Notes from Cuba V - Cuba - February 2, 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
February 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
February 2011


De Todo un Poco....A little bit of everything

This will be my last dispatch from Havana. Tomorrow I will leave Cuba from the Jose Marti Airport and fly to Cancun, then ferry to Isla Mujeres for a well earned vacation.

This has been an amazing trip in many ways. I´m sure it will take me weeks to sort through all of my notes and observations...for now, I will leave you with a few last impressions.

Gay Life in Cuba

My friend Kelly Anderson, who made a very moving film some years ago about the lives of gay men and women in Cuba, asked me to be on the lookout for changes that have occurred, so I have been asking everyone to give me their opinions. In the Sanitarium, gay couples live openly together and transvestites wear whatever clothing and make up they want to as they go about their lives. Is it the same in neighborhoods and workplaces, I wondered. How have the lives of homosexuals changed in Cuba?

Everyone has given me the same response when I pose that question. Big, big changes have occurred in both policies and attitudes, and the person responsible...Mariela Castro, the daughter of Raul Castro and Vilma Espin, who was the head of the Federation of Cuban Women for many years before her recent death from cancer...and oh yes, the niece of Fidel. Raul is more of a family man than Fidel, one friend tells me. He listens to what his children have to say. And apparently he has listened to Mariela, a woman in her 40's, who has waged a fierce campaign to create a more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality and laws to protect the rights of gay people. It is now illegal to discriminate against homosexuals in the workplace and the community. Transvestites have the right to dress as they wish in the workplace and sex change operations are covered by the Cuban health system.

No longer do gay Cubans have to fear expulsion from their workplaces or from the Communist Party. Juan Raul, a friend of Maria Julia´s tells me his story one night, after a dinner to celebrate the sixth anniversary of Juan and his partner Tony. Juan Raul is a strapping, Afro Cuban man of about 40 with an open face and a sweet smile. ¨I am a homosexual, I am HIV positive, and I am a Communist,¨ he tells me in a firm voice, bringing his fist down on the table to emphasize each phrase. Juan Raul was diagnosed with HIV in 2001. Up to that time, he had been an active member of the Juventud, or young communist league, and had entered the military. At the time of his diagnosis, he was the 2nd in command of the Juventud and stationed in the Ministry of the Interior. "After a period of about a month in the Sanitarium...I just wanted to disappear for awhile after I learned my diagnosis," he tells me...he returned to his community and to his workplace. ¨My supervisor came to me one day and said, Juan Raul, why don´t you just go back home and rest. Take care of your health.¨ and a party official suggested that he didn´t need to be traveling so far to meetings. But Juan Raul maintained his position in the Party, and today he is the head of the Party nucleus in the Prevention Center where he works with Maria Julia. Except for a brief period of time when he was in the closet, more because of concerns for his family than for any fears of repression, he has been open with everyone about his life.

Juan Raul is the first person I have spoken with on this trip who identifies himself to me as a Communist, with a big C. He acknowledges that change is needed, big change, and he wants to be in a position to have an influence on that change. That´s why he maintains his involvement. ¨What can I do from the outside?¨ he asks me. ¨Just complain...or go to the Sierra to make a new revolution? I prefer to be inside. I give my opinions, whether anyone agrees or not.¨

A Seropositive Woman Takes on the World

Iraida comes to visit me one day this week so that I could tape her story. I want to have a different, more recent point of view on Cuba´s AIDS program and Iraida was diagnosed HIV positive just a year ago. She is a robust, vivacious woman in her mid 30's who talks a mile a minute and has a lot to say. Iraida dresses all in white for religious reasons. She has made a promesa to wear white for a year. I can´t help thinking how difficult this must be in Cuba, where clothing is hard to come by and hard to keep clean. No sooner does this thought enter my mind as we are climbing the four flights to Maria Julia´s apartment together, than Iraida comments on how hard it is to find white shoes and asks if I have seen any place where they are selling white shoes in my trips around Havana.

Iraida was infected, she tells me, during a period of her life when she was not taking care of herself physically or psychologically. She was divorced from the father of her two girls, now eleven and thirteen, and began a relationship in which she did not use any protection. "Well really," she confides, "I never used any protection, but this was una locura, a crazy relationship during a difficult time in my life."

Iraida had married a Costa Rican man some years earlier. It was un negocio, a marriage of convenience so that she could eventually leave Cuba for Costa Rica. On a trip to Costa Rica to continue making arrangements for her eventual departure, she began to feel ill...almost like she was having a nervous breakdown...and decided to abandon her plan and return to Cuba. Back home, her ill feeling got worse, and eventually she went to her doctor and asked for a complete physical everything, she told her doctor, do the HIV test, do everything.

Some weeks later, a health promoter was dispatched to her home with an urgent message. She was to report to the doctor the next day. Iraida says in that moment she knew that something really bad was coming. In the doctor´s office the next day, she was given the results of her exam. ¨You have HIV,¨ the doctor told her. ¨She told me like she was saying you have a bad cold¨ Iraida says, ¨with no feeling, with no understanding of what I might be going through. I went home and cried for three days. I didn´t leave my bed for three days.¨

After those 3 days, Iraida, who appears to be a very strong willed and decisive person, got out of bed and proceeded to tell her entire family about her diagnosis, with the exception of her father who is very old and frail. She went back to work in her position as an accountant at the airport, where she has worked for 18 years, and she told her work mates. And she began to volunteer with the Linea de Apoyo, or help line in her municipality of Boyeros. The possibility of entering the Sanitarium never came up.

Iraida has two main to reach the young women who lock themselves in secrecy and silence after their diagnosis and help them learn to protect themselves and others, and how to begin a more open discussion about the challenges of being a heterosexual, HIV positive woman in Cuba today. She began a relationship about 8 months ago with a militar, a military man, and at first he was very sensitive and open to her situation. But as time went on, he grew more fearful and eventually broke off the relationship. He says he still loves her and wants to continue the relationship and is seeing a psychologist to get help with his fears. Iraida is giving him time...she understands how hard it is, she says. But she wants to see more discussion about ¨parejas descordantes," discordant couples, in the work that the prevention group is doing. ¨On TV they have announcements all the time about HIV-AIDS, but it is superficial. We need to dig deeper.¨

After several hours of conversation and a pleasant lunch, Iraida departs to go in search of her white shoes and I am left with the impression of a woman who has faced a terrible moment in her life, and is using her tremendous energy to transform her own life and reach others facing the same situation. I have no doubt she will add her voice to the efforts of GPSIDA and make an important contribution.

A Day as a Tourist

I decide to spend one day as a tourist and sign up for an excursion to Vinales, a beautiful and unusual valley in the province of Pinar del Rio, about an hour and a half from Havana. The bus picks me up in front of the Hotel Inglaterra a few blocks from Maria Julia´s apartment, and then makes the rounds of several other hotels picking up other tourists before heading west on the Autopista.

We are an international group...a father and daughter from Spain, a young couple from Italy, two young men from Switzerland, several other Spaniards, a Danish couple and some Canadians...and me, of course, the only American. Our Transgaviota bus has seen better days but is still a giant step up from the maquinas, old Fords and Chevys that serve as Cuban taxis, that I have been using to move around the city.

I am on the alert, as we begin to traverse the countryside, for any changes from the last time I was here ten years earlier. My Cuban friends tell me that, although life in the countryside is more tranquilo it is also harder, with less access to needed goods and services. We pass large collective farms and some smaller ones that are probably privately owned. After the revolution there were several agrarian reform measures that allowed farmers to own up to 67 hectares of land...for large land owners that meant losing property, for peasants that worked the land it meant acquiring property that was their own. Pinar del Rio, the westernmost and most rural province in Cuba, is an area of rice and tobacco production, and we pass fields of tobacco in various stages of planting and growth and weathered triangular barn like structures that are used to dry the tobacco.

There are several other tourist buses when we stop at the Mirador that looks out over the valley of Vinales...a group speaking French, and another speaking English, probably Canadian I assume. Vinales is known for its unique hilly formations called mogotes that rise out of the valley floor like prehistoric shapes. I wish we could wander through the valley, but that would be more than a day trip, so I have to be content with a 20 minute look.

We eat lunch at the Mural de la Prehistoria, a vast mural painted on a rock wall that was commissioned in the early years of the revolution and painted by a Cuban painter who studied under Diego Rivera. As I chat with my fellow tour members I am struck by how little they have seen of Cuban life...their main conversations seem to be with taxi drivers and waiters...and how much they complain...about the food, the service, everything. One young man, from Pais Vasco in Spain, who is traveling with his father, clearly has a more open mind and is very interested in Cuban politics and history. When the musical group entertaining us at lunch breaks into a song about Che Guevara that I remember from my Venceremos Brigade days, he perks up and asks me if I know the name of the tu querida presencia, Comandante Che Guevara...they sing and, though there are iconic portraits of Che everywhere, I wonder what his presence means in the lives of everyday Cubans in 2011.

We reach Havana at dusk and I bid goodbye to my group and cut across Parque Central, past the esquina caliente, or hot corner of baseball discussants that is still going strong at this hour. The Capitolio is lit against a darkening sky as I pick my way carefully along the shadowy, rutted street towards ¨home.¨

Leave Taking

Today I awoke to a series of chores that will bring me to my real home....washing clothes, going out search of last minute gifts, one last walk on the Malecon, the sea walk that winds around Havana, and then finally packing my suitcase. I am, indeed, as I assumed when I arrived, leaving much lighter in material things, but heavy with feelings, impressions and, as always, many, many questions that remain to be answered.

Rocio will arrive later this afternoon to bring me a painting she has done for me, and Anita and Jorge will come tonight to say goodbye. I have promised to look for Iraida at the airport tomorrow and Jorge de Carlos, as we have come to call him to differentiate the two Jorges in my life, will meet me at the airport and stay with me until my flight leaves. My Cuban friends have taken very good care of me, and I will miss them so.

I can only imagine what will happen in Cuba in the next few crucial years. Like many Cubans I have met, I wonder how Cuba will get out of this difficult time, the ¨special period¨ that never seems to end. I hope, with my book, to make a very small contribution to a much needed understanding and perspective about this island and return, energized and determined to complete this work.

Let's be friends

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