Thursday, March 08, 2007

Breakfast in Paradise

Breakfast in Paradise

Talking with Cuban exiles can be a sad experience. Hearing all the tales of past abuse and pain can be very difficult. But talking to an actual Cuban living in Cuba today is incredibly depressing and frustrating. No, I’m not talking about one of the hundreds of journalists being starved and tortured in Raul’s dungeons. I can’t even imagine that so I won’t insult their painful life and even try. That would be disrespectful. One would have to actually go through this Gestapo treatment to know. What I’m talking about are the regular Cubans trying to survive on the island today.

I spoke again to Fidel yesterday and I’ll most likely speak with him today before I go to work. No…not Castro. But if I were to give my friend’s real name we would have one more political prisoner being tortured in the gulag so I’ll call him Fidel. Fidel is young and educated. He has a professional job in Cuba. He knew all about my great grandfather and found it difficult to believe I am related. After a bit of evidence he finally did believe me. He tells me my great grandfather is one of his heroes. When I told him I want to send the Canadian tourists packing he laughed and agreed with me. Then he warned me to be cool. He reminded me that he still lives under the oppressor. Fidel can see some of the world because of the Internet but it is hard to look at it because he lives in such poverty. He is so very depressed and hopeless. I assured him that I will do everything in my power to change things and anyone who knows me understands that my promise is a fact. I go to work, I sleep but otherwise I obsess over how to free Cuba. But Fidel tells me that some people have been saying for forty-eight years that things will get better. He no longer believes that will ever happen. Fidel has been trying to eat promises but he would rather have food. He is always hungry.

He never gets breakfast. There is none available. As he was telling me this I wondered what Virgin Atlantic’s CEO Richard Brandson had for breakfast that day. I wondered what Thomas Cook’s Manny Novoa ate. Did Sherritt International’s CEO Ian Delaney chow down on some Canadian bacon and eggs this morning? I knew if they didn’t it was out of choice but choice is not something that Fidel has on his menu. As I mentioned previously his father needs medicine but Raul’s miracle medical system cannot or will not provide it for him so he will die prematurely. I try to boost Fidel’s spirits and promise we are working to bring him a brighter future. Great but he tells me he needs food now - today. However Fidel tells me he is not a beggar and will work for money. That is the Cuban people – very proud. They are not a nation of people prone to beg but now they are desperate and hungry. So I’m trying to figure out how to send Fidel twenty bucks but he warns me that Raul will steal it if given a chance. He also tells me in Cuba a twenty they call an eighteen. That’s because Raul grabs two dollars right off the top at the dollar store as a tax for using American money. So if you are trying to get money to relatives and friends please used euros or pound sterling and not dollars. However Fidel wants to work for the money because Cubans hate the idea of groveling for charity. But I assured him it was just an advanced payment. When I come down there as soon as we boot Raul from power I will need a guide so it will just be his salary for showing me around. He liked that idea.

Fidel says his shoes are broken and he must walk 5 kilometers a day. He wanted to know why I wanted to help Cubans. I told him because he was not eating regularly and he and other Cubans needed our help. I tried to put a philosophical happy face on the prospects for the future but Fidel said without food he cannot think.

So we began a discussion of baseball. Fidel is a Yankee fan but in Cuba his team is the Havana Industriales who won the championship last year. He says they are like the Yankees of Cuba. Fidel says their biggest rival is Santiago de Cuba which is the region my family hailed from. The Industriales’ power hitter is Alex Mayeta and that Yoandri Urgelles had pitched a three hitter. He said the best pitcher in the World Baseball Classic was Cuban Yadel Marti. Fidel thinks his team’s record is about 41 and 30. He planned on seeing the game later that evening. We talked about how competitive Cuban teams would be against the major leaguers and the new Nationals team in DC. We talked about Cuban pitcher Livan Hernandez. We reminisced about the old Washington Senators and the time I met Frank Howard. We remember the bad luck the Yankees had last year especially the relief pitcher that died in the small plane crash.

We began discussing our families. Fidel was very curious about my family background and how I came to have two last names. I told him the story of how my great, great grandmother had been marched to her death by the Spanish during the war for independence and my great grandfather out of respect added her maiden name, Palma, to the Estrada family name out of respect. He gave me all of his family information but I obviously cannot discuss that here. We had a discussion on poverty in both our countries and we agreed there was far more in Cuba then here. I told him about my job at the Washington Post where it really is the worker’s paradise. I kept telling him about life in America. I told him of my car woes trying to keep them running but he said he has never owned a car. We laughed when we compared life in our Cuban families where everyone is talking loudly all at the same time but no one seems to be listening. He asked if it was true that my great grandfather was responsible for the Americans being in Guantanamo Bay and I explained that it was partially true. My great grandfather signed the original lease but that was to run for 99 years so would have expired by now if a future Cuban president had not amended it to an open ended lease. He asked if my famous ancestor had left me a fortune and I laughed as anyone who knows me would understand. I reminded him that my great grandfather was the only Cuban president to die a pauper wandering the streets of Bayamo. This is a fate that will not befall either of the Castro boys. I told him in fact that Castro had stolen my grandfather’s retirement pension causing him to be supported by my father in his last years.

We compared our personal preference in music. Fidel likes country and jazz but was familiar with my favorite Jim Morrison and the Doors. I started reciting some of my favorite lyrics and he was impressed I could do so. I turned him onto some Internet things I knew about.

The news was on the TV so I began telling him what was happening which he seemed to enjoy. Timely, truthful news is hard to come by in Cuba. I told him about the horrible Indonesian plane crash with the survivors struggling away for the plane. But he returned to thinking about food. He said cows left Cuba in 1959. I told him I knew as Castro had slaughtered all my family’s cattle at the time and the people had fresh meat – for two weeks. Fidel groaned that today he would have is normal lunch of a bit of bread and some sugar water. Then I told him Scooter Libby was convicted but that Bush could always pardon him. I explained that I had a hundred stations on the tube but there was hardly ever anything worth watching. He said in Cuba there are five stations but they all suck. I told him how lucky he was, for not having to watch Geico Gecko commercials. We discussed toilets and how ours’ were highly regulated as well as how obsessed Americans were about their bathrooms. He thought that funny and we had a good laugh together. I told him another roadside bomb blew up in Iraq killing a bunch of Shiites. We talked about how politics sucked for both of us. I explained that we have 6 computers and a laptop at home all networked together so everybody in the family could have use of a computer on demand. This was beyond his conception of things and he pondered how rich I must be. I explained that these all were used computer purchases and that they were cheap and widely available. He told me with one computer he would be able to earn money to survive but regular Cubans are forbidden to own them. So tourists can comfort themselves in believing that the embargo has made Cubans poor and that the embargo on freedom to use the tools of the 21st Century by their own government has nothing to do with it. But you kid yourself so you can’t see your own cruelty to the Cuban people.

I kept worrying that our conversation would get him into trouble but he insisted he didn’t care anymore. I told him to stop talking foolishness. That he must take precautions and survive to see a better day. I reminded him that he is young and has his whole life ahead of him while Raul is old and ready to die. Cubans already assume Fidel Castro is dead despite what the government asserts. Cubans are not dumb.

To lighten the air a bit I told him Britney Spears shaved her head and along with Paris Hilton have taken to not wearing underwear and giving the media photographers a peek for their cameras. He got a good laugh out of that but said he didn’t care for Britney’s music. I said we were agreed on that fact. I told him gasoline had gone to $3 a gallon in California and he said for $3 his whole family could eat. Every conversation topic seemed to always drift back to food or more precisely the lack of it. I told him for that money all I get is a double espresso and 75 cents change. I explained it was almost nine bucks just to get a burrito at Chipole’s but that I mostly brown-bag it to work. I had to explain the brown bag concept. I told him how my co-workers were always worried about money and making ends meet. For $250 they can get front brakes put on but that the mechanic was sure to say that their “johnson rods” were shot, playing on a Seinfeld comedy bit and that it would cost them another thousand to fix that. This he found very amusing and he understood why I do my own repairs. I told him of my wife calling to say one repair man was saying my truck needed bearings and that I told her to tell him to shut up and just puts new tires on the truck. He laughed when I explained that I have replaced virtually every component on the truck during the last eight years – EXCEPT the bearing! He said he had only taken the bus and this thing they call the “camel” which I think is a trailer looking thing that is hauled behind a semi. He's never owned a car.

I told him my humiliating experience picking up the translation from a Japanese translator’s house years ago with a hole in my sox then having to remove my shoes exposing my big toe to politely enter the Japanese home. He got a good laugh at my humiliation which made me feel good. I reminded Fidel that I was home sick and asked if people usually got colds down there in the winter and he said, “No way.” Then he reminded me how nice the weather was there, which was a small measure of revenge for our living standard. But he said he would trade in a second. We talked football and I told him what a capitalist dog Danny Snider was giving away free salty chips on fan appreciation day then charging us $8 for a half pint of water. Again he laughed and I relived the days of Jack Kent Cook and the glory days of the Redskins.

We discuss many more topics and I’m hopeful we will have many more conversations. I will keep you informed my readers. But again I must warn you tourists and capitalists. Cubans do not like you there or here in the US. Raul is lying to you about everything. Look how he is treating his own people so cruelly. Do you really expect fair treatment by him in the long run? At least you WILL be treated fairly by the Cuban people one day. But I can absolutely promise you that you will not be happy about it. Still you will be a million times happier that the poor Cuban people are today. Fidel was hopeful that dinner that night would offer a few more calories to him but tomorrow would bring only more despair. Again I beg you all to stop helping Raul.

Tomás Estrada-Palma


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