader came to the large auditorium and it was filled with people. He talked about the sweeping changes meant to improve conditions. When he was done he asked if anyone had any questions. One man raised his hand and asked why the chocolate in our stores so bad? The leader said he didn’t know the answer to that question, but he would check on that and report back at the next meeting.”

“At the next meeting the room filled again and the party officials made their comments. When they were finished the party leader asked again if there were any questions.  A different man raised his hand. The leader asked him if he too wanted to know about the chocolate in the stores.”

“‘No, the man said, I want to know where the man is that asked the question about the chocolate at the last meeting.”

When Ricardo finished the story he chuckled at his own humor. The students were horrified. “That’s not funny,” I heard one of them say.

“It’s a joke, but that’s how it works,” Ricardo said.

“But the man in the joke, what happened to him – hypothetically,” asked a girl on the edge of tears.

“Maybe he got a threatening message. Maybe his son lost some privileges at school. Maybe he got a ticket for an expired license. Maybe his paycheck was docked for that time three weeks ago when he was late for work. Nothing official, but he got the message.”

“We tell jokes about it because if we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying,” he added. “I still don’t understand why more people don’t want things to change. Why they follow Fidel or Raul. Why things are so slow to change even after Fidel has given up his presidency,” I said.

Ricardo took a long breath. “There’s a story we tell in Cuba,” he said, “another joke. It will help you understand the psychology of some Cubans.”

I looked around the room. Ricardo had the undivided attention of every student.

“There were three men walking down the beach together,” he began.  “One was an American, one was a Cuban, and the third was a Russian.”

Ricardo laughed. “Already you know this is a joke, right? Because Cubans are not allowed on the beaches with the tourists. . .”

A few students chuckled nervously.

“But let me continue. They came upon lamp that was partially buried in sand and covered with tarnish and dirt. The three of them had heard of such lamps and they frantically cleaned it and polished it. Finally a genie emerged, thankful for his release. I’m sorry, said the Genie, but I only have three wishes and therefore I can grant only one to each of you.”

“You are first, he said to the Russian.”

“I would like to own all of the oil fields in Siberia so that my family might be wealthy for generations to come, the Russian said. “

“Your wish is granted, said the genie.”

“And you, he said pointing to the American.”

“I would like to be wealthier than Bill Gates, said the American.”

“The Genie snapped his fingers and granted the American’s wish.”

“And you, he asked the Cuban, what do you want?”

“I know of a man who lives in Havana, said the Cuban. He has a beautiful house with many bedrooms and bathrooms. It has a swimming pool and a three-car garage. He also has a home on Varadero, the most beautiful beach in the world. He has four cars, and money in three different banks.”

“So, the Genie said, you’d like to live like this man lives?”

“No, said the Cuban, I want HIM to live like I do.”

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Cubans are not allowed on the best beaches, hotels, resorts or restaurants of their country.  My friend Jose tells me, “in this country WE are the extranjeros (the foreigners).” My rule is that I never go anywhere where the Cuban people are not welcome. The law was in place “for the protection of the tourists.”  But everyone knows the truth, Cubans comingling with tourists could lead to anti-government sentiments. So, last year when I stopped in a small town where I knew the local priest, I offered to take him and a few of his friends to a beach on the north shore.  He had put me up for a couple nights on a previous trip, so I was trying to return the favor.  I had a rented van that held 11 people, and there were only 7 of us Americans. So we crammed Father Miguel, three women from the church and their three little boys into the “gua gua.”  None of the children had ever even seen the beach before. 

The women offered to pack lunches, but I insisted on taking care of the food.  We packed only water and thermoses of café Cubano.  In the states I drink my coffee black and mild, but in Cuba I drink it the way the Cubans drink it: Sickening sweet and thick as sludge from the Exxon Valdez.

I assured my guests that I had been to this beach before and that there was an open-air thatched-roof restaurant where I would buy them all lunch. It wasn’t a “tourist” resort, so Cubans were permitted.   After an hour and a half drive we came to the road that leads to the beach.  We were stopped by a soldier who checked our documents.  He carefully noted in his book how many Cubans and how many Americans were in the van. A little further down the road we were stopped again. A government worker made us pay an entrance fee before raising the gate.  A few centavos each for the Cubans and ten bucks each for the Americanos.  Another mile and we pulled into the familiar parking lot on the beach.  Well, it was half familiar – the other half of the lot along with the restaurant, bathrooms and changing rooms had washed into the ocean during the last hurricane.  All that was left was a small stand that sold beer, soda and water.  No food.  I decided we’d figure out the food later.  Let’s get these kids on the beach!

For a song you could rent snorkel gear, umbrellas, or a small paddleboat.  For a few more chavitos, the Cuban tourist currency, you could actually rent a small speed boat, although Father Miguel tells me it only has a one-gallon gas tank. The water was crystal clear and the sun sizzled above it as it broiled any skin left unprotected.  Once everyone had what he or she needed I looked for Miguel and saw him talking to the guy at the stand.  I joined him and relieved the guy of his entire supply of water and soda.  If Father Miguel hadn’t been there, I’d have taken a few beers too.

I suggested that he stay with the others while I drive back to the nearest town and find some food. 

“You can’t do that,” he said.

“Why not?”

“You came into the park with 7 Cubans, they won’t let you leave without 7 Cubans.” 

When he said this he turned and looked north toward Miami, only 90 miles over the horizon.  That was the reason they counted the Cubans.  That was the reason for the one-gallon gas tank.

As I contemplated this, the man from the stand ran up and said to Miguel, “He agreed to show you.”

Father Miguel told the guy he’d be right there and pulled me aside.

Que pasa?” I asked.  “What’s up?

Miguel explained that he had talked to the man while I was getting the group organized on the beach and he knew of another man who could get us dinner – a man that has a “business.”  I was familiar with the casa particulares, home businesses.  Some were legal and pay high fees and taxes for the privilege of operating their trade.  Others were not legal, part of the mercado negro.  These pay their fees, if any, in the form of bribes.  This was very common, but Miguel was very cautious, very protective.

“I will go and check it out,” he said.

He walked toward the parking lot as I ran to kids who were splashing and calling for me to get in the water.  A while later Miguel returned and yelled for me to join him away from the others.

“I went to the place where they will feed us,” he said. “It’s OK.  It’s clean and the food looks fresh.  Each person will get grilled white fish or grilled lobster, some salad, rice and bread.”

  At this point I was sure it was not a “legal” business.   Lobster is only allowed to be caught and cooked in state-run restaurants or for export.  

They can only handle 7 at a time,” he said, “so we will have to eat in shifts.  The Americans will go first.  It will cost  5 U.S dollars each.”

“$5.00?” I said, “for lobster?”

Si!” he said smiling.

“Great!” I said,  “but you’re taking the Cuban families first.”

“No, no . . . ”

He started to argue, but I stopped him. 

“It’s not negotiable,” I said.  “These women and kids haven’t eaten since early this morning.  My team, on the other hand, can easily live off the fat of the land for another hour.”

As Father Miguel led them back toward the parking lot, I went back into the water to inform my troops.   Each of them chose the lobster without hesitation. 

By the time our Cuban friends returned from lunch they looked happy and satisfied. 

“Follow me,” Miguel said. 

We followed him through the parking lot and past the cars.  There, two men joined us and led us down a different part of the beach for a few minutes, and then onto a trail into the woods.  I looked through the trees for the house where we would eat, but saw nothing.  In a small clearing, Miguel said, “Here!”  I was a little bewildered at first, until I saw the small fire, with lobsters grilling, another fire with a pot of rice, and a piece of wood with plates and flatware stacked neatly on a cloth.

We ate salads and rice and bread first as the two men grilled the lobster and plopped them one at a time onto our plates.  Most of us were standing, so maneuvering a fork to pull meat out of the shell required a bit of a learning curve.  Eventually we did learn – it couldn’t be done.  So there we stood holding the shells up to our faces and sucking out this charred delicacy made of equal parts adventure, ambience and hunger.  

When we had devoured every last morsel, it was time to pay up.  This is never comfortable in Cuba.  It’s one of those events where cultures clash.  Miguel saw me reaching for my wallet and he approached. 

“Give me the money and I will pay him,” said the good father.

 “No, no, I can handle it.” I assured him. 

I calculated in my head:  14 people, 5 bucks each, a generous tip for risking their freedom to feed us.  No problem.  I’ll make it 7 bucks each.  I counted out the money and handed it to the man who seemed to be in charge. 

“It’s good,” I said handing him the money, “no change.” 

On the trail back to the beach I saw Father Miquel ahead talking to Andy, my best Spanish speaker.  Miguel seemed rather agitated, but Andy appeared to be amused. 

“Hey,” I yelled, “what’s going on up there?”

Andy turned and laughed. “Father Miguel is not happy with you,” he said.

Miguel grabbed him by the arm and hurried him forward to stop the conversation, but I caught up with them.   

“What is it, Father?”

But Andy looked over at me and said, “It seems our hosts originally wanted $7 per person and Father Miguel here spent 20 minutes talking them down to $5.”

“Ah, but Miguel,” I said, “it is a good thing that you did that for me, otherwise those $7 lobsters would have cost me $9.”

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