They don’t have the charm of the “jineteras”(prostitutes seeking foreign tourists) who work for hard currency.* They don’t wear brand-name clothes, or high-heeled shoes. They don’t use Chanel perfumes, or wear gold jewelry. They are the poorer type, who at most smother themselves with large quantities of Cuban-made Suchel talcum powder, and smell of cheap eau-de-cologne. They wear short tight skirts. And they tend to plaster on the make-up.
These are the local currency whores. Many of them get off the train at daybreak and before the sun has fully risen they are already busy at work. Like Yanelis, 28 years old, an Indian mulatta, born in an eastern province 800 km from the capital.
Her life is a small hell. She never knew her parents and doesn’t have fond memories of her childhood. Her maternal grandparents did what they could. But Yanelis only managed to get as far as finishing seventh grade. And yet her round and shapely backside, her firm breasts and her skin, the colour of coffee with cream, would get men aroused. Especially some of her male relatives.
One night, a cousin invited her to the fair and he plied her with an excessive quantity of a bog standard and insipid brew which is sold loose as draught beer. When she had passed out from drinking so much alcohol, he repeatedly raped her.
She was only twelve years old. Her first customers were her own family members. For 5 pesos (a quarter dollar) she let them fondle her breasts or masturbate and then ejaculate on her face.
“The most perverted of my relatives was also the one with the most money, because he worked in a hotel exclusively for tourists. He forced me to sleep with animals and on more than one occasion I got sick. I’ve tried everything. I’m bisexual and for as long as I can remember, I’ve never known what it’s like to feel in love with someone. That only happens in movies.”
Prematurely aged by a tough life and an even worse diet, Yanelis gulps down a can of Bucanero beer and goes on with her story.
“I came to Havana because business is good here. It’s my third trip. I’ve been caught by the police a couple of times and they sent me back to the province where I’m from. I even spent a year and a half in jail. But I always come back. Things are very tense in my home town. I don’t have, nor do I want, any other way of making money. Perhaps this is the most difficult way, but it’s the easiest for me. I don’t have many options unless it’s coffee picking in the mountains or wiping tables in a café,” says this girl, prematurely aged by a tough life and an even worse diet.
In the capital, Yanelis and some other prostitutes rent an extremely shabby room. They have to fetch their water in containers and live by candlelight because they don’t have electricity. Each one pays 5 convertible pesos for the room. On a good day, she makes the equivalent of 50 or 60 convertible pesos (about 1200 or 1500 regular pesos). If you do the math, to make this amount Yanelis is having to sleep with ten or twelve men. For a quick half hour ‘screw’ they make 100 regular pesos or 5 convertible.
She started working as a prostitute in the area around Fraternity Park, in the heart of Havana. Her stroll was Monte and Cienfuegos streets, the first marketplace to emerge on the island for cheap sex bought with regular pesos, back around 1996. Things didn’t go too badly for her. But every now and again there was a police raid.
When she got out of jail, she thought she needed to be more discreet. She’s a fixture now in a spot on the fringes of the National Freeway. Guys in cars and on motorbikes pass by, drunk and looking for a woman to satisfy their sexual appetite.
That is where you’ll find girls like Yanelis, ready to offer you their a la carte menu: 50 pesos for a blow job, 40 for a hand job, and 100 for the full works, in other words, for penetrative sex. Paying a bit more gets you anal sex. And if you’ve got 20 convertible pesos or 500 of the regular kind, you can head off with two sad and pale girls who’ll offer you a moonlight lesbian show in the middle of a banana field with some dirty bits of cardboard for a bed.
There are at least a dozen such places in the city. In Havana slang they are known as chupa-chupa [suck-suck].
The young women who prostitute themselves for local currency don’t come close to the beauty and silhouettes of the splendid hookers that have dazzled the Iberian and Italian men who have taken them under their wing and married them. No. These are poor lost souls who stoically endure being penetrated by more than ten men in a single day in order to make a few pesos.
Yanelis doesn’t want to think about the future, which is a bad word for her. She lives fast and for the present. Night has fallen. She looks up at the cloudy sky and comments despondently:
“Uh oh. It’s going to rain. Bad for business.”
She prefers picking up men when she’s drunk or after smoking a couple of joints. Sometimes she takes a few parkisonil tablets to get high. When she gets back to her wretched room she sometimes feels guilty.
This is when she remembers that she’d like to have children, a good husband, and to start a family. She soon abandons the idea. That stuff is only in movies. Or romantic novels by Corín Tellado. Then she comes back down to earth. To the reality which is her lot in life. And she has neither the energy nor the desire to change it.
Translated by BW and RSP and ANB
* Translator’s note: There are two kinds of pesos in circulation in Cuba, one which can be exchanged for dollars and Euros, the Convertible Peso, and one which can’t, the regular kind. One convertible peso (officially worth $1.08) is equivalent to 24 regular pesos (referred to as moneda nacional (national money) by Cubans, and translated in this text as local currency).
In October 2009, in tandem with Max Lesnik, the Cuban journalist based in Miami, I started writing a blog, called 90 miles, for El Mundo, one of Spain’s national dailies. Plus some notes, articles, features, and stories about what life is like for Cubans and my perceptions of the Castros’ government. Within a few days, I was approached by various people I consider friends (and others I don’t). After congratulating me, they gave me some free advice.
An experienced and foxy old reporter told me in confidence and in a hushed tone, “What you want is lots of curveball and not much fastball. Try and come up with colourful stories which won’t cause you any problems. That way you get paid and life’s good. If you go about with an AKM machine gun at the ready, the government will call you to account.” Such was this long time journalist’s advice. Opportunistic, cynical, someone who enjoys life, like a lot of people in Cuba who just want to have a decent salary paid in hard currency and not rock the boat.
The old reporter, who knows how much I love the sports pages, made a point of using some baseball jargon. When you cover the island “curveball” means sticking to subjects like the history of the Malecón, Havana’s Chinatown, or the Capitolio; talk about curiosities or explain how a parcel containing copies of Granma was thrown out of an airplane over the mountains in the East and knocked dead a cow when it landed. In short, his advice was that I should write about unimportant “news” and steer clear of critical articles.
If it meant writing colourful stories and throwing curveballs, I would give up writing for El mundo. I say what I think and tell it like it is. You have the chance as readers to express disagreement in the comments section. I’m very far from thinking that what I write amounts to any kind of absolute truth. Perhaps I get things wrong. But these opinions about an event, theme, or personality are mine.
I’m nearly 45 years old and at this stage in my life I’m not going to be afraid to defend my perspective. Being imprisoned for many years, which is the prospect held out by Cuba’s laws for all those voicing public dissent, does scare me. I don’t have a vocation to be a martyr. But I’m not going to change my ideas. Even if I end up bricked up in a state security cell or in a dirty Cuban prison block.
Disagreement is healthy. And so is debate about ideas and dialogue with people who think differently. But in Cuba, when someone in the media criticises you or attacks you, be afraid. The message is: “What goes around comes around”. In other words, shut up or you’re mincemeat.
We know that the beginning of a vigorous offensive on the part of the state apparatus portends further actions. Ranging from acts of repudiation and even threats and humiliations for your family. Or, in an extreme case, detaining you, penalising you, and locking you up in jail.
I would like to ask a journalist of Max Lesnik’s calibre, or José Pertierra, the lawyer, if at any time they’ve felt paralysed by the US secret services breathing down their necks, or if they’ve ever had their arms twisted by the Yankee government because of holding critical views about the system in the North or for showing admiration towards the Cuban Revolution.
I suspect the answer is no. It’s true that in Florida, in the ’70s or ’80s, a group of intolerant Cubans, terrorists more than anything else, went as far as assassinating people who supported Castro. But in this, the 21st century, things in Little Havana must have changed. And it goes without saying that no US administration has ever instructed its official media, like the Voice of America, to intimidate its political rivals.
The United States is capable of the best and the worst. If he happens to be having a bad day, any madman with a rifle slung over his shoulder and whistling along to a Bruce Springsteen song can rub out a dozen people as if he were at a shooting gallery in a fairground. I have a feeling that Lesnik and Pertierra and their compatriots on the other side of the pond have all the freedom in the world to write and to say what they think.
Not in Cuba. And that’s the point. Since I was born, in 1965, I’ve never known what is called democracy. And before I die, I would like to live in a pluralistic society where you as a person aren’t of the slightest interest to the State. And where, if the powers that be don’t appreciate me, thanks to certain Constitutional laws, I’m not locked up in prison.
I don’t mind who’s in power. They can be communists, liberals, greens, social democrats, right wing, centrists, or left wing. Just so long as they’ve won an election. I ask myself if this is an impossible dream. I don’t think it is. That’s why I write what I think.
I remember that on a cold and gray afternoon in February 2003, Raúl Rivero, the Cuban poet and journalist, typed with two fingers on his Olivetti Lettera-25: “No decree can stop me writing in the country where I was born and where my grandparents were born. I’m a man who writes.” So am I. Even though I could lose a lot.
Albeit with my fears and the paranoia typical of those who live under threat, I will send stories, articles, and news about the reality of my country. Written from my untidy apartment in the Víbora district, my neck of the woods. I’m not going to follow the experienced reporter’s advice. My writing is going to be lots of fastballs, few curves.
Translated by RSP
Donato, who usually sells newspapers in the area around Roja de la Víbora square, is an elderly man of 67 wearing threadbare clothes; he’s convinced that Fidel Castro has for quite some time been a corpse. Abelardo, 54, a civil engineer, thinks the same. He says, “The people haven’t been told of Fidel’s death to prevent disturbance” In Cuba, everyone has his or her own take on the one and only Comandante’s illness.
For want of reliable information, people invent rumours. Carlos, a 21-year-old university student, swears on his mother’s life to a group of sceptical youngsters that he read an article on the Internet where it said that Fidel Castro was in a deep coma. In every nook and cranny of the island it’s the same.
Never before has a man’s death engendered such anticipation. No sooner does a rumour start over there on the other shore, in other words, in Florida, than it quickly arrives on the Cuban coastline. Many people have family in the sunshine state or else they illegally watch cable TV, and more than a few times some rumour is heard, even in the middle of the night, as happened to Jesús, a 34 year old worker. A friend, restraining his emotion, woke Jesús up at three o’clock in the morning to tell him: “Fidel’s snuffed it, I saw it on channel 41.”
Castro’s been given up for dead so many times in Miami that new reports of his death are taken with a pinch of salt on the island. Deborah, a 29-year-old primary school teacher says: “The day when he dies for real, I won’t believe it.” It’s now been three years and five months since the 31st of July, 2006, when Carlos Valenciaga, Castro’s former private secretary, announced on national television, in a sombre tone of voice, that the Comandante was relinquishing power due to illness.
Since then Cubans have been living on a knife’s edge. And not because their former president’s state of health is of special interest to them. No. The key issue for the majority is what’s going to happen when Castro dies. Some in Cuba take it as a given that Fidel’s brother, General Raúl, is putting off reforms pending the patriarch’s disappearance.
I don’t believe that. I don’t think that Raúl Castro is going to be the Caribbean Gorbachev. The agents of change in Cuba are perhaps men in power now, wearing masks, keeping their heads down and obeying orders. They’re waiting for their moment. Or they’re walking about the country’s streets anonymously. I’m a sceptic and I don’t think a worthy leader for the future will emerge from the Cuban opposition. Almost everyone talks about democracy and makes out that they’re a democrat, but they act like little dictators.
The is what concerns the man in the street in Cuba. The day after Fidel. Cubans take it for granted that Raúl is a transitional president. As such, the health and impending death of Fidel Castro isn’t a problem of personal hatred. It’s simply about discovering what the future will be like without the former Comandante.
There are even people making bets, like Amador, 43 and unemployed. Two years back, Amador and twelve friends agreed on a lucky draw: whoever accurately predicted the date of Castro’s death, or whoever came closest, wins 1,200 convertible Cuban pesos (about 1,200 dollars). Amador had predicted that God would take Castro I from this earth on the 31st of December, 2009. He’s sorry that he’s off by a bit. He says, quite seriously, that it’s nothing personal against Fidel. It’s just a bet. And he wants to win.
Translated by RSP
One of the various unresolved and failed issues of the Castro brothers’ government is the Cuban citizens’ lack of freedom to travel. If a foreign friend invites you to spend some time in his country, in addition to extensive and tricky bureaucratic red tape, ultimately, with nerves of steel, you have to wait for the exit permit granted by the Department of Immigration, which is part of the Ministry of Interior.
This department determines whether or not you have the right to travel. Also, if a person has been exiled, said military body is the one which determines whether or not such a Cuban can visit his native land. It’s humiliating. It’s like begging to be allowed to leave Cuba, and, what’s worse, to be allowed to enter your own land.
For me this is the most flagrant violation of personal rights committed by the government of the island. It doesn’t matter if an individual who wants to visit a friend or a relative has an immaculate record and doesn’t have any prior convictions. If Immigration considers you unsuitable, you cannot leave the island.
It’s a form of punishment. Something like, you better behave if you want to see the world. To behave badly is, above all, to publicly dissent from the way the State administers the country. Another major arbitrary act is when a person definitively leaves the country. It doesn’t matter that he owns his house. If he lived alone, he doesn’t have the right to leave or give his house to whomever he wants.
No. The government’s laws put an end to your right to dispose of your own home. This is coupled with a number of tricks and lies to circumvent the unjust measures that the State applies. Whenever people think about leaving the country for good, they put the name of a friend or family member on the deed beforehand so they don’t lose the house.
Days before you abandon your country, an inspection from the Institute of Housing inspects your home and verifies the furniture and electrical appliances that you possess. If, at the moment of leaving, it’s proven that you have given someone these things, your permission to leave can be denied.
What people do is to give away or sell the furniture, refrigerator or television, before the housing inspectors visit. It’s arbitrary. I will tell you a personal story.
My mother, Tania Quintero, an independent journalist, together with my sister and my niece, left Cuba to go to Switzerland, on November 25, 2003, at the beginning of the Black Spring. [Translator's note: The "Black Spring" refers to the 2003 government crackdown, when independent journalists and democracy advocates were arrested and imprisoned.]
When she left, she did not know my daughter, Melany, who was 9 months old. Because she was a political refugee and a persona non grata for those who direct my country, Melany’s maternal grandmother had to content herself with seeing her in photos and chatting by telephone when her rare retirement resources allowed her to telephone.
She will probably die in the staid city of Lucerne without ever knowing her other granddaughter. The government hasn’t given the slightest inkling of doing away with its absurd rules on emigration. It’s true that in the USA, on account of another stupid law, North American citizens aren’t allowed to travel to Cuba. Ninety miles apart, the two countries are still living in the Cold War era.
Both of our communities, so close geographically and, at the same time, on account of the policies of their respective administrations, so distant, must insist on having our rights count.
There’s no reason why my mother should have to die 9000 kilometres away without ever knowing her granddaughter. It’s unreasonable for anyone to stop her. But the Castros keep in their pockets the files for all exits and entries. And Melany’s grandmother is not to their liking.
Translated by Regina Anavy & RSP
Breaking: The Russians are coming back to Cuba, this time as tourists and with hard currency. And these last few days there has also been a fleet of enormous Russian ships, bristling with weaponry and radar, at anchor in Havana’s port. The intentions of both governments are clear. Castro II wants to ask for a lot and to pay little. Dimitri Medvedev wants to re-position Russia at the center of world power.
They’re as tall as palm trees. They walk slowly and scrutinise the buildings in the old part of Havana. It’s a group of five Russian tourists. Three men and two fashionably dressed young women. They’re blond and have green or blue eyes. If you didn’t know about the embargo on Americans travelling to Cuba, you could easily mistake them for bored and slightly lost Yankees.
Near the Plaza de Armas, in their faltering English, they ask a balding mulatto guy holding a guitar where they can get something inexpensive to eat. “Fast food”, says the Russian girl. “Oh, there’s no McDonald’s here. The most similar thing you’ll find is the ‘Di Tu,’ which sells chicken, about two blocks from here”, the mulatto guy replies, in Russian, to the amazement of the tourists who want to know where he learned it.
“In the 70s I studied at Oleg Popov’s famous Clown School in Moscow”. “Oh, so you’re a clown?” asks a Russian wearing a Chelsea football shirt. “Yes, a clown who earns his living by singing nowadays,” he replies, while picking out on his guitar the tune to “Midnight in Moscow.”
The ex-clown manages to extract 10 convertible pesos from the Russian’s wallet for the song. His name is Manuel Oritz and he’s 53 years old. For the last 15 years, he’s been on the soup circuit (the term used on the island for serenading tourists while they eat) around Old Havana’s cobbled streets. “I was lucky with them. On the whole, they’re stingy, the Russians, and they don’t like hearing the old Russian songs, nor being called Tavarish.” [Translator: Tavarish is the Russian word for comrade, and was the only acceptable form of address in the days of the USSR.] Ortiz confirms that he did indeed study as a clown in the former USSR. With this new wave of Russian tourists, the extensive and well supplied informal market place, home to jineteras, personal guides, musicians, rum and tobacco sellers, drivers, and guest house keepers, is dusting off the old basic Russian manuals so as to be able to break the ice with the new visitors.
Joel Romero is 32, slightly overweight, and has the look of an intellectual about him. He works as a private guide for tourists. Keeping an eye out in both directions in case a tourist comes along, and smoking a menthol cigarette, he offers the following profile of the Russian visitors: “They still like rum and Cuban tobacco in excessive quantities, just like the old Soviets did. They go after mixed race girls, and young bisexuals, for their orgies. Unlike Western Europeans, they don’t like the old style Cuban music. They prefer rap groups, like Orisha, or Isaac Delgado’s salsa. They do sometimes leave tips, but they’re not big tippers, not like Cuban-Americans or Canadians.”
Héctor Gómez is 48 and works for the Gran Caribe hotel chain. He estimates that the number of Russians who have visited the island this year is about 10 thousand. And the new Russian invasion extends beyond tourism. Russian-made Maz buses are operating the Metrobus company’s PC, P9, P6 and P10 lines, some of the routes around the city’s main roads where the use of large capacity buses has managed somewhat to alleviate the capital’s difficult transport situation.
Besides buses, the Cuban government is also studying the possibility of establishing joint ventures with Russia in the petro-chemical and biotechnology sectors. Where they’re keeping mum is on the question of the military. We know that the islands’ armed forces are equipped with out-dated Russian technology: it’s a miracle it keeps going and then only thanks to the numerous adaptations carried out by Cuban military workshops. Nothing was said last November about this during Dmitiri Medvedev’s visit as Russian leader.
One thing which is being updated is civil aviation with new Russian Ilyushin 96 and Tupolev 204 airplanes. Even in religious matters Cuba and Russia are busy. Those who control our destinies have never looked favourably on the Catholic church.
The latter awaits an official response in order to be able to dedicate more space to pastoral work and to the work of the church in educational and social spheres.
Meanwhile, however, a Russian orthodox church has been consecrated in historic Havana; this is a religious doctrine which has few followers in this country. Raúl Castro’s new foreign policy aims to get Russia back as an ally, alongside Venezuela and China, so as to re-float the country’s precarious economy. The Russian answer has been Yes.
It remains to be seen what cards the young Russian president is keeping up his sleeve. Analysts suggest that Cuba has a debt of 20,800 million rubles to the former USSR. Neither Putin, the current Prime Minister, nor Medvedev, is a fool. They know that the island’s ability to pay for their products is non-existent. Cuba isn’t a good place to do business.
So, the reasons for this rapprochement with Cuba must be of a political nature. The joint military exercises with Venezuela, plus the war with Georgia, both point to Russia looking to regain a pole position among those countries which play a decisive role on our planet.
It remains to be seen whether the current government of Castro II is more interested in a dialog with the president of the United States, Barack Obama, or with being a chess piece in Russian’s foreign policy. once before, 46 years ago, marriage with Russia could have meant the end of the world with the missile crisis. And in exchange for an oil pipeline and Russian oats, the Russians got permission to establish on our soil military bases like the Study Center Number 11, and the Lourdes Farm of Electronic Espionage. Apart from that, Russia made little mark on Cuban society. Thousands of marriages, and names like Mijaíl, Iván, Tania or Tatiana.
The shape of Cuba’s future foreign policy is in the hands of Raúl Castro and his team, and theirs alone. It’s simple. Do we side with Obama and his view of the world or with Russia’s twisted imperial ambitions.
The visit of the Russian fleet to Havana, and the political flirting with Moscow, create more doubts than hope. Let’s wait and see.
Iván García December 2008
Translated by RSP