February 15 – Matanzas and Ediciones Vigía

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

Today, Reinaldo drove me to Matanzas to see the town and a unique publishing house I had wanted to see, called Ediciones Vigía, where they make books by hand. Interestingly, I learned about it from a description of a tour for U.S. citizens that loosely followed the International Book Fair. I was curious about the little publishing house, and decided to get out of town. The Book Fair would be going to Matanzas later in the week.

The ride took about an hour and a half. We went through the tunnel under the inlet and past the Morro Castle that guards the inlet on the other side of the water from Havana, and towards the Playas del Este. The Morro Castle is next to the fort where the Havana Book Fair was held. But for this trip we continued easterly, towards Matanzas and Varadero.

Reinaldo brought his niece. She sat in the backseat. Police or army guards stand at checkpoints along the highway. Not long after we passed El Morro, a policeman walked into the road and motioned for us to pull to the side of the highway. Last year when I was being driven around Santiago the same thing happened, and the driver asked me for some change, and got out and went behind the car. No guard ever came to the car or asked me anything. Reinaldo didn’t ask me for money, but he went to the back of the car. I did not turn around because I didn’t know if the man had spotted a non-Cuban man and a Cuban looking woman in the car and that was the issue.

Finally, Reinaldo came back to the car. I said, “Was it about me?”

He swore, and said, “No, the son of a bitch said my front license tag is in the wrong kind of holder. I said I bought it in a legitimate shop.”

Renaldo continued muttering to himself and drove on.

We passed a large area called the petroleum area, where there are numerous small wells, on both sides of the highway, some just feet from the sea, pumping petroleum. There are distilleries, trucks for transporting, and workers waiting for buses near the manufacturing and distillery complexes. There were large chimneys, gaseous flames spouting into the sky, and huge complexes, all along the ocean.





In an hour or so, we came to an inlet and turned to follow it in. In front of us was Matanzas. It’s a fairly sizeable town. We came to a square and I saw the name, “Vigía”. I said, "Stop. Maybe we are near the publishing house that has that name." But I found that the word was all over town. The first time I saw it, it was a shopping area. We stopped nearby and got out. We asked a couple of people. Somebody pointed down the street and said, “Go ask there.”

There was building a block long, with a restaurant called the Vigía. The next door in the same building was an art show. The next door was Editoriales Vigía. I had found it. It’s a small place, with a front room where they display the books and also create them. A man (who turned out to be deaf, so he couldn’t answer questions), had a number of thick pages in front of him, which were pages of a book. The books had print, but most also had some kind of design inside, as well as unique covers. Everything is made by hand, although the books are bound with a press. The people were friendly, and allowed me to look and take photos.









We then drove all around Matanzas and I took a lot of photos.





Reinaldo wanted to take me to a restaurant that was panoramic, which he also said made a delicious roast chicken. He stopped, asked somebody if a tall building was the polytechnic, and pulled in. The parking attendant hugged him like they must have been old friends. The restaurant was on the top floor. The attendant said the elevator was not working because there was no power for it. Reinaldo didn´t want to climb 13 floors, so we left.



An hour later I was starving. We stopped at a place on the highway that had a great view of the sea, had coconut milk and pizza.




As we approached Havana, we were pulled over again. It was the same. Reinaldo got out, went to the back, and was gone for a while. Then I saw that he opened the trunk of the car, closed it, got back in, and drove. I said, “What are they looking for, a body.”

He said, “Son of a bitch.”

February 14, 2012 – Meals in Havana, Cuba

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

Before I left for my recent trip to Havana, when people said, “Enjoy the great Cuban food,” I said there would be no good food. If I wanted good Cuban food, I would eat at home, or in a restaurant in Miami.

The reason I said that was because on my prior trip, only two years ago, I did not have a single delicious meal. I didn’t blame it on the cooks – I blamed it on the food that was available.

Recently, I spoke to a friend who had gone to Havana with a group. He had described amazing food. I told him that he must have gone to different places than I went.

Well, apparently, a lot has really changed in two years. I knew that new restaurants and paladares had opened, but I didn’t expect what I found.

On this trip, I have not yet eaten in any paladar. I have names of some, but haven’t gotten there. I have had magnificent meals at two state restaurants. All I can think is that they have competition now, with the paladares, so their attitude has changed.

I ate in a restaurant called Castropol, which is actually named Sociedad Asturiana Castropol -- Calle Malecon 107, Havana, Cuba‬. This is within walking distance of the casa particular where I stayed, and the Hotel Deauville.

I ate upstairs one evening. It is more elegant than downstairs, and the food is more upscale. I had plantains as an appetizer, and trout with yucca. It was cooked perfectly, and had a delicious pesto sauce. It came with some natural, sautéed vegetables. The appetizer, the side dishes – everything was exquisite.

The other nights and once at lunch I ate downstairs, which they call a barbeque establishment. It’s a little more rustic. The food was just as good, and not much different. I had steak, pork, etc. My least favorite was the pork.

I found good reviews tonight on Trip Adviser.

My friend from the casa particular had said it was “Gastropol”. I thought it was related to gastronomy. Then I said, “You know it starts with a C. It’s not in honor of Castro, I hope.” So we asked at the restaurant, and were told it is a city in Spain. O.k. then.

I also ate a great steak meal at another restaurant -- ‪El Templete, which is on Ave. del Puerto esq. Narciso Lopez, Old Havana, Havana, Cuba‬. I had a magnificent Chateaubriand, and ceviche as an appetizer.

I also have not gotten sick this trip. I did twice the last time I was in Cuba.

February 13, 2012 - Fumigation An Every Day Occurrence in Cuba

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

I’ve got to tell a little tale. Last night, as we were leaving the casa particular, I looked down the street and saw what I thought was an apartment on fire.

I said, “Look, there´s smoke billowing out of that apartment.”

Reinaldo said, “That´s fumigation.”

I said, “What, inside the apartment?”

He said, “Yes, it’s to combat mosquitos that carry Dengue Fever. They fumigate every dwelling and business.”

I couldn’t believe it. That poison inside a dwelling can’t be good.

I said, “Well, in the U.S. we have trucks and planes that spray outside at night, but I can’t imagine them entering dwellings and businesses."

Today, when I was out looking for book stores with Padura books, I went to one. Suddenly the street was foggy, and a cloud of insecticide spewed out of the store through the cracks around the doors and windows, almost choking me.

Then I saw the sign on the door, saying “Fumigation.”

It’s the strangest thing I’ve ever seen or imagined.

I was curious, so I went looking on the Internet. I found the following paragraphs in the Irish government discussion about travel to Cuba: “Recently there have been reports of an increase in dengue fever in some areas of Cuba, including Havana. Cuban public health authorities are undertaking insect control measures, including fumigation and aerial spraying. The chemicals can cause discomfort and travellers are advised to close windows and doors if fumigation is being carried out nearby.”

I also found this article on a Cuban official site:

http://havanajournal.com/culture/entry/cuba-spraying-for-dengue-fever-mosquito/

I guess it's working, because I will say I have seen only one mosquito during my trip, and it was in the bedroom. I have left the window open constantly. It did not try to bite.

February, International Book Fair - Cuban Author Leonardo Padura

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

I had been reading a couple of books by a well-known Cuban author, who is also internationally known, although not so well-known in the U.S. His name is Leonardo Padura. He generally writes crime novels, with a main character, a retired cop named Mario Conde, or “El Conde”, translated as “the Count,” who drinks too much, smokes too much, and always gets drug back into working as a detective to solve a crime.

I wanted to find some of his books because it wasn’t so easy to do so in the U.S. I had found an English translated copy of his book Adiós Hemingway in my local library and had brought it with me. I also had found an English translation of his Havana Black, electronically, which I had on my Nook. But I wanted the original Spanish versions of something. I went to the Book Fair and three bookstores before I found one.

We kept asking people where one could find a Padura novel. If he’s so famous, why can’t one find his book?

Finally, somebody directed us to a used book establishment in an old house in Vedado. Reinaldo drove me there. The store was on the porch, where four unattractive dogs lay. Behind the wall, books and other items were stacked to the celing.







The book dealer became very excited by my interest in Padura. He wanted to sell me every book in existence by him. He pulled out a number of books and magazines, and was promising more. They weren’t cheap – the prices were in CUC. He saw a gold mine in me and kept trying to get me to buy more, to buy other authors, to buy everything Padura had ever published. I ended up paying $65 total (which I bid down from $70) for the latest and most famous book, El Hombre Que Amaba a Los Perros- The Man Who Loved Dogs, and one called Adiós Hemingway (I was reading the library book in English). The deal also included Mascara, which is a rather famous book about a transvestite who is persecuted in Havana for his lifestyle, and a little book of his original short stories. The guy gave me three magazines with stories about Padura, including one about Trotski, because Padura has written about him too, and one about the El Hombre Que Amaba a Los Perros, and an interview. The man also gave me a disk with a documentary about Trotski. He wanted to sell me more.



Then I went to a talk by Padura at the headquarters of UNEAC, which is an organization called the Union of Cuban Writers. The UNEAC building, in the Vedado area of Havana is a beautifully maintained old building. The room where the talk was held was packed with listeners and the Press.



Author, Leonardo Padura:



Web Site of UNEAC
http://www.uneac.org.cu/

Feb 13 La Feria Internacional De Libro - The International Book Fair

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

Part of the reason I came to Havana at this time was to catch the end of the Feria Internacional del Libro, or International Book Fair. This is an annual event to which the government invites authors, publishers and others from other countries, promotes literature and education, holds cultural events, encourages the populace to enjoy reading, and sells school books and other books at incredibly cheap prices. It travels from city to city. I will follow it to Matanzas, and possibly to Cienfuegos.

Since today was probably its last day in Havana, I went to all the events I could find. First, I went to a small venue in the rich Vedado area of the city. Then, I went to the large venue in Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, which is the area that is adjacent to the Morro fort across the inlet from the city. While the Morro was the actual guard tower that protected the inlet, the Cabaña was like a city, occupied by the military of the time. Its open areas, and enclosed rooms host the Book Fair.






I will have to explain again how money works in Cuba. The government issues Pesos Cubanos, and Pesos Convertible, known as CUC (pronounced either Ku, or say-ooh-say (phonetic). Pesos Cubanos are the money that is issued to people who work in any type of government job. CUC are what the foreigners use. People who work with foreigners, like taxi drivers and other service providers, live on CUC. A person like Reinaldo, the owner of the casa particular where I am staying will only have CUC, because he does not work for the government, and the people pay in CUC. A CUC is similar to a U.S. or Canadian dollar in value. A Peso Cubano is worth about 1/10th what a CUC is worth.

Just like there are money exchange kiosks to exchange foreign money for CUC, there are also separate facilities to exchange Pesos Cubanos for CUC and vice versa. Generally, no foreigner would have a Peso Cubanos unless he made the mistake of exchanging money on the street and was tricked.

I experienced the strangeness of this dual money issue the last time I visited, and it was the same this time. Reinaldo took me to the Book Fair at the Cabaña, and also brought along some family members to accompany me in. Because they were female, that also raised additional issues (i.e. Cuban consorting with foreigner = suspicion and possible arrest for the Cuban).
Anyway, most museums and public venues charge 1 to 4 CUC for a foreigner to enter. They charge the same number in Pesos Cubanos for a Cuban to enter. A Cuban will be very upset if a foreigner just pays CUC for him or her to enter, when they could enter for 1/10th of the cost.

But, as I said, this family does not have Pesos Cubanos. Nobody works for the government. Sometimes, a venue will allow a Cuban to enter by paying about ten cents, CUC, being about 1 Cuban Peso would be worth. But often they refuse. Then the Cuban has to go around and beg for somebody to exchange with them, so they can have a Cuban Peso to pay to enter. That’s what the women had to do.

Reinaldo had no interest in books, so he left us to go in alone. The women I was with were trying to find dictionaries, spelling and handwriting books for their kids. So we got into a line outside a tent that had books for sale. We knew they had those kinds of books because there was a pallet outside.

A sign on the tent said that one could only pay with Cuban Pesos. It also said you couldn’t take any purse or bag inside. So one of the women took the purses and went to find a place to check them, and went to exchange some CUC for some pesos.







The whole episode was so Cuban. We stood there for an hour, first waiting for the crowd inside the tent to pay and leave. Then we waited while workers carried in the books from the pallet ten or twenty at a time. Then we watched workers organize the books on the shelves. Finally, an hour after we thought we were entering, we were in. There weren’t many choices – nothing I wanted. I was looking for fiction by Leonardo Padura. The women were stocking up on books for the kids.






Then we left and went to another tent. Then we walked around looking for international books. The women stocked up on multiple books and we had trouble lugging them to the car. They had changed ten CUC, about ten dollars, for pesos. They bought about fifteen books, and still had pesos left over. So it was obvious the government subsidized the books for the young Cubans.




A lot of kids ran around at the fair. There were some music and other events. There was some government propaganda. It was an experience.

Here is a site about the Book Fair:


http://www.cuba-culture.com/Events/Havana-International-Book-Fair.html

Feb 12 Cont – First Look at the Casa Particular

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

I arrived at the casa particular where I would stay. On my last visit, I stayed in a hotel, on the Malecon, not far from this place. A casa particular is a private dwelling that is licensed to rent rooms, like a bed and breakfast inn in other countries. It often is not really a “house”, but more like a condominium unit or large apartment in a building.

We arrived in the parking lot, which contained a number of rather beat-up cars. There were men cleaning cars, working on cars, and guarding the parking lot. We entered a condominium building, and took an elevator to the casa particular. It is a unit occupying an entire floor of a building. It has a large open living and dining room, overlooking the Malecon and the water, a kitchen and “maid’s” area to one side, and three bedrooms with private baths on the other side.





It was nicely furnished with older furniture, and nicely tiled. The owner and his wife and children were there – they live there. It seems that they occupy rooms themselves sometimes, but then move around when they have guests. Sometimes people occupy the former “maid’s” area.



The bedroom was spacious, and the bathroom had been newly renovated. Since there was no way to pay anything in advance, I paid cash for the entire stay. The room cost half of what I had paid in the hotel, and breakfast would be an extra $5. I could also have dinner here if I wished, for $10. I wouldn’t call it luxury, but it’s clean and comfortable.

Note, the photos are not of the true building.

Feb 12 Cont – Visit and Lunch at Oswardo’s

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

In the cab, a beat-up Russian Lada, we headed northward, towards the coast and Centro Havana. We passed the sports arena and familiar open streets on the outskirts. Then we were in the depths of Centro Havana, on tiny, pot-holed streets with buildings close on each side, few cars, streets filled with people standing and conversing --- walking, sitting --- balconies propped up by two-by-fours, crumbled pieces of rock littering the ground. We snaked through it, this way and that, for fifteen minutes.



Then, we were at the little apartment occupied by Oswardo’s mother since the 50’s, by him since he was born, and now also by his wife, Yoana and two children. They had a baby girl since I was last there two years ago.



The mom stood like last time, in the metal, barred, locked gate that is the front door. Inside, I met the new daughter – shy, sweet, beautiful. Yoana and Oswardo’s mother were there. Oswardito was at school. The apartment was the same as last time. A tiny front room with a couch and two rocking chairs. An entertainment center sported a black and white t.v. with rabbit ears, and a dvd player.



Looking back in to the unit from the living room, one can see an open porch area, and a bedroom. The porch area is open to the sky, so the entire apartment is accessible by thieves. This is why they never leave it completely unoccupied, although there really isn’t much crime in Cuba. The bedroom has a bed and dresser. Straight through it is another bedroom. Behind it is a little loft, and to the left, behind the porch area is the kitchen. The table is in the kitchen. There is a sink and gas stove, a small, working refrigerator and an unplugged refrigerator.

I had cafecito, sat in the rocking chairs, talked, and socialized. After a while, I unloaded all the gifts. I had brought a ton of clothes for the children. They were excited about them. Oswardo loved one of the two shirts I had gotten for him. The little girl became attached to her doll, which she named WaWo.

When Oswardito came, he loved his soldiers and clothes. I think some were a bit bigger than he is.

Although Yoana had seen erasers that you put on pencils, nobody else had.

Oswardo showed me the notebook that the school issues, which was all beat up. He said Oswardito would definitely enjoy these.

Oswardo put on a video of a Shakira song, and the little girl danced, grabbed her hip and said, “Loca.”

Dinner was served. Oswardo, Yoana and I sat at the table in the kitchen. A scrawny cat came out from behind the fridge, and Oswardito picked it up. Oswardito ate a little black bean soup, but he was much more interested in the candy canes I had brought, and kept gobbling them up.

The meal was black bean soup, pork, moros, platanos, and yucca. Oswardo’s mom was like my grandmother, hovering and begging me to eat more. It was delicious, and I was very full at the end. Then we had another cafecito and Oswardo went out.

Somehow, he found a driver in a very beat up old car, without a taxi sign, but he said the man was a driver, not a friend. Oswardo accompanied me to the casa particular, or private home, where I would stay.

Franklin's Return to Cuba in 2012

[Franklin Marquez – Age –50’s; Birthplace – Santiago de Cuba, Cuba; Residence – Miami, Florida, U.S.; Lives with Wife and Children; Occupation – Attorney, Writer, Moderator of the Blog]

Feb 12 –

I am returning to Havana to visit my relatives again. This is my second trip back since I left many years ago at the age of six.

There are many more flights from the U.S. to Cuba now than there were two years ago. Several airlines now fly to various cities in Cuba from various cities in the U.S. Different airlines use different travel agents. The travel agents must be licensed by U.S. in order to ascertain that travelers meet U.S. restrictions, and also must be able to obtain the Cuban visa. Most do not handle obtaining the special permit that Cuba requires before a Cuban-born person can enter the country, but I found one that will.

U.S. now allows a number of different types of group travel, for education, religious and other purposes. It also still allows Americans to visit family without restriction. For U.S. purposes, when visiting family, one simply signs an affidavit, and does not have to obtain a special permit. The travel agent is responsible for making sure the traveler qualifies.

I had to be at the Miami airport, in the baggage area (i.e. one floor below departures), at the end last concourse at 5 a.m. Why – I have no idea. I didn’t even have to go through security until 8 and boarding was at 8:20, for a 9 a.m. flight. Few people were there that early.

The composition of passengers on my flight was completely opposite of my prior flights. There were a couple of Cubans and mostly, white, American missionaries. Last time, I had felt out of synch with the others because I had a regular suitcase, whereas everybody else had black duffel bags. This time, I brought a black duffel bag, but 95% of the flight consists of Americans, not of Cuban heritage.

I met an old man, like a farmer, who actually was visiting the U.S. from Cuba. He had bought a fancy trout fishing pole and was wearing two cowboy hats. He didn’t seem to have ever flown – didn’t have a clue what to do. I helped him out. Later I asked Oswardo how somebody like him could travel. He said he had to have come from a family that had money, or been related to a diplomat or something.

Most of the travelers were missionaries. I spoke to some of the guys from one of the missionary trips. He said they were from Kentucky. Their church worked with Cubans who created little church groups in their private homes. He said there were regulations against too many Cubans getting together so that’s how they did it. I suppose that the government worries about people putting together a revolution, and that’s why they restrict the numbers in such groups.

The flight was uneventful except some poor guy got locked in the bathroom for 20 minutes.

I was starting to get a bit nervous about immigration and customs. I found a short immigration line, and a woman admitted me. It was a little nerve-racking because she looked into a computer forever before stamping.

When I exited there, there was security, just like before getting on a plane. Bags and everything out of pocket, walking through detector, wanding. Then I waited for a long time for my bag. I had had it wrapped Cuban style with bright yellow plastic in Miami.

I walked up to the two women in uniform with insignia saying Aduana, who seemed to be a final check as people left the baggage area, and a man in uniform came up to me and requested my passport. I think he may have been the same one who interrogated me the last time I arrived here. He said, “Are you traveling alone?” “Yes.” “Is this your first time to Cuba?” “My second. I came two years ago to visit family, my wife’s cousin.” “What is your wife’s name?” I gave her full maiden name. He handed me my passport and waived his hand towards the exit door.

I could see a throng of people outside the exit door looking in, just like last time. I saw a cubicle that seemed to talk about a tax, but apparently it was an exit tax. But at the same time, this was the money exchange. I exchanged $100 of my Canadian money. Oswardo had told me they probably charged more here, and I should just exchange enough, and then exchange more at a hotel.

As I exited, Oswardo yelled, “Franklin.” I waved and he motioned for the exit. This time, there was a barrier so travelers could actually get out past the large group of people waiting. We embraced. He asked me whether I wanted to go to his house first, or whether it would be better to go to mine, and empty my things and then go to his. I said the majority of what I had was for his family, and it was on the top of the bag, above my things. He found a taxi. He negotiated a $25 fee to go to his apartment in Centro Havana.

We had talked by e-mail, and he had told me his mother wanted to feed me. I had answered that today might be a good time, since I would be hungry when I arrived and had no plans. But they had not really planned on that. Anyway, it was early. It wasn’t even 11 a.m. yet. So we went.

Yaineris writes about Franklin's Visit to Havana

[Yaineris – Age – 30’s;Birthplace – Holguín, Cuba; Residence – Santiago de Cuba, Havana, Cuba, Holguín, Cuba; Lives with Teenage, Profoundly Disabled Daughter, in Illegal Rental Unit when in Havana, Extended Family When in Other Locations; Occupation – Educated as Economist; Worked in Government Stores; Prostitute]

[via regular mail – translated]

Hola, Franklin,

Manuel told me you are visiting. Are you bringing your wife this time? Maybe all the people like Manuel, and people like me would leave you alone if you had a woman on your arm.

Manuel told me you said you could bring something, if I needed anything. I don’t really need anything.

My daughter could use some clothes. She’s 14 now. You know she’s not well, mentally, but she’s sure growing. She is so sweet and beautiful. Call Reinaldo’s house and he’ll tell you what you could bring her.

I could use a new mobile phone. They have some Motorolas cheap in Miami.

So I will probably see you, hanging out by the taxis, me waiting for a call, you digging into what you can learn about our boring, protected lives.

See you. Mua. (don’t tell Mrs. Marquez I just threw you a kiss)

Xoxox Yaineris

Manuel the Jinitero Offers Services to Franklin

[Manuel – Age – 30’s; Birthplace – Santa Clara, Cuba; Residence – Havana, Cuba, Santa Clara, Cuba; Lives in Illegal Rental Units when in Havana, With Extended Family When in Santa Clara; Occupation – Was a Soldier, Worked Various Government Jobs, Jinitero, Not Officially Employed]

[via e-mail – translated]

Hola, Franklin

I heard you are coming. You need a car? A woman? What do you need? I’ll get it.

I’m just making fun. You never want what I have to offer. Last time you gave me money to tell you about what I do. Now that was strange.

Walking through the cemetery, telling you stupid stuff, and you paying me.

Well, I’ll come up with some good stories if you give me money again.

See you when you are here. I’ll send a car and a woman to the airport!

Manuel

Marisa writes about Franklin's Next Visit to Hotel Deauville

[Marisa – Age – Late Teens; Birthplace – Havana, Cuba; Residence – Havana, Cuba; Lives with Parents and Extended Family; Occupation – Educated in Business and Finance, Works at front desk of Government Owned Hotel; Fiancé of Ernesto]

Hi, Franklin,

I heard you are coming back to Havana. Are you going to stay here at the hotel again? I hope so. You were the best customer for cafecito we’ve ever had. Up at dawn, espresso in hand, at our dinosaur computers.

Ernesto gives his regards. Too bad you are coming before May. We are getting married in May, and would have loved for you to be here.

We are having the wedding party right here in the hotel, the place where you ate breakfast, which you told me was the worst food you’d ever had. How without shame you are!!

I hope you bring your wife and family this time. I’d love to meet them. I feel like I know them already.

Marisa

Oswardo Tells Franklin They Need No Provisions

[Oswardo – Age – Late 20’s; Birthplace – Havana, Cuba; Residence In July, 2011 – Havana, Cuba; Expected Residence in Next Few Months – Caracas, Venezuela; Occupation – Student, Computer Science; Husband of Yoana]

[sent via e-mail – translated]

Dear Franklin,

Tranquilo. Relax. You always worry too much. Listen, you do not need to bring us anything. You know we Cubans get by with what we have. We’ve never had money or available products, so we really just don’t even think about it.

Honestly, you don’t need to bring me anything at all. The Ipod you gave me last time, with all that great music still works fine. One thing you could bring is needles and thread for my mother to sew. We always need to mend clothes.

Don’t go overboard buying things for our child. It’s not necessary. Just come for a visit and stop worrying about us.

Oswardo

Angel Talks About His Private Barber Business in Havana

[Angel – Age – 40’s; Birthplace – Havana, Cuba; Residence – Havana, Cuba; Lives with Wife and Extended Family; Occupation – Self-Employed Barber, Previously Government Employed Barber]

[Sent via e-mail – translated]

Franklin,

Thank you for your nice e-mail. I am delighted to know that you are coming to visit us again. It was quite an unusual event the way I met you two years ago while waiting for a bus – guagua as we call them.

Yes, my self-employment as a barber has gone well. I was so afraid at first, when I lost my long-term government job, but my customers from when I did work for the government, and my friends and neighbors, have flocked to me, so I am not lacking business.

Since I do not have a shop, I travel to them, complete with all the necessary implements, including a large piece of soft plastic which I place on the floor to collect their hair and take it away with me, so I don’t leave a mess.

Keep your hair shaggy before you come down, and I will treat you to the best haircut you’ve had.

Angel

Reinaldo Writes about New Businesses in Cuba

[Reinaldo – Age – 50’s; Birthplace – Countryside near Bayamo, Cuba; Residence – Havana, Cuba; Occupation – Lives with Wife; Operator of a Casa Particular]

Hola, Franklin,

[via regular mail – translated]

I understand you are coming to Havana to visit us. And you have asked me questions about our citizens’ new ventures into independent businesses.

Yes, things have changed somewhat since your last visit. There is definitely more business being carried on by individuals. You know that I have owned and operating this casa particular for a number of years, and nothing has changed for us.

But the number of nicer restaurants has grown. I have some acquaintances who have made the effort. It is certainly not easy. They have to obtain a permit. And the government watches very closely. Since I only serve breakfast, I do not have knowledge as to how the new restaurants obtain their products and whether the quality is any better than before.

However, it’s only been a few months since some establishments were shut down for serving food products available only on the black market. The higher end paladares, which the Americans and some Europeans favor, which are said to serve delicious steaks, lobster, etc. must have some special disposition from the government to be able to obtain such products. Perhaps they bribe. Perhaps they have connections.

I am probably more in the dark than you, since I do not have the Internet, free newspapers, or anything other than whispered gossip to learn the truth.

But it seems like we are quietly moving a little towards your type of capitalist society, yet in the name of socialism --- what an odd dichotomy --- not unlike our entire lives.

We will see you when you arrive.

Reinaldo

Enrique Writes About New Years in Santiago and the Pope's Visit

[Enrique – Age – 70’s; Birthplace – Havana, Cuba; Residence – Santiago de Cuba; Lives with Wife and Extended Family; Occupation – Retired, Previously Worked in Various Government Jobs, in Bodeguitas, Museums, Restaurants]

Dear Franklin,

Reinaldo told me you are coming to visit, Cuba, but this time you are not coming to Santiago. Is that true?

Things are normal here in Santiago. There is some excitement about the Pope coming to visit. My wife, Gladys, is looking forward to being able to attend a mass. I do not know where it will be.

I believe it may be at the chapel of the Virgin de la Caridad del Cobre. Now, the Virgin has returned from a trip around Cuba, so she is there, awaiting the visit from the Pope.

You asked me about what we did for the new year. We went to my brother’s little farmhouse, east of Santiago, on the road to Siboney. He had fattened up a nice pig, and we slaughtered it and had a feast, with moros, platanos and all the good Cuban food. He even had grown some coffee, and had roasted the beans, so we had delicious espresso.

It was heaven.

Let us know when you come to Santiago. We are all looking forward to seeing you.

A Hug.

Sincerely,

Enrique

ALBA August Meeting Announced

The next summit of ALBA will be held in the quaint little country of Dominica, according to articles in Cuba Debate and Granma issued today.

ALBA is the Alianza Bolivariana para los Pueblos de Nuestra América. It was founded via an agreement between Venezuela and Cuba in 2004 on the ideals of integration to overcome the traditional methods of achieving free trade and fair trade, to develop joint policies for social care and to adopt financial and economic mechanisms independent of agencies like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

On Saturday, amid numerous photo ops in which Fidel and Raul Castro, Daniel Ortega and Chavez appeared at the meeting in Caracas, Chavez requested an ovation for Fidel, whom he called the Father of all the Revolutionaries.

Also on Saturday, there was debate about the fact that Cuba is not invited to the Summit of the Americas. It was decided to hold a special meeting in Cuba to plan on what to do about its being denied an invitation. Chavez stated that if Cuba is not invited, Venezuela would not attend.

The Paradox of Yoani's Denial of Permit to Travel

Yoani Sanchez has decided to take her political involvement to Brazil. She prepared and presented a petition regarding human rights, and sent a personal request to the President of Brazil allowing her to travel there. She was issued a visa by Brazil to visit.
But she has reported on Twitter this week, and many news reports around the world have stated that she was denied an exit permit from Cuba. Thus, she cannot leave.

Yoani’s plight is paradoxical. She permanently left Cuba some years ago, and was living happily and peacefully in Europe. Then, she decided to return to Cuba, with her husband and child, and fight for freedom of the Cuban people.

She has become famous because of her blogs and tweets from Cuba, complaining about government censorship and other government activities. She has received many awards and been invited to speak at international events. Every time she is invited, her right to leave is denied.

Interestingly, the president of Brazil was in Cuba recently, apparently offering money and other benefits to the Cuban government. Yoani strongly criticized the visit and its purpose.

Cuba’s exit permit process is generally thought of as prohibiting permanent exodus from the country. But Yoani does not want to leave permanently. She wants to travel and return – to continue to criticize her country’s government. One would think the government could allow her to leave, and then not let her return. What is the reason for keeping her in the country?

The government has been unhappy with her activities for a long time. But it doesn’t seem to know what to do with her. It has been a long time since she has been arrested or physically assaulted, although she reports such actions against many other vocal dissidents. She apparently still must travel daily to access the Internet. There was a time that the government tried to prevent her from doing so. But at this time, she apparently is able to do so regularly. The government watches her every move. It posts guards to watch her apartment. It won’t let her leave the country, but allows her to criticize it.

So, once again, she has the opportunity to point out a contradictory stance of her government, in denying her the right to leave, after she voluntarily returned.

Interesting.