This blog's title means "Cuban-hearted woman" (very loosely translated!). I settled on this name because it had a nice ring to my unschooled ear and, more importantly, because I think the Cuban people seem to have so much
heart, and they're in my heart for that reason. In general, the people I've met in Cuba are quite consistently open-hearted and big-hearted in the way they relate to each other or to visitors in their beautiful land. A piece of my heart now resides in Cuba, with the warm, wonderful friends I've made there. This blog is not intended to be a guide to Cuba, just a forum for my eclectic bits of writing – poetry, opinion pieces and information gleaned from my personal experience and reading.

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Cuba's history – Columbus, Castro & me

Yes, there's a lot of text... but there are photos at the end!

An early history of Cuba – from Columbus to Castro – and how I fell in love with a country and its people

By Jenny Cressman


In January of 1959, Fidel Castro and his crew of rag-tag rebels marched into Havana, Cuba’s capitol, and declared triumph for their revolutionary forces. Nine months later, I was born. I don’t think my parents were celebrating Castro’s victory but the significance of that year gave me something in common with the controversial little country long before it was on my personal radar.

Before I tell you how my affection for Cuba developed, let me first give you an overview of the historical highpoints of this small archipelago during a crucial time in its development. Let’s start with its so-called discovery.

When Christopher Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492, before he set foot on other “new world” shores, he stumbled upon the largest island in the Caribbean. In claiming it for Spain, he initially dubbed it “Juana” to honor a member of the Spanish royal family, and raved about its beauty and potential for gold and other riches.

The Spaniards eagerly moved in, bringing with them disease and destruction, much to the dismay of the numerous tribes of indigenous people who were already living there, peaceably farming and fishing. As part of this aggressive colonization process, many of the island’s natives were brutally massacred.

A Taíno cacique (tribal chief) named Hatuey decided to organize a guerilla-style resistance campaign to fight the invaders. He tried to rally other tribes, showing them a basket of gold and jewels and telling them: “Here is the god the Spaniards worship. For these, they fight and kill; for these, they persecute us…They tell us…they adore a god of peace and equality, and yet they usurp our land, make us their slaves. They speak…of an immortal soul…eternal rewards and punishments, and yet they rob our belongings, seduce our women, violate our daughters.”

Eventually, Hatuey was captured and, in February of 1512, he was tied to a tree and burned alive. Just prior to lighting the fire, a priest offered him salvation; if he would accept Jesus, he could go to heaven. Hatuey famously asked if there were other Spaniards like the priest in heaven. When he was told there were, the chief replied he would rather go to hell.

The heroic story of this early rebel has become a cultural legend in Cuba, and he is known as the nation’s first martyr in its long struggle for independence. Cuban history is rich with rebels and martyrs. Travel anywhere in the country and you’ll see public parks and roadsides freckled with their faces on murals, statues and busts.

Virtually every city or town will also have streets and squares named for national heroes, such as Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, another early rebel. He was a landowner and lawyer who became known as the Father of the Country. He was given this title because he declared Cuba’s independence from Spain and launched the Ten Years’ War, which subsequently led to other wars and, eventually, to freedom from Spanish tyranny.

As the story goes, de Céspedes rang the bell at his sugar plantation in Bayamo, on October 10, 1868, to summon his slaves. When they had assembled, he announced that they were thereby freed; then he invited them to join him and other conspirators in revolting against the Spanish, who had ruled Cuba almost continuously since Columbus claimed it in 1492. De Céspedes felt it was time to take a stand against them. [It’s worth noting that, around 1762, Britain briefly held power in Cuba but soon returned the island to Spain in exchange for Florida.]

Within six months of launching his revolution, de Céspedes was named the President of the Republic of Cuba in Arms. Four years later, he was deposed and killed by Spanish troops. However, his legacy of freeing slaves in Cuba and rebelling against the Spaniards lives on, as well as his musicianship.

He is credited with helping to compose a romantic song about a woman in his hometown. It’s called “La Bayamesa,” which is not to be confused with another song by the same name that became Cuba’s national anthem. The Bayamo anthem was written by Perucho Figueredo as a call to arms at the start of the Ten Years’ War; this stirring version romantically encourages martyrdom for the motherland.

The next significant war in Cuba created even more significant martyrs, and José Martí is at the top of the list. He was a prolific writer who founded the Cuban Revolutionary Party in 1892, while in New York. Martí often traveled internationally to promote his views and vision for Cuban independence.

When yet another war with the Spanish broke out in late February of 1895, Martí hurried home. He arrived in Cuba on April 11 and was killed in battle on May 19, at the age of 42, and he was almost immediately immortalized.

Considered one of the greatest turn-of-the-century Latin American intellectuals, Martí was not only a revolutionary philosopher and political activist, he was also a journalist, publisher, essayist, poet, professor and professional translator. He excelled in many cerebral fields but, unfortunately, didn’t fair so well on the battlefield. Nonetheless, his death became a rallying cry for Cuban independence from Spain and helped unite his previously factionalized countrymen.

One of his poems was later adapted to become the lyrics for the iconic Cuban patriotic song, “Guantanamera.” Busts of Martí, with his prominent forehead, big mustache and small chin, are as ubiquitous in Cuba as 1950s American cars. In the late 1800s, though, when the Cubans were fighting for their freedom, the U.S. was more inclined to send troops and ships, rather than cars.

Since Cuba’s war with Spain was heating up, the U.S. sent a military vessel named the Maine to protect American interests on the island. In February of 1898, soon after her arrival in Havana’s harbor, this ill-fated battleship blew up, and sank into history. The cause was never determined. Although the Spanish did not take responsibility, many people blamed them – particularly two powerful U.S. media magnates, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, who used their newspapers to fan the flames of war.

Some investigations suggested that the Maine’s demise was not politically fuelled but, instead, was simply fuel related. Apparently, a more volatile form of coal was being used than the ship had been designed to burn, setting the stage for a catastrophic explosion.

Cuban officials, conversely, argued that Americans covertly sank the ship in order to create a pretext for military intervention. One prominent Cuban historian stated: “Americans died for the freedom of Cuba, and that should be recognized. But others wanted to annex Cuba, and that should be criticized.” Indeed, five U.S. presidents had tried to buy Cuba during the Spanish reign.

The U.S. and Spain declared war with each other a few months after the Maine sank, thus giving the Spanish-American War its name in many history books – even though Cuba was the key battleground and that country’s independence was at stake. When I was studying history in the U.S., where I grew up, we were taught that future president Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders bravely galloped in to save the poor Cubans during the war’s pivotal battle of San Juan Hill in Santiago de Cuba. Cuban historians, understandably, have a different take on it; essentially, others did the heavy lifting but Teddy got the glory.

When the Treaty of Paris was signed in December 1898, ending the relatively brief Spanish-American War, Cuba was freed from Spanish rule but the U.S. was granted temporary control of the archipelago. At first, the pros and cons of annexation were hotly debated. When the Platt Amendment to the American Army Appropriations Act went into effect in 1903, however, Cuban sentiment shifted. The U.S. clearly wanted to maintain dominance and was reluctant to withdraw its troops, which didn’t sit well with independence-seeking Cubans.

[Although the U.S. occupation was undesirable from the Cuban perspective, it’s worth noting that, during this period, the Americans did lay the foundation for the system of education and public healthcare that Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government significantly expanded after 1959.]

Cuba was also required to amend its own constitution, as part of a Treaty of Relations with the U.S., and to agree to potential American military intervention, should the U.S. become dissatisfied with how the Cubans were running their own country. As well, the treaty authorized the U.S. to lease land for two naval bases; one of these was located at Guantánamo Bay.

This treaty, in fact, was used as justification for further U.S. occupation from 1906 to 1909. During this period, future president William Taft, who was then the U.S. Secretary of War, declared himself the Provisional Governor of Cuba; this was ratified by Teddy Roosevelt, who was president by then. The Cuban-American political salsa has a long, complicated history, and the dance goes on!

At this point, Tomás Estrada Palma was serving as Cuba’s first president. Like many other important political figures, he was from Bayamo. He had worked with José Martí and, after Martí’s death, became the leader of the Cuban Revolutionary Party. He had also been Cuba’s diplomat in Washington and, while there, had tried to broker a deal with an American banker to buy his homeland from Spain.

Estrada Palma was responsible for signing the treaty that leased Guantánamo to the U.S. in perpetuity, and he was clearly pro-American in other ways. Even so, he had to step down when Taft stepped in to govern Cuba.

When a new Treaty of Relations between Cuba and the U.S. was signed in 1934, most Platt Amendment provisions were repealed, but not the Guantánamo lease. This deal can only be terminated if both parties agree to do so; in over a century, the U.S. government has not been inclined to agree. Thus, it remains a bone of contention that is being gnawed on to this day.

Throughout the early 1900s, the U.S. kept stirring the pot in Cuba, sometimes openly intervening and, at other times, using more surreptitious means to maintain involvement and shift the political tide. General unrest was growing, however, particularly among students and workers in the sugar industry, which was key to Cuba’s economy. Uprisings and strikes rocked the island.

Another Bayamo native, Carlos Manuel de Céspedes y Quesada – the son of the Father of the Country – became president in August 1933, but he didn’t retain the position for long. The following month, he was overthrown in a military coup known as the Revolt of the Sergeants, led by Sergeant Fulgencio Batista. It was, in effect, a practice run for this ruthless ruler’s subsequent takeover.

Although other non-commissioned officers were involved in the Sergeants’ Revolt, Batista was soon at the helm of the Cuban government and, for most of the next 25 years, he remained either directly in charge or pulling strings from behind the scenes. Ramón Grau San Martin and his protégé, Carlos Prío, held office for a few years but didn’t really stand a chance against power-hungry Batista in the long run. After running unsuccessfully against Prío in 1952, Batista simply ignored the legitimate election results, staged another coup and seized the presidency.

To the outside world, Batista probably looked presidential; by all accounts, he was a handsome man. Nicknamed “El Mulato Lindo” (the pretty mulatto), he was of mixed Spanish, African, Indian and Chinese descent – a true Cuban racial blend. However, he was also widely called “Bloody Batista,” which was equally apt given the brutality and violence that characterized his corrupt regime, especially in latter years.

Interestingly, Batista had been legitimately elected as president of Cuba in 1940 and remains the only non-white to have held the office. During that four-year term, he is credited with implementing some social reforms and several pro-union policies. For this, the Communist Party of Cuba endorsed him, even though he supported capitalism and openly admired the U.S. [It should be noted that this Party was started in the 1920s; Fidel Castro was born in 1926.]

After he left office in ‘44, Batista went to the States, where he said he felt “safer.” He spent time in New York City and at a home he owned in Daytona Beach, Florida, and he spent money, some say, which he had taken from the vaults of the Cuban treasury. If so, then this was also merely practice; he completely emptied the national coffers when he fled the country in ’58, as his dictatorship was crumbling.

While living in the U.S., Batista continued to be involved in Cuban politics from afar and, in 1948, was elected to the country’s senate in absentia. His failure to win back the presidency legitimately in ‘52 only served to galvanize his resolve to gain and retain power by any means, which was a goal that at least some Americans seemingly agreed with. Soon after overthrowing Prío, Batista’s government was formally recognized by the U.S., despite the documented corruption and escalating police and military violence.

Once back in control, Batista banned the Cuban Communist Party, which had supported him, and suspended Cuba’s constitution. He then began aligning himself with the country’s wealthiest landowners and sugar plantation operators, as well as forming alliances with powerful U.S. politicians and businessmen, many of whom had known Mafia connections.

As his reign progressed, he and his accomplices grew increasingly corrupt, and the gap between the rich elite and the poor populace widened. To silence the discontented voices, the repressive Batista government resorted to torture and public executions. Some historians estimate that, during his regime, as many as 20,000 people were killed in Cuba.

Economically, the country was doing reasonably well on the global market by the early 1950s, mainly due to the export of sugar and other produce. Most Cubans, unfortunately, were uneducated and illiterate, and about a third of the population lived in abject poverty with no running water. Adding to the wealth disparity, the island had become a hotspot for tourism, particularly those who wanted an unrestricted playground where they could freely drink and gamble, use women and drugs, or indulge in any vice imaginable. Thanks to the growing involvement of organized crime, brothels and casinos flourished and American money flowed freely through the doors.

Mafiosos Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano had set up shop in Havana and were great pals with Batista, whom they had wooed during his first term in office and while he resided in Florida. The Cuban president reportedly took a large cut of all proceeds from each and every hotel, racetrack, casino, cabaret, nightclub or other mob-backed enterprise. Some estimates put the average take at the larger casinos at over $1 million (USD) per day; armed bagmen hauled the cash to owners and business partners on a nightly basis.

Meanwhile, Batista also continued to massage his allegiance to the United States government and legitimate businessmen. Flights and ferries regularly ran from Miami to hedonistic Havana, or “Little Las Vegas.” In their heydays, the popular Tropicana nightclub and high-class hotels like the Nacional hosted many international celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, Fred Astaire, Ava Gardner, Errol Flynn, Eartha Kitt, Nat King Cole, Rita Hayworth, Marlon Brando, Mickey Mantle, Walt Disney and Ernest Hemingway (who lived in Cuba for many years), along with cigar-loving John F. Kennedy and Winston Churchill, to name but a few.

Beyond the well-heeled circles of Havana’s elite residents and guests, lethal trouble was brewing. Following the ’52 coup, young attorney and political activist Fidel Castro had tried his best to petition and mount constitutional arguments to oust Batista. When legal means to remove him failed, however, Castro chose another route. Along with his younger brother Raúl and numerous others, he formed a paramilitary organization called “The Movement” and began stockpiling weapons and recruiting followers. On July 26, 1953, they officially launched the Cuban Revolution by attacking government military installations in Bayamo and Santiago.

The assault on Santiago’s heavily fortified Moncada Barracks, in particular, was a dismal failure. It’s unclear exactly how many of the Movement’s men and women died directly as a result of the combat and how many died later, during information-seeking torture sessions and retaliatory executions. Batista proclaimed he would execute 10 rebels for every soldier killed in the attacks. Once he began doing so, though, the public outcry was so strong that he had to back down. This may have saved Fidel’s life.

The Castro brothers were among the 26 imprisoned survivors of the original 160 rebel fighters. They had escaped execution but they would have to stand trial, and would be facing life in prison. During his trial, Fidel acted in his own defense and spoke fervently for nearly four hours, concluding with: “Condemn me, it matters not. History will absolve me.” The young lawyer’s historic speech was later published and circulated to rally support for the Movement, which added July 26 to its official name.

In 1954, U.S. Vice-president Richard Nixon visited Cuba and urged Batista to step down. Instead, the dictator staged a sham election and officially became the country’s president once again. As CIA reports had predicted, Batista was willing to do anything necessary to retain power. When riots and unrest continued to grow, though, it became judicious for him to release the remaining rebels from prison.

While Fidel and his July 26th Movement (or M-26-7) companions were still in jail, other rebels began taking the lead in preparing for revolution, including numerous women. Celia Sánchez Manduley was one of them, but she had her own intensely personal reason for becoming a revolutionary fighter.

Celia was the daughter of a prominent country doctor from Media Luna, a small town between Bayamo and Pilón. With her father, she traveled throughout that rural area, now known as the Granma province, and assisted him in his practice. On one of these occasions, she helped him with a very difficult birth and is credited with keeping the sickly baby alive during the tenuous hours following the birth. Because of her connection with this child, María Ochoa, Celia remained close to the little girl as she grew up.

In those days, under Batista’s ruthless rule, young women and girls were often stolen by Mafia lackeys and put to use as sex toys for clients in their posh Havana hotels. In 1953, when 10-year-old María was kidnapped, raped and murdered because a wealthy gambler had requested a “young girl” for his pleasure, Celia’s world shifted. She vowed to do whatever she could to help rid Cuba of Batista and his vile regime.

She walked away from her genteel life in Pilón and began actively working to recruit and train guerilla fighters in the surrounding Sierra Maestra Mountains. Since Celia knew the countryside well, and the peasants knew and respected her, she proved quite adept at rallying their support, as well as leading them in battle. Due to her exploits during the next two years, she gained the attention of both Batista, who put a price on her head, and Fidel Castro, who was languishing in prison.

In May 1955, Fidel and other rebels were released in a general amnesty some say was forced on Batista by the U.S. government. The following month, for his own safety, Fidel fled the country. Although they had exchanged secret notes while he was imprisoned, Fidel and Celia did not actually meet until he returned to Cuba in December 1956, aboard an overloaded yacht named the Granma.

This 60-foot cabin cruiser had been designed to comfortably accommodate a dozen or so people but, when it left Tuxpan, Mexico, it had 82 men aboard and was loaded to the gills with food, fuel and munitions. Besides the Castro brothers, passengers included fellow Cuban rebel Camilo Cienfuegos and their new best friend Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Their boat was registered in Florida, where it been purchased with funds raised, in part, by former Cuban president Carlos Prío, who may have had a personal interest in seeing Batista overthrown.

Crossing the Gulf of Mexico took much longer than expected for the heavily laden, leaky craft and it ended up virtually crash-landing in an isolated stretch of mangrove swamp, west of Pilón. This was not quite where Celia Sánchez and her welcoming party had envisioned.

Batista’s forces quickly learned of the landing and began hunting down the Granma crew. Most were killed within three days. The approximately 20 survivors dispersed into the mountains. With the assistance of local peasants, they eventually regrouped and made their way east of Pilón to La Plata, deep within the Sierra Maestra mountain range. This became Castro’s secret official headquarters for the remainder of the revolutionary war.

Two years later, despite their limited personnel and armaments, the rebels succeeded in defeating Batista. By January 1, 1959, Fidel and his forces were marching triumphantly to Havana.

That brings the story back to me, and to the lovely, historic Cuban province of Granma. When I first visited this magnificently scenic region, where two Cuban rebellions were born, I had no idea of the area’s significance. I didn’t know that Granma’s capitol is Bayamo, one of the country’s seven oldest and most important cities. I just wanted to go to a sunny beach and briefly escape the Canadian winter. Cuba wasn’t even on my bucket list, but the place was cheap and off the beaten track.

This was also the first time I had ever been to an all-inclusive resort, and I was a bit apprehensive about what to expect. I definitely did not want to be confined to a tourist-only complex! I wanted to be able to explore the surrounding community and interact with the local people. Fortunately, Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, which is just down the road from Celia Sánchez’s home in Pilón, is different from larger resorts. The beach is public and the fishing village of Marea del Portillo is within walking distance, so it is easy to meet people who live close to the resort. The accessibility of nearby communities and the friendliness of the people are some of the main reasons I keep returning to this remote part of southern Cuba.

In October of 2009, I ended up visiting Marea del Portillo a second time, somewhat by fluke. On that trip, I had some amazingly candid conversations with people there and began to understand how important the resort is to the local economy, since it is the area’s single largest employer. My mental wheels began turning.

The following year, I began to offer group trips to this little out-of-the-way place and, every time I visited, my love for the community and admiration of the Cuban people grew. I now lead groups there twice a year and, with the help of those traveling with me, have taken many bicycles and suitcases of clothing, shoes, toiletries and other necessities that are hard to get in that area. Bikes are probably the most important gifts we take, since they are essential modes of transportation in Cuba. Thanks to the “bike shepherds” in my groups, we’ve been able to take about 70 good-quality reconditioned bikes (as of 2016) and, in this simple way, make daily life a little bit easier for many families.

The ideal bikes for Cuba are basic 26” mountain bikes with sturdy frames, reasonably wide tires and simple shift/brake mechanisms. North American manufacturers have begun shifting away from the traditional 26” models but they’re still the norm on the island. Classic bikes will probably ride the rugged roads of Cuba for decades, just like the classic ‘50s cars!

My “JennicaCuba” Facebook group and website (www.jennicacuba.com) have a wealth of information and photos about my small-scale humanitarian work and my group trips. If you would like to support what I’m doing to assist people in this isolated part of Cuba and/or want travel with me, please don’t hesitate to send an email or call. I’m always happy to talk about “Cubita bella” – beautiful little Cuba, as Celia Sánchez called her country.
 
Muchas gracias, mis amigos!

~ Jenny



Thanks for your time!

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Some thoughts on prostitution, love and Cuba

I wrote this article at the end of last year, after my usual October visit to Marea del Portillo, Cuba. Some people I spoke with felt that prostitution was becoming more prevalent there. It got me thinking and, for me, that often translates to writing. This piece is the result. 

I wasn't sure what I was going to do with it at first but, ultimately, I decided to offer it to Havana Times, an online publication that has used my writing and photography in the past. They printed it in both English and Spanish. Here are the links, if you want to see the photos they used with it or read it in Spanish: http://www.havanatimes.org/?p=119913
http://www.havanatimes.org/sp/?p=116870


How do you define prostitution in Cuba?

By Jenny Cressman

Merriam-Webster defines it this way…
: The act or practice of engaging in promiscuous sexual relations especially for money.
: The use of a skill or ability in a way that is not appropriate or respectable.
Oxford says this…
: The practice or occupation of engaging in sexual activity with someone for payment.
: The unworthy or corrupt use of one’s talents for personal or financial gain.

Wikipedia has more…
: Prostitution is the business or practice of engaging in sexual relations in exchange for payment or some other benefit. Prostitution is sometimes described as commercial sex.
: Sex tourism refers to traveling to engage in sexual relations with prostitutes. Some rich clients may pay for long-term contracts that may last for years.

They make it sound so straightforward. Yes, sometimes prostitution is a neatly sliced, clearly defined transaction. Often, however, there’s a certain murkiness about the business, particularly in places where sex is seen in a more casual light than it generally is in North America. I’m thinking of countries like Cuba and other hot spots, so to speak. They definitely don’t take sex as seriously there as we do in the colder lands to the north.

When I was on a recent trip with a group to a small resort in southern Cuba, where I frequently travel, the question of prostitution arose. There seemed to be quite a few older men with bored-looking young women, who had little language in common. In my experience, that was unusual for this particular hotel; there have been some so-called call-girls present in the past but, this time, there appeared to be more than at other times when I’ve visited.

I recognized a few of the duos. Some have ongoing relationships and identify themselves as boyfriend/girlfriend or novio/novia, despite the disparity in age. The men (or women) who visit Cuba and spend time with the same person regularly, however, often aren’t paying for sex, at least not directly. In many cases, they are helping their lovers and the families of their lovers by bringing gifts, purchasing things the family needs, and buying or building homes.

Sometimes they pay for their lovers to stay with them at the resort, so they can have a little holiday while the tourist/benefactor is there on vacation. I also know many tourists who pay for friends and their families to visit the resort, simply as a kind and friendly gesture – sex is not always involved!

When sex is part of the equation, though, everything becomes more complicated. And, when love is blended in, the puddle gets muddier. Love may be a many-splendored thing but it can also be as slippery as wet soap. “I love you” seems to flow quite fluidly from many Cuban tongues; both “te quiero” (the broadly-used general form of the phrase that can also mean “I want you”) and “te amo” (the more intimate, romantic declaration) can translate simply to “I love you.”

Sometimes the nuances of “I love you” are truly lost in translation. I’ve come to think of “te quiero” as more akin to “I like you” – especially when the person saying it barely knows me!

The nuances of love itself can be even more difficult to put your finger on. How do you know if someone really loves you? Or, if your beloved does love you, is it in balance with your own love for him or her? Is the love in the relationship reciprocal and equal? And, if it is, will it remain that way?

I met a couple a few years ago who seemed to be in a long-term, committed relationship. He was a bit older than she but nothing that would raise eyebrows too high, even in Canada. I crossed paths with them many times at the resort and in the nearby village. Last year, I had a tour of their nearly-finished house, which the Canadian man was paying for – buying materials in Cuba and taking household supplies in his suitcase when he visited every few months. This year, when he arrived, his “wife” had locked him out of the house and told him the relationship was over. At least, that’s the story I heard.  

On the surface, it looks like the Cuban woman simply got what she wanted – a lovely, well-appointed new house – and told the man good-bye (perhaps adding a polite “gracias.”). But, I think it’s more complicated than that. I’m pretty sure he loved her and I want to believe she loved him, at least on some level. I remember him saying that she was not interested in moving to Canada with him. Was that a clue? I don’t know.

Since he loved being in Cuba, building a home with her there was fine with him, even though it took several years to accomplish. I’m not sure how many years they were together, probably at least five or six, since I’ve known them about that long. Sometimes, here in Canada, “traditional” marriages don’t last any longer than this couple’s relationship did – without the dual challenges of culture and distance.

Was the relationship just a means to an end for her? Maybe. Who can ever know what is truly in the heart and mind of another person? We always hope for the best when it comes to love but, the truth is, the definition and depth of love are highly personalized and intricately woven with one’s cultural background, core beliefs and specific circumstances… and love can change. Maybe she loved him at first but something happened along the way and she ended their relationship for that reason and no other.

Even if she didn’t love him, though, I think she liked him; he’s a likeable guy, with a big, kind heart, a gregarious nature and a good sense of humor. But, if she didn’t really love him, would you call her a prostitute? I doubt that he ever paid her for sex but, certainly, she received a lot of financial benefit from him over the years, no matter what went on behind closed doors. In the end, I don’t know what transpired between them – regarding love, sex, rock and roll, or anything else. There’s always more to a situation than mere perception and idle speculation can illuminate.

For me, it just illustrates this: prostitution is not easy to define and love can be murky. It’s not right to take advantage of another person but it’s not always clear who is playing whom, what game is being played or if the benefits are mutual and understood by those directly involved.

It can be difficult to navigate the warm Cuban waters without being judgmental but I try to travel with an open heart and open mind, as much as possible… and I only tell my dearest friends that I love them, in Cuba or elsewhere.


Written Nov. 8, 2015 (revised July 7, 2016)

Monday, May 18, 2015

SHORT STORY: The Whole Truth

This is short story I realized recently I hadn't posted here. It was written in January 2013 and is set at a fictionalized version of  a lovely little resort I lead groups to twice a year – for more information about by travel endeavours, please visit my website: JennicaCuba.

Although this is a work of fiction, it is very loosely based on something that happened at a Cuban resort many years ago. I didn't know the people involved and never knew all the details, but it sent my mind on a creative journey to unravel the tale I heard and spin one of my own. It could have happened this way….
~ Jenny

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The Whole Truth

By Jennifer R. Cressman

“What’s she doing here?”

The voice cut through the din of the dining room due to its tone and intensity, not because of its volume. In fact, it wasn’t loud at all. It was caustic, accusatory, acrid and icy all at once. Reflected in the mirror of the night-darkened windows, I could see heads swivel towards the speaker. She, however, had coyly returned to her meal and was quite engrossed in deboning her fish. Her dinner companions were visibly tsk-tsking, clucking and ducking like chickens. One glared my way as she installed a large forkful of food in her mouth. At least the chewing stopped her from gaping.

I had hoped I would not be recognized by anyone who knows the story, or what they believe the story to be. The resort is usually quiet at this time of year, mid October, so I thought I could slip in for a much-needed week of rest and recreation with my husband before I had to return, on the government’s peso, for another round of testimony. I’d booked a relatively private cabaña but, as fate would have it, all the cabañas had to be closed due to electrical problems following heavy summer rains and flooding – the cables are underground here – so my reservation was transmuted.

I have been given a room in the larger, slightly newer hotel on the hill. It was presented as an upgrade, but I do not consider as such; I see it as an oppressive inconvenience. Nothing else was available. The smaller beachfront hotel, though a little rundown, would have been fine with me but it was fully booked. There was no other option but to check into the Faraday, where I am continually assaulted by memories and reminded why, to some people, I am now a pariah.

As I walk past the neatly trimmed hedge along the path to my room, images and sensations overwhelm me like a flashflood. His lips crush against mine. One sinewy arm snakes around my back, pulling me closer. I do not immediately resist. I unlock my patio door and step into the dark room.  He gently pushes me backwards and we step together like dancers, out of the light. He keeps drawing me to him, kissing me more intensely as his passion rises. With his free hand, he begins to caress my hip. His lips move away from my mouth, foraging along my neck. I flick on the light and the bland, perfect room comes into focus. I run my fingers across my mouth, wiping away the memory.

My husband won’t be arriving until tomorrow, so I’m on my own tonight. I glance at my watch; it’s almost 8:30. The stage show will begin soon and, if I delay, I should be able to slip into a seat at the back and not be noticed. I pour myself a slosh of rum, douse the light and settle into a lounge chair on the patio, waiting to hear the emcee’s multilingual patter. The glow of the walkway lights provides just enough illumination for me to see who’s passing by without being very visible myself. A young security guard strolls by without acknowledging my presence. Beneath his crisp uniform, I can feel his warmth growing. He unbuttons his shirt, then he reaches for my blouse. I shake my head and try to shift my body away from him. He holds me firmly but becomes tender again and kisses me like a lover, gently on the mouth.

I sip my rum slowly, savoring the soft strains of music sifting through the shrubbery. I recognize the tune as “Dos Gardenias” – it must be a requisite for every band in Cuba. I want more rum but know I should be careful; it gets me into trouble.

“Don’t keep teasing me, sweetie,” he whispers between kisses. “I know what you want and you know it too.” He pulls me more tightly against him. He’s fully charged.

“But, I don’t…” He won’t let me finish the sentence. And, in truth, I don’t know what I was about to say. I’ve had too much rum. I’m hungry now. I let his tongue slip between my teeth, and his hand reach inside my blouse. A button pops and drops silently to the ground.

I hear snatches of the announcer’s spiel – “Good evening ladies and gentlemen…Damen und Herren, willkommen…Bonsoir mesdames et messieurs…Buenos noches y bienvenidos….” I begin to mentally debate: go to the show or have more rum and go to bed? It’s a toss-up, and I don’t have a coin to flip.

I can’t say he threw me to the ground but that’s where we end up. He’s on top of me, pressing into me sharply. My skirt has slipped up and I can feel the rough grass scratching the backs of my thighs.

I shift my weight on the plastic chair and discover my dress is sticking to my damp ass. Sweating is unavoidable in Cuba, as far as I’m concerned but, thankfully, it camouflages the hot flashes. I decide to top up my glass and skip the show, as entertaining as it always is. At least I can hear the music from the relative privacy of my own patio.

His hand slips smoothly between my legs. I squirm but don’t really fight. I can’t deny I’m turned on, even though I think I shouldn’t be. We’ve known each other for years – before he was a guard, he was a groundskeeper – and we’ve always had a flirtatious running joke about being hot for each other. But it’s serious now. This is the crunch. Do I let him…?

The phone rings, jarring me back to the present. “Hello?” The desk clerk asks if I will accept a call from Rodrigo. Of course. Once again, my husband rides in like a shining knight to rescue me; this time, from my own ghosts.

“Hola, mi amor! I am on my way to you soon. Today, I waited for hours but the bus never came, and it was too late to hitch a ride. I will try again mañana, okey-dokey?”

“Sure, honey.” What else can I say? The tiny village where he lives with his aging mother is several hours away, on a good day, when there’s transportation. It’s a rugged, mountainous area though, and sometimes rain-swollen rivers, mudslides or fallen rocks block the road. “Should I hire a taxi to come and get you?”

“No, mi amor, save your money. I will go out to the road in the morning, pronto, and begin to hike the hitch. Don’t worry about that. I think somebody will be going there, and I will be by you then, before you know it! Okay, sweetie-pie?”

“Okay, you know best. It’s your country, honey.”

“Si, claro, mi amor, pero,” his voice softens, “soon your country will be my country too, right? That’s why you must save your money. I will get a ride. You will see!”

“Yes, Roddy, I know. I just wish you were here now.” I can’t stop my voice from quivering a little. “I miss you!”

“Aw, cariño, I miss you too.” He makes a kissing sound into the hollow, echoing phone. “I will be there soon.” He kisses the phone again. “Hasta pronto, mi amor!”

I kiss back, but with less exuberance. Then he’s gone.

I kiss back. Yes, I do. I should stop myself, I think, but I like kissing. I like the feel of his lips and his body against me. We were friends before I married Rodrigo. Why can’t –

Suddenly, my friend is grabbed from behind and yanked off me. Rodrigo!

Rodrigo rescued me, like it or not, and set the wheels in motion for everything that happened next, and is still happening. My former friend, Calixto, is in jail, and I’m in my own prison. My plan for a happy life in Canada with my handsome Cuban husband is on hold. I need more and more rum to dampen the doubts eroding my mind. Could I have done anything differently? If I had been brave and told Rodrigo that I was half to blame, he would have immediately dumped me – I know how hot-blooded these Cubanos are. They have an unblinking pride in their own masculinity, as well as a national double standard regarding men and women. What’s good for the gander is not tolerated for the goose; a man can have affairs but a woman is damned if she does anything remotely similar.

Now, here we are, following the path that is rolling out before us. Calixto is doing the same. He’s appealing the guilty verdict for his sexual assault charges, naturally. It’s expensive and there’s little hope of a better outcome but what else can he do? Does he know how guilty I feel? Does he know I secretly send money to his wife and family? I reach for the rum bottle again but change my mind and go to bed instead.

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I wait until the last possible moment to go to breakfast, hoping to grab a quick bite and guzzle some café cubano without being seen by anyone who might recognize me. No such luck. The same women who spotted me last night at dinner are there, just inside the door. They’ve seen me coming up the stairs and I have no choice but to walk right past them.
Their eyes claw at me. I nod curtly as I pass. There’s no point in pretending they don’t exist, or that I don’t. They were my friends, and I know they still consider themselves to be Calixto’s friends.

“She’s certainly put on weight!”

“I almost didn’t recognize her with that bad dye job.”

Intentionally loud, their voices slice into my back.

“Who is that?” A new woman in their midst asks hesitantly. She’s in for an earful.

I keep walking. What else can I do?

 “Well,” the ringleader begins, “she’s the reason that lives have been ruined and an innocent man is rotting in a Cuban jail….”

I’m out of earshot before she really gets rolling. Small mercy. I know the story she’ll spin.  She’ll explain how I accused Calixto of attempting to rape me and thereby ruined his life. She’ll say she knows him and knows he would never even think of touching such a vile, unappealing person as me, who is just plain ugly inside and out. She won’t mention we were all friends, way back when. She has conveniently forgotten that, once upon a more innocent time, we all used to joke around with as much sexual innuendo as possible. She doesn’t realize, when she’s had too much rum, she flirts and teases more provocatively than I ever did. She’s gained weight too.

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It’s hard to comprehend that I was here just a few weeks ago, for such a different reason. Rodrigo is by my side and we have dressed with suitable conservative care. All possible details must be considered when in a Cuban court, our lawyer has explained. Despite his prison garb, I can see that Calixto has lost weight, though he had none to spare. He barely dares to glance around the room but, even from this distance, I can see his eyes are dull and hopeless. He has the haunted look of someone who has given up. His wife and oldest daughter sit in chairs on the opposite side of the aisle, slightly ahead of me. They are holding onto each other and struggling not to break down. One whimpers softly and they both dab at their eyes intermittently with ragged handkerchiefs. I can’t bear it. I squeeze my freshly polished nails into my palms and wait impatiently. My stomach and mind churn.

At last, the court officials begin their unilingual spiel and a translator haltingly tells me everything in English. Finally, I hear my name: “Lelanya Smith Torres, please come forward.” I’m reminded to be honest, to fully and completely tell the truth in answering each question. It’s hard to concentrate on what’s being asked. I keep looking at Calixto, my old friend. We know the truth of the situation, even if neither of us really remembers who made the first move. Yes, he was too pushy but I never said no. The truth is, things simply got out of hand. If Rodrigo hadn’t shown up when he did, what would have happened? I honestly don’t know. At this moment, all I know is that I can’t stand it any longer. I have to say something. I have to try to change the course of this leaky boat we’re all in, like it or not.

I look at my dear husband. Has he always been faithful to me when I’m home in Canada and he’s here in hot and sultry Cuba? Not likely. I know Latinos. But, I do believe he loves me and is loyal to me, in his own way. And, he desperately wants to get to Canada. Will he stand by me, if he hears the whole truth? Probably, but he’ll find subtle ways to make me pay. I know him pretty well, and I could do worse. He has a good heart. He knows me pretty well, too, and we’ve come this far together. He could do worse.

“Señora Torres, please tell us what happened on the night….”

I take a deep breath and begin.


###

SHORT STORY: The Blondie

I was recently reviewing posts on this blog and I discovered that I had not posted this short story, although I wrote it a few years ago. 

It's set in the Cuban resort, Club Amigo Marea del Portillo, where I now lead groups twice a year – for more information about my travel endeavours, please visit my website: JennicaCuba.

This story is, of course (si, claro), a work of fiction, but I think it's quite safe to say it's entirely plausible! See what you think….
~ Jenny

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The Blondie

She believes she is well liked. She probably is. Every Canadian tourist who steps off the plane more than once in Cuba believes the same. We probably are, in some ways, for some reasons, but maybe not exactly as we want to believe. The welcoming warmth, the hug of good will in the heat of the unblinking sun is part of the attraction here. Everyone wants to be liked.
This woman has traveled broadly, she tells me, joking that she cannot do otherwise, “because I am a broad!” She chortles proudly at her play on words, asking me in her Eastern-European-tinged English if I got it. “And, I like being abroad.” As she extends her word play, she runs her hand airily along the curve of her hip without touching and winks.
“Si, claro!” I tease her, already knowing that neither of us has enough Spanish to hold a decent conversation with a child. We could just as easily sprinkle our lunch with German, which we both once knew fluently. Here, we are trying to untangle the Cuban tongue, each in our own way.
She has been to this small resort, Marea del Portillo, several times and has immersed herself in the romance of the place, taking great delight in flirting. Her wealthy, much-senior husband, who adored her, died a few years ago, she confides easily, so she is free to do as she pleases. She winks again. “You know what I mean.” Because of his age and declining health, she explains, with unfinished sentences and vague gestures, they did not...were not able to...even though he loved her. Here, she’s discovered she still knows how to ride that old bicycle and she’s happy to be back in the saddle again.
As we chat, eat and amble about the grounds, her eyes never stop roving. She wants to introduce me to the people she knows, mostly men, and she is looking for her special friend. She doesn’t call him her lover but she winks. “You know....” She was expecting him to meet her when we arrived yesterday. It’s all she could talk about on the plane, giving me less time to read than I’d planned but, I privately rationalize, it’s nice to have a new friend with more experience in Cuba than I have; I can learn from her.
My friend’s long blonde hair is a bounty of gold in the afternoon sun, framing her salon-tanned face. She waves it like a flag as she talks and smiles. I watch her teeth flash. She has told me, “I have them whitened.” I’m not clear if this is an on-going practice or if she meant to say “had.” Her tongue seems to trip over tenses and time, obscuring her meaning in meaningless ways.
“They love blonde hair, the Cuban men,” she says, “like bees to honey. They call me The Blondie.” She tosses her hair, teeth gleaming and one brown eye twinkling as the other squeezes briefly shut. “I could have many of these guys but I only want Juan. Get it? I only want One.” She nudges me with her elbow.
I nod. “Si, claro!” She still sees herself as a blonde bombshell, though she admits she’s gained a few pounds. I can’t argue.
“Juan won’t mind,” she says confidently, pushing her shoulders slightly back to make her breasts more prominent. “He’ll just say there’s more to love.”

By dinnertime, she has learned that Juan is in Holguin, several hours away. He’s in the hospital for some tests but she should not be worried, he has told her. He will arrive tomorrow. She pats my hand, reminding herself not to worry. She has already acquired a second key for her hotel room, by ruse, so he can come and go illicitly, as he pleases.
She has a lot riding on this bicycle, I think. During dinner, she heaves her ample handbag onto her lap and pulls out a dark blue, velvety box. Nestled inside is a thick gold band with a bean-sized diamond. It rivals her own ring, which flashes wantonly as she dismisses the gift, explaining that the gems are faux, even though the gold is real. “It is a promise ring, to show our commitment. He wants to marry me, you know, but I wasn’t ready before. Now, I am.” She snaps the box shut for emphasis. “But, he doesn’t know that. He doesn’t know about the ring. That’s why I can hardly wait to see him.”
Over her shoulder, I can see a heavy moon rising slowly. I wonder if she is older or younger than me.

In the morning, I am surprised to find my new pal, Helga, waiting in the lobby with the group scheduled to go to Cayo Blanco for the day. She knew I was planning to go but, last night, she didn’t think she’d be able to join me, she said – even though she loved the idyllic island – because she didn’t want to miss “Juan minute...you know!” She has learned, however, that he won’t arrive until the evening, so she’s free to soak up some sun and relax. “And, honey, I need to relax,” she sighs. “Maybe I’ll go for a massage when we get back, if you don’t mind eating dinner a little late.”
“Si, claro.” My limited Spanish vocabulary has become our running joke. “Yes, we can relax and enjoy the beautiful day on a beautiful beach,” I assure her with a small sigh, thinking about the book at the bottom of my daypack.
By 3:30, as we wait to be transported back to the resort, we compare sunburns. My feet and calves are my only problem, since I forgot to slather on more sunscreen after wading. Helga has burned her bosom.
“Juan will have to peel them like two big apples but, honey, he always finds me appealing.” She wiggles her hips. “Get it?”
“Yes.” I am too hot and tired to be playful. While she snoozed in a beach chair – and only snored softly, I assured her – I kayaked, snorkeled and explored the tiny island’s sandy white shoreline. That was just in the morning. After lunch, I tried to read but ended up chatting with Helga until I excused myself to go for a catamaran ride.
“Sure, honey, you go and have fun. Don’t worry about me,” she’d said. “I’m not going anywhere.” There was no hint of irony in her tone.

At the appointed dinner hour, I sink into a puffy floral sofa outside the dining room and wait for Helga. I can see her striding along the sidewalk long before she spies me in the dimness of the lobby alcove. As I watch, I can tell she’s not happy. Her usual nods of greeting are mechanical. Her walk is aggressive, and the high, chunky heels she’s wearing cause her to shorten her stride, adding to the effect. She is fiddling with her necklace as she approaches, making sure the sparkling bauble is centered between her red breasts, and almost walks right past me.
“Come on, honey, let’s eat. I have a lot to tell you.” She marches on.
“Si, claro,” I say to myself. She’s already out of earshot.
After we’ve heaped our plates at the buffet and politely ordered our usual vino tinto, por favor y gracias, she launches into the latest chapter in the Book of Juan. He will not be arriving tonight. His ride fell through and it was too late to catch a bus. Then he found out he must go back to the hospital for another test tomorrow, just to make sure there is no problem, but she is not to worry.
She is not worried; she’s angry. His excuses are coming too thickly. She says she offered to rent a car and go pick him up in Holguin tomorrow but he talked her out of it. “He says it’s too expensive and he doesn’t want me to spend my money foolishly,” she explains. “He has no idea how much I spent on that ring for him! Maybe he will think that is foolish, too.”
Slowly, she softens. Despite her frustration, she tries to be philosophical. “He might have something wrong with his kidney, he says. That’s what the test was about – the one they need to make again. He might have a kidney stone.” She chews a piece of pork thoughtfully, slipping back to her former life. “They can be very painful. My husband had those stones, and it was very hard on him. He tried not to let me see how much it hurt but I knew. He couldn’t hide anything from me.”
“What about Juan? Can he hide anything from you?” I am emboldened by the wine, which keeps flowing freely.
She blinks. “Maybe. But only for a little while.” She puts down her fork and leans forward, conspiratorially. “I will find out tonight what is really going on. He is part of the band that plays here, so they will know why he is not making it to the show. If he is really sick, they will tell me.” She raises her wine glass to clink mine. “I am no dumb Blondie!”
As our dessert plates are being cleared away, we can hear the band begin in the distance, drawing us to the stage. We claim seats near the front, so Helga can catch the attention of the musicians she knows.
Between sets, she learns that, yes, Juan did have to go to the hospital but it was just a routine thing, sort of an annual check-up. She is partly relieved but partly puzzled by the added delay in returning. She pushes harder, gets some shrugs and vague answers – a Cuban specialty. “They are all talking about it,” she says. “I just need to find someone who will talk to me about it.”
“Maybe he has some other business,” one man offers. She pounces.
“Like what? He is supposed to come here, to see me.” Helga responds with the directness of her own culture coming to the forefront.
“Maybe he has other people to see in Holguin.” The man shrugs, apologetic in his manner, but I’m not clear what he is apologizing about.
“You mean, maybe he has another woman there. Is that it?” Helga cuts to the chase.
The gentleman squirms. Oh, I realize, he’s apologetic for not being able to tell her the whole truth. He’s trying to give her hints but he doesn’t want to come right out and say anything directly. “It’s really not my business.” Shrug.
But, Helga won’t let up. She has him pinned down. “Is that what you mean – that he has another woman?”
He shrugs again and looks away, idly swirling the melted ice in his plastic glass.
I interrupt and offer to go to the bar to get some more drinks. Without waiting to hear their preference, I escape. If he has something he wants to say, maybe he will feel less uncomfortable if he is alone with her. And, I don’t want to be drawn any deeper into this game, whatever it is.
By the time I return, he’s gone and she’s very angry, but quickly regrouping. “He told me Juan is with another tourist, a woman from Quebec, who is paying for them to stay at another resort. Those French, they can be so pushy!”
I think of saying “Si, claro,” but I bite my tongue.
“I know he loves me but, the truth is, he did not know I was coming this week,” she reasons with herself. “I wanted to surprise him.” She shrugs. “But, he is a man, a Cuban man. You know what I mean; you’re a smart girl.” Helga pauses, glancing around the patio bar. “They are all watching me – his friends. They want to see what The Blondie will do, and they will tell him.”
She twists her big ring, contemplating, then tilts the conversation in another direction. “Honey, my fingers are swelling. I think I need to go have a shower and lie down. See you at breakfast, okay?”
“Si, amiga. Mañana.” I blow her a kiss as she heads toward her hotel room. I nurse my drink and watch the band finish their set. The man she was speaking with is at the keyboards. He doesn’t look my way.

Helga looks relaxed and refreshed by the next morning. She has apparently confronted Juan by phone and he is on his way to her side. Si, claro. We go our separate ways for the day but, as the evening show begins, I find her prominently displayed in the front row.
“Hi, honey,” she purrs. “There he is!” Her eyes sparkle as she nods towards the band. “That’s him playing the red guitar. It’s his favorite.” She is glowing. She can’t shift her gaze away from him.
I inspect. What did I expect? He’s good looking but nothing special, from what I can see in the glare of the stage lights. “He’s cute!” I say finally, since she seems to be waiting for a comment from me. And a little chubby, I silently add.
“He has blonde hair now, like me, but it’s not natural for a Cuban. Well, mine’s not natural either but everybody says blondes have more fun, so why not? I like to have some fun – who doesn’t?” She’s more effusive than ever. It’s nice to see her happy.
When the band is released from duty and the deejay takes over, Helga quickly introduces me before she is whisked off to dance. She winks at me over Juan’s shoulder as they swirl away. I am not forgotten, just abandoned until an amiga is needed again. I decide to make it an early night.

Mañana comes and goes. And, apparently, so does Juan. Helga catches me at breakfast two days later to fill me in, and find out what my plans are. She gave him the ring. He was blown away. Now, he’s gone away to “tie up some loose ends,” but he’ll be back before she leaves. He loves his Blondie, she knows. I shrug imperceptibly. What do I know? I am not Cuban.
I am leaving the next day but she is staying for another week. I wish her well as I depart. She vows to stay in touch. Si, claro. We try, but the common ground was that place, that time. We don’t need each other back in Canada.
A year later, I find out she’s still involved with Juan, for better or worse. Since that surprise trip, though, they generally stay at a different resort when she visits. I still prefer Marea del Portillo, for better or worse. I am learning Cuban.

– Jennifer R. Cressman

July 17, 2011