A nice man who rents rooms to tourists -- and who perhaps has the
only private e-mail account in Cuba -- has been kind enough to let
us type and receive non-political letters.
So, gee, what a charming country. Just like Macedonia, except a
whole lot poorer, and by the ocean. And no one talks too much about
Bill Gates. People hiss at each other to get attention -- and when
you're a blond whiteboy with flowered shirts, you get a lot of
hisses. Especially in our neighborhood, which is smack across the
street from the Havana Libre, the former Hilton which has been
converted to 20 floors of luxurious incompetence. I just spent 20
minutes there, waiting in line behind a bunch of prostitutes who
were having their old, fat American/Italian boyfriends help them
send international faxes.
You see, the hotel's only English copies of Granma
International, Havana's daily newspaper, are behind the one desk
that sends out international faxes at extortionate prices. If your
fax takes 68 seconds, then you get charged for two minutes. If it
doesn't work at all because the entire phone system's no good --
whoops! You pay for it anyway.
This is really the least of the worries and annoyances, and it
isn't, after all, terribly unpredictable, given the choice of
organizing principles this proud nation has embarked upon (remember,
no politics). There is a mad grab for dollars, and no one is madder
than the state. Nothing in the peso stores? Then better make a whole
bunch of expensive state-owned dollar stores, where you can get
luxury items like grapefruit juice. A pound of Cuban coffee costs
$6. Meanwhile, if you insist on trying to be legal all the time, you
just get charged for standing there. I showed up on a one-month, $25
tourist visa, but went the first day to the International Press
Center to change the thing to a journalist visa.
This turns out to be at least partially necessary, since three
interviewees have already asked if I was accredited -- including one
American, an American socialist named Estella Bravo who knows Bob
Scheer and Stanley Sheinbaum and who makes Castroite
The International Press Center put me through a couple
indifferent bureaucrats until I reached a sympathetic ear. He does a
lot of eye-rolling, says it's very unusual to change the tourist
visa to a journalist one, many problems, but he's my friend and
he'll try to do something for me this afternoon. I call in the
afternoon and learn he's gone. I show up the next day, and he says
the terrible floods wiped out the immigration office; come back in
five days. I come back in five days, and he won't meet me. Instead,
some Magyar-educated goon named Igor comes out.
"Omar told you, didn't he," Igor says. "It will cost an
additional $50 to switch the terms of your visa. For procedural
An extra fifty bucks hardly matters; what mattered was Omar's
decision that my proposed journalistic subjects would require only a
week -- so that's all they were giving me. I protested, got the rest
of the month, and wound up paying $110 for a three-week
Besides all that, these guys are really helpful about setting up
official interviews. Igor, for example, gave me a number right away
of a guy who could tell me about Martin Dihigo, this old Cuban
baseball monster of which little is known. So I call this
sports-office guy, set up an interview, walk an hour to leafy
Miramar, and meet a perfectly nice former ballplayer who can't tell
me one goddamned thing about Dihigo. He can, however, help set up
some interviews for me. Great.
We talk a little baseball, and when I'm ready to leave he asks me
for 200 bucks for "facilitation." Explains that foreign TV crews
never had a problem with that. Thanks, CNN.
So I go to the Cuban Sports Hall of Fame, where Martin Dihigo is
inducted, and ask the Hall of Fame director what information they
have about him. They have literally none, besides his little plaque.
I ask the director about six other tough questions (How many people
are inducted here? "I don't know," he answered), then I gave up.
"Maybe I can help you track down these informations," he says
with a weird look.
"Gee, that's great," I said, pretending like I didn't know the
next step of the dance. Much shuffling.
"But I will have to charge you a fee."
On the way out, he stopped me from taking a picture of the
pathetic little Dihigo display, saying I'd have to pay for that
Whatever, these aren't really the things that bug, they're just
the things I'm dealing with today. The cocktails, my God, they're
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