Notes from Cuba III - Cuba, 1/25/11
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011
Today I am spending a much needed dia de descanso or day of rest in Maria Julia´s small 4th floor apartment in Centro Habana. Her young and very friendly next door neighbor, Janet comes to check in on me since Maria Julia is at work, flops down into the small pleather chair beside the modest flat screen TV and tells me that she is exhausted from having been out doing errands in the neighborhood all morning, which makes me feel better because I find I am often very tired after a day moving around the city, speaking Spanish and trying to understand how things work here. Today, she reports, she had to go and take care of some paperwork related to her Carnet de Identidad, a state issued ID that all Cubans are required to carry and then she went to the agropecuario market. These markets were just restarting when I lived here in 1996. Like many things in Cuba they had been open for awhile before that, then were shut down, but now they appear to be going strong. But Janet also confides that she is broke...having spent almost $500 pesos , or a little over $20 on her shopping....tomatoes, viandas or root vegetables, and a large side of beef that her boyfriend will cut into steaks which will last awhile. Again, this doesn´t sound so bad until you take into account that most Cubans earn between 200 and 300 pesos a month. Almost everyone uses the agros to supplement what they can buy with their ration card, which will become increasingly necessary as more items are taken away from the ration due to the current economic crisis and proposed reforms.

Just getting around...
Living and traveling with Cubans as I am doing makes it increasingly hard for me to spend any money! For one thing, my friends won´t let me. Yesterday, Jorge, one of the leaders of the AIDS Prevention Group, and Rocio, the 18 year old daughter of my best friend Anita, who calls me her Tia Elena, and I went to visit the amazing workshop of the Cuban ceramacist and painter, Jose Fuster. Jorge proposed a ¨bus tour¨ so we embarked on the P2 bus for Playa. We had to let one bus pass because I didn´t feel comfortable cramming myself onto the bottom step of the bus. When I was here in ‘96 to even contemplate a trip like this would have been unthinkable because transportation was so bad. Now buses seem to pass fairly frequently, though they are often very crowded. But Jorge explains, like many things in Cuba, there are ebbs and flows in how reliable transportation is. Prior to the ¨special period¨ after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which began in 1992, Cuba had a well functioning transportation system of very cheap, reliable buses. Then things got really bad. Everyone started riding bikes, which I don´t see so many of anymore, and it was common to wait hours for a bus that never arrived. A few years ago, Jorge tells me, it was really good for awhile. Cuba bought a lot of new buses from China, like the P2 which we are riding, and everyone relaxed a bit. Now it’s getting bad again. Why? When the government bought the buses they neglected to buy parts to repair them and they are all breaking down. Again, I can´t help thinking what life might be like if Cuba could buy the buses and parts from a supplier just 90 miles away in Florida instead of halfway across the world in China.

Jaimanitas, a little fishing village on the outskirts of the city, has been transformed into a world of wonder by Fuster´s flamboyant mosaic installations. The outside walls of the clinic of the Medico de la Familia, or family doctor are brightened by tile mosaic as are the walls of several nearby houses and a primary school. Tile figures, roosters, and red white and blue Cuban flags dot the rooftops. Fuster's studio, which I have visited often over the years, is almost impossible to describe...a fantasy of painted and tiled murals, whimsical sculptures tempt a smile everywhere I look. It is almost overwhelming. A crew of assistants, trained by the artist, is hard at work on another rooftop installation during our visit. I had planned to buy a few pieces to bring home, but spending $100 on a piece of artwork, which is almost half of my friend Jorge’s annual salary as an informatics engineer, seems selfish and I can’t bring myself to do it.

Afterword, Fuster’s son, once a doctor, now an artist’s representative working for his father, drives us to an easier spot to catch transportation back to Havana in a late model, leather seated, air conditioned car purchased in Panama, he explains, the purchase allowed by the Ministry of Culture as a way of recognizing his father’s artistic contribution to the revolution. An understandable if somewhat surprising luxury, but Rocio in the backseat, a struggling art student herself, is not impressed. “The veteranos,” she explains to me later, “the ones who have made it, don’t want to help us, the new ones who are just starting out.”

Festival de Cine Cubano

My friend Anita is an actress who works with a children’s theater group, and also appears in Cuban films and telenovelas or soap operas. I found out how well known and loved she is when we went strolling in Habana Vieja one afternoon. Everywhere we went people greeted her ...waving discreetly or sending a knowing smile in her direction. “Actora” cried out one woman, while another group of young boys asked to have a picture taken with her. There are no papparazzi around and everyone treats her more like a long lost friend than a celebrity. When we got to Maria Julia’s house, her neighbor kisses and hugs Anita, exclaiming, “You look just like you do on TV.” Despite her fame, Anita goes through the same daily struggle as all average Cubans...perhaps more, as she has to figure out transportation to 4 different jobs...and earns the same salary. But she does exist in a world of art and theater, which gives energy to her daily grind.

When I stay over the weekend, sleeping with Rocio in one bed while Anita and her husband occupy the other bed in the only bedroom in their small apartment in Vedado, we have a Cuban film festival. I joke about wanting popcorn, knowing that it would be impossible, but Anita does provide some delicious fresh fruta bomba.

First, I get to see Anita acting in a made for TV drama, then another drama that explores the frustrations and temptations in the lives of Cuban adolescents with brutal honesty. “Eso esta fuerte,” Anita tells me, “pero es la realidad.” It’s a strong but true representation of reality. A young man, whose parents are both doctors, is drawn to the life of a jinotero, literally jockey, by promises of stylish clothes and outings at fancy nightclubs. He is set up by a friend to become an escort of sorts for older foreign tourists. Contrary to the format of most American made for TV dramas of this sort, this story has no happy ending, but leaves the viewer in an ambiguous world full of conflict and contradiction.

We watch, La Permuta, a hilarious send up of the bureaucratic nightmare of housing exchanges I described in my last dispatch and then Lista de Espera, another very funny poke at bureaucracy, this time set in a bus terminal in an unnamed interior Cuban province where a group of passengers is stuck in transportation hell which they transform into paradise. In Cuban films, at least, it seems not only permissible but often prize winning to expose the foibles of contemporary life on the island.

Suite Habana is a film of a very different sort. The filmmaker follows the lives of ordinary Cubans for a day in Havana...a young boy with Down Syndrome and his father, a retired woman who sells mani or roasted peanuts to get by, a young member of the National Ballet, a musician, and a shoe maker. They go about their daily routines from dawn to dusk, silently, with no words...but the silence conveys more than words could ever do. It is an astoundingly realistic and hard look at life in Cuba today. "They couldn’t censor this," Anita’s husband Jorge tells me, "because there were no words to censor." Everything is said through images. The images stay with me, floating through my mind for days as I walk the streets of this city. They are images few tourists ever see, or even visitors like myself...behind the battered walls, life unfolding with all of its hardships and triumphs. At the end of the film, each character is introduced and there is a phrase describing their suenos or dreams. Under the image of the peanut seller, a woman of about my age, the subtitle reads...this is Alicia...she has no more dreams. It is heartbreaking. Anita is in tears, though she has seen the film many times...and like most things on this fascinating island, it is hecho con amor, made with so much love.

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