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The Gravity of Despair

Crackling thunder and falling rain making rivers out of Trinidad’s cobblestone streets bringing trash and debris downstream from the city’s center.  The rain has been going on for days now, closing down the nightlife and slowing us all down to wait it out.  My friend who’s home I’m staying in, has buckets filling with water in her kitchen as the rains pour down through the holes in her roof making her kitchen a slippery wet disaster.  I’m impressed at how she manages to deal with it fairly calmly knowing that there’s nothing to do but accept it and wait until she can find someone to come and help her fix it in the dry season.  Considering it’s the very beginning of the wet season, I  wonder how she’ll be tolerating this in the height of storm season which is coming soon.

I’m one week into my first trip back to Cuba since the pandemic forced me to leave in March of 2020.  The first few days were beautiful in reunion moments, yet also surreal and striking in contrast to what once knew Trinidad to be.  Now after a full week, the gravity of daily life for Cubans is consuming me.  Walking through the streets today during a break in the storms was depressing at best.   Feeling the desperation, the hunger, the frustrations of the people waiting for hours in clusters sweating in the tropical heat, hearing the non-stop complaints all day, every day, from everyone I meet; it all eventually takes its toll on my energy.  I find myself wanting solitude just to sink into quiet and restore my energy a little.

In over a decade of visiting the island, I have never seen Cuba like this.  In some ways, it’s actually exactly the same.  There were always long lines, rationings, and daily challenges to deal with in the lack of materials, foods and supplies.  Now, however, the desperation and frustration are at an all time high on the island.  This is why so many tens of thousands of Cubans are taking the risk of leaving the country to try to enter the USA, or any other country they can, by any means possible.  Cubans have given up hope, and when a people have lost hope, everything begins to crumble quickly.  Hopelessness can rot the culture from the inside out.  The animals have suffered as much, and sometimes, more than the people.  The horses look thin, worked and are much more scarce than I’ve ever seen.  Untold hundreds were eaten during the crisis, slaughtered in the pastoral, and sold or consumed.  There are less street dogs, and more cats than I’ve ever seen, and friends here tell me many animals died during the worst part of the pandemic for lack of care, no medicines, etc.

Desperate taxi drivers all trying to get the attention of the one or two tourists who pass by them, mothers asking for medicines, shoes and clothes for their babies, friends gaunt, thin and obviously not eating the same as they were a few years ago, all of it just lays heavy on my heart.  I wish I had brought more supplies, more ibuprofen, more clothes and shoes for kids; yet the reality is that nothing I can do can offer more than a temporary relief for them.  The money I gift is spent in a few days, food is consumed rapidly and hunger returns; medicines may give relief for a few hours, but there is no real cure or easy fix for the daily struggles Cubans are facing now.  There is no medicine for the dis-eases of politics, power and greed.

I can’t help but feel extremely grateful that I got to experience this place during its most recent glory days when there was abundance, and the place was buzzing with tourists dollars and energy.  The  years of visiting this island nation have transformed me into a much better human being than I believe I would have been without Cuba’s influence in my life.  From the way I walk and talk in the world, to the way I think, feel and experience life, Cuba is at the heart of who I am now.  It has made me a stronger woman than I ever wanted to become, hardened in some ways, and softened in others.  It has taught me so much about human nature, poverty and wealth consciousness, love, and familial connectivity.  Cuba has shown me every part of myself reflected in so many smiles, so many tears, and so many moments shared with kindred souls.  It’s literally impossible to imagine a life now without this island and its culture living through me.  So many people give me shit about my love for Cuba, but very few of them have actually been to the island themselves to feel beyond the politics and propaganda what the heart of this place really holds.

Somehow it felt in 2020 when I left Cuba, that it was the end of an era of sorts, for myself personally, but also for the planet.  I could feel the gravity of what was coming far before it hit us.  Now, over 2 years later, it seems obvious that I had tapped into the truth of what was coming in my future visions.  I see it reflected on so many levels.  The faces and players on the stages here and everywhere have been permanently shifted.  New energy emerges from the rubble, but the end of an era is evident.  Here in Trinidad, many of the great musicians passed away, others left the island leaving gaps to be filled by new emerging talent which will eventually rise from the ashes of all of this to bring something else forward. Most of the most talented and skilled dancers left the island by any means possible, many of them marrying others taking the journey across Latin America, some lost with no trace.  The elders who have chosen to stay and stick it out, or who have been left behind, calmly wait it all out.  They have seen this cycle of death and rebirth more than a few times in their lives in Cuba and they are the most resilient and calm of all.  They sit back and watch, and wait for whatever will come next, as the young, the restless and the fearful run to try to find something better to make of their lives.

The government here is choking their own people with an overly futuristic ambition in a country that is  crippled by a non-existent economy.   Forcing the country into using debit/credit cards to purchase items at the government shops is not working out so well for the majority of Cuban people. (READ MORE HERE)

“The freely convertible currency (MLC), is the Cuban digital currency that substitutes the disappeared CUC. It is a currency whose exchange rate has not stopped growing in the informal market and in which most of the essential products are now offered in a network of stores throughout the country with the prices in USD.   This is a phenomenon that represents a loss for the average citizen and a profit for those who invented it. According to the official discourse, initially only “high-end products” would be sold in the MLC with the intention of “reinserting that currency into the national industry” and “importing children’s milk.” Now there is almost no milk for children, Cuban industry is virtually non-existent and a product of any quality can appear in those stores.  The appearance of the MLC was a turning point that enhanced the differences between those who can obtain this currency through payments and remittances from abroad and those who can only do so on the illicit market with their devalued peso salaries and pensions.” (Source: Havana Times)

Cuba has always been a cash society, and still wants to be. The new MLC system is doing far more damage than it is good for the people.   No one that I talked to is in any way supportive of  this new development.  It is creating its own black market, and forcing Cubans who don’t have access to the cards to pay ridiculously inflated prices, or go without.   Those who have access to these cards and Euros are purchasing items and reselling at huge markups and profits to Cubans who do not have access or family on the outside to help fund their cards.  For a short trip, this had zero effect on me personally, but  if I were a Cuban living there, unable to go to the store to buy dish soap or a bottle of wine, or baby food, or ANYTHING at the stores,  I too would be raging with fury that my own government is prohibiting me from having access to the basic necessities of daily living.

Some are starving,  others are surviving, and amazingly, some are thriving in spite of all of the hardships.  There will always be the creatives, the entrepreneurs,  the savvy and the uber resourceful in any community and Cuba’s is no different.  Some will fall, some will rise, some will swim, others will sink.  This is nature as nature has always been.  In spite of politics or society, in essence, life is a battle of the fittest, the most creative and the lucky who will find their way to thrive even in the worst of times.

I often ask my friends, and even sometimes random Cubans I meet on the streets, if they think things will change or how can things change for Cuba.  Most of them respond with a frustrated gasp of “Nunca,” (never), or a long rant about all the problems here which is a long winded way to tell me they don’t think change is possible or coming for Cuba ever.  Most Cubans today have little left of the sweet nectar of hope and possibility.  Daily, more Cubans are trying to leave the island to chase a dream.  Often risking their lives in dangerous passages in boats or rafts, or trekking from Central America into the USA.  They are then at the mercy of coyotes (human traffickers)  and criminally minded people ready to take advantage of their naivety on how bad and dangerous things really can be on the outside.  In June of 2022, Cuba is experiencing the largest human export migration since ever; far more today are trying to leave than during Castro’s reign.

I sincerely wish there was more one little woman could do to make an impact to help Cuba.  Nothing I can really bring in my suitcases or wallet can make a huge difference, yet I still do what I can when I can.  I hope people will still travel to Cuba as the tourism dollars can make a difference for many people on the island and I’ll always encourage people to go and see the reality and the love for themselves.

The problems here are becoming so big so fast, with such complexity to find their resolution that it’s just hard for me to see Cuba pulling out of this without a lot of assistance from some external source.  Eternally growing issues with electricity, water lines, infrastructure of all kinds, roads, hospitals in poor condition, medicines, education, and a growing attitude of apathy are like heavy weights forcing the gravity of Cuba’s condition to be faced somehow.

A massive human experiment gone wrong in many ways, Cuba’s history continues to unfold as a culture with incredible resilience and heart in the face of difficulties at every turn.  I love this island with all my heart.  I pray for it to have a chance to rise and thrive beyond what it ever has and that Cuba will once again grow magical beauty out of the gravity of despair.

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