Entry 2

This entry was written on Thursday, July 22.

It is hell trying to work here. I feel like a blind man in a maze (inside a sauna). Take the phones: I bought a telephone card this morning for $7. So far I’ve only had two problems with it: 1) It’s supposed to sell for 7 pesos. The rate of exchange is 26 pesos to the dollar; and 2) Cuba’s crackerjack phone system has various kinds of public phones, each accepting a different type of card. Of about 20 phones I encounter, my card only works on one.
Of course, that’s if I want to call somebody, which normally I don’t. I’m going to be meeting with dissident-types, and my understanding is that their phones are tapped. Given that I’m here without a proper invitation from Fidel (that is, I don’t have a journalist visa), my best bet is to just show up at people’s houses.

Taking the easy route, I go to see a foreign correspondent in Havana with whom I had gotten in touch before arriving. I’ll call him Dennis Hopper. We go out to the hallway to speak, since Hopper and his colleague say their place is bugged. “Man,” says Hopper, “this place is so fucked up. You think it’s just another Third World getaway spot with nice beaches, because it’s hot here and people complain about the economy. But underneath, man, it’s fucking East Germany. I know, you don’t think like that. You won’t think like that. It took me a long time and I was burnt. But trust no one here, man. No one.”

I temporarily postpone my search for dissidents.

Instead, I deliver some packages—books and brown rice—from my journalist buddy, Ann Bardach (who wrote the essential Cuba Confidential). I drop off the rice to B., who’s a doctor, a health nut, and very thankful. We start talking about the economy. The government recently announced price hikes, just after the Bush administration announced tighter restrictions on travel and remittances. (Cuban-American families are now only allowed to visit the island once every three years, down from the former once a year, and now can only send money to immediate family.)

“We’re in another special period,” B. says, referring to Cuba’s severe economic crisis and rationing that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union and its subsidies. “The government of course blamed the price hikes on the new Bush administration policies, and I think that’s probably partly true. But the government also just doesn’t have money.”

B. then starts telling me about her Internet connection, which gives her access to e-mail and medical-related sites. Everything else is blocked. “It’s my Internet-ito,” she says(literally “little Internet”). “Do you know what I would do to get the New York Times? One day’s paper would last me a week. And the Sunday Times? Ohhhhh …. a month.” B. explains that it’s essentially illegal to buy or sell a computer here. Same with cars, VCRs, apartments, houses, etc.

Next, I deliver a book to S., who was once a scientist and now makes ends meet by translating; she seems quite content with the revolution. “People who leave expect to still get all the good things Cuba provides, the free medical care, the free food—which isn’t enough, I know,” says S. “And it just isn’t so.” As she’s talking, a blackout hits, which happens daily in Havana. (S. and B. both explain that touristy neighborhoods tend to remain exempt from the blackouts.)

At 11 p.m., exhausted and still sweating, I end the day by watching a bit of television. It’s as if PBS had staged a coup, and, in a realization of its dreams, cut off all noneducational programming. Two channels are broadcasting. One is showing a drunk-driving video, and the other is stuck in a seemingly endless introduction to Ang Lee’s Eat Drink Man Woman. The Cuban host is extolling the virtues of “kitchen movies”—and showing 10-second clips of various examples. It’s just enough time to forget about the host for a moment and become angry all over again when he reappears.