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In December, Lewis and I were admitted to the San Salvador workshop, in one of two rival barrios in Remedios, a small town on the north coast of Cuba in the Las Villas province. The workers met us with a mix of confusion and suspicion, an appropriate reaction, I thought, to a group of strangers showing up at a place of employment with only a bottle of rum and a basic grasp of the language. We stood awkwardly on the edge of a large yard, penned in by four open-fronted warehouses. Teams of 20-somethings surrounded us, hammering and painting what would become the hypnotic backdrop of an annual firework showdown of artillery-barrage proportions called the Parrandas.
Among the crowd, I noticed one man in particular, dressed in ripped denim shorts. He smoked a cigarette and was applauding the work of the others. He caught my eye and came over, brushing off my offer of a Camel ("They're for girls") and helping himself to the rum, before giving us some of his own from a water bottle he carried. He was called Ditto and had light skin with freckles and blue eyes. He was one of the many day laborers who had been working on the site for the past two months. He explained that these were the last days of paid work before the money allocated by the state dried up. As a result, the pace of work was frantic, knowing that deadlines would have to be met before the money ran out.
As the sun started to set, the teams dispersed. Roughly ten hung back. They gathered at the back of the warehouse, catching the last of the sun and finishing the painting. A baseball game played through a badly tuned radio in the background.
In Remedios, we spent most nights in the town's main square, drinking and watching as gaggles of teenage girls paraded, arms linked, and ignored catcalls. Around the edge of the square, faces hovered, illuminated by the light from phones.
When we weren't sitting in the square, we played dominos on the street corner. We gathered chairs and stools from various houses, stolen from the youngest family members and from beneath the feet of resting mothers. The board, a repurposed old door, came from one of two houses. Ditto owned a notoriously crooked one, which he only ever used as backup.
The inscription on the Cuban peso coin reads patria o muerte (motherland or death). I asked Ditto if he believed in it. He laughed. I asked who did believe in it, then, and he gestured as if he were stroking a beard (Cuban sign language for Castro). Sentiment toward the late leader varies by age group: For those old enough to remember the revolution—and subsequent turbulent relationship with the US—Castro was a demigod, untouchable. For those too young to remember this era, he represented an outdated economic system and the cause of Cuba's woes.
The week after the Parrandas floats were finished, Ditto and his cousin Pocholo didn't have any work, so we took a bus to the beach. The driver confiscated our bottle of rum, though, so we sat like schoolboys in the back, passing by dust-colored towns and untilled land. Billboards dotted the highway with jingoistic slogans; one read oppose the blockade, an injustice against Cuba. We passed a harbor where rusting hulls bobbed unmanned, mostly of the fishing-trawler type. There were no yachts or powerboats; the only seaworthy boat was a military-landing craft. We wondered how much time you'd get for stealing it. "Fifteen years," reckoned Pocholo. The beach itself jutted out from concrete banks, foundations of an unfinished hotel, its construction appearing to have been abandoned decades before. Beyond it choppy green water stretched out toward the American coast. —PETER LANE
For the past 18 years, Ricardo Isidron has been producing La Esquina de Mariconchi, a live comedy show in Havana that features popular stand-ups who regularly appear on Cuban television. It's a showcase for some of the island country's hottest talent. So, do they ever do gags about the recently deceased dictator Fidel Castro, or his brother Raul?
Isidron, normally animated, turns visibly uncomfortable when my translator asks him what I thought was an obvious question. I hear the names Fidel and Raul thrown about, in very low voices.
"No! No! No!" Isidron says while shaking his head. Even mentioning Castro jokes during a casual interview in the back of a theater—nearly two months after his death—feels like a risk.
"In their private life, Cubans do jokes about Castro… but not in public," Isidron says. "The comedians just have to work out a strategy to tell jokes without mentioning names."
One way they do that is by talking about "the beard," a code word that everyone in Havana understands. Or a comedian could play off the fact that everyone knows that Fidel was born in August. The comic could say, "Let me read you the star signs," and proceed to read a scathing horoscope about Leos.
Such workarounds are necessary in a country where, unlike the US and many other Western nations, comedians can't take freedom of speech for granted. Satire is arguably most important when the powers that be are trying to stamp it out, but the stakes are much higher in those cases. Just as Cubans have dealt with shortages of food and other general goods for decades, the island's comedians have to use their ingenuity and resourcefulness when comes to making political jokes.
This atmosphere can itself be used to create comedic tension.
"A comedian on stage could yell, 'Down with Fidel!'" says Isidron. "And then, after a few beats…'Martinez!'"
Isidron began his own comedy career 40 years ago, but was forced to step down from the stage when he developed throat problems. He switched to writing and producing shows and is now one of the most instrumental figures behind the contemporary Cuban stand-up scene. There's no one better to talk to if you want to understand Cuban comedy, which is often rooted in the way the country has suffered economically under Castro and the US embargo.
"There's a hotel. It's got these two beautiful swimming pools," says Isidron. "One's small and one's big. The manager says: 'Look, what beautiful pools.'
"The guest goes: 'Yeah they're beautiful—but they're empty.'
"'No, we got no water, but they're beautiful pools.'
"'Yeah but they're empty. So what do you do?'
"'We fill them with dirt and we grow trees.'"
Isidron and I both let out a laugh.
"This is what happens here in this country," he says. "It's absurd."
Cuba's comedy history that dates back to the 1800s, when Spanish theater groups would perform in Havana. During the Batista regime, American organized crime turned Havana into the Las Vegas of the Caribbean; US-based comedy acts like Jerry Lewis would regularly perform at the casinos. After the revolution in 1959, Cuban comedy drastically shifted. Shortly after Castro came to power, Leopoldo Fernández, a comedian on the hugely popular satirical radio show La Tremenda Corte, was blackballed after performing a political comedy sketch as his beloved character, Potato. The offending satirical joke employed classic Cuban misdirection: A fellow sketch player pulled out a photo of Castro and Potato went to the wall and said, dripping with irony, "Allow me—I want to hang this one myself…"
1991, according to Isidron, marked the modern era of Cuban standup comedy; one of the first breakout stars of the day was Álvarez Guedes, who did deadpan one-liners. Isidron provides an example: "A guy meets one of his friends on the street and says, 'Do you like women with tits?' His friend replies, 'No, just two.'" (The pun, which doesn't quite translate, is that the friend thinks the man is talking about a woman with more than two breasts.)
Censorship prevented Cuban comedians from having access to American standup comedy, so their influences largely came from their own comedic history and other Spanish-speaking countries. Dominican comedian Julio Sabala, who specializes in musical impressions was a huge influence on the modern Havana scene.
Currently, a comic named Panfilo is the most famous comedian in Cuba thanks to the hilarious/warm-hearted videos he did with President Barack Obama around the time of Obama's historic Cuba visit last year. (Isidron says those viral video sketches were taken down from YouTube in Cuba mere days after posting due to government censorship.)
Even setting aside Castro, Cuban comedy—at least in public—is fairly respectful of politicians. You won't find too much anti-Trump humor on stages here. Still, Isidron tells me, "There's a lot of comedians doing impressions—and in their impressions, that's where they express their opinions."
George Smilovici walks down his Havana street like he's the mayor of the block, stopping to kiss women on the cheek or just chat, wave, and say "hola" to whoever passes by.
"Here, I feel like I'm at home," says Smilovici.
Smilovici, who was born in Cuba to Jewish immigrants from Romania (his father ran a music club in Havana) performs comedy half the year in Australia and the other half in Havana, where he also records original Cuban compositions with his orchestra, Frente Caliente.
"Here, they respect the balls of a comedian, just to be up there," Smilovici says of Cubans. "It's because of the freedom angle. Politically, certain things you can't talk about. On stage, they expect the truth. And they respect anybody that goes out there and talks the truth. That's what comedy is all about—bursting bubbles."
"They have no time for political correctness—they have other things to worry about. Much more important things."
The key to winning over a Cuban audience, Smilovici believes, is to sell your heart before the material. "They have to love you and feel the warmth," he says. "If someone gives, they will get back ten times more. If you engender love and compassion, then you got them in the palm of your hand."
Smilovici tells me Cuban comedy is more family-orientated and almost innocent compared to harder-edged acts you can find in other countries. "Here, they don't like swearing; they're very timid and conservative in some ways," he says. Instead of using crude slang for a man's privates, a comedian will opt for the word pinga, which literally means "stick."
But there are some areas where a joke that wouldn't fly in Australia is fine in Cuba. That can mean bits about the way people look, or material that discusses race and sexual orientation— those jokes would obviously get comedians in trouble in American and many other places, but Smilovici says it's all done with without malice in Cuba. "They have no time for political correctness—they have other things to worry about. Much more important things."
Havana is a welcoming, warm city, but the struggles it has with poverty are apparent to any visitor. "People take their own toilet paper on the street here," says Smilovici. "Because when you go into a public toilet, like at a bar or restaurant, they don't have toilet paper."
Even a doctor who makes roughly 60 pesos (about $60) a month—a fairly good wage by Cuban standards (many necessities are taken care of by the government)—might need a second job to provide for his family. In Cuba, "artists make more than doctors," Smilovici says. Local comedy clubs pay a percentage of what they make every night to the government-controlled union; the comics are then paid by the union. A headliner at a Havana club will make roughly 20 CUC ($20) a show.
"In a country that suffers a lot. Where you have so much problems, and people are under so much stress, you have to have humor," says Smilovici says. "Humor is not a luxury, like in Australia. The poor suffer more—the poor need more jokes."
Watch a VICE News Tonight segment on Havana under Castro:
On the night I visit, it's La Esquina de Mariconchi's 874th show. The crowd filling Teatro America , a beautiful art deco theater, encompasses all ages and fills the 1,600 seats. This is what you do on Thursday nights when you don't have readily available internet: You go out to see a show.
The lights go down. The red curtain goes up, revealing Mariconchi, the host, wearing a wig and dress. "There's a guy backstage who said he wanted to take a boat to Florida… but it was very bad weather so he couldn't go," Mariconchi quips. This reference to the embargo gets a big laugh. (Smilovici translated the jokes for me.)
An audience member throws out a playful heckle, and Mariconchi comes back with a sharp comeback: "Be quiet—or else you'll end up being a prostitute on the street!"
Three women who are celebrating birthdays are brought on stage. Mariconchi has them do a lip-sync contest, the winner is given toothpaste as a prize—which isn't given ironically when there are shortages.
The most political moment of her act comes when she's doing crowd work and asks Smilovici where he's from. "Bauta," he replies. "So that makes me a 'Batista,'" a pun referencing the US-backed dictator ousted by Castro.
Most of the comedy on display would appear old-fashioned to US comedy fans. Enoel Oquendo—who looks like a pudgy version of Larry Wilmore— tells straight-up joke-jokes accompanied by a musical sting and a little dance move after each punchline. Oquendo finishes his set with a long joke that involves simulating humping someone from behind. Duo Espatula, a classic comedy double act featuring a tall skinny guy and a short, chubby guy, is a pure joy. The duo begins with an ironic statement on the current Cuban economic situation:
"Can we have a minute of silence: Let's remember the 70s, 80s, and 90s—all the years when we had everything—and now we have nothing."
(This, it's explained to me, is a joke about how everyone was starving in the 80s.)
The comedy pair proceed to break into a song with the chorus, "Everything was great before—and now it's shit. Obama can't take any more away from me!"
The place fills with warm, cathartic laughter. Everyone here knows what it's like to lack ordinary necessities the world takes for granted, everyone is living and working under the same yoke.
"There's only one way to look at life in Cuba—and that's through humor," whispers Smilovici. "Because if you look at it the other way; it's really sad. There's only one option; you have to laugh. Because life here is hard, but there's an incredible love inside."
Generally speaking, punk rock is a tool wielded by those on the lowest rungs of society to express dissent—and nowhere was dissent more reactionary than in Fidel Castro's Cuba.
Socialism breeds homogeneity, and in a socialist nation, punks can't help but become unmistakably conspicuous. But more than conspicuous, Los Frikis—a community of Cuban punks who came together throughout the late 1980s and 90s, resembling punks of freer nations in style and taste—came to be viewed as pariahs by everyone but their own.
Meet the Cuban Punks Who Infected Themselves with HIV in Protest in this VICE documentary about Los Frikis:
At the time, Castro's government attempted to maintain order by force, and police cracked down on vagrants and social outliers. The Frikis were one such target, because they looked different, shirked the norms of life under Castro socialism, and spent much of their time on the streets in run-down areas. They were often harassed, arrested, imprisoned, or forced to do manual labor. And as a result, some Frikis took up a form of protest that still manages to shock: they infected themselves with HIV, by injecting blood from their HIV-positive Friki friends into their own veins.
It's a mind-boggling act to consider today, but a number of factors aligned to create the social conditions that drove those Frikis to self-infect. Cuba's economy was long supported by the Soviet Union, but as the world power spun towards dissolution at the end of the 1980s, that support dried up, and Cuba was left to fend for itself. Castro called what followed "The Special Period," an ironic euphemism for massive food and fuel shortages and a rationing so drastic that it physically altered the Cuban people forever.
Around the same time, the AIDS crisis began to worsen, and nations around the world scrambled to control the virus' spread. Cuba's controversial approach involved aggressively testing its sexually active adult population and sending HIV-infected people to live in quarantined sanitariums. In that policy, some Frikis saw an escape from a society trying to squeeze out dissidents like them.
"He knew that by infecting himself he would be sent to the sanitarium," Niurka Fuentes told me about her late husband, a Friki named Papo La Bala (or Papo The Bullet). "He knew that he would meet other people like him in there, the police would leave him alone, and he would be able to live his life in peace."
Rather than continue living on the streets and in areas where they would be harassed and persecuted, these self-infected Frikis found a place where they would be provided with food, shelter, and medicine. And once enough of them were sent to the sanitariums, they knew the sanitariums, in turn, would become a punk haven.
"You could hear rock 'n roll and heavy metal coming from every house," said Yoandra Cardoso, a long-time Friki who continues to live on the grounds of a former sanitarium. "When the sanatorium first opened it was one hundred percent Frikis... we were all here together."
In 1989, the military handed over control of the sanitariums to the Ministry of Public Health, and under their progressive methodology, patients were allowed to listen to and play music, dress how they choose, and socialize with others both in and out of the sanitarium. They were far better accommodations than an average Cuban could afford at the time, let alone a Friki. "We created our own world in there," Fuentes told me.
A sanitarium in Pinar del Rio, where both Fuentes and Cardoso were housed as patients since the early 90s, closed in 2006. Today, all but one of Cuba's sanitariums are closed, with the last, in Santiago de Las Vegas, now operating as an outpatient facility. Though many of its original patients have been lost to the virus—Cardoso told me only three from her sanitarium are still alive—survivors are kept alive by domestically-produced antiretroviral drugs that are distributed through its socialized health care program. Cuba still boasts one of the lowest HIV prevalence rates in the world, and was even celebrated for eliminating mother-to-child transmission last year (though HIV infection rates in the country have also been rising over the past decade).
The Frikis, suffice it to say, found themselves in a compromising position for a punk community. Though even grave hardship wouldn't seem to justify their acts of self-infection, at that particular moment in history, in a place where punk ideology was grounds for persecution, the Frikis still found themselves choosing to commit an otherwise unspeakable act.
VICE meets a few surviving members of Los Frikis, a Cuban punk movement, who purposely infected themselves with HIV in the early 90s. The punks used this method as a way to get sent to government-sanctioned sanatoriums where they were given better resources than they had on the streets.
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