Posts Tagged ‘Cuba’

I was stuffed into the front seat of the van between Jorge and Leonardo. Never mind that there were some empty seats in the back. Jorge wanted me to have the best view as we drove out of Havana and on to the four lane highway toward Holguín.

As we picked up speed outside the city, voices rose to compete with the wind whipping past the open windows. Directly behind me Curtis was working hard to keep up with his translating duties, coordinating two or three conversations at once.

There was very little traffic, some bicycles, a few old cars, a horse drawn cart. In the median there were men carrying rounds of white cheese, big blocks of guava paste and long belts of garlic strung together with twine. Once they could see we weren’t soldiers, they held them high to encourage the sale.

I heard Evan explaining to Michael how to set his camera to get pictures from the moving van as Curtis translated billboards for them. “¡Patria o Muerte!” I had seen this one often, Country or Death! But the next one was new to me. It was a neon green and bright orange billboard that read: “¡Vamos Bien!” Next to those words was a ten foot tall picture of Castro’s face. Curtis offered the translation; “we’re doing well, things are great, it’s all good.” Jorge elbowed me and chuckled at this adding,  “Si, vamos bien. Sure, “he said, “. . . if you’re the man with the beard.”

I leaned back thinking about the bright green sign with its fluorescent orange letters and its arrogant contrast with the grey and beige of Cuba’s houses and crumbling hotels that hadn’t been painted in 50 years. Other than Castro’s billboards, the only other consistent color in Cuba is the sea of t-shirts donated by well-meaning tourists and missionaries.

Then a relative silence replaced the sweet chaotic blend of Spanish and English. Leonardo slowed the van. We were approaching a bridge that shielded at least two dozen people from the hot Cuban sun. The bridge was not connected to any roads and stopped abruptly on either side of the highway. It was as if it had been built only as a shelter from the sun. The bridges were built many years ago to connect roads that were never built.

We rolled closer and I could see that a soldier was standing inside the right lane of the highway. He held his AKM assault rifle the way a pessimistic fisherman holds his pole. The soldier was stopping cars and filling them with people from the crowd. He stopped a ’54 Ford that was blowing dark blue smoke from its tailpipe. With his free hand he opened the front door and ushered in a woman with a baby in her arms and a toddler in tow. He closed the door after her and pointed at two men in grease covered clothes. He directed them to the next car in line. They shared the last drags from a cigarette and tried to open the back doors of the car. The handles were broken, so they climbed through the window into the back seat next to the driver’s son.

The driver pulled away leaving a cloud of exhaust for the next car, a small Russian-made Lada. The soldier opened the back door and told the occupants – two young boys –  to get in front with their parents. He chose three women from the crowd who happily squeezed into the tiny back seat.

We were next, and Leonardo pulled the van forward. I turned around to see Curtis gently push Annie’s hand and camera back down to her lap. When we got close to the soldier, Leonardo gave him a slight expressionless nod. The soldier didn’t acknowledge him except to look past us toward the next car. We pulled away with our empty seats still vacant.

Before we were back up to full speed, Evan leaned to the front seat and said, “what was that?” Jorge continued to look out the front window.

“Those are botellas,” he said.


“Yes, but in Cuba we also use the word to mean what you call hitchhikers. Mostly they are workers trying to get to their jobs in a field or a shop where they can earn some pesos. The young woman and her children were probably going into Holguín to see a doctor or visit some family.”

The rest of the van was silent now, everyone listening carefully to Jorge speaking in his best English.

“The soldier is stopping drivers and making them take riders. He also makes sure the riders have a peso or a few coins to pay the drivers for their trouble.”

Evan pushed his sunglasses back to keep his curly blond hair from blowing in his eyes. “What if the driver doesn’t want to take them? Does he have to?”

Jorge glanced past me toward Leonardo, the driver. Leonardo worked for the University and Jorge didn’t know of his alliances or his politics and was not sure how freely he could speak. But Jorge was an esteemed professor. He could get away with more than most and was willing to risk more than most.

“Evan,” he said, “there is no law in Cuba that says you must take the Botella. In Cuba, most laws say what you cannot do.”

Leonardo was looking straight ahead and driving fast, occasionally honking to warn a biker, a walker, an ox cart, or a slow moving flatbed truck overloaded with sugarcane workers.

“For example,” Jorge said, “there is a law that says you cannot drive a car that throws dark smoke, like the Ford we just saw. And maybe the driver also has no brake lights. It is very difficult, maybe impossible, to get new lights or other parts. But it is illegal to drive with these problems. And likely the driver has no license or no ownership papers. And maybe, just maybe, an inspection will show illegal food in his trunk. Maybe beef, God forbid.”

Jorge was on a role. He glanced at Leonardo and saw a supportive nod and maybe a grin. That was all he needed. He was now a fully sanctioned professor, believing at least for the moment, that in this car, outside of the eyes and ears of the Committees in Defense of the Revolution, he could feel free to make a simple point, tell a simple truth.

“In Cuba,” he said, “everything is illegal. To survive is to surpass the law. To live is to live outside the law. To breathe is to break the law. So when my brother in the Ford is stopped and asked to accept a few pesos to take his fellow countrymen to their jobs, to see their doctors, or to visit their families, does he have a choice? Sure he does. He can make this small sacrifice for the good of the revolution or perhaps he will be fined or jailed for some infractions that might otherwise go unnoticed. Sure, he is free to make that choice.”

“And this is also why we were released without filling our empty seats. It was clear to the officer that you are tourists. You are not part of our ‘public transportation system.’ We have bridges without roads, we have travelers without wheels, and we have soldiers with rifles. This is our system. . . this is Cuba. ¡Que País! What a country!”

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The hearse led a procession through the streets of a Cuban town then out into the countryside.  It was converted from a 1980’s era Chevy S-10 blazer, a rare model to be found in Cuba where nearly all American-made cars predate the 1959 revolution.  But a few foreign embassies and consulates imported cars for their own use, and sold them to Cuban businesses when they were ready for newer replacements.  Behind the hearse was a ‘56 Buick, driven by Yosmani, a black-market taxi driver.  Today there was no charge.  Today Yosmani was transporting his childhood friend and the friend’s parents and in-laws.   The rest of the families, mostly women and children, rode behind on the third vehicle.  They were tossed around on the back of ‘53 International flatbed truck. It spewed purple smoke that swirled into clouds of its own dust.  Along the sides of the truck, six or seven older men were riding bikes.  The last car in the procession was mine, a 2005 Hyundai rental.  I kept some distance trying to avoid the dust while listening to the heated conversation in the back seat.

The funeral was for a baby that had not survived childbirth.  I knew the baby’s father from a previous visit and had heard that his wife was in the hospital.  There were complications, so the mother had been hospitalized for the last few weeks of her pregnancy. The hospital reported to the father that the baby was too weak to make it through the surgery and died during the C-Section.   The mother was still in the hospital, so this young man was here to bury his son and then return to her bedside. 

The local pastor and his wife, Silvia, were riding in the back seat of my car and their 16 year old son, Andreis, was riding in the front with me.  Silvia was talking very rapidly.  I could only tell that she was talking about how the baby had died, and that she was angry and sobbing.  The pastor was quiet.

“What are they saying,” I asked Andreis.

Andreis translated his mother’s meaning into a slower and simpler version of Spanish so that I could understand. 

“The hospital reported that the baby died during the surgery,” he said.  “But when the mother regained consciousness after the surgery, she told her husband that this was not true.”

“What happened?” I asked.

 “When the baby started to come, there weren’t enough doctors available,” he said. “By the time they got to her into surgery, the baby had already died.” 

Silvia slumped into her husband’s arms and began to sob. I could see in my mirror that with each sob, she pounded her small fist onto her husband’s chest..

“My mother is angry because the government has sent too many Doctors – the best doctors – to other countries,” he said.

“Cuidado,” the pastor said to his son.  Be careful.

“No, he should know the truth,” Silvia said through her tears.

As I maneuvered the car around washed out holes that I thought might swallow up my little car, the pastor told me about the situation in more general terms.  He said that several years ago the government opened up its Medical Schools to any students who wanted to attend, for free.  “They are good schools,” he said, “but as a result of this open system Cuba has many fine doctors, many mediocre doctors, and some really bad doctors.”  He then told me that recently, when the government agreed to send hundreds of doctors to Venezuela, Bolivia and other countries, he sent Cuba’s finest.  In most cases they went willingly.  Outside of Cuba they could make more money for their families.  In other cases they went so that they would not be sent to less desirable places as punishment for not accepting the assignment. 

Silvia added, “He’d rather look important to other countries than take care of his own people.”

The car grew silent except for the gentle sobbing in the back seat and the occasional roar of the truck engine ahead. 

I remembered the first billboard I saw when I arrived in Havana.  You couldn’t miss it on the road from the airport into the city.  I had the taxi driver stop so that I could take a picture.





No wonder Cuba reports such great health care statistics, low infant mortality rates, high life expectancy averages, etc.  No wonder Michael Moore chose to highlight the Cuban health care system in Sicko.  Statistics and billboards tell good stories when not everybody counts. 

I found myself hoping that the grieving father in the car ahead had never seen that billboard – the one that would say to him:  


When the procession stopped, the pastor and I helped the women and children down from the bed of the truck.  They hurried to gather around a family tomb where the mason was preparing concrete to seal the cover. 

I saw the child’s father sitting on a bench 30 feet away with his face in his hands.  I walked to him and asked, “are you going to join them?”

He stood up, moved very close to me and whispered, “I’ll say goodbye to my son when I can stand by his tomb with his mother.”

After we loaded everyone back on the truck I agreed to take the pastor to the hospital to visit the baby’s mother. 

“I’d like to see the hospital,” I said.  “Can I go in with you?”

“I don’t think so,” he said. “It’s only for Cuban patients and their families.  I’ll be allowed in with my credentials as a pastor, but I doubt that they would let you inside.” 

He could tell that I was disappointed, so he began to help me see the hospital through his eyes. 

“Like all of health care, the hospitals in Cuba are ‘free’,” he said using air quotes, “but still it’s best if you go with gifts or money for the staff.”

“And you don’t send a relative there alone,” he said.  “If you want your son or mother to get fed and get good care, you send an advocate, a family member, to stay with them.”

As we drove toward the city, he told me of his friend who had emergency intestinal surgery.  After the surgery, the unconscious man was rolled out of the operating room on a gurney with doctor instructions and antibiotics tucked between his legs. When he arrived in his room, the medicine and instructions were gone – stolen to sell on the black market.  By the time the family found the doctor and convinced him to write a new prescription the man had gone for 24 hours with no medication and had acquired high fevers.

The pastor directed me to the parking lot of a large four-story high building.  If there were signs, I had missed them and there was no way to tell that it was a hospital.  The block building’s exterior was crumbling and had not been painted for decades.  Clothes and sheets hung from open or missing windows and there was obviously no air-conditioning.  

“This is it?” I asked.

“This is it,” he said without expression.  “There are better hospitals in the bigger cities.  Some are cleaner and don’t have insects, cockroaches or rats.  There are better hospitals, but there are worse hospitals as well.”

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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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I met a guy who knew a guy who knew another guy.  That’s how things are done in Cuba.  I was visiting Maria la Gorda, the beach at the western tip of Cuba, and looking for transportation east to the historic, architecturally rich city of Trinidad.  The bus seemed too touristy and I had already experienced the adventure of the country’s slow, undependable, and completely lackluster train system.  So it was that I became a botella.  In Spanish, the word “botella” means bottle, but in Cuba, it also means hitchhiker.  And the botellas are everywhere.  They gather under every overpass for shade waiting for a government truck to stop and cram a few more into the stake-racked flatbeds or for a private car with a generous driver.  When too large a crowd of botellas forms, you might see a policeman stopping cars and forcing less generous drivers to fill their empty seats.  In fairness, he may also require the botella to pay the driver a few pesos for his fuel and trouble.  Either way, the driver doesn’t complain.  He knows that the officer could easily ticket him for something;  a missing tail light, expired documents.  There are so many rules that only the rarest of Cuban drivers would be in total compliance, giving officers leverage to ask for just about anything.

Fortunately, my days as a botella came not from standing in the heat, but from sitting at a bar talking to a guy who knew a guy who heard that a guy was driving toward Trinidad the following day.

I met Emanuel early the next morning to begin our journey.  I offered him forty U.S. dollars to take me all the way to Trinidad, just an hour past his planned destination.  He agreed so quickly that I knew a had overbid.  We got on the road and Emanuel began to explain the rules of driving in Cuba.  First, he told me, it is more important that your horn works than to have brakes.  He honked at every car, cow, bike, and chicken to warn of his approach.  Second, you must slow down to 40 kph when approaching an overpass.  It’s for the safety of the botellas.  And you must slow to 20 kph as you pass a Punto de Control; police stations where you can be randomly pulled over, searched, or generally harassed.  I asked why some of these rules were marked with relative clarity and others not.  Emanuel said, we must follow these rules whether or not they are posted.  Many of the signs have been stolen.  The metal is pounded into pots for cooking or used to make car parts.  “Que Pais!” he said.  What a country! 

In Cuba, he told me, the police are not respected.  Often they are “orientales,” from the far eastern provinces of the country.  There are many jokes told about them, he said, that they are not very smart and speak very poor Spanish – mispronouncing their R’s and dropping their S’s.   Some people, he told me, call them “hijos de putas,” – sons of whores.  He assured me that he would never use such language, but other people often do.

“Is it the same in your country?” he asked.  “Do you have a similar name?”

“We do have a similar term,” I told him, adding that only occasionally is it aimed at our police officers who we generally respect.  That wasn’t good enough.  He wanted to learn the phrase.  “Son of a bitch,”  I told him. 


“Son of a bitch.”

“Soonafabeech!” he said smiling. “Soonafabeech!.”

For the next two hours, every officer or Point of Control we passed caused Emanuel to point and blurt out his newfound word which didn’t seem so inappropriate to say in another language.

With tedious attention to his best Spanish and brain-stretching focus on my fledgling vocabulary we talked about everything from politics to cars, seasonal fruit to baseball.  During a lull in the conversation he told me, “your Spanish is very good, but very small.”

Just east of Havana he announced that we would be stopping at his parents house in Matanzas, and spending the night.  He told me this as if confirming that it was part of our previously agreed upon plan.  It wasn’t. 

As we approached Matanzas, Emanuel told me about his parents and their tiny house where he grew up.  “They live next to a policeman,” he told me.  “The soonafabeech is a member of the communist party.  Whenever he smells my mother’s coffee he comes over and expects a cup,” Emanuel complained.   “They give it to him because they want no trouble, and maybe he’ll not look for reasons to cause them any,” he said.  “I hate him,” he added.

When we arrived his mother greeted me warmly before smothering her son with kisses and hugs,  a scene that was repeated a few moments later when his father came in from behind the house.  She put on a pot of coffee and before it was done brewing, the uniformed neighbor showed up, uninvited.  Emanuel courteously introduced the officer to me and then stood behind him scowling as I chatted with him. 

“Where are you from,” he asked in an accent that was new to me. 

“The U.S.”  I told him. 

“Your first time in Cuba?”  he asked? 

“Yes,”  I lied. 

“What about you?’ I asked.  “Did you grow up here in Matanzas?”

I could now see Emanuel’s mother calming him from his anger at the uninvited stranger horning in on the precious time he had to visit his family.

“No,” he said, “I am from Holguin.  It is at the far east of Cuba.” 

“I see.  Do you speak any English?” I asked. 

“No, none.” he said. 

“Not even a little bit?” I persisted. 

“No, None at all.” he said. 

“Well then,” I said switching to English,  “it’s nice to meet you, you son of a bitch!”

The officer smiled and took my outstretched hand as Emanuel blew coffee out his nose and hid his laughing spell with coughing and  choking.

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When Cuba Sneezes

When a women sneezes in Cuba, a gentleman will often say, “Salud, porque belleza sobra.”  Loosely, “to your health, because your beauty is already overwhelming.”

Although this simple phrase seems a little over the top to me, it’s a microcosm of the eternal optimism and innate opportunism of the Cuban culture.  A sneezing women could mean a cold, bad allergies or worse. But to a Cuban, it’s an opportunity to remind a lady that she is beautiful.

This attitude is both sad because of the resignation that exists to the brutal communist rule, but also hopeful because of the resilient faith that lives independently in the hearts of so many Cubans.  Many have written that Cuba is a country in waiting.  Some say it is waiting for the end of the US embargo, others say the end of Castro’s rule.  But the Cubans I’ve met aren’t waiting for anything. They’re living their lives as best they can in the political and economic environment that surrounds them. 

 And like a sneezing women, the Cuban economy has symptoms of illness.  When the Soviet Union fell, it abruptly stopped fueling the Cuban economy and no one stepped up to replace them.  Since then, Cuban life has puttered along like a ’56 Ford on a Havana street.  The old Ford has lost its shine, gets no factory made replacement parts, has tires that are patched and mismatched, and is powered by a long line of black-market engines made in Russia, Japan or China.  The engine is known but not seen by the Cuban government, and kept running day to day by the ubiquitous, resourceful, genius, bribe-paying, never-say-can’t mechanic. 

Cuba’s Mercado Negro, its black market, is what keeps cars on the road, food on the table and shoes on feet.  Without it, there’s no Cuba.  The state economy has no street cred and most Cubans don’t have an on ramp to the information highway.

 Other than a carefully controlled tourist industry (fed by cheap or adventurous Canadians, Europeans, and Asians) Cuba is isolated from the “global economy.”  In other words, when the global economy is sick, Cuba keeps puttering along.  And when Cuba sneezes, nobody notices.  


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