We interview Conner Gorry, a Havana-based journalist, who tells us what it’s like to live in Cuba as an American.
Why do you live in Cuba?
I was lured here, like many, by an intoxicating combination of the intellectual and spiritual. I was writing my Master’s thesis about the US embargo and knew to get to the bottom of things – or try to – I had to travel there myself. I arrived in 1993, during the height of the Special Period, and found a society in deep, deal-breaking economic peril, but nevertheless, Cubans were persevering: working, dancing, educating, conducting research. Here was a people who knew how to muddle through and have fun in spite of it all. That impressed me. After my experience in 1993, I tried for years to come back to Cuba, without considerable success. In 2001, I reconnected with an old Cuban friend who lives and works in Havana, we fell in love and got married. The next year I moved to Havana. That was 13 years (and what feels like a lifetime) ago.
Much has changed since then. I continue to live here because Cuba is a special, humanist country dedicated to social justice, peace and inclusiveness. There’s still a long way to go towards those ideals, but it’s a worthy, worthwhile philosophy we could use more of in this war-torn world. I feel good about supporting that sort of vision.
What do you love about Cuba?
I can’t resist an underdog or a challenge and Cuba epitomizes both. Living here compels me – and everyone else on the island – to be resourceful and creative, determined and persistent. The “luchita” (daily struggle) as we call it, isn’t fun or easy and in fact, can be debilitating and frustrating if you let it. On the other side of the coin: that same hardship fosters a pro-active attitude, that when confronted and overcome, makes you believe that change and progress are possible. This is part of what makes Cubans so talented and unique.
Those are the lofty reasons why I love Cuba. More practical considerations include: safety, climate, you can smoke just about anywhere (I’ve got a daily cigar habit), the music, art, dancing, and coffee are world-class and I get to see the likes of Rage Against the Machine and Yo Yo MA for free. There’s also the Malecón and Cubans themselves of course.
What do you dislike about Cuba?
There’s plenty. The slow connectivity, for example, is at the top of many a list, including mine. And I find gossiping (what I call the national sport) counterproductive – boring idle chatter at best, cruel and detrimental at worst. And believe me: no matter from where you hail, as a foreigner, Cubans will be gossiping about you. I dislike, too, how so many of my friends and family can’t make ends meet and turn to emigration as a solution; I’m tired of saying goodbye to loved ones. I used to be perpetually frustrated by the lack of nuts, cleaning products, office supplies, bathing suits and myriad other items easily purchased in most capital cities around the globe. But you adjust to this, learning to substitute and improvise, import and trade.
How can an ex-pat make a living in Cuba? What example have you seen?
They can’t, is the short answer. It’s very hard for anyone to make a living in Cuba, including expats. For a variety of legal, immigration and cultural reasons, it’s the rare foreigner that works to support themselves and no one should count on this unless they have employment lined up before coming here.
If you had to give pieces of advice to tourists or ex-pats coming to live in Cuba, what would be the top 3?
- The number one pro-active measure any short- or long-term visitor can take and my best piece of advice is to learn Spanish. Already a speaker? Then hone it. Brush up and familiarize yourself with Cuban Spanish which is a language unto its own.
- Second: do not get a car or driver. Take the guagua and colectivo taxis. Walk or ride a bike. This will open you up to more varied, in-depth experiences than tooling around in a car ever could. And you’ll learn more about Cuban reality and ‘la luchita’ squished into the 222 bus than comfortably cruising around in a car. Plus, while signage has markedly improved over the last several years, it still sucks. You will get lost driving yourself around.
- Last, make Cuban friends. This is not at all hard to do since Cubans are so gregarious and there are few expat hangouts per se. You’ve come to live in a country where – presumably – you like the culture and people. Hanging out only with your own kind severely limits your experience and perspective.
How does romance work in Cuba. ? What are the pitfalls and advantages?
It works sometimes is the long and short of it. Advantages are rife (and please excuse the generalizations, but this type of question fairly demands them): Cubans can be very romantic – dramatically so (expect poetry and piropos to be involved); many Cubans are well-versed in the sexual arts and know how to please their partners; and they’re not usually too high maintenance when it comes to lingerie, shaving and props, plus their hearts rarely break hard, so if/when things go south (Cuba has one of the highest divorce rates in the world), it’s unlikely it will weigh heavy on anyone’s emotional conscience.
Disadvantages probably outweigh the advantages, truth be told. They include: chronic, rampant infidelity; traditional gender roles (including deep-seeded machismo); possibilities of raging jealousy; and in most Cuban-foreigner relationships, the latter pays for everything (and financial inequities can be a major source of strife). Of course, the innumerable differences which come to the fore in any cross-cultural relationship are also potential pitfalls.
What is the biggest(s) misconception about Cuba?
- I’m not sure what the biggest misconception is but certain ones are as pervasive as pork at Christmas time. The myth that there’s one currency for foreigners and another for Cubans is – it’s tiresome and I’m tired of explaining how it really works (anyone can use either currency; the difference lies in the different products moneda nacional and pesos convertibles can buy).
- Another misconception, one of the widest spread perhaps, is that Cuba is communist. For those needing a refresher: communism is a theoretical construct of how to organize and administer a society – it exists only on paper. Once you add actual, real live humans to the mix (and hurricanes and geopolitics and old/new grudges), it looks like something completely different, unique, and autonomous. I’ve seen so many people come to Cuba expecting some sort of Marxist heaven or worker’s utopia and leave bitterly disappointed. But that has much more to do with their unrealistic expectations than anything specific the Cubans are doing.
What feedback are your readers giving?
My readers (www.hereishavana.com) are amazingly supportive. I thought that writing such a forthright blog about Cuba would ruffle feathers on both sides of the spectrum, but the response has been overwhelmingly positive. The blog has served as a foundry for a community of people who love (and are confounded by) Cuba.
What is the biggest change you have seen in yourself after living so long in Cuba?
I feel like Cuba has made me a much more empathetic and resourceful person – when you see the struggle everyone goes through, the separation from loved ones, the scarcity, the uncertainty and the amazing work and art and even joy that can be accomplished in the face of that struggle, it’s quite inspiring. I think Cuba has changed my perspective in that it gives me hope, no matter the challenges.
What are the top books about Cuba you would recommend?
This is a hard question since there are so many great books out there. I think for US folks, it’s particularly important to read up on the politics of the place. Julia Sweig’s Cuba: What Everyone Needs to Know and Mick Winter’s Cuba for the Misinformed are good places to start. Richard Gott’s Cuba A New History is another good one, as is A Contemporary Cuba Reader, with the majority of chapters written by Cubans.
What do you see happening in 10 years in Cuba?
I really don’t know – my crystal ball is on the fritz. I know the real estate will be worth more than it is now.
How are you solving the internet problem? What solutions can you recommend?
I have dial up internet access for my work as a journalist. It’s slow and anchors you to a landline – it’s pretty horrible for up/downloading big files, there’s no Skype or Facetime, YouTube and any other video or audio streaming and hampers communication in general. I’m very thankful that I at least have this access, since so many people don’t even have that in Cuba. The options for people who can’t get internet at home are using the business centers or Wifi at hotels or paying $4.50 CUC/hour at one of the telecommunication internet outposts. It’s faster than dial up but not as fast as you’re probably used to.