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Posted January 04, 2007 by publisher in Cuban Culture

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By Our Woman in Havana | MiamiNewTimes.com

It’s not often that I get to stand on a street corner in Old Havana and talk to an 81-year-old man (who is selling Granma, the state-run newspaper, no less) about Fidel Castro’s asshole.

“What do you think happened to him?” I ask.

“Well, it’s not his rectum,” my new friend, Rene, says. He pauses. He nods. I nod. The word rectum hangs in the air.

“Maybe it’s his intestine. But if he got only a bit of his intestine taken out” — Rene holds up his thumb and forefinger two inches apart — “then he wouldn’t be laid up this long. No, I think he got a lot of his intestine taken out.” Rene holds his hands about a foot apart.

A beret-clad policeman stands on the corner, a few feet away. I wonder if Rene will get in trouble for talking about Fidel’s bowels in public. Rene moves closer to me. “Things have to change here,” he whispers.

Forget about baseball. The new national sport in Cuba is speculation — about Fidel’s health, about Raul’s capabilities as president, about Cuba’s future.

Ralph Amat, a pissed-off American who has finally gotten his Cuban wife out of the country after seven years of paperwork, sums it up nicely: “Everybody is just waiting for that bastard to die.”

The difference between Cuba five years ago — when I last visited — and Cuba now couldn’t have been more stark.

Everywhere everyone spewed about how this was the worst holiday season ever (no pork cutlets for Nochebuena, don’t even think about an entire pig), worse than the Special Period after the collapse of the Soviet Union, worse than anything anyone had ever seen. People openly panhandled in the streets — something unseen five years ago. Buildings everywhere are peeling, crumbling, disintegrating into the streets. Internet, cell phones — hell, even phones — are nonexistent for regular Cubans. Even acting president Raul Castro went on national TV while I was there to carp about how bad the transportation and food situations were. “In this revolution, we are tired of excuses,” he grumbled.

On the street, all it took was a “How’s Havana?” or a simple “How are you?” to launch a bitter rant.

“Transportation? Horrible,” Rene said. “Food? Terrible.”

A taxi driver told me he doesn’t make enough money in one month to buy a new pair of pants. “Look at these,” he said, disgusted, rubbing his finger on his thigh. His khaki pants were nubby and frayed.

Paranoia, never in short supply in Cuba, has ratcheted up to uncharted levels. No one, of course, wanted to give me — a white woman from Miami — his or her last name for this article; some didn’t want to give their names at all. Especially in public.

“We can’t talk here,” said Daniel, a 39-year-old parking attendant I met in the shadow of the capitol building. “You can get five years in prison for talking bad about Fidel.”

The busy, bright street suddenly filled with creepiness. We retreated to a dark bar. Like many people I spoke with, Daniel is worried about the future. On one hand, he said, there is hope: Raul recently said he would like to begin a dialogue with the United States. The recent visit from U.S. congressmen — six Democrats, four Republicans, headed by Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and Rep. William Delahunt (D-Mass.) — was seen as another positive step.

On the other hand, Raul, who heads the military, is perceived by many as more of a hard-ass than Fidel, people said.

“All Raul wants is war,” Daniel said. “And Cubans don’t want war.”

Whatever happens, Daniel hopes to someday have a girlfriend. It’s nearly impossible now because most Cuban women want to date and marry foreigners. And even if he meets a woman, he can’t take her back home to spend the night.

“I sleep in the same room as my mom,” he said, embarrassed.

The general consensus is that Fidel is history. Everyone acknowledges he is sick, ill beyond the point of returning to power.

So people wait. They wait, as they have done for years, for buses and for bread, for medicine and for visas. This time, they hope, the wait will be worth it.

“I want to see what’s next for Cuba,” said Pedro, a genial taxi driver who chatted about how he watched America TeVe (Channel 41) out of Miami the night the government announced Fidel was sick.

Pedro’s view of Cuba was the most optimistic. He has a vision for a more socialist democracy, along the lines of Spain’s. He’s trying to position himself to take advantage of the changes: He plans to rent out a room in his house, he’s experienced at hooking up pirated DirectTV, and he’s working on his Italian, just in case. (He speaks four languages already.)

The gloomiest vision of Cuba came from Nelida, a weary fortuneteller in the moribund town of Regla, just outside Havana.

“What’s in Cuba’s future?” I asked as she shuffled the cards. Behind her a black Santería doll in a wildly colored dress stood on a faded table. It was stifling-hot inside Nelida’s tiny apartment, and she looked at me seriously as she tapped a card.

“Suffering,” she said. “Sadness and suffering and change.”

I left her with ten dollars and a promise to someday return, hoping that when I do, her predictions won’t have come true.

Yet the tourists — mostly German, French, and Spanish — still go. There are fewer Americans these days, but they are there, hiding behind their dog-eared Lonely Planet guides and mojitos. Some have a passing curiosity about Fidel, but many are happy to see Cuba in all its communist Disneyland glory.

“I want to see it before it changes,” was the common refrain.

The tourists all gaze at the few restored buildings and well-kept plazas, sighing romantically. Men gawk at the prostitutes — who are still there, just a little more low-key after several crackdowns — and the women still blush when Cuban men with seductive eyes ask them to dance.

They shake their hips stiffly to the salsa band belting out a cover of Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” not knowing the band has been placed in that bar by the government, paid by the government, controlled by the government.

Some tourists seem to be baffled as to why certain things aren’t available upon request like in other Caribbean getaways — pineapples, newspapers, three-quarters of a menu at some restaurants — but they shrug and move on.

They do buy cigars and rum by the bagful, and when unleashed on the Havana airport for their departure, they swoon at the last few things for sale on Cuban soil.

“Hey,” called one excited American tourist to her friends before an early-morning flight to Cancun. “They have a Che Swatch watch over there!”

It took everything I had not to walk over and slap her. I thought of Rene, the newspaper vendor, who had worked for Che Guevara in the government during the early Sixties. He turned down a good job in New York in those heady days after the revolution, telling the employer he wanted to stay on the island because “there are good things in Cuba’s future.”

Even though his country is in shambles, Rene remembers Che with fondness. “I’m not a Fidel-ista,” he said. “I’m a Che-ista.”

Tourists shuffled by, taking no interest in Rene’s newspapers. The police officer in the beret moved on. An exhausted-looking Cuban man hauled some two-by-fours past us in a wheelbarrow. I grew sad as we talked; Rene seemed to embody all the surreal contradictions and nonsensical paradoxes of his homeland.

Now, at age 81, Rene survives on a meager pension, tourist tips gleaned from working four hours a day, and some family cash from Miami.

Viva la revolución.

Next week: Dissident journalists in Cuba do their jobs without notebooks, pens, or food.

New Times is not disclosing the name of Our Woman in Havana because she traveled to Cuba without the proper visa required to report there.

  1. Follow up post #1 added on January 04, 2007 by Danny

    finally not what you see on cnn or on tv, the people will speak the truth when they know fidel is not watching, and as anyone can see the people are not happy

  2. Follow up post #2 added on January 04, 2007 by bernie with 199 total posts

    Perhaps people pointing the finger at Cuba should reliaze that three fingers are pointing back at them.  I live in the USA , the Detroit , Michigan area.
    We have a 3 tier society, the homeless which have no health care and are feed by soup kitchens, this number varies between 75.00 to 100,000 persons including children, they are very depressed and many certain things are unavailable to them.
    The second group are the persons working for the min. wage, s.s. taxes, income taxes, state taxes are withheld, leaving very little, for any luxuries.
    The third group are the ones with the bucks and they flaunt it.  Our woman in Havana is of the third group.
    No matter where you go in the world there will always those that have and those that don’t.  When you visit another country you are a guest of that country act like one.

  3. Follow up post #3 added on January 05, 2007 by viajeromp

    well, another article on how Cuban people live and what they think… may I ask the reporter who is still in Havana to ask the same people whether they want to change the system altogether?
    I wonder what would be their answer….
    Oh, I’d like also to see a Cuban journalist working for Granma newspaper do the same questions in the States… without asking the proper visa to do his/her job….
    I think it would be very naive to think that once Fidel dies the whole system will scrumble… there will certainly be changes, and I hope those changes are for the good of the Cuban people who live in the island…
    anyways, let’s wait for another 15 years to see if Cuba will change… just remember that 15 years ago everybody predicted that Cuba would fall under the domino effect with the events in East Europe….

  4. Follow up post #4 added on January 12, 2007 by Varsi Padayachee

    This ort of reminds me of our so-called esteemed media. They hold focus groups with people who are partial to their positions. Case in point, check out how many pro-bush agenda pundits appear on the TV, as opposed to those who share a different point of view. Even our esteemed journalists asked slanted questions, no matter how one answers, the answer will always sound the same.
    Let us acknowledge that not everyone one is going to be pro-Fidel. However, from what I read and hear, there are an awful lot of folks in Cuba that support the revolution.
    Why are we in the US not allowed to see Al Jazeera, or Cuban TV? If we are such patrons of a democratic society and free speech, et al, we should not be afraid to have open and dissenting voices on our airwaves.
    But then again, our so-called reporters(remember WMD), are so patently bias,. they could not tell us the truth if it hit them in the face.

  5. Follow up post #5 added on October 16, 2008 by thing have changed

    Things have changed a lot since this article was written.  I am a Canadian that has just spent a week in Havana.  I went to many restaurants and found the food was all great.  No ripped menu’s, and no lack of pork. 

    What I found was that people had money but were afraid to show it.  I went into many peoples homes and saw flat screen tv’s and DVD players.  Everywhere you looked on the streets, you saw people on there mobile phones and ipods. 

    I am not saying that people are rich, but things are differently changing.

  6. Follow up post #6 added on October 16, 2008 by publisher with 3905 total posts

    Good to see the Castro propaganda machine is working again after the hurricanes. Get those tourists back in to the country, right?

    Cuba consulting services

  7. Follow up post #7 added on October 16, 2008 by manfredz with 464 total posts

    thing ...shame on you ...you forgot to mention the two mercedes everybody has in their garage…
    yes its true some people dont seem to have it too bad - when I was in a resort used primarily by young Cuban families, i was surprised by how many have digital cameras….  But you just have to pass through some small towns, cities or even Havana itself to get a reality check. While not as bad as many people have it in some neighbouring islands, Cuba has a long long way to go before it becomes the workers paradise.

  8. Follow up post #8 added on January 14, 2009 by suvariboy with 4 total posts

    In reference to the comments made by poster #5, I just came back from Havana (arrived home on Jan. 9, 2009) and I have to question where exactly you went while you were there?!  Things have changed somewhat in Cuba and some people, good little communists and fidelistas mostly, are given access to cell phones and electronics, but for the most part life for Cubans is quite dire.  If you stay in the touristy area of Obispo and go for overpriced
    mojitos at La Floridita it’s easy, and a bit naive, to think that the Cubans are doing well.  It’s probably easier for you anyway to think this.  There might be ample food available in the state run tourist restaurants these days, but the average Habanero does not have access to any of this! 

    I walked to city for many days, from one end to the other (and I have the blisters on my feet to prove it), trying to get a feel for how the people of Havana live.  I saw some renovated places, in areas where there is a high concentration of tourist traffic, but for the most part the city is falling apart.  People don’t have money to eat and they can’t buy everyday items that we take for granted like razors, pens and paper.  The shelves in their stores - yes, they have their own stores, hidden away where most tourists will never find them -  are empty.  I have to pictures to prove it!  I stayed at a casa particluar while in Havana (room for rent in a private house), and while my hosts were lovely and warm and gracious it was readily apparent that they did not live in a manner to which we in North America have become accustomed.  During the Special Period, after the fall of the USSR, the country feel into deep decline and it still, more than ten years later, recovering. 

    It would seem ironic that the people of Cuba are living like this while Fidel Castro is one of the richest men in the world.  Why doesn’t he just help him people you ask?  Why doesn’t Papa give his people a helping hand?  To keep them down!  If they wake up every day wondering if they’ll make it through…
    they won’t have time to plot against him.  To rise up and demand a better life for themselves.

    Cuba is a lovely and magical place.  But after returning from there I cannot get it out of my head.  I can only imagine what it would be like to be born into such a society, being forced to go to communist meetings; forced to pledge love and allegiance to a man who has such a hate-on for America that he can’t see through his anger, even a little bit, to ease the suffering of his people.  I constantly saw police stop Cubans at random, demand to see their documents (which they must keep with them at all times) and then, when everything was in order, throw them into the back of their cruiser and take them away.  Their eyes looking back at me.  I’m still hanuted by this.

    I will go back to Cuba.  To Havana!  I still have so much more to see.  This time though I’ll take more with me: gently used clothes, soap, razors, crayons for the children, anything that I can to make their lives even a little bit more enjoyable.  I’ve been given so much in this life, so much to be grateful for.  I’d forgotten that until this trip.

  9. Follow up post #9 added on January 14, 2009 by Petercon1 with 2 total posts

    I have been to Cuba 3 times.  I have travelled all over the country.I have travelled in Africa and lived for a time in the US and different parts of Europe. Despite the pressures of embargo, invasion and numerous attempts on the life of Fidel Castro it is amazing that it has survived as well as it has.  You speak of police stopping police at random. How do you know everything was in order?  Don’t you think any country under constant threat from outside would be a little security conscious?  I have had two friends taken away by police in Paris for not having their identity cards.So would you call France a police state.  I saw a hungry young boy beaten to a pulp by police in Nairobi for ‘alleged’ shoplifting. I don’t hear calls for the overthrow of the Kenyan regime which is full of thieves and crooks.  you can be stopped by police at random in many western countries. It happens. As for Castro being super rich -
    what rubbish! This was first published by Forbes magazine who then had to retract it after admitting that what they described as Castro’s wealth were the state buildings and other assets.  Does George Bush own the White House? Compared to many western ,developed and rich countries, what Cuba has done for its people despite all the attempts to disrupt it, is admirable.  While there are shortages I saw no starvation.  Neither did I see anybody lose their homes to the bank.  Havana is the safest city to walk at night I have been.  Yes there is poverty.  Some of the worst poverty I have seen was on the steets of New York, perhaps more obvious because of the indifference of the wealth around it.  Not all Cubans yearn ‘‘to live in a manner to which we in North America have become accustomed’‘.  The arrogance to think that everyone wants to be like Americans is so typical.  Another thing if you do go back to Cuba, do try to travel arond a bit more you will find that a lot of Cubans will resent your pathetic gesture of offloading your castoffs.

  10. Follow up post #10 added on January 14, 2009 by suvariboy with 4 total posts

    Dear Petercon1:

    Why so angry?  I was just commenting on my experience in Cuba - Havana specifically.  My submisison was in response to a writer who said that he saw no poverty in Havana & that most were doing well: they had cellphones, camcorders…no problem!  I was merely sharing the experience of what I witnessed while in Havana.  The only arrogance that I see here is your attitude to my experience.

    While I agree that it is amazing that Cuba has “survived as well as it has” in light of what’s been thrown at it since the collapse of the USSR, I think it says more about the resilient nature of the Cubans themselves than Castro’s desire to be their Papa.  Very little of their survival has to do with Castro.  He keeps them down so that they don’t have the energy to rise up against him.
    It’s a communist country!  Many forget that when they go there; try to as least.  Most try to pretend that “they’re doing okay,” and don’t think twice about complaining that the menu choices aren’t as vast as they are back home. 

    I really appreciate your comment in which you state that you didn’t “see anybody lose their homes to the bank.”  It tells me everything I need to know.
    Cubans can’t lose their homes to the banks because they aren’t their TO LOSE.  They have the right to occupy a house or a flat or a space that’s about it.  They can’t sell it, as it’s not theirs to sell.  It belongs to the collective.  That’s what being a communist country is all about.

    As far as my “pathetic geusture” goes, the Cubans that I spoke with, and my Cuban friends who live here now in Canada, all agree that they don’t consider such things and charity or a sign of pity - the welcome it and appreciate the fact that we (I, in this case) care enough about them and their plight to go to the trouble.  I could gone to Varadero and stayed on an expensive all-inclusive resort, pretending all the while that “they’re doing okay,” but that’s not me.  I’m well-travelled, like yourself, and I have seen many forms of police harassment and brutality.  I’ve seen many forms of poverty and people living in squalor.  However, until I went to Havana I don’t think that I’d witnessed it.  I’ve travelled, but I’ve had blinders on.  That’s it.  Not need for your vitriolic rant.

  11. Follow up post #11 added on January 15, 2009 by Petercon1 with 2 total posts

    It was not a vitriolic rant.  Many Cubans do own their own homes.  Granted, they can’t sell them on for profit but they are passed on to family members. I stayed with a tobacco farmer in Vinales who owned his house and also some land where he grew tobacco and fruit to sell in the local market for himself. In Cuba it is believed that a house should not be used for profit.  Not everything belongs to the collective.  I would think that the majority of privately owned homes in the US and Europe are actually owned by the banks, with thousands of people being evicted weekly.  Does it ever occur to the anti Castro people that in Cuba he might actually be popular.  I met many people who were only too willing to talk about conditions in Cuba and criticise the regime, but nowhere did I hear anyone say that Castro ‘‘keeps them down’‘.  Speaking to a lot of students from Havana University, who would probably be classed as ‘‘counter revolutionaries’‘, not once did I hear anyone talk of a willingness or desire to ‘‘rise up against him’‘.  And these students had plenty of energy.
    Most of the criticisms I heard were to do with free travel, not to leave Cuba for Miami for good , but to travel the world, gain experience and come back to Cuba.  Incidentally as regarding the free gifts for Cubans, everywhere I imet Cubans I brought this up.  While most of the people ,naturally enough, enjoyed receiving free gifts (and who wouldn’t), so many said they resented people leaving their used clothing as so called presents and many more felt humiliated accepting goods from visiting tourists (again, who wouldn’t).

  12. Follow up post #12 added on January 15, 2009 by suvariboy with 4 total posts

    Dear Petercon1:

    This argument at least is based on what you’ve experienced and believe to be true and not an attack on my response to comments made by a typical gringo turista.  I’ve spoken to many Cubans as well and, the ones I talked to, appreciated the fact that some people put people (tourists) actually cared enough about them to leave some room in their suitcases for gifts.  They weren’t humiliated by these geustures of kindness, they were appreciative.
    In a country where locals do not have access to things that we take for granted, my friends in Cuba were happy to accept my small tokens of gratitude.  In Havana I stayed at a casa particular & my hostess had a large container full of old, rusted razors in her bathroom that she kept because she didn’t have access to new ones in the stores.  Was I ever happy that I had a big bag of new ones in my suitcase!  So as *not* to embarass her I left them with a note thanking her for being so kind upon my departure.

    I appreciate your input on this subject.  We’ve obviously had very different experiences with people in Cuba.  That being said, I wish there were more who went there with open eyes and saw the real people/place, instead of treating the entire country as though it were an all-inclusive resort that somehow didn’t live up to their explanations.

  13. Follow up post #13 added on January 15, 2009 by pipefitter

    I also have a bit of experience with Cuba. I am married to a Cuban, have lived and worked in Cuba, been there many times and have dozens of relatives in Cuba. Yes many of them complain about some things as we do in North America or anywere for that matter. We must remember that Cuba is a developing Country and it is unfair to try to compare it with North American countries. People are not starving in Cuba. Our family in Cuba send us photos by E mail all the time and I can guarantee none of them are starving. After the 3 hurricanes struck Cuba we sent $500.00 dollars to divide up thinking that they may need it to buy food etc. We got E mails back telling us about the curtains, table lamp, bedspreads etc. that they had bought with the money hardly items necesary for survival methinks. If you live in Cuba for more than a few weeks, you get a feel for how a lot of them are commited to doing something worthwhile for society as a whole. For example, the doctors that are trained in Cuba are trained, housed and fueled by the government. The only thing the student has to have is a love of his or her practice and commitment to serve the human race. When they complete there studies they can voluntarily commit to serve as medics in a disaster setting as in Haiti or in a medical operation such as “Barrios Adentro” in Venezuela that helps in poor areas of the country with free medical treatment etc. They still get their Cuban wages in Cuba to support their family as well as money in foreign currency to house and feed themselves. Whatever foreign currency they save they can buy foreign goods to bring back home. Most love what they are doing because they are helping people who don’t have the resources or can’t get to help on their own. They don’t do this for the money they do it because they are helping people out. Maybee this is something we need to learn from them, life is not just all about money and material things.,

  14. Follow up post #14 added on January 15, 2009 by suvariboy with 4 total posts

    I agree.  I think in North America we spend far too much time acquiring things and don’t really focus on what really matters in life.  I’m just as guilty as the next person.  We could all learn a thing or two from the Cubans!

  15. Follow up post #15 added on January 15, 2009 by paul

    Learn a thing or two like making bistek with eggs and old rags? YUM.

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