Posts Tagged ‘cuban’

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!”

Read Full Post »

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.”

Read Full Post »