Aug 102015

Good items to bring to Cuba

I am often asked what to take to the Cuban people.  Please tread carefully here.  Like so many countries around the world, the Cubans are no different in lacking of the essentials, but the other side of that coin is setting up a community that expects handouts from foreigners.

If you are staying in hotels, know that the staff is already better off than most of their fellow citizens, they are tipped, and more importantly tipped in CUC’s, so they have the privilege of shopping at the CUC stores.

If you are staying in Casa Particulars,  you are paying them in CUC’s as well, but their pockets aren’t lined as well as those that receive tips in major hotels, so here, yes, a little something is appreciated.

Cuban soaps and shampoos are horrible, so while they are appreciated, they are not necessarily the best thing to leave.  If you are on your last day, by all means leave behind what you brought, but there are other things far more difficult to obtain in Cuba.

Toothpaste and toothbrushes are not only horrible, but very, very expensive.  This will become evident the more you see the missing teeth in the smiling Cuban faces.

Aspirin, also almost impossible to find and very, very expensive.

Bring School supplies to CubaIf you are visiting a school, usually a requirement for tour groups, bring, paper, pencils and Spanish language books appropriate for small children.  This will be one of your most appreciated gifts, and don’t worry, a box of Number 2 pencils, while a simple concept to you, will be manna from heaven in Cuba.

Toilet paper is a luxury in Cuba, no you won’t be deprived, but the Cuban’s are.  The government newspaper Granma is the most common form of TP in Cuba, appropriately since nothing written in it is worth reading.  I suggest you bring at least a roll for your private use, just in case, and leave it behind when you have no more use.

Washcloths, also do not exist in Cuba.  If you are a person that needs a cloth, I suggest you bring them with you, and again, leave them behind as you see fit.

Aug 092015


School Children in Cuba

I often hear people say that one of the advantages of Cuba’s socialist system is the free education.  My answer is, you get what you pay for.

My “Cuban family” has two smaller children, seven and nine, and I am appalled at their education. It is fair in math and science, but history is the Castro Revolution, Geography consists of communist and socialist countries, and social education is the party line.

Teachers in Cuba are fleeing the country and their profession. Several years ago, as a response, the government placed television sets and videos into classrooms to function as teachers. This is obviously not ideal as there was no ability for interaction, but parents indignant over a poor education was not what did the program in.

Cuban Classroom

It was simple technology. The ability of the government to make videos and show them was thwarted by their incompatibility with today’s plasma TVs. It was also difficult to teach this way in the mountains where there is not even electricity to run the televisions.

The result of this was a drift towards larger class rooms, the Cuban schools are now only allowed 15 students per classroom.

photo courtesy of Translating Cuba

photo courtesy of Translating Cuba

The present solution is to give interested adults a crash course in teaching, (most teachers in Cuba only possess a High School education) and then send them into the schools as “auxiliary teachers.”  To fill the teacher void there is also now an incentive to get freshly graduated High School students to be a teacher for two years before pursuing higher education or another career.

Even with all of this effort to continue to attempt to teach the children of Cuba it is difficult. There is a complete lack of paper and pencils, new technology is completely unheard of, and there is not a book in Cuba to be read that isn’t either the life of Che or the history of the Revolution.

Then there is food and water.  The children are given a snack, which I am told is basically a piece of bread.  So if you are one of the luckier families and have the ability to buy food so your child has lunch at school things are okay, but if you are living off of Cuban Pesos, this is a difficult task.  Regarding water, every child takes their own water to school. Water in Cuba is not drinkable before being treated, and the water in the schools are not treated, this means a backpack full of food and water is lugged to school by every child.  That can be difficult enough in the heat if you walk to school several blocks, but imagine if your commute consists of standing in the back of a truck, or on a donkey for miles and miles.

School uniforms, while not terribly expensive, are now only given once every two years.  My god daughter and her brother can at least swap out shirts and ties, but she wears a skirt and he pants, so they are bought big in the hopes they grow with the kids.

If a teacher is ill, or is not able to get to school due to the complete lack of transportation in Cuba, class is canceled. At least they don’t have to sit through the indignity of a 1950s health movie.

If you are interested in reading more about Education in Cuba I suggest this article in the Atlantic.

Aug 022015

DSC_4453While the actual numbers regarding July temperatures do not scream hot to many, it is one of the hottest July’s on record in Santiago de Cuba.

This is a colonial town, there are no trees. The homes, built of heat radiating concrete, sit side by side, wall to wall, and the streets are narrow and treeless. Plaza Jose Marti and Plaza Cepedes were once a respite from the sun until hurricane Sandy ripped the trees from the ground.

DSC_5274Breakfast is outside in the shade of the two story wall that separates neighbors, fans are running on high, but it is still cool enough to enjoy coffee and conversation.

Sadly the breezes ignore Santiago in the morning.

Lunch is served at around 1:00, there are 11 of us sitting in various positions around the table and the kitchen, with six fans doing their best to keep us cool.

Once the dishes are washed and until around 6, everyone is sitting and doing nothing. I read, the kids are watching TV, but for most everyone else, staring at each other or a siesta seems to suffice for entertainment in this heat.

Three rooms in this house have air-conditioning and all 11 of us are in those three rooms. Unfortunately, my room is not my favorite place during these times. There is no glass in Cuba to speak of, so everyone’s windows are covered in steel hurricane slats, while it keeps the house “cooler” it lacks the natural sunlight and view that makes idleness so much easier for me to endure. Yes the slats open, but that takes away the advantage of having a very expensive air-conditioning unit in your room.

DSC_5256By 5:30 or 6:00 the breezes begin to pick up and everyone heads outside.

Aug 022015

San Miquel de Allende-70In July I was walking down the miserably hot streets of Santiago de Cuba on my way to the mercado. As I rounded the corner the women’s voices began to ring out, huevos (eggs), donde? (where?) la esquina, (the corner). You heard this repeated from house to house, street to street.

Eggs were in. While eggs are guaranteed to every Cuban on their ration card, there are never any eggs in the market. Tuesday there were eggs, and they arrived, from wherever the government keeps them, to every store in all of Santiago, all at one time.

So goes the life of obtaining food in Cuba. My family has the privilege of having access to the hard currency in Cuba the CUC, so eggs should be accessible all of the time, but they are not. If you do not have access to CUCs, you are truly on the bottom of the food chain.

We bought 4 dozen for the house; you never know when the next shipment will arrive. With four dozen sitting on the counter unrefrigerated we needed to get to cooking. On the dinner menu, Huevos Diablos. This is a wholly American dish, it is not known to Cubans, but there was a recipie in the house. The only thing that changed was…the ingredients.

Cuban mayonnaise is not of the highest quality. Cuban mayonnaise is made with the lowest quality oil and a lot of chemicals. It sits on the counter, in the Cuban heat, for months at a time. I find it interesting that the name of the company that makes the mayonnaise is Los Atrevenos, which if one takes it literally means, those of us that dare.

The next ingredient is easier to obtain, lots of chopped onion, garlic and cilantro, but alas, what makes Deviled Eggs is the spicy paprika on the top, for this we used a product from Goya (a Mexican firm) that was more salt than anything. They were good, not great, but good, such is home cooking in Cuba.

Thursday was toilet paper day, Gracias Dios, as there was no more in the house. I always tell tourists, take your own, you just never know.

Aug 022015

DSC_5013It is July 26th, one of the most important days in Santiago de Cuba. The heat is stifling and the only respite found during the day is a comfortable chair with a fan. Thanks to the extreme drought and continued poor management of utilities, by the government, the lights flicker and all of our water is gone.

It takes many phone calls and a lot of foot work, but the water truck has come to fill the cistern. This costs $12 CUCs, which is pretty much par with the US dollar, out of an average salary of $28 a month, this is scandalous.

DSC_5008Water in Cuba is free, until there is none, and then, like everything else in Cuba you find, water is available, but no longer free.

Water is turned on one day a week so that everyone can pump into their cisterns, and yes, this one day a week dictates your schedule. For this privilege you pay only 60 centavos per month.

Sadly the water does not come every week, often it is no more than 4 out of 7 weeks, and during this drought often water does not appear for 3 weeks.

DSC_5015This house has a cistern that would normally last 21 days, but water hasn’t come often enough to keep it topped up. This week is Carnaval, and our friends and family have been camping out, the showers, the cooking and the simple guzzling of water has taken its toll.

I cannot imagine those that are sitting in this heat who cannot afford the few CUCs that would make things comfortable.

Aug 022015

August 2015

Church in Trinidad Cuba

My Cuban friend, whom I call Tio, asked me the other day what I thought of Raul Castro stating he might once again begin to go to church. My reaction, not ironically, was Dios Mio!

In the U.S., a statement like that makes one fear the church will catch on fire, but there aren’t enough standing official churches in Cuba to make that a worry.

On May 10, 2015 Pope Francis and Raul Castro met for a sit down. At the time Raul said he was so impressed with the pope that “I will go back to praying and go back to the church, and I’m not joking.”

“I am from the Cuban Communist Party, that doesn’t allow believers, but now we are allowing it, it’s an important step,”
Religion in Cuba is complicated. Declaring itself an atheist state in 1962, that edict was not lifted until 1992. Only then did official Cuban textbooks remove the statement that “Religion is the opium of the people”.
Religious persecution was the norm, not the exception.

While Catholicism is now recognized, there is still no recognition, and therefore, continued persecution, of so called outlying religions such as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.

According to the US Commission on Religous Freedom’s 2015 report: “Serious religious freedom violations continue in Cuba, despite improvements for government-approved religious groups.”

The Damas de Blanco (Ladies in White) are still regularly persecuted during their processionals to church and some are still subjects of Actos de Repudio.

Will this all stop if Raul actually goes to church? I doubt it, he was a member of the original revolutionaries, it was they that removed religion from the Cubans. What I do believe will happen is that worship will be accepted as long as it continues to follow the party line.

Aug 022015


cordless drill

It is actually very simple. You can not get decent tools in Cuba. Yes, you can purchase badly made, highly expensive, tools from Russia, but you can not buy quality, made-to-last tools.

What person doesn’t need a cordless drill. They are, in my opinion, the one tool every home should have. This is the reason I was trying to bring a quality piece of every day hardware into Cuba. My friends needed one.

Customs in every country has its own quirks, but in Cuba, looking for things to tax is the foremost. There in lies my drill story.

It was simple, in amongst the 20 pairs of shoes, not for me, but for my friends, was the drill.

Shoes made to last are another quality item almost impossible to find in this beautiful island country. Amongst the shoes, I had several sets of sheets and towels. You guessed it, anything over 30 thread count just doesn’t exist. Tucked deep in all of this was an inocuous little drill, bits included.

That is what I got stopped for, simple really, that is what the x-rays will pick up. I complained, made up lots of excuses, played very stupid and stated that it was in my suitcase, because who doesn’t travel with a cordless drill? I walked out without paying any duty.

Why is this important, I owed in the neighborhood of $30 to $40 US maximum, so why not just pay it and move on.
It is the principal really. My drill was just another symbol of the lack of quality items in Cuba, and if I have to lug them there, instead of buying them there, I am not paying another dime.

The lack of everything, from decent drills to eggs and cheese is already starting to wear through the thread bare patience of the Cuban’s I know. If I can help to show them what is out there, and what they could have when things open up, I am happy to pull that dangling thread on an unravelling sweater.