Notes from Cuba II - Cuba - 1/21/11
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011
Written by
Elena Schwolsky
January 2011

The longer I stay the less I understand

There is a saying I heard once at a presentation about international aid work that really applies to how I am feeling here in Cuba---
            "Stay in a country for a week and you can write a book, stay for a month and you can write an article,   

            stay longer and you will have nothing at all to say."

The longer I am here the less sure I am that my first impressions are accurate or that I am understanding the complexity of the situation. I keep asking questions and taking notes, hoping to sort out all of the contradictions of life here. How are people feeling about the new economic reforms?  How do they view Cuba´s future?  How have things changed for people living with HIV-AIDS, for homosexuals?  It is very hard to form any sure conclusions, but here are some impressions from my ongoing life as a human sponge in Cuba.

Money is definitely the root of much evil here in ¨socialist¨ Cuba as it is in most of the capitalist world. I put socialist in quotes because even the most hard liners here seem to acknowledge that there are big changes coming and distortions in Cuba´s economy that make it hard to hang onto the title socialist.

There are two kinds of money circulating in Cuba...moneda nacional, the Cuban peso, in which almost everyone is paid, is used for buying food with a ration card at the bodega, food at the farmer´s markets, some household goods and poor quality clothing and shoes that are available in poorly stocked stores, and for transportation in buses or the 50's era cars that serve as taxis. The CUC, or convertible peso is used for just about everything else and it is what tourists or foreign visitors like me use to pay in restaurants, hotels, and most stores that sell anything worth buying, or for taking official taxis. Cubans who have family abroad and receive money from them obviously have a big advantage in this kind of system, and are just about the only ones who can get ahead in any way...fix up their house, buy stylish clothes, supplement their food supply and get around the city more easily. U.S. dollars, which were the favored currency when I was here ten years ago, are now penalized in the exchange process because of the U.S. blockade and the lack of any banking relationship with Cuba, so I brought Canadian money on this trip.

Here are a few examples I have extracted from rapid fire conversations about the frustrations of life here to help you get the picture.

An energy saving campaign gone wrong

A couple of years ago, the Cuban government decided ...who decides...another confusing start a campaign to save energy. Most Cubans were limping along with very old Russian refrigerators which were electricity guzzlers and many were cooking with bottled gas or kerosene, definitely bad for the environment and dangerous. So...without any real advance warning, according to everyone I have was decided that everyone would get a new refrigerator and a new electric stove. Sounds good...but the catch was that they would have to pay for these appliances which they had no choice but to accept because as one friend put it....its not like you save your money and go to the store and pick out your appliances...the Committee just pulls up a truck on your block and unloads the new appliances, takes the old ones, which were working, away with no remuneration and ...pracata, a Cuban expression accompanied by a rapid downward stroke with the hand, that I can´t really translate. So now everyone has new electric appliances, and they get home from work at 5 o'clock and turn on their stoves...and of course the electric lines in old buildings are not up to date enough to handle all this new electric pracata...the lines burn up. And, to top off the mess, now everyone has a debt of about 6,000 pesos, or about $340, for the new appliances, which my friends tell me, many people are just not paying.

La permuta

Housing has been a huge problem in Cuba for many years due to lack of building materials and fuel to transport them which would allow the government to maintain the housing stock or build new homes. Cubans are a very communal and friendly lot and truly practice solidarity, so it is rare to see anyone living on the streets, despite the difficulties, though I have seen some older men sleeping in archways in parts of Centro Habana where I am staying. So families double up, kids stay living with their parents after they marry and apartments get more and more crowded. This is not unusual in many parts of the world, including increasingly in our country, but what is unique here in Cuba, at least in my experience, is the way that housing is managed.

Most people in Cuba own their own apartments or homes and they buy them for a fixed amount of money from the government, making monthly payments until they have paid it off. There is no private housing system. Some Cubans, definitely not the majority, receive the right to housing from their place of work. They also pay monthly, but their work center owns the house, not them.

So...suppose, like my friend Tita, you want to move from the far outskirts of Havana, from a building where you don´t like the ambiente or atmosphere, to be closer to the hospital where you receive treatment for a cardiac condition and to have more room for your daughter and grandson. There is only one way to do permuta. You have to find someone in the neighborhood you want to move to who will exchange apartments with you. And it has to be an apartment of relatively similar value. And no money is supposed to change hands on the side. There are no ¨real estate offices¨ that facilitate the process of finding a permuta. There may be very limited announcements on TV or someone may put up a sign in their apartment window Permuta, Uno por Dos, but word of mouth plays the most important part. It can get crazy. Suppose a couple divorces...if they want to live in separate apartments and don´t have family to take them in they have to look for someone who will exchange two smaller apartments for their larger one.

And so it goes...Tita exchanged apartments with a viejito, an old man who had lived in the apartment for 30 years, and she had to renovate it from top to bottom just to make it liveable, but she is still looking for another permuta that will put her closer to the hospital. "I can still hope," she tells me. Another irony...her original apartment, which she exchanged in this permuta cost her 4,000 pesos ...the equivalent of about $250, not much by our standards...but her new obligatory Chinese refrigerator and electric stove cost her $6,000 - more than the house!

Cubans put up with all of this and more. The special period of economic hardship that began in the early 90's has never really ended. But I notice a definite change in attitude from the last time I was here...a resignation, a loss of illusion and increasing worry about what will happen to the next generation. Ay mi Cuba, they say, hasta cuando? Until when?  And how will we get out of this hole?

I certainly have no answers. The U.S. blockade of Cuba continues to play a role in Cuba´s economic situation. I passed a billboard on the way to the Sanitarium that was striking....cut out human figures representing the number of Cubans at different ages that were born under the blockage...with the conclusion that 70% of Cubans alive today were born under the blockade. But most Cubans I speak with every day seem more inclined to blame the errors of their own government...the bad planning or lack of planning or too much planning ...Maximo Gomez, a Dominican - Cuban general with the Mambises, said something that several people have repeated to me to illustrate their thoughts..."Los Cubanos o se pasan...o no llegan"...roughly translated it means...Cubans either go too far or never arrive.

A wild night at Los Cocos

I was invited to attend an event at the Sanitarium...La Tertulia, a show that the patients put on the the third Wednesday of every month. I sat in on a meeting where last months show was hotly debated...Cubans still practice criticism and self criticism, a practice I certainly remember from my distant past and more organized left political experience. The tertulia was too disorganized, some of the performers seemed drunk, it didn´t convey a positive message are some of the criticisms that are put forward. I am curious to see how this one will turn out.

The show is held in La Sala Teatro, or theater of the Sanitarium, in the same auditorium where the conference that I attended last week took place, but it has been transformed with what meager festive decorations they can manage. A professional audio system is set up and blasting a combination of reggaeton and salsa as we wait for the show to begin. I know that I will be seeing a show mostly put on by young and not so young gay men, who are the majority of residents in the sanitarium now...and that it will be a drag queen spectacular...but I am still unprepared for the flamboyant energy of the first act...a transvetite dancing and lipsynching with two amazing male dancers, practically nude with painted black and white yin yang type of symbols on their bodies. The ¨mistress¨of ceremonies is dressed in a clinging black mermaid gown with a short blond wig and the show goes on...more lip synching drag queens in sequined outfits, and one young women who is Carlos´s secretary and worked as a professional singer for awhile, who belts out a ballad and then dances in a choreagraphed routine with the other performers. The next day we laugh when we learn that some people thought that she was a transvetite too! In the middle of all of this, Jorge leads an educational game with questions about HIV-AIDS and adherence to treatment.

There has always been more tolerance of open homosexuality in the Sanitarium than in Cuban society as a whole. From the earliest years, homosexual couples lived together openly, though Jorge tells me now, they appeared on the books as room mates and had separate beds. Sanitarium residents now are a motley crew...many are tatooed, pierced, dreadlocked, openly feminine. I ask Jorge, who is a young gay man with a very reserved and serious demeanor and is the coordinator of the AIDS Prevention Group for Havana province, how these folks would be viewed in their own communities and how attitudes have changed over the last ten years about homosexuality. At one time, homosexuals were not allowed to be members of the Communist party or serve as teachers. ¨Eso paso,¨ he tells me now, reporting that this has passed and that it was never really legislated, though I'm not sure he is right. People are more tolerant. They may say something on the street if someone is very flamboyant in their manner or appearance, but there have been no physical attacks like he feared when he traveled to Peru. Jorge lives together with Carlos in a gay union and everyone they work with at the Tropical Medicine Institute and the Sanitarium seems to know and accept them as such.

The Tertulia ends with a big group dance and everyone agrees that it has been a big success and that the problems of the last one have been overcome.

I spend the night at the Sanitarium in a dormitory room that has been created for people who come from other provinces for the workshops that GPSIDA offers. The next day is my last at the Sanitarium and we finish up the 3 quilt panels we have been working on. Orlando is making one for his wife who died several years ago, and another for his boyfriend who died more recently. Only in Cuba!

There was no electricity because they were working on the electrical system of the Sanitarium so we had to change plans a laminating machine, no computer, no cake for my good bye party. Jorge and I take a horse drawn taxi to Santiago and from there a ¨taxi rutero¨ minivan to Boyeros where I will make another visit. It took us comfortably to where we needed to go and only cost 5 Cuban pesos, but then I did the math. If someone were to take this every day to work and back it would cost 10 pesos a day, times 30 days, which is 300 pesos, which is more than most Cubans earn in a month. So...back to the long lines for crowded buses which only cost 40 cents. Ay mi Cuba!

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