Hole in the Clouds

Tag: Cuba

Once and Future Gitmo

Dec 4, 2014

At the American base in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where the radio station bills itself as "Rockin' in Fidel's Backyard," there's a McDonald's, a Jamaican Jerk House, a Starbuck's, and the most notorious prison in recent world history, where our government has stashed people to torture and hide from the eyes of the world.

The prison has been in the news recently, a little bit, because Obama's maneuvering to close the place down has been beaten back by Congress once again, and not just by Republicans either. The one place on earth that has come to symbolize America's most feverish embrace of the dark side will keep on keeping on. 

Prisoners there were called "enemy combatants" in the Bush dialect of Orwellian newspeak; in the Obama dialect, they have been renamed "unprivileged enemy belligerents." They're not awaiting trial. Mostly, they're waiting to die.

The nightmare that is imprisonment at Guantanamo has become less intensely violent over the years; much of the torture nowadays involves tedium and despair, which never go away. Suicide attempts have been frequent, and an unknown number have succeeded; hunger strikes are ongoing, and they are dealt with aggressively. The prison's military management will not release details.

Here's what they will tell us: there is a trailer at Guantanamo that serves as the prison library. No law books are allowed, unless you count John Grisham novels. But there are hundreds of video games, 2,100 movies, and 20,000 books, 90% of them in Arabic. Movies are censored: low violence, no sex.

The Guantanamo MickeyD's is a couple of miles away from the prison complex, near the living quarters of the base's American personnel and dependents. A decade or so ago, when prisoner interrogation was so urgently "enhanced," a story made the rounds that detainees who cooperated were being rewarded with Happy Meals.

The "worst of the worst" could be bribed with Happy Meals? Move them to Florida then.

Cuba   torture   Guantanamo   (h/t: Ted)  

Hot Spot

Jan 31, 2018

Until a couple of years ago, internet access in Cuba was a tightly restricted privilege; now, however, anybody can go online.

But two big obstacles remain. One is cost; a few minutes of wifi can eat up an entire day's pay for an average Cuban. Thus, although some people do use the web to check for news beyond official government reports, most internet activity in Cuba is focused on phone calls, often video calls, especially to friends and relatives abroad. 

The other obstacle to getting online is that wifi is not available in your living room; you have to go to a hotspot, which is often outdoors, in a park or plaza. So Cubans such as the Havanans in the photo above gather at hotspots around town with their phones and tablets.

In the evenings, when the tropical heat is letting up a bit, some hotspots get so crowded that the internet slows to to a crawl and may crash. The govvernment has promised to expand the wifi network and even bring it into people's homes, but little progress has been noted.

That's because of the American embargo, say Cuban officials. And they may be right.

night   streetscape   Havana   Cuba   park   wifi   city life   cellphones   (Image credit: Alexandre Meneghini for Reuters)  

Una Buena Boda

Feb 26, 2018

The bride was beautiful, the bridegroom was grinning to beat the band, and when it came to throwing a party, the Cubans seriously schooled us Anglos.

Our new daughter--in-law is Yusleidy Zanetti, who goes by Julie. The newlyweds are living in Havana, where Julie was born and raised and where she met Joe a few years back, when he spent a semester in Cuba with a University of Alabama study-abroad program.

Everybody asks whether they'll stay in Havana, where Joe is now part of a tiny expat community, or try to move to the states. But that's a question for the future.

In the moment, Julie and Joe spent two days getting married. The first day was spent in a judicial building, dealing with paperwork and lawyers and then finally sitting down with a judge.

Sadly, we confess to knowing no Spanish. The judge had a lot to say, including numerous questions, to all of which Joe and Julie answered sí. Joe is fluent in Spanish, and Julie knows some English, more than most Cubans. They told us that the judge warned Joe that the decision to marry might be the most serious decision of his life–Was he really prepared to take such a step? He said . Then she turned to Julie and asked, "Are you sure you want to do this?" She said .

They exchanged rings and were pronounced husband and wife. We all cheered and clapped and hugged, and that was that.

In the judge's chamber along with the newlyweds were Julie's mother and grandmother, Joe's parents and two of his brothers, one of his aunts, and two friends of the couple, their best man and matron of honor.

Joe's last two brothers and his best friend from Alabama made it to Havana the next day, just in time for the big wedding celebration, with the white dress and the cake, the wine and the beer, the music and disco lights and dancing and singing and more dancing and more dancing.

There was also, of course, the traditional ride in a 1956 Thunderbird, through town and along the Malecón, Havana's seaside promenade, amidst cheers and honking horns.

And after that, there was the afterparty, back at the house, more dancing and more dancing.

And two families are now growing together, across barriers of language and culture and crazy, crazy politics. Nothing in Cuba is easy; this wedding was a major logistical feat that went off flawlessly, thanks entirely to Julie's organizational genius. And she and her family couldn't have been more welcoming to all of us goofy gringos. 

Now that Joe is married to a Cuban citizen, he has the legal right to work there. Most jobs in Cuba pay about $30 or $40 a month. Life for the newlyweds will be very different from life in America.

The poverty is profound. But the streets are safe; there are no guns, no crime. No school shootings. Families are close. The flowers are bright even in February, blue and yellow birds sing in cages in people's yards, the cars are beautiful and there aren't too many of them–no traffic jams. The sun is warm, the sea is all around. And everybody can dance.

family   wedding   Havana   Cuba   Joe   Julie  


Feb 28, 2018

By New World standards, Havana is an old city; in 2019, it will be five hundred years old. To mark the anniversary, some new artworks and bits of sprucing up are already under way.

This work by Alberto Matamoros is a tribute to the barbers and hairdressers of the world; its title, I'm told, translates to something like "Cast in a Single Cut." The small shiny scissors mounted on the big black one denote donations from individual hairdressers and salons to fund the project; names of the donors are listed at the site. Clearly, contributions are still being sought; if you're interested, write to proyectoartecorte@gmail.com.

Arte Corte, the sponsoring organization, is a public-private hybrid, so far as we can tell, which has a Facebook page and undertakes projects such as playgrounds and festivals. From the looks of it, funding mechanisms for these sorts of projects under Castro are much the same as in the U.S.

Havana   Cuba   Alberto Matamoros   barbers   500th anniversary   hairdressers   scissors  

The Cuban Game, #1

Mar 13, 2018

Some would say the archetypal Cuban pastime is baseball, and they wouldn't be far wrong. In this space in the days to come, we'll take a look at baseball and other passions, but the everyday-everywhere-everybody hands-down #1 most popular game in Cuba is dominoes.

It might be the most popular outdoor entertainment of any kind, unless it's been nudged out of the lead by the new fun of texting and surfing in the Internet parks. People play dominoes on sidewalks and porches and streetcorners and balconies, in yards and plazas and parks and doorways, all afternoon and long into the night.


Havana   Cuba   game   dominoes   pastime   (Image credits:   lahabana.org; middle   painting in Fusterlandia; bottom   C. Fuchs  

The Cuban Game, #2

Mar 14, 2018

There are chess players on the streets of Havana, and Cubans have won the World Chess Championship multiple times, notably in 1921 when José Raúl Capablanca beat the longtime German champion Emanuel Lasker.

Ché Guevara was a chess player who started an annual international chess tournament in Havana in 1962, when he was serving as post-revolutionary head of the Cuban National Bank. Here, Ché watches the tournament play of a Yugoslavian revolutionary he had befriended:

In 1965, the U.S. government would not allow Bobby Fischer to travel to Cuba to participate in the tournament, so he played via telex from New York.

Today, Cuban children learn to play chess at school, and last fall they participated in a national tournament commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of Ché's death.

children   Havana   Cuba   chess   revolution   game   tiles   (Image credits:, top, C. Fuchs; next, Atlas Obscura; bottom, my phone)   Che Guevara  

The Cuban Game, #3

Mar 15, 2018

This is the only baseball we saw in Havana, in a dead end cul de sac with boarded-up windows and no cars parked or passing through. Everywhere else we went in this big, densely populated city, airborne baseballs would not have been appreciated.

At least in part for this reason, soccer is more popular than baseball among children playing in city streets and sidewalks, and European and Latin American soccer is widely followed. But baseball has been played professionally in Cuba since the 1870s, long before the United States was ever involved in the country. Even back then, we're told, baseball had an anticolonial significance, played in lieu of sports such as bullfighting imported from Spain.

Castro famously encouraged baseball as a source of revolutionary and nationalistic pride. In recent years, Cuban baseball teams have played exhibition games against U.S. major league teams, and the Cubans win about half the time. 

baseball   children   streetscape   Havana   Cuba   (Image credit: my phone)  

The Cuban Game, #4 and final

Mar 16, 2018

During a slow afternoon at a bar in Havana Vieja, one of the bartenders watches a Cuban national team wrestling match on tv. The Cubans are traditional powers in wrestling, boxing, judo, and other martial arts, often taking home dozens of Olympic medals.

Below are scenes of training and competition at a youth wrestling program in downtown Havana, housed in an old Basque gymnasium. Photos by Alexandre Meneghini for Reuters.

sports   wrestling   children   Havana   Cuba   competition   coaching   practice   cheering   training   (Image credits: top, my phone; others by Alexandre Meneghini for Reuters)  

El Capitolio

Apr 4, 2018

About two weeks after this photo was taken, the Cuban national capitol building reopened following an eight-year renovation project.

The building, completed in 1929–during an era when Cuban dictators were, let's say, sucking up to the American governmen–is an exact replica of the U.S. Capitol and was used for the national congress. After the revolution, Castro repurposed it as an office building, most recently for the Ministry of Science and Technology.

El Capitolio will return to its original use April 12, when the Cuban national assembly convenes in the building to choose a new president. For the first time since the revolution, nobody named Castro will be in the running.

cars   streetscape   Havana   Cuba   balconies   capitol building   (Image credit: the phone)