Things are pretty tense around here. And it doesn’t help that Hurricane Irene is heading towards Port-au-Prince as I write this. When it’s threatening this close, we swing into action (see note 1). 2011 is a particularly harrowing hurricane season because we’ve escaped major damage for 2 years running (toca madera/knock on wood). Like an unfaithful spouse who spends too many Saturdays ‘at the office’ or ‘runs errands’ at odd hours, you just know the luck is going to run out one of these days. But I digress.
Followers of Here is Havana know that I’ve been covering the changes in Cuba (however sporadically and anecdotally; see note 2). And now – as marriages fail; savvy metrosexuals return from exile to launch private businesses; and the bourgeoisie distract themselves with whiskey and Facebook – seems like a good time for an update.
This installment focuses on ground level detail and how Cuba’s newest capitalist forays are affecting us, the hoi polloi. I’m talking about viejitas selling knick knacks and caps from their crumbling porticos and gentrification of neighborhoods which for generations have been mixed. Meanwhile, rainbow umbrellas signposting private cafeterias sprout like mushrooms in cow shit and ever-more-evident class divisions, combined with a certain impatience and market madness, weigh heavy on my mind.
Hanging on for dear life: I don’t have a car, which is an anomaly for most foreigners here and has drawbacks, clearly, but is also advantageous since it obligates me to navigate the public transportation system. In practice, this means I have no problem getting a bus from the Capitolio to Marianao or the Cine Chaplin to La Copa (see note 3).
Since I make much more than the average Cuban (but much less than the average resident foreigner – a hard concept for most Cubans), I also take the 40 cent fixed route/collective taxis that ply Havana’s streets. However, a significant change in the law regulating these taxis is putting our lives at risk: whereas it used to be only the owner of the almendrones (those pre-1959 hulks tourists go gaga over) could drive it for fares, now they can subcontract driving duties.
This small change on paper has meant big changes on Havana’s streets. Drivers are now young, restless, and reckless; it’s plain some of them have never even driven before (and are unlicensed, if one of my insider sources is to be believed). Others are so blatantly young even Cuban law would prosecute me were I to bed one down.
The result? Tank-like Dodges, Buicks, and Fords caroming along major arteries like Línea and 23, Calzada del Cerro and Calle 51 at high speeds, only to peel out of traffic with a hard turn of the wheel and screech up to the curb to snatch another 10 peso fare. I’m not the only one who lets these wild child choferes continue on their way, opting to wait for an older, more seasoned driver who cares at least for his car, if not his clients.
Ration cuts: Slowly but surely, the monthly rations (really fortnightly rations since they only last that long, and only then for the thriftiest and most creative cooks) are being cut. Not everyone needs them, let’s be frank, but for the millions that do, this is a problem. In Cuba, libreta rations aren’t free, but almost; since they’re so highly subsidized, payment is a token gesture. But hard times call for hard cuts and some rations – beans, most notably – have been reduced, while others (soap, toothpaste, laundry detergent, cigarettes), have been eliminated entirely. This can be crippling for old folks especially, but also working class families and other vulnerable groups.
But that’s not the only effect of this new policy. Take the cut in the salt ration for instance. Once upon a time, each household received a kilo of salt every three months. That ration has now been halved and may be discontinued altogether, meaning when you run short, salt has to be purchased at ‘parallel markets’ in pesos cubanos or hard currency “dollar stores,” (I suppose people peddle the white crystals on the black market, but I’ve little energy for that particular hassle and hustle). Either way, salt is now a pricey commodity.
The subsidy slash, combined with the cost of salt outside the libreta, make it virtually impossible for those unfortunate enough not to have access to hard currency to augment their salt stores. No salt means blander food, of course, but it also means we no longer knock on our neighbors’ door asking for a bit of salt – not at the new prices. Borrowing sugar, lending salt: these are diehard habits in Cuba and are among the daily threads which give the mantle of solidarity heft on the island. Let’s see how it holds up moving forward.
Cafeterias ad nauseam: One of the most immediate and visible effects of the new regulations has been the veritable explosion of private cafeterias and snack shacks across Havana (see note 4). No matter that each of them has an identical menu of fruit shakes, egg sandwiches and cajitas (to be fair, the ones that are good tend to be great – at least at the outset anyway). And no matter that some of them are churning out such poor quality fare I’ve actually seen people dumping food into the closest trash bin.
That said, some families are really making a go of it. However, just as the taxi sub-contracting policy and striking salt from the ration card are having unintended side effects, I suspect this cafeteria mania is too: I fear it’s making people sick. Sure, there’s always an uptick of stomach viruses in the summer, but this season, I know a lot more people with explosive diarrhea, fever, and projectile vomiting – usually all at once. While I have zero proof, poor food preparation and storage, plus sketchy hygiene, can mean food-borne illnesses. And since the government doesn’t have the inspectors necessary to inspect and monitor all these new cafeterias…Indeed, e coli warnings have begun appearing – a first for me in 9+ years of living here.
Marketing learning curve: The operative word here is steep – very, very steep. Forget that every cafeteria is making the same sandwich and that the same pirate DVDs are sold everywhere, from Vedado thoroughfares to dark entryways in Centro Habana. Lack of product differentiation is only one of the problems with the emerging capitalist experiment. The real question is: how do you distinguish your pan con jamón from the next gal’s or make your Jackie Chan ‘combo’ stand out from the rest?
This isn’t a query occurring to most entrepreneurs here, if the twinkly Christmas lights and hand-lettered signs around town are any indication. But some folks – whether they’re returned exiles, have advice coming in from Miami, or are just putting Cuban ingenuity to a new test – are on it. At major intersections and big grocery stores for example, hot, young Cubans pass out flyers advertising the newest paladares, some of which I’ve had the pleasure to try thanks to this publicity (the best are included in the newest version of Havana Good Time, out next week).
But one mode of advertising which has recently appeared in my neighborhood and is insoportable wherever it’s found are mobile megaphone announcements. Loud, obnoxious, and largely unintelligible (I still haven’t been able to divine a single good or service advertised by these noise polluters), these ads are delivered by enthusiastic barkers via bicycle, motorcycle or car-mounted megaphones. This is annoying enough, but I fear these ads may be the death knell for the sing-song call of the pregoneros – hawkers who pound the pavement advertising their wares in a melodic, iconic incantation. These were effective – it’s how I got my new mattress, after all.
Stay tuned for more on-the-ground impressions of evolving Cuba.
1. For the curious: I’ve passed so many hurricanes in Havana I’ve lost count and Cuban preparedness and response is efficient, effective, and a wonder to behold. Lives are very rarely lost – even in the most heinous, category 5 cyclones – which underscores the absurd tragedy that is adverse weather events in the USA à la Katrina or the recent Missouri River floods.
2. Dedicated fans will be happy to learn Here is Havana The Book is finally receiving some overdue attention; I hope to have it out by this time next year. Stay tuned!
3. Bus travel in Havana is generally a bitch, but for visitors who speak Spanish, I suggest taking at least one to eavesdrop: there is probably no more effective way to take the pulse of the population than to listen to a busload of Habaneros quibble and kvetch.
4. As of April 2011, 20% of the nearly 222,000 permits issued to private businesses have been for food service. The government estimates 80% of these start ups will fail in the first year.