The Keys to Cuba

I must warn you. This will be a rambling rant of sorts. As with all things Cuba, it’s complicated. And, working through various issues requires a long roundabout detour replete with potholes the size of Texas and an old ’57 Chevy with a Mercedes-Benz engine. [If you’ve never ridden in an Almendrón, none of that will make sense. So bare with me.]

The day I’ve been dreading and awaiting equally has arrived: later today, President Trump will finally announce his policy plans for Cuba. I can’t say that I look forward to this announcement. Waiting, yes. But, certainly not with any sense of hope or excitement.

I don’t know what the ‘best’ policy is towards Cuba. But, I do know that closing off diplomatic relations and taking a hard-line approach hasn’t work and won’t do anything to change the way things are in Cuba today or tomorrow.

I have seen change, however.

My first trip to Cuba in 2008 was eye-opening for a multitude of reasons, primarily because I was finally able to begin assembling my husband’s life into some sort of concrete reality, one only possible after seeing those faraway places and meeting those faces populating his narrative. His life before we met became tangible rather than imagined, if you will. And, I learned so, so much about Cuba and my own country’s role in her history. It is a troubled history, filled with injustice and absurdity and hypocrisy.

I am not a Fidel apologist. Far from it. But, to understand Cuba is to understand the place of Fidel and his merry band of revolutionaries and what they offered all Cubans. Fidel—another complicated personality with a contradictory and odd record—granted many rights to all Cubans which Americans still hope to one day gain. Equitable education to all, resulting in one of the highest literacy rates in Latin America the world. Universal healthcare with an incredible track record for standard of care, resulting in incredibly low infant and maternal mortality rates given the country’s GDP and high life expectancies for both men and women. All of these statistics surpass those in the US by quite some measure. In addition, running water, electricity in every home, a home were granted as rights for all Cubans. These things may seem like idealistic socialist notions, largely because they are. But, prior to the Cuban Revolution that ousted US-backed Batista and installed Fidel, his brother Raúl (now El Presidente until 2018), Che and Camilo and their band of revolutionary heroes at the helm, all of these basic human needs were available only to the rich and powerful.

None of this means that life is perfect in Cuba. Far from it. The obvious human rights issues continue to trouble anyone who gives a toss about humans in general let alone Cubans in particular. But, this is where what we know abroad and what the current situation in Cuba become less clear.

Demonstrations, however insignificant and small, are increasingly visible. Several years ago during one of our visits, a friend went to an event put on by several actors in the underground art scene. A portion of that agenda was openly mocking of Fidel and the Cuban government. Local police raided the event, arresting and carting off those in attendance to the political prison, a place feared by all and in which unspeakable things do occur. Yet, those law enforcement officers most concerned with any voices of opposition at all were completely uninterested in why all these individuals had been hauled in. In fact, their reaction was, ‘Why are you all here? You shouldn’t be!’ Thus, everyone was let go. Anti-Fidel or Anti-Raúl graffiti now pepper walls with ever-increasing frequency in Havana. It’s shocking to see, even for an outsider, particularly alongside the prolific pro-revolution and socialist propaganda throughout Cuba. But, it’s also a sign that Cuba is relaxing its attitude towards dissent however incremental that change may be.

Obviously, Cuba has a long way to go before she will see anything like the sort of resistance-to-Trump marches taking place in the US these days. But, we’ve had several hundred years to get our shit together. Cubans are relatively new to this. And, tentative first steps are still initial steps, however impatient others may be to see ‘real’ change, whatever that means, in Cuba. It isn’t up to us from other lands to set the pace.

More than anything, here’s my take on Cuba: We—the US—need to back off. Lift sanctions. Lift the embargo and allow travel between our countries. Freely and openly. Why? Because it allows our two people to interact and exchange ideas, and learn from one another. We understand and become more compassionate once we talk, and we realise that fundamentally we are just people. What our governments do is one thing; but what we want for ourselves and those we love is fundamentally the same. A roof over a heads and a place to call home. Enough in our cupboard and bank account to sustain us and possibly afford a treat when appropriate. And, essentially, we want the ability to life our lives to the best of our abilities given various other variables.

The embargo hurts Cubans, average Cubans, far more than it hurts the government. Fidel is dead. I won’t say thankfully, but I can’t really shed a tear either. He wasn’t my leader. But, if we’re looking for a win against him, that battle was lost last November. He outlived the embargo and nine US presidential administrations. Raúl is stepping down next year. So, if the embargo remains in place until then, ultimately it will have done nothing to oust the individuals it was intended to usurp. Who wins? No one, other than two leaders we in the US wanted to replace. Who loses? Cubans. Mostly Cubans. The people I love desperately and who would give me their last cup of coffee if such a thing were conceivable. The people who have made me weep with their kindness and sense of equity which should shame anyone from elsewhere obsessed with the latest and shiniest and best model gadget de jour. The people who, despite language and cultural barriers, have welcomed me as a fellow member of their tribe simply because I married a Cuban and came to visit. The people who I love and only want to let live so that they may simply, finally live.

I felt immense hope in Cuba in 2014 when President Obama announced an opening up of diplomatic relations with Cuba. That hope exploded in 2015 with the announcement that President Obama would visit Cuba. Both of those announcements coincided with our visits to my second home, and I was immensely proud of my country and my adopted second home. President Obama’s visit proved to be an incredible moment for all Cubans, many of whom still spoke of it when we were there last Christmas.

November 2016, however, brought grief and uncertainty, first with the election of President Trump in the US and then with the death of Fidel.

Channeling my inner Moulder, I want to believe that things will be alright for Cuba, that enigmatic country I’ve come to love so, so much. But, today, we shall see. I hope for Cubans that reason and rationality prevail. The keys to Cuba’s future should be left to her people. We, as Americans, should allow those keys to turn and perhaps supply a little WD-40 to help loosen long-idle and unused openings. If I’ve learned anything from my 12 years with one particular Cuban, that which binds us is far greater than whatever differences we may possess.

¡Viva Cuba libre!

The Keys to Cuba_Dec 2016

I have no idea what the title of this piece is, but it was incredible. Hundreds of keys arranged in the shape of Cuba. Investigating it are Pedro the Philosopher and Martica the Marvellous. On display at Fábrica de Arte Cubano, December 2016.

The Devil’s Brew

Ask me what I’d rather give up—coffee or breathing—and I’d have to think about it. I suppose it’s a good thing that breathing occurs unconsciously because coffee is always on my mind.

This time of year, my coffee vehicle of choice becomes cold brew, that luscious, dark nectar that provides the quickest of caffeine jolts. With the long-awaited arrival of spring / summer in Helsinki, my precious elixir of life has been sitting and steeping for two days now, all ready to slowly filter (twice) and then sip and savour and enjoy. I’ve been waiting for this process for what seems like years.

Alas, something was slightly amiss when I opened the fridge this morning and reached for the pitcher of black loveliness.

Saatana coffee

To me, cold brew is the elixir of life; to The Cuban, cold brew is ‘The Devil’s brew’. (NB: Saatana in Finnish is Satan.)

My husband, The Joker.

He understands and accepts my love affair with coffee, just as much as he accepts my obsession with office supplies, books, yarn and Roger Federer. But, cold brew evidently is where he draws the line.

To Cubans, coffee is delivered in tiny little cups that resemble those itty bitty china tea sets for children’s make-believe tea parties. Those cups, which are so cute, simply don’t provide more than a sip or a gulp. In other words, it’s a coffee fairytale. The first time someone handed me a ‘cup’ of coffee in Cuba, I thought they were joking. ‘Where’s the rest of it?’, I asked The Cuban. He quickly explained that Cubans drink tiny cups throughout the day rather than opting for my giant bowl with a handle vessel. [NB: I now know to ask for a double every single time I ask for coffee in Cuba. It’s just easier and less disappointing that way.] Shortly thereafter, The Cuban developed the ‘Vanessa drinks coffee this way…’ explanation. I’m fairly certain our friends and family all think I’m certifiable or so wired that my heart will leap out of my chest at any moment. But, I will have my proper dosage of caffeine.

cafe cubano wink

Two cups from a friend’s flat in Havana. Each cup featured a different face. As cute as they are, they’re fall too small for this girl’s coffee.

Despite the Cuban climate being insanely hot and humid especially when compared to Finland, cafe cubano is always served hot and just off the stove, typically with sugar. To my mind, cold brew is perfect for those sultry, sticky days and nights. I am so wrong, it would appear. My husband’s reaction upon introduction to cold brew went something like this:

‘Cold brew?! What is this evilness you are making? You’re ruining the coffee! Have I taught you nothing?!’… as if this girl ever needed lessons on making or drinking coffee.

So, this morning’s little message, one of a million tiny quickly scribbled notes scattered across our 12 years together, once again made me laugh silently and smile adoringly. To my darling husband, cold brew is indeed ‘The Devil’.

He may have embraced a more reasonable measuring cup by which to drink his own coffee. You know, a proper cup of coffee (still far too small for me, but progress is progress). And, I may have accepted the joke that is a Cuban thimble of coffee. But, just as I’ve had to draw the line at a respectable size for that all-important cup of coffee in the morning, The Cuban evidently drew his own line at cold brew.

Something tells me my summer caffeine jolt will now and forever be known as ‘The Devil’s Brew’.

La vida en Cuba no es facil

[NB: We’re still recovering from the transition back to reality and life in Finland. So, uploading and posting various missives and random musings from our most recent misadventures in Cuba is taking more time than I’d like. I began writing the following missive around Christmas day, which is sort of celebrated in Cuba, albeit with a healthy dose of kitsch and relatively little reference to the birth of Christ or obscene gift-giving commonplace in the US and other countries. I’ve revised and reworked this missive based on our experiences during the weeks that followed. Enjoy, and thanks for reading!] 

Our trips here are nothing if not idyllic. Primarily we use them as an escape to sunshine and warmth, generated both by the sun itself as well as from the Cubans we know and meet during each visit. Yet, as idyllic it is for us, we cannot ignore the facts of daily life in Cuba lived by everyone we know and love.

When President Obama announced a year ago that the relationship between the United States and Cuba would open up and improve, he used the phraseno es facil, which delighted and humoured Cubans in equal measure. A phrase I now understand and hear dozens of times a day, it captures (perhaps historically) life in Cuba. Quite simply, it translates to ‘it is not easy’.

Indeed.

The Cuban and I are fully cognisant that, as temporary visitors, we arrive in Cuba possessing both an end date and the precious documents we need to leave (e.g., passport, exit visa, ticket, residence permits elsewhere, etc.). These documents are perhaps more meaningful and precious to The Cuban. But, undoubtedly, this makes any inconvenience we experience a bit more palatable and somehow less annoying.

As idyllic as Cuba proves to us, it is not an easy place to live. To the casual tourist staying in one of the posh five-star hotels on offer, many of the difficulties faced by the average Cuban every single day remain deeply hidden. As I write this 11 days into our seven-week stay, this is what we’ve experienced in our family’s flat in Alamar, a rather poor, working-class neighbourhood to the east of Havana: power cuts = 2 (one each at night and during the day, lasting less than an hour each time); number of days without water = 4+, albeit not consecutively. (As our time in Cuba progressed, the number of days our relatives survived without water in the flat increased rather alarmingly. It almost seemed more normal to be without water than to have it.)

This last dose of reality is rather difficult to grasp given our experiences in Finland, and a royal pain in the ass. Quite literally. But, it’s evidently become a regular occurrence for our relatives over the past year.

Like most of the rest of the world, the effects of climate change are hitting Cuba. This past year, temperatures soared, reaching highs of 38C in Havana, mercury readings previously never experienced in the capital city and more common for the eastern end of the island. With 100% humidity and precious little relief from the summer sun and heat, newsmen and women warned habaneros to drink plenty of water and stay out of the afternoon sun. Simultaneously, the rainy season brought drought conditions and precious little relief. Not exactly a great combination for a country with somewhat limited resources as it is. Even during our visit this year, it’s been hot and humid, much warmer than previous years.

Since the warmest months in Cuba, however, our cousins in Alamar have experienced water cuts at least once a week. Some days, the water is off for a few hours before returning, which we’ve experienced. On others, it remains off the entire day only returning the next morning. We’ve also experienced this. And, unlike those who live here permanently, we fled to another friend’s flat. It isn’t their entire neighbourhood; just their building. But, living elsewhere, where water flows consistently and cleanly, you forget what it’s like to go without. (Yes, we were missing Finland for a change.)

Most if not all Cubans are accustomed to water cuts, and well-prepared for them. Sadly, they are not rare, and nothing new. It’s more akin to life as it’s always been in Cuba. My father-in-law’s house in Altahabana, another suburb of Havana, features a rather sophisticated system to work around such realities. A motorised tank sits on top of his roof, which is kept constantly full and ready to take over when the city / neighbourhood water supply is cut. His sister’s house in Artemisa, a farming community about 90 miles to the west of Havana, also features such a system. Back in Alamar, our cousins have a large plastic barrel on one balcony just off the kitchen which they replenish after such water cuts. They also collect more water in various empty bottles ‘just in case’. Buckets help move water from the barrel to the bathroom or kitchen or wherever. A sufficient supply for flushing toilets and washing hands and for a splash bath is kept at the ready when needed for the two permanent occupants of the flat. But, that supply probably wouldn’t last more than a day given the 6 people currently living here.

As you can imagine, when the water is on, all of the laundry is done, everyone showers (and rapidly in case the water is cut once you’re all soaped up), and a frenzy of cleaning of all sorts ensues. Not just in our flat, but in all of the flats in that particular building. You can almost hear the collective sigh of relief when a tap is tested for water first thing in the morning and the water flows freely.

At another friend’s flat, one which is in a better neighbourhood, water cuts happen as well. For example, The Cuban relayed a rather frustrating time when he lived in that same building before leaving Cuba. At one point, they went days without water. At the time, he lived on the top floor of the building. He would lug buckets and buckets of water up the stairs after walking down to a water spigot near the building. Given the heat and humidity of December we experienced this year, I cannot imagine that chore in the heat of the Cuban summer.

Aside from these cuts, however, there are many other daily nuisances for us which Cubans power through. All of the households we’ve been to thus far feature a large cooking pot on the stove covered in calcium deposits. Despite the varied interiors of these homes, each of these pots looks exactly the same. And, each morning and night, the pot is filled with tap water and then boiled to remove all impurities. (We tend to buy bottled water, but the habit amongst our friends and family run deep.) Depending upon the household, the boiled water may or may not be filtered or further purified with iodine tablets — that, as far as I can tell, depends on the wishes of the occupants. I find myself missing Helsinki tap water a little more each day.

Another facet of Cuban life we know well and tourists never see is the reality of showers in Cuban’s homes. Faucets outside the various hotels that cater to us foreigners rarely feature more than a single on/off tap. There’s no need for a hot or cold water tap—there is only one temperature for all water. But, those who can afford it invest in a hot water heater for use in the shower. I’ve only seen two types thus far, with the simpler one costing about CUC100 (~€100). Yet, this contraption always instills a very real fear of electrocution in me. Indeed, most times when flipping the on-switch, I feel a slight jolt. Among those without the resources to buy a simple hot water heater (and there are many), cold showers reign supreme.

As we forego our standard extended stay at a resort on the beach and choose to live amongst and as Cubans, that phrase — no es facil — rings true. Difficult, absolutely. And, beautifully complicated, exhausting and exasperating for those who live it every day.

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Fevered pitch

A view of a monument to Cuban hero and poet José Martí and Revolution Square at dusk. Havana, Cuba, January 2015

All things change. Just as football (the European / Latin American variety) usurps baseball as the collective national preferred sport amongst Cubans, at one point in the not-so-distant future the Castro brothers’ reign over Cuba will come to an end. What will follow is truly anyone’s guess, and largely depends on who takes over as much as US policy at the time. But, you can feel the impending shift and anticipation just about everywhere in today’s Cuba.

Our most recent trip to that most enigmatic island nation coincided with a seismic shift in the relationship between my country and my husband’s — about damn time, too. Alongside the shifting relations and perhaps more widely heralded in Cuba, this news accompanied the release of the notorious Cuban Five. Yet, that most enduring figure of communism in Cuba, so hated by most American presidents over the past 50 years—known affectionately (or not) as Fidel or El Comandante to Cubans—has remained silent.

No editorials. No public appearances. No statements released. At all.

For a guy known to give passionate speeches lasting more than three or four hours in full military fatigues at the height of the sweltering, balmy, sauna-like summer sun and heat of Cuba, this defies belief.

His silence has inevitably lead to widespread speculation and a vast array of rumours about his death, some stemming out of hope, some simply voicing questions regarding how he can possibly remain silent for so long about something so hugely important for his country, let alone the Cuban Five’s release, something he personally promised to accomplish.

But, whispers of Fidel’s (imminent) death predated the biggest news story of late last year. He has not been seen in public for more than a year, something somewhat unprecedented for a man who featured prominently almost daily in the news and public eye at one time. A year ago during that rare pubic appearance, he looked frail and rather, well, old.

Alongside this bit of trivia on the Fidel Watch Parade and perhaps a bit more alarming comes the revelation that his once prolific musings published in Cuba’s most-read newspaper have also been lacking. His last article published in Granma, the official newspaper of the Cuban Revolution, appearing in print on 13 October 2014, predating the biggest news regarding US-Cuban relations perhaps since the Bay of Pigs.

Any sane, logically thinking person would raise a few eyebrows given these observations, let alone ask a few questions regarding where Fidel is at the moment.

My first experience understanding the absurdity of Cuban state news came when announcements ran across the bottom of the TV screen that Maradona (the infamous Hand of God Argentine football player) received a letter from his friend Fidel, in which Fidel declared that he is ‘indeed still alive’. A letter? Really? To a football player with somewhat questionable ethics? M’okay. (Let’s ignore for the moment that this was typed and most likely signed with an auto-pen, and, more importantly, made no mention at all of recent events.) It wasn’t just that news of receipt of this letter was a headline, top-of-the-news programme item. That the tagline referred to dispelling the rumours of Fidel’s death left all of us witnessing it in bewildered hysterics. (By all of us, I mean my husband and his family, with whom we were visiting when the news broke.)

To further fuel speculation and the ever-expanding rumour mill, the next day, another top news story declared that Fidel’s nephew said, ‘Fidel is alive and healthy’. This particular item doesn’t appear to have made international press. Little wonder why.

Rather than quiet the whispers, talk became much louder and more frequent as news of Fidel’s letter to Maradona spread and his nephew’s statement left most laughing (and questioning) harder still.

Things do change and Fidel’s lengthy absence from Cuba’s public eye indicate something. Just what remains to be seen. The last time such speculation reached this fevered of a pitch, Fidel stepped down as president and his younger brother Raúl took on the role, another event which seemed exceptionally unlikely just weeks before it actually happened.

Since our last visit to Cuba ending in early 2010, things have changed considerably in some ways. Private traders and small businesses have sprung up everywhere. [This statement requires a very large asterisk, and deserves a post all on its own. The Cuban government published a very, very lengthy list of what types of businesses private, self-employed individuals are allowed to engage in. Almost no profession that requires advanced training (think doctors, engineers, computer programmers and the like), made this list.] Much restoration to Habana Vieja has transformed sections of the oldest parts of the city, a mammoth task funded largely by foreign development aid budgets. But, there is still much work to be done.

For all the good the Castro brothers and the 26th of July Movement accomplished in equalising opportunities for education and access to healthcare for all, the currently poor living conditions and low wages amongst just about everyone in the country leave much to be desired. Yes, goods and services are largely cheap. Yes, every citizen theoretically is given ‘access’ to basic living goods vis-à-vis the ration cards which everyone receives in Cuba and which includes things like coffee, sugar, bread, cooking oil, etc., but doesn’t provide enough to live on.

Wages, however, remain exceptionally abysmal (~US$15-25 / month). If goods and services were even slightly more expensive, no one except those earning supplemental income from the wide array of ‘grey’ or semi-black market-like activities would be able to afford them. Buildings are still crumbling whilst their inhabitants watch from within, and roads are so scarred by potholes that they often resemble obstacle courses rather than routes from Point A to Point B and may require extensive refurbishment to suspension systems if taken on at speeds to high. Trash is seldom picked up from bins in the poorest neighbourhoods, left to overflow onto the surrounding streets and picked up only partially after strewn about and becoming too unwieldy.  One friend lamented this reality in his own neighbourhood, explaining that the trash is only removed after it becomes so plentiful that it takes a backhoe to pick up and then destroys any bit of grass that hasn’t already been spoiled.

So, what comes next?

Raúl, in his most recent re-election to a five-year term as President, declared that he would step aside in 2018. That is soon. Exceptionally soon when you think about the decades-long rule the Castro brothers have enjoyed. Difficult times likely lie ahead for Cuba and her people. It breaks my heart in all honesty — she and her people have endured so much already. I’d like the transition to be as benign as humanly possible. Yet, I (and my husband especially) fear the path will prove bumpier than ever.

As to Fidel, based on discussions with friends and family in Cuba, some think that he may have already died and no one knows quite how to announce it. More probable and highly plausible is a scenario which has rendered Fidel completely incapacitated in a persistent vegetative state hooked up to life support with no one willing to pull the plug. Consensus suggests that such a cognitive state made it possible for the thawing of relationships between our two countries, and those at the highest political levels in Cuba felt it was better to create a healthy relationship with its largest and nearest foe before news of Fidel’s demise is announced, whether it be his death or something near-death.

Like all good conspiracies, this makes sense. But, Fidel has defied odds on multiple occasions before. Personally, I’m not holding my breath, just as I’m sure others are reluctant to do. Who knows what’s up with or where Fidel is. One thing is for sure though — someone will replace Fidel and Raúl in three years’ time.

Until then, let the rumours continue.

The Ultimate Go-Go Juice

Give me intravenous coffee as an alarm -- the perfect alarm clock.

As I opened up my various daily news sources, I had to chuckle when this headline and the associated image at alternet.org popped up. Intravenous coffee as an alarm clock has long been my idea of the perfect gift/gadget.

I love coffee. It’s taste. It’s smell. The various ways in which you can brew it. And, most of all, I love the varieties. I’m a bit of a snob in some ways in that my perfect cup of joe is a fresh dark roast finely ground just minutes before brewed. Most days, I’ll take whatever I can get as long as it is extremely strong and a rich dark roast.

As an undergraduate in Atlanta, I’d normally start the day with an entire pot of coffee. At the time, hazelnut was my preferred flavor (can’t stand it anymore). I had this huge 32-oz coffee mug that I’d carry with me throughout each day during classes. I’d run to the commissary in between classes to fill it up. At the peak of my consumption, the tally was shocking—something like more than 20 cups a day on average. As I said, shocking.

In graduate school both at The University of Alabama–Tuscaloosa and at The University of Connecticut in Storrs, we were fortunate to have brilliant coffee joints on or close to campus. In Tuscaloosa, the coffee shop across the strip from campus (and luckily a mere 5-minute walk from my flat) would roast their beans in-house. The smell was amazing, and the coffee matched that aroma. It was then that I realised just how yummy a fresh dark roast can be. My consumption went down, but the enjoyment of the coffee increased. My favourite cups of joe were those shared with my thesis advisor, mentor and friend, normally in the afternoon.

In Storrs at UConn, Java Joint became my daily dose source. This is where I learned what flavours I truly enjoyed. Tanzanian Peaberry. Sumatra. Ethiopian something or other. Brazilian Santos. Guatemalan Antigua. I think of them all the Sumatran and the Brazilian Santos were and still are my favourites.

Every day, I’d arrive at the little trailer which became a bigger trailer which eventually became a proper shop inside the bookstore with my more manageable thermos and have it filled with the most divine coffee. I’d usually stop in sometime later in the day in the afternoon before a seminar or office hours or a meeting with a committee member. Occasionally, the cup of joe would serve as a prop and pick me up during a peripatetic meeting with a close friend and intellectual giant with whom I was fortunate enough to work. I miss those days, and I desperately miss that coffee.

Bags of cafe de cuba from a fantastic coffee shop in Havana, Cuba.

These days, I’ll take whatever dark roast I can get. The latest great-tasting coffee to hit our kitchen is Cuban coffee. It’s subtle and lovely, and packs an outstanding kick. The Cubans in my life think anything other than a thimble’s worth of coffee is too much. I’m quite happy to enjoy two cups a day now.

That said, it’s time for that second cup.