“San Antonio de los Baños has gone out on streets to protest against the Government”. Sitting in the waiting room of the International Airport ‘Juan Gualberto Gómez’ in Varadero, Matanzas, I was astonished reading the shocking headlines. Ever since I saw the first image, I knew this would be a trending topic for a very long time in Cuba.
“Strikes have been occurring throughout the country. This is madness!”, a friend of mine texted via WhatsApp so as to update me on what check-in, customs and immigration services had prevented me from knowing. Nevertheless, a few minutes later I started to lose contact with people and then, all communications between me and my family were cut off for the next 20 hours.
At 3:50pm, I realized that I was going to fly to Moscow on the 11th of July, but I did not know that in less than one week it would become the 11J, a historic and traumatic day for the Island. I thought it would be a good idea to pray to San Benito Abad, patron of Europe and Saint of the day according to the Catholic calendar. “Something good ought to happen because of him”, I told myself, seeking childish comfort. Yet, a 10 hour flight went by with much uncertainty. I was changing time zones but my heart remained in the same place, beating in tachycardia.
Cuban citizens have one of the weakest —and most expensive — passports of the world and we therefore have to face the fact that only 28 countries are visa-free for us.
Traveling abroad is an extraordinary event for common Cubans. Since decree law no. 302 became effective on January 2013, requesting a travel permit from the government is no longer a requirement, however, the citizens of the Island must overcome a series of obstacles.
A word that comes to everybody’s mind is visa. Getting one involves, in the majority of the cases, proof of economic solvency much higher than the actual living standard. That is why the second word is income. In a country where the average salary is, according to the Cuban economist Pedro Monreal, 5700 CUP per month (little less than 100 dollars in the informal currency exchange), not too many people would spend their lifetime savings for a week’s vacation in Cancun – especially during the current crisis.
Not surprisingly, I found out that none of the Russian airlines accept transfers from Cuban banks. Likewise, I was unable to access any international banking service, which made it doubly hard for me to use companies like Airbnb…
Cuban citizens have one of the weakest —and most expensive — passports of the world and we therefore have to face the fact that only 28 countries are visa-free for us. Quite a few are very unattractive for our usual interests – going abroad, investment, or migration, but that is another story. Russia and Cuba, with a long history of close relationship, have an agreement in which Cuban citizens are allowed to enter the former Soviet territory for up to 90 days for tourism purposes.
At 4:00pm, when I was still waiting to board, a customs house official commented to her colleague that the flight was counting more than 200 people. It was a shocking number in Covid times.
I cannot help but wonder: why do Cubans have such low expectations of life? “Tenemos la parada bajitica”, a friend of mine told me later. (“We have a low bar”).
With Guyana, Haiti and Panama under travel restrictions due to pandemic measures, Moscow opens up for us as the new trading paradise. According to the Russian border police, cited by the Spanish journal El País, about twenty-five thousand Cubans go to Russia every year. The lack of supplies and the shortages in the official market contribute enormously to the need for parallel markets where Cubans can travel, go find products and then sell them back in Cuba on the black market. People come, explore, enjoy and invest. They return with their bags full of hygiene products, cosmetics, electronic devices, clothes, shoes, and many more items – regardless of the restrictions that the Government tries to impose: 14 days of isolation in a prepaid hotel and only one baggage allowed.
For a normal merolico (streetseller), approximately 2500 dollars are needed to pay a full stay, sufficient to afford flight tickets, accommodation, food and to make a profit by selling what was previously purchased in a wholesale market. A person in Cuba is paid for arranging the trip together with another person in Moscow. This kind of arrangement might lead to cases of fraud, but the inexperience and lack of protection on international procedures make us vulnerable to fall into the wrong hands.
Katia reminded me that I could miss Cuba anyway. She is right, I am locked in the bubble of escape, tired of what life in my country has become lately.
As the purpose of my trip is not commercial, I decided to undertake everything on my own. I saw myself being a world citizen until I had to complete my first payment. Not surprisingly, I found out that none of the Russian airlines accept transfers from Cuban banks. Likewise, I was unable to access any international banking service, which made it doubly hard for me to use companies like Airbnb, which I chose for my accommodation. Moreover, the famous platform prevents accounts from the Island from booking, despite having a valid credit card. Long story short: I have debts pending to be paid to my relatives living in the USA. Embargo 1 – Cubans 0.
On Monday July 12th, about 5pm, I arrived in the small apartment that I rented for a long-term stay. It is perfect for a solo vacation and seeking to be protected from Covid. I felt welcomed in the district of Domodedovo, a sort of city inside the city, as new as the 20th Century yet peaceful. Every morning, I would see the capitalistic life of the middle class, walking their pets and having breakfast at Starbucks, despite some Soviet-styled buildings that look like an illusion from the 70’s. I look out the kitchen window and don t know whether it is Moscow or Nuevo Vedado, in Havana.
I must say, however, that the maskless crowd and the restriction-less vibes feel kind of creepy. Coming from a land that is still under a half-day-long curfew, this vision of the pandemic freaks me out, mainly in public transportation. Russia has been counting an average of 23,000 cases per day, and it is only at 80% of its peak, according to Reuters. Therefore, I opt to not take my mask off under any circumstance.
Marina, a young Russian girl I met, thinks that the pandemic is not a big deal. “I know people who got infected in their own house. I don’t see why not to go out normally if we take care of ourselves. I prefer not to get vaccinated either”. Her testimony supports the Western narrative in which Russia does not highlight the real impact of the pandemic. Russia’s official narrative, carried into living rooms via state TV, is that it’s handled this pandemic better than most – that the country is on its way to recovery. The awkward numbers here are glossed over. “The stories of the dead just don’t get told,” concluded a feature published on the BBC in March.
But there are other people who have a slightly different perspective, like my host, Katia, who feels free to not wear masks anywhere but indoors after getting her shots of Sputnik V. She belongs to the less than 20% of the Russian population that has been fully vaccinated so far. As the clever woman she is, she understands the consequences of the pandemic.
Before my arrival, she was waiting for me in a restaurant near the city center, in front of Belorusskaya metro station. She is thirty years-old, average height, has deep blue eyes and blond hair. “I look Scandinavian because my family comes from Arcangel, in the north”, she adds introducing herself. Afterwards, she explained to me how ethnicity works in Moscow, where I can see northern and southern European-featured people, and also Asians, which makes the city more diverse than expected, hence more appealing.
Katia was tremendously kind, scheduling her day to reveal her hints of the metropolis life: she guided me to the most economical markets, taught me to commute in the subway and even led me to some must-see places. What was even better, she showed me where to find and how to prepare the delicious Pelmeni (dumplings), a seemingly Italian dish although very Russian. It is made of small pieces of “pasta” filled with meat which can be eaten by adding milk cream. So far, it has become my favorite meal.
My apartment is small but cozy and I think that I could live here forever. Plus: Netflix, free Wi-Fi, 40 GB of data, no blackouts and no queues. I should say that I am having a dream-come-true holiday, however, I cannot help but wonder: why do Cubans have such low expectations of life? “Tenemos la parada bajitica”, a friend of mine told me later. (“We have a low bar”).
Katia reminded me that I could miss Cuba anyway. She is right, I am locked in the bubble of escape, tired of what life in my country has become lately. As time goes by, the snow might cool my excitement, and the Lenin statue on the corner will no longer seem so exotic. “And when you are late for a meeting,” she joked, knowing that miscalculating time is the big challenge of Latin-Americans.
I love talking to her. She speaks fluent English and Portuguese, and can understand Spanish very well. She lived in Brazil for several years, which she loves, and traveled throughout Latin-America, except Cuba: “I have friends who love it there and others who hate it because of bad experiences. I should see it on my own”, she told me and I felt a bit sad. It reminded me of a recent incident in which 200 fellow Russians were condemned to isolation in a hotel in Varadero due to alleged positive PCR tests.
But she understands me and my culture which brings me comfort. She knows what makes us similar and different. “Let’s avoid politics, though,”she was determined to clarify, being someone who considers Vladimir Putin’s sanctions on the price of Western products fair. I felt like Havana did in the times of Kennedy vs. Khrushchev.
In Russia, unlike other regions, there is not an explicit intention to speak foreign languages. They do not like it and that is ok. When I go out for groceries, shopping or to explore, I cannot forget my translator, otherwise communicating may be a nightmare. In my first purchase at the supermarket, the cashier could not understand a word when I tried to ask how much I owed her. Apparently, the rubbing-finger gesture is not recognized here.
“Do you need help?”, a lovely girl in the queue asked me.
“Do you speak English?”, I replied.
”I do. I am an English teacher in an upper high school, she answered nicely.”
”Thank God,” I thought.
At 8:00pm on July 12, I had not unpacked my belongings and Cuba should have awoken already. Still, the silence from my WhatsApp was overwhelming. Not an update nor even a short message had been posted. Cuba seemed beyond sleep, dazed – perhaps fainted. A country ill from Covid, hungry, tired of queues and shortages, had tried to shout its complaints and had no strength left, apparently.
The government’s response to the protests was to disconnect the internet. The rule is unfair, but not surprising. The Internet has turned into a powerful weapon of information and the younger generations know how to run it best.
A feature published by the independent magazine El Estornudo investigated the origin of San Antonio de los baños´ protests, the place that sparked the rest of the strikes, and concluded that a Facebook group call was enough to gather hundreds of people on that fateful Sunday.
Arturo Lopez Levy, Holy Name University´s Cuban professor of International relations, said to CNN: “The Internet worked not only for coordinating but also because it enabled some narratives that the Cuban Government first ignored, even the craziest ones emerged in Miami, to draw some people’s attention”.
How is it to be experiencing the biggest political crisis in your country in 30 years from abroad? In a viral video on Facebook, a Cuban girl based in Italy said, bad-temperedly, perhaps sarcastically, that she was pretty until 11j occurred. Like her, I have been suffering from periods of insomnia, wondering what is next. I wake up every morning with the same question: What new difficulty will Cubans face today?
I have seen everything, from petitions of a crazy military intervention, to a list of imprisons, and the horrifying call from president Miguel Diaz-Canel for fighting among his people. The videos of the confrontations do not stop being posted despite the internet getting cut off and I cannot recognize the ideal Cuba that had been depicted in the media for years. For the first time, my country looks like the International section of the Nightly News Broadcast.
What are these manifestations?,I have been asking myself a thousand times.
There might be several answers.
Or just one.