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Fidel's brother Raul wants better relations with US

By the A.M. Cuba staff

A group of U.S. congressmen who just returned from a visit to Cuba say Cuban President Raul Castro appears to want to continue working on improved ties with Washington despite U.S. President Donald Trump's vow to reverse direction.

Senator Patrick Leahy, a longtime advocate of better ties with Cuba, told reporters this week that Castro expressed his desire to continue work on market-oriented reforms.

Leahy said that Castro gave the group two signed copies of a speech he gave last month in the Dominican Republic that expressed a desire to work with Trump.

That speech is the only real indication from the Cuban government of its intentions with the new U.S. administration. In the speech, Castro said he wanted to keep negotiating the bilateral relationship with the United States and "pursue respectful dialogue and cooperation on themes of common interest with the new government of President Donald Trump."

Senator Thad Cochran, one member of the group accompanying Leahy on the trip, told reporters that the Trump administration seems to have "a new openness, a willingness to take chances," although he allowed that such spontaneity could be problematic in negotiations with Cuba.

"I think that [the spontaneity] has people a little nervous," Cochran said, "because you don't know what the new president's going to announce or say in the next minute."

Senator Tom Udall, another member of the group, answered a reporter's question about "moving toward a new perspective on Cuba." He told the reporter that the United States and Cuba "have already built on several issues — bipartisan, pro-engagement amendments."

The United States severed diplomatic ties with Cuba in 1961 after the Cuban Revolution that put communist leader Fidel Castro in power. In 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama and Cuban President Raul Castro, who had taken over for his brother Fidel six years earlier, began the process of normalizing relations.

Obama became the first U.S. president in 88 years to visit Cuba when he traveled to Havana in March 2016. Since then, the United States has begun easing travel and trade restrictions with the island nation.
                                                                                                                              — Feb. 24, 2017

                                                                                                                                              Luisovalles via Wikimedia Commons
Casabe like this begs for a delicious meat sauce.

Cuban casabe: hard to make, harder to resist

By Indira R. Ruiz

Special to A.M. Cuba

Enedina is a 54-year-old Cuban housewife. This Camaguey-born woman is by far the most famous cook in the family with acclaimed traditional recipes that still show up at her dinner table.  Since she is always happy to share some of her cooking knowledge, I asked her about her experience with casabe (Cuban manioc hardened bread). So she invited me over to her kitchen-shrine on a Sunday morning, right before the weekly family gathering took place.

"I still remember the first time I had casabe -- I didn't like it," Enedina said. "My sister and I had been waiting for many days for our mother to return from Hoguín province where she was working. She had promised us some goodies, so we were hoping to get chocolate or cookies. But instead of that, she took some yellowish hardened flatbread out of a shopping bag."

We were sitting at this Cuban woman's kitchen at her Cerro neighborhood apartment in Havana. This is the place where she spends most of her day. Whenever she isn't cooking for the family, she is running errands at the nearest farmers market, just like any other Cuban housewife.

Recently Enedina got a pretty big lot of casabe from her cousins in Oriente (what Cubans call all provinces from Las Tunas to Guantánamo) and so she was preparing something to go with it. That is why she was cooking some pork with plenty of sauce.

"The secret to prepare a tasty casabe lies on the sauce it goes with," Enedina said.

Just like Mexican tortillas or pita bread, the casabe also needs some extra taste, otherwise it is really like biting on a piece of dehydrated wood. No wonder Spaniards during colonial times hated to eat it in spite of its quality of lasting during long sailing months.

Nowadays it is nearly impossible to find a single piece of casabe at any place in Havana. That is probably why no one has it as part of their diet in our capital city. But it is more likely to be found at any dinner table in the Oriente provinces like Holguín or the Baracoa area of Guantánamo. Havana also lacks of it because its making is a bit tricky despite the simplicity of the recipe, and of course because it takes time and patience.

Enedina continues:

"According to the original recipe of casabe, manioc should be pressed after grinded. The resulting dried out mass is to be spread on top of a flat bottom pan. Aboriginals used a tool called 'burén' as it is depicted in some of the documents that describe Cuba's first inhabitants' cuisine.  After the round mass is toasted, you need to turn it to cook the other side."

She explains this while tossing grinded garlic into the sauce. A succulent smell arises and fills the air.

Enedina prefers to get the casabe from her Oriente family instead of spending long hours in the making of this traditional dish. But she does spend as much time as needed in making the meat sauce.

"Any meat could do," she said, "shredded pork or beef (traditional ropa vieja). It used to be a tradition at home to eat it on Christmas night. Grilled meat leftovers from the night before were a great accompany for the casabe. Also during the harsh scarcity times of the nineties we would eat it a lot, covered only with a dressing made out of vinegar, garlic and cooking oil.  It saved us from hunger."

With the sauce ready, Enedina spread some of it on a casabe toast and gave it to me. It resembled a meat-only thin pizza, but tasted wonderful. Maybe, I think, the Cuban indigenous idea of heaven was full of casabe like this. If so, I wouldn't mind resting there forever.

— Feb. 13, 2017

Life of a Cuban money changer, hard but steady work

By Indira R. Ruiz

Special to A.M. Cuba

It is nearly 8 a.m. One of Havana's most ancient streets right in the heart of the city has been up for several hours now. Palatino Street in the Cerro neighborhood hosts probably the greatest bus station with hundreds of daily arrivals and departures. These routes cover mainly the entire city on endless loops and are by default Cuban people's primary means of transportation.

Photo by Indira R. Ruiz
Money changers like Juan González work long hours to supplement social security.

This morning over 50 persons gather lurking for the right bus. As I walk toward the end of the line for my bus, I run into an untypical character. He doesn't look like one of those workers, teachers or students who will be left some blocks from their workplaces and schools somewhere in the city's economical center of Vedado or Centro Habana. His relaxed appearance strikes the eye, but even more odd is the fact that he does not climb up at any bus. He just lingers around people who are waiting, talking softly and eventually handing out something to them.

"Pesetas pá la guagua," I get to hear as he passes by so I can't resist talking to him. This man is an independent money changer, a made-up job, so he is a brave doer of a simple method of taking advantage from a social need.

Buses (guaguas) have a flat rate of 40 cents (Cuban pesos) or two 20 cent coins called pesetas. That rate is actually less than one American nickel. Trouble comes when most of the passengers can't get to change their Cuban pesos into smaller coins, so instead of 40 cents, many have to pay one full peso (5 pesetas), losing 60 cents (3 pesetas) with each ride. Despite the low rate, paying one peso for each ride within a month represents a considerable bite of a not so plentiful basic monthly salary.

Juan González is the name of the eye-catching character who wanders at the bus stop of Palatino Street. His job is to make change so passengers don't overpay. Every peso gets broken into 5 pesetas. Out of that Juan hands out only 4 pesetas to the passengers, keeping for him a humble profit of 20 cents per peso changed at his amble bank.

When asked how many hours a day he devotes to this occupation, he frankly hesitates: "Well, it all depends on how well I am feeling. I am old, so sometimes I can only stand up for one hour or two. And, of course, I go to the bank, stay in line there for a long time. So altogether it would be six hours a day."

Before having this self-employment job he worked in education, sports and construction for over 44 years. This retired man in his sixties holds no license for this activity. And yet the government has not issued a permit for it despite it is clearly a necessary service to take into account. But Juan claims to need the money as many others retired who earn their living as peso exchangers all over the city. You can actually find them at almost all crowded bus stops of Havana, like the areas of Virgen del Camino, Parque de la Fraternidad or Calle G. This job is turning even more popular among retired people who need to increase their Social Security income of around $15 per month. Almost 2 percent of the Cuban population is, like Juan, over 60 years, meaning they no longer belong to the active working population. But some of them still have to work as peso exchangers, or can be found selling on the bare street several products like secondhand books, newspapers, cigars, tobacco, toasted peanuts or candy.

Out of the 5.1 million Cuban inhabitants who are able to work, around 2.5 percent (128,000) are unemployed. Getting a government job would mean earning around $25 per month. This salary is of course less attractive than working for almost any private owned business, and that is a truth many Cubans know already.

Juan looks tired, even though it is only a quarter past eight in the morning. He slowly goes back to trade since a group of bus riders await for his services. He opens his bag and kindly hands them coins. Bus riders are now successful at saving their money, and so is he at staying alive and in business one more day.

— Jan. 18, 2017

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