“A Report from Havana”
Reads Carla Santiestiban:
This year it is estimated that the Republic of Cuba, recently opened to US tourists since 2014 is absorbing 4 million visitors a year. There is no longer an off season, there is only a rapid scramble to accommodate multiplying American tourists who are forgoing more traditional tourist destinations of Mexico, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Jamaica and Costa Rica for Cuba. Such is working class America’s pursuit of the mostly all-inclusive, approximately two week annual vacation on a beach for two under $4,000.00, with or without a cruise.
There are two currencies available in Cuba, the Convertible Peso (CUC) pegged to the dollar with an 87 to 96 CUC trade in value on island dollar to CUC. There is also the Cuban Peso (CUP) worth 24 or 25 CUP to one CUC, depending on the arbitrary ruling of the vendor, which for a Gringo, will almost always be 24. The ideal conversion currencies are Euros and Canadian dollars, and any debit/credit card issued by an American bank is useless.
But, Cuba is so safe. Because really as a non-Spanish speaking American, really all of the countries we like to go to are not safe, at all. Mexico and Jamaica outside resorts are really, really not safe. Maybe more so than much of the USA, Cuba at all hours is not a threat to you. You would really have to go out of your way to robbed or molested in Cuba. Allegedly sometimes people are given the 25x less valuable CUP as change for a CUC, but that never happened to me and they really look quite a bit different. There are not only committees of unpaid, innocuous secret Police called Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) on every single block, but a heavy police presence as well. Grey and blue is armed and a dark green unarmed military deployment assisting in both traffic and making arrests. A vast consensus exists now that tourism is the only thing this country is floating up on. Which is not wholly true accompanied with biomedical research, pharmaceuticals, medical/technical services and soon oil.
Cubans don’t for the most part speak English, at all. So it’s good that I know some. Enough to navigate, bargain and order food, but also to show respect. But that doesn’t keep them from trying because the monthly salary is currently around 32 CUC a month for teachers and around 1,000 CUC a month for certain types of doctors or top officials. Which means that virtually every single person has a second job and third kind of hustle related to tourism.
According to my new comrade Raphael, “every single week the government roles out more and more small liberalizing regulations, everything is changing, but with smarts, piece meal. To obtain the clear gains of capitalism, while preserving the health and educational benefits we fought sixty years for in our revolution.”
Rafael believes within 5 years the Party will remain, Fidel, Raul, Che, and Emilio Camfuegos (a much lesser known hero) will all be venerated; but capitalism will be here mostly in the sectors of tourism and petroleum. Cuba has major reserves off the North West coast. Which is good according to Carlos, “As the CIA has almost completely destabilized Venezuela, the faltering ally who under Chavez began trading Cuba oil for technical support and doctors amongst other things. But now Chavez is dead and Maduro is neither as popular nor effective as leader.
Whether you blame mismanagement, the drug trade, the Columbian Civil War (now mostly over thanks to Cuba) or socialism itself; the impending end of the Bolivarian Revolution/ Socialism in Venezuela; Cuba made a détente with USA in 2014.
The revolution to all the Cubans I drank with, road tripped with, beach burned with, danced until 7am with, debated with, played Dominos or GO with, took long walks on the Sea Wall (Malecon) with, did business with; because as a US citizen I was certain there not for tourism at all but one of the 12 categories I signed on my affidavit. In my case, business trip. Which could really also have been medical research or cultural exchange. And clearly no one, right now in the State or Finance Department cares.
Between 1994 and 1999 Cuba experienced a time called the Special Period in Times of Peace. Abruptly cut off from the USSR which collapsed as a patron and protector by 1991.
“But now we are in a delicate new time,” explained Mauricio Alfonso, retired nuclear physicist and internationally famous habladore,(big talker) also host of the Casa Bellvista, in Miramar, the wealthier, more suburban diplomatic district. “It is unclear to those of us following the international news whether Trump will make the blockade an anachronism, an do lots of god business, or be influenced by the Cubans in Miami, and make things unreasonable again.”
But everyone else, all 24 of my mostly new friends were optimistic, unabashedly so. There was not one without a relative in Miami. Not one who didn’t want to visit or live in New York. Not one, except the older ones who didn’t openly so, we need more to keep this going.
Carlos Cancio is a 54 year old translator for the Medical Brigades and teaches English, French and Italian at a university in Sancti Spiretos, in the very center of the island near UNESCO protected Trinidad, allegedly a historic wonder of colonial architecture. I was a bit more about the night club Cabaret deep in the cave.
“I have a daughter in the USA, I hope the laws will change and she will be able to see us soon in person, she defected and it is heart breaking for us. But it is true, the younger generation doesn’t know exactly why this is so important, they are less political and more culturally curious about the USA. I will tell you though just 5 years ago it would have been a reportable crime to talk with you, to have you in my home.”
And Carlos, who I have corresponded with as a colleague for 3 years since I met him in Haiti, is markedly candid, “There is some middle way the leadership is trying to find. We did not have this revolution to give everything away for rap music and new clothing, and no one will ever accept anything less than the one unified party that brought us here. But, we are slowly finding a middle way like China and Vietnam to preserve the party and liberalize the economy, on our own timetable. Our own terms.”
Carla Santiestiban is 26, petite and vaguely malnourished she has a three year old son Hayson in Camaguey. She left the city about a month ago with a 6 month internal Visa Cubans need to live in Havana, a city of roughly 2.7 million people. Carla and I met in a WiFi park, for 3 CUC any Cuban can go online in dozens of parks, but no YouTube or Instagram. Facebook is newly allowed. All pornography is not only blocked, but a serious crime to import or partake in. A serious issue now is prostitution Carla says. Young girls like her come from all over the country are coming to Havana attempting to bed foreign tourists for money, or opportunity. The Party is cracking down hard. No Cuban, who cannot plausibly converse with the foreigner is safe. Police when the see girls with foreign men will ask for papers or make arrests. Prostitution as a repeat offence carried 4 years in prison. It is currently illegal for a Cuban and a foreigner to share a bed for one night without some clearly documented prior history of friendship or relationship. “Except the hotels, Carla says, “they are hypocrites, rich tourists will do as they want. The issue in play is money. No one makes enough money. So we attach ourselves to tourists and hope for something better, but really it is black and white. Some girls just want 60 CUC to screw. Some want relationships,” she explained. “Which do you want,” I joke realizing she attached herself to me. “I want you marry me and take me to New York,” she jokes, but it’s a half way joke.
There are really only 5 Communist Parties left on earth, in the sense of continuity between a group which staged a revolution and objectively brought their people tumultuously to higher ground, that’s 5 of 206 countries post-Cold War.
China and Vietnam are communist, but went capitalist economically in 1986. Laos is not such a revolution to write home about, its people didn’t gain much. Russia’s second biggest party is the party that ran the USSR, but it’s very secondary to Putin’s United Russia. North Korea is to communism was to communism and will be to communism well, anyway finally it stopped calling itself that and no one was upset. But Cuba has really no reservations about being Communist, staying communist and really only two of 24 Cubans I Communist partied with had any issue with that. Liberalization and higher salaries was means to shore up social gains, not an ends in itself at all.
Carla told me, “You’re crazy to romanticize anything. It’s very hard here. We always are working, two three jobs. It’s never secure, it’s never enough.” Tu entiendo nada, she reminded me every day. Carla never, ever went so far as to criticize the party, but she never ever seemed to accept the social benefits outweighed the gain. During my two weeks in Cuba two of her friends were arrested by the police for “being with foreigners”, which was understood as a euphemism for hooking. Actually Carla was constantly worried about being arrested when out with me, even after Norma and Carlos both assured me she was not going to be harassed, which coming from two connected people seemed like enough to me, but not her.
You never ever feel, at least not when you only speak English, that you are in a highly disciplined police state, which for now is really governed on the admittedly liberalizing ideas of President Raul Castro, one of the 12 original, last surviving M26 July revolutionaries that landed in Cuba on the Granma yacht to launch the revolution. And to put that in perspective for the Cubans in Cuba, this is like George Washington’s brother being still alive, but also something far more profound. 86 men invaded Cuba to end the Bautista dictatorship in 1952, and only Raul is still alive.
“It’s so different, now we talk about whatever we want we criticize whatever we want,” says Rafael, “we can’t form a second party, we can’t make demonstrations and we can’t print serious opposition to the party, but all else is open now,” he says.
There is a painting openly hanging in the chic Ideas Café in Vedado of the Granma Newspaper, the party daily organ, hanging as roll of toilet paper. The TV is a poorly produced mix of lectures, telenovelas from the continent, and subtitled American serials. There is a heavy open trade in American pop culture via USB, there is actually an Agency de Rap in district Centro. And none of the American pop culture is prohibited.
Isabel, the only other Cuban I met in open opposition says, “They all live stupidly trapped in the past. They are holding on to a revolution that is actually very over. And when they all die soon,” she says never referring to a Castro by name, “no one will care about liberalization. It’s happening, it’s going to happen more and nothing will stop it. We are living in a time warp still.” Isabel is GLBTU rights activist, and a so-called independent journalist.
“All CIA stooges and subversives,” Carlos explains, “they are all on a CIA payroll to discredit the regime and accelerate liberalization on the terms of the North.” And only Carlos goes so far as to affirm that the USA is still mostly an actually antagonist, and only Isabel would go so far as to state both the USA and the party are two evils on their own. But for everyone else this is Special Period in a Time of Tourism.
Which means that Cuba is open for business, more and more day by day. Direct foreign investment is booming, new hotels and new developments are going up and across the capital everything is for sale.
In Casa Particulars, private homes run a bit like Airbnb for between 15 to 50 CUC a night you basically just live with a key in a Cuban home, and you find these also on every single block. And in country where the maximal price of cocktail is 2-6 CUC and a five star hotel hotel costs nearly what a 5 star hotel costs. There isn’t really any since of anything in between. Which is to say that you can reach the white sand beaches of Varadero of Caya Largo del Sur and spend well above Mexican all inclusive, or kind of ball out at 100 CUC a day. And it’s all very much a feeling of tourism wise, not being ready for the big leagues, not quite elite but why would you think it would be that way, the only country to go out of its way as population to not go capitalist. And I would say Cubans are warm and amazing. I would go so far as to say in 12 days you can’t see anything, or know anything without Spanish. But, you have to use common sense. And you have to ask yourself what you are getting out of your vacation, because Cuba has soul. It has a lot of authentic, indigenous soul. Which is currently being granted to you for a limited time at a price that does beat out the rest of beach properties you could escape to.
And things are changing, on Cuban terms and they will continue to do so. Here is the one country in all of the developing world that eradicated illiteracy, brought health care to a first world level and projected itself as a power despite being no more than 13 million people. And you get all the beach, all the club, all the music, all the real sense of a national pride based on hard struggle and work; and maybe all you want is cock tail. And some sand. And surely for that it’s a big Caribbean, but if you would like to see something that is alive not selling itself while dying, this is the reverse of all you were taught. But absolutely everyone could use more.
Before he deployed to Kurdistan, Sebastian Adonaev decided to take a pre-death holiday and carry a message to the people of Cuba through an old contact in the Medical Brigades. He met a young woman named Carla Santiestiban in a city park and she attached herself to him. First, for ‘sexual practice’ and second to discover what he was doing in Havana. Third, because he made love well enough to not charge him for it. And she needed money for baby formula. No she didn’t.
What are you doing here? Vacation?
I came to bring a proposal to the Health Ministry. I don’t work for the CIA, or the Mossad, or the M5 or 6. Not even 7. Or anybody important who fucks things up economies and assassinates people, or plies people with whores. I’m actually Al Amin, I mean people can trust me. They say I’m part Shi’a. I’m good with my hands. I am an American Communist.
A freelance trouble walker maker? Maybe worse, like an anarchist with a white linen suit. Like I previously deduced. No one cares though. You treated me quite a bit like a whore last night. But I treated you like a mark, so maybe it was all ok. All in the balencio. I know you’re good with your fat little hands.
My hands are normal sized! Do you remember how hard I tried to justify Cuban style communism? And myself? I really wanted to be liked wanted and desired, you know mi amore.
I remember your penis down my throat and getting fucked pretty hard in English. I think you tied me up. You do that a lot to women Mi Amore? Tie bitches up? I’ve had a lot bigger better if you can handle the small talk papi. Do you remember my son? I told you about my baby. The one I was trying to feed, fuck your silly ideas about communism up the ass. Seriously. It doesn’t work well. I want higher wages and tight modern blue jeans! And luxury carrots!
Was it always you doing this with the foreigners or did I? Hm. Miss a crucial sex traffic plot point and road signal? I didn’t come to Havana for this.
All men come to Havana for this punto. Yes, you fucked a Cuban whore with no money and contributed very little since you managed to not have to pay me after the very first night. Do you think I sit in parks making translator app small talk to get banged around in overpornofied fashion? With my legs over your chubby shoulders. Well I guess you weren’t that chubby. Fucked me like a hooker though, papi. You don’t make love ever do you to anyone? What about your Russian girl? The one you never met yet.
So you liked me? A little? I don’t want to talk about Polina.
Pocito. Yes my friendly gringo asshole do I kind of like you. You’re medium classy and thick to fuck. You try way too hard to prove you’re not an American, but you’re an American and unfortunately I’m not the chick who you were hoping to irrationally solve all here problems with green cards and rough sex. It should make you sick I’m a mother though, the things you called me in bed. Man, go home to Brooklyn and get some work with your fat hands and friends of hands.
Carla: Who’s paying you for all this this? You’re a fucking spy aren’t you!
I don’t work for the Central Intelligence people or the Mossad.
I don’t care. No one cares though. You don’t speak Spanish so you can’t talk to like 90% of the population. You treated me quite a bit like a whore though. One hundred CUC for the fuck you gave me was not enough. The rest was all pro bono as your Jews say.
Sebastian: Tell me again, was our exchange really just commercial?
I have a son. I live on $16 a week, what don’t you get baby asshole?
What kind of lover do you take me for?
A freelance trouble walker. A guy who thinks he’s too classy to pay, but doesn’t mind paying once if he can pay the rest in art and small talk; you think I need your art and companionship? I don’t it was a lost business opportunity those two weeks. A total wash. Well anyway I hooked from the park when you travelled to the interior on your business.
Sad. I’m feeling sad and small. Like a guy who bought sex.
Wake up. Communism is dead, I’m poor and you’re having fun times Havana behind your Russian girlfriends back. Right? Am I right? I know I’m right, I’m a woman.
You’re right. I guess nothing is super real to me. I’m just getting comfortable in pretty places before I perhaps maybe die in the war. That’s the excuse anyway. The hope is not to die of course, but death seems quite possible.
Wake up. Don’t go to Syria. Communism is dead, I’m super poor and you’re still calling yourself communist. Right? Am I right? Wake up, you live in some Cold War fantasy world, but its 2018 papi. Don’t die in Syria.
I don’t feel a lot of guilt. You faked it all very well.
Carla: Not as a well as your Russian girlfriend does. You’re gonna kill her when you die though, maybe. Me and you are a summer fling, but you and she, well she invested in you to deliver her. To let her be weak and you be strong. But here you are with me, here you are talking about Syria. You can’t help but feel sorry for you a little. But, you’re not a good horse to bet on for marriage. But she still sucked my dick and fucked me every single night I was in the capital. It was maybe just sexual practice.