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Love in Times of Crisis

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

The half-empty pockets, the threat of unemployment and lack of a future don’t prevent Cubans from celebrating “sacred” events on the national calendar, like Mother’s Day, the second Sunday of May. Or the Day of Lovers, on February 14.

“You always ‘invent’ (find a solution), even though you have little money. You have only one life, and you have to  try to enjoy it,” says René, 43, a waiter. You always break open the piggy bank on Valentine’s Day, and the celebration depends on your savings. “Last year I took my wife to dinner at a restaurant, and then we made love in one of those private homes that are rented out to couples.”

In 2011, the small change from René’s savings will reach only far enough to take his wife to a paladar and then to a nightclub. Still, he’s luckier than Luis Orlando, 18, a student. “I just connected with a jevita (girl), and all I can give her is some perfume, a bottle that was a gift to my mother, who didn’t like the scent and gave it to me.”

Perfumes and colognes figure among the most popular gifts on the island for the Day of Lovers. Also soaps, talcum powders and creams. “A Cuban can skimp on food, but he’s got to have soap, deodorant and lotion to put on after a bath,” says Emelina, 62, a homemaker.

This is a long-standing habit. Before 1959, branches of famous brands like Revlon, Max Factor, Avon and Helena Rubinstein were established in Cuba.  And there were two large businesses that made beauty and home products, Crusellas and Sabatés. Later,the revolution clumped together the production of cosmetics, perfumes and toiletries in the Suchel firm, which today is part of Suchel-Camacho, a joint venture with Spain

“Once my husband appeared with a pressure cooker and I almost threw it at his head,” says Marina, 35, a clerk. “And I don’t like it either when they give me underwear. The best gift a man can give a woman that day is a box of chocolates or a bouquet of flowers.”

Philip, 46, a businessman, is romantic like that. He has hired an actor and a pianist, for a mini-recital in the living room of his large residence. “It will be a surprise for my wife. The reading of poems to music will last one hour. Then there will be a catering service that I hired, with a buffet first. And dinner with a bottle of Spanish wine.”

For those who can’t afford these luxuries, there’s always the wall of the Malecón. It’s free, on the Day of Lovers. And every day of the year.

Translated by Regina Anavy

February 13 2011

Birthday Clowns, A Serious Business

February 13, 2011 Leave a comment

Being 6 years old, Melisa couldn’t understand that Corbatín (“Bow Tie”), her favorite clown, didn’t live in Cuba. She felt disillusioned. It took us a few days to explain to her that many people decide to leave their country. She was a fan of Corbatín. We took her to all his activities in different Havana halls. For her party we contracted another mime and “the girl and her friends took it well,” says Giraldo, Melisa’s father.

Being a clown on the island isn’t a bad business. On the contrary, when you attend city theaters — where on Saturdays and Sundays clowns make the little ones laugh — after the function you will see the parents approach them, to see if they can contract them for the birthday of a child or school activities.

Carlos, an academy clown — as he describes himself — has 25 years experience in the profession. He studied in Moscow when the USSR was a country. Without his odd makeup, he tells how 15 years ago, he dedicated himself to private functions in childrens’ parties.

“It is going very well for me. The going rate is some 20 dollars per appearance, but I charge 30 dollars for two hours. I can’t cover all the demand. Cuban-Americans living in Florida have wanted to contract me, they say it comes out cheaper for them. I haven’t been able to satisfy them because of paperwork and bureaucracy. If not, I’d even have acted in Miami,” he jokes.

Cuban clowns, puppeteers, magicians, and jugglers are used to printing business cards and at the end of their state functions, after meeting their respective work quota with the Ministry of Culture, they hand them out to those in attendance.

According to Adolfo, a popular mime in Havana, a high-caliber clown gets a salary of 400 pesos (17 dollars) a month. “It’s on birthdays where we make money. If you are good, you earn a lot. Even the mediocre earn more money than the official salary,” Adolfo comments, dressed for a private function in his classic shoes and the round, red nose.

Despite the well-known economic crisis which has hit the country for two decades, normal people arrange to get them to celebrate birthdays or quinceañeras at full speed.

In 2010, Roberto, 45, threw it all out the window. He spent 5,000 dollars on his daughter’s quinceañera, still talked about in the neighborhood. Now, with empty pockets, he’s planning that his younger son’s 10 year (birthday) be remembered, too.

“His mother and I are pulling our hair out. By current economic possibilities, we shouldn’t do it. But to see the face of sadness on our little boy and his dream of celebrating it together with his friends, we’ll borrow money,” says Rogelio, while he waits for a giant cake that a particular baker made for 80 dollars.

In no way should a children’s party be as expensive as a celebration of the fifteenth. But it could well cost between 250 and 300 dollars, depending on the buffet, gifts, guests, and the clown hired; which corresponds to an engineer’s annual salary in Cuba.

The clowns always steal the show. In the theater, you pay a modest entry fee; open-air shows are free. If it’s a private event, after the children’s laughter, the parents call the clown to a corner and discreetly hand over his fee. Until the next birthday.

Fotos: Fotoinda. Carmela Núñez and Leovaldo Díaz, two youths from the puppeteer group Teatro Viejo (“Old Theater”) during a show in a Havana neighborhood.

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Translated by: JT

February 13 2011

Fleeing the Cold, European Tourists Travel to the Island

February 13, 2011 1 comment

Photo: Robin Thom, Flickr

John, 49, is a clever womanizer from Marseilles, who, besides fucking as many hookers as he can, always keeps an eye out for business. Several times he’s tried to start a little business in Cuba.

But he always ends up splitting hairs. The lengthy and incomprehensible legal procedures and limited legal safeguards end up discouraging him. The Frenchman, an habitual vegetarian, usually spends from three to four months in Havana, fleeing his country’s cold and stress.

While he examines possibilities for investing money, he has a blast, although he gripes about the lack of nightlife in the city, the loads of shortages and the absurd laws. Every day he’s irritated by the expense of an Internet connection and the poor quality of the wine on sale in the habanero markets. On the other hand, he appreciates the hospitality of the Cubans, “something that has been lost in France, where neighbors don’t even say hello.”

Every night, for just $35, he puts a young woman with hard flesh in his bedroom. Then he lounges around as much as possible. In 2011 he would like to set up a small company that would give him certain benefits and a good excuse to spend more time making love in the tropics, drinking rum and knowing people who aspire to live in a different society.

Alberto also flees the harsh winter in Europe. He’s 35, from Madrid, and is taking his first steps in cinema. He also is fascinated by the Cubans and the island’s climate. This Spaniard is not traveling in search of whores, or to bask in the warm sun of Varadero.

Alberto is an idealist and a freethinker, convinced that Cuba deserves better luck. He hates Fidel Castro because of Franco in Spain. “Fuck, we know what a dictatorship is like.” He hopes to make several documentaries. While preparing the script, he gets to know people and reads about local history.

They are two sides of one coin. John thinks only about going to bed with black women and doing profitable business with the Castro brothers’ government. And Alberto, who’s particularly fond of the island, is more interested in its democratic future.

Where the Gallic hedonist and the Spanish altruist agree is that they both touch down in Havana, trying to avoid the harsh European winter. Once on the island, each goes about his business.

Translated by Regina Anavy

February 9 2011