Drinking the Capitalist Kool-Aid in Cuba

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I’m not sure what news about Cuba is being made over your way, but I assume you’ve heard changes are afoot. I’m talking big, game-changing adjustments that surely have Che spinning in his grave (to say nothing of Marx and Lenin). The reasons are many and complex why I’ve put off writing about “the changes” (sounds like a euphemism for menopause which isn’t a bad metaphor for today’s Cuba I should think) but suffice to say, I can no longer keep quiet.

A sort of financial shock therapy, these changes are deeply personal and downright frightening for many Cubans. However necessary (and dare I say it?) inevitable, the greatest free market experiment since 1959 is a sink or swim proposition: if it does work, Havana will start looking more like Santo Domingo or Miami. But if it doesn’t work, millions of people will bear witness to generations of work going down the tubes.

This predicament, the very real possibility of economic failure translating into socio-political failure is causing anxiety, anger, breakdowns and break ups. Of course, the changes give hope to some, but I’m not among them. From where I’m sitting, they’re an unworkable solution. Salvaging the Cuban economy by allowing private enterprise and other too little, too late measures is an impractical workaround I call ‘Shutting Barn Door, Horse Long Gone’ (see note 1). The Cuban economy was, is, and always shall be struggling. It’s geography, politics, history and fate. It’s The Way it Is.

So I take exception to the theory and the timing. But even more so, I question the mechanism. Pandora’s Box is being thrown wide with this headlong dive into the shallow end of the free market pool. I call this last gasp for cash ‘One Foot on the Slippery Slope.’

I’m a capitalism refugee. I know viscerally that money is the root of all evil. It corrupts, ruins friendships, ruptures families, crushes love, and damages the environment. And make no mistake: this genie has a one-way ticket out of his bottle.

A fascist anti-materialist (see note 2), I moved to Cuba in part to escape the unchecked consumerism and dollar lust that grips my old world. An error in judgment, faulty analysis or both since I quickly learned that money and stuff (along with sex, transportation, and protein) are uppermost in Cubans’ minds; in fact, most days are dedicated to their pursuit. Still, I loved how time was made for friends and conversation, how freely people shared. This will all roll away down the Slippery Slope once the real money lust sets in, I’m afraid. When taxes and employees and suppliers must be paid and profits are squirreled away for baubles – this is when things will get ugly de verdad.

Already the fury for iPods and 2 inch acrylic nails, nights dancing at the Salon Rojo, navel piercings, and tramp stamps (see note 3) are eroding values and substituting style over substance, form trumping function. The market, I have no doubt, has the unique capacity to undermine most everything the Cuban revolution stands for.

The feeding frenzy is already in full scrum. I have friends who procured licenses under the new regulations to train dogs, sew and sell dresses, and even make ice – home delivery extra. In any neighborhood nowadays I can browse CDs & DVDs, shoes, guayaberas and house wares set out for sale on people’s porches. Every few days, an old guy walks my block shouting: “I buy empty perfume bottles.” I guess I should be glad that Havana garages hold perfume factories instead of meth labs – for now at least.

What scares me most is the fundamental economic concept of supply and demand: if there’s enough of the latter, someone will step up to provide the former. And if there’s one thing we have a surplus of here, it’s demand. I call this the ‘Special Period Hangover’ (see note 4).

Worrying me these days is more than the simple human desire for things. It’s the confluence of factors making free market free-for-alls particularly toxic and potent here: the US embargo which keeps Cubans in a permanent state of want and need; the indelible psychological effects of the Special Period; the new opportunities to amass cash; and the myriad different and novel ways to spend it.

Now, before you get your knickers in a twist, let me say that I fully and clearly understand how easy it is for me to disparage the lust for stuff, having had my chance at it. But I feel nauseous when I think about this socio-economic ‘perfect storm’ and what it means for the future – our future – the future being forged for Cubans, by Cubans.

Consider what I call the ‘Miami Effect:’ throughout southern Florida and especially in Miami, there are businesses dedicated to renting thick gold chains and ghetto hoops, rings for every finger and gold-plated watches – all gauche to the extreme. Men’s signet bracelets are also in high demand at these shops which exist solely to rent gold and bling to Cuban Americans returning to the island to visit friends and family.

Who cares if the 14k bracelet says Tito and your name is Yamel? The important thing is to arrive in Havana (or Holguín or Camagüey) looking like an old skool NY guido who just hit the Lotto. Thanks to these businesses, you can achieve your look at a reasonable price (just don’t forget to relinquish those jewels upon your return). Has it not dawned on these folks that their money is better spent on cooking oil or a pair of decent sheets for family back home? Maybe some quality sponges, batteries or other utilitarian items every Cuban home needs?

I invite my readers to take a moment to ponder the absurdity of a poor person visiting even poorer people and budgeting for bling (see note 5). I mean, I know ‘form follows function’ is a foreign concept in Miami, but this boggles the mind. And it scares me that this is part of the Cuban character. This type of materialist twist and bent is my nightmare. After 9 years in Cuba, I dread waking up to it.

A friend said to me years ago that if the Yanquis want to kill the revolution, all they have to do is drop a jabita stuffed with Levi’s, Converse, and Lancôme at every doorstep and everyone will roll over. I hope she’s wrong because that is just too fucking depressing.

Notes

1. Surely Cubaphiles will have caught the double meaning here: Fidel is sometimes referred to as ‘el caballo.’

2. For example, my blood pressure spikes when I watch my neighbor walking her two Siberian Husky puppies – the new breed of choice down here. I find it cruel and unusual for these dogs to suffer a Havana summer just because their owner wants a couple of status symbols. Then there’s all the kitschy Ed Hardy knock offs that make me shudder and groan. Maybe I should start importing Bedazzzlers – the Cubans will go gaga over a tool that allows them to bling everything from baja chupas (tube tops) to blumers (underwear). To get a better understanding of just how anti- I am about all this, check the Church of Life After Shopping link on my Blog Roll.

3. To put things in perspective, consider what these non essentials cost here on the average Cuban salary: iPod = 4 to 20 months salary; acrylic nails = 1 month’s salary; night out at the Salon Rojo = 2 months salary (minimum); navel piercing = 2 weeks salary; tramp stamp = 1.5 months salary.

4. Once the Berlin Wall fell, Cuba’s almost total economic collapse was swift. Nearly 85% of foreign aid disappeared, Cuban adults lost 20 pounds on average and the first experiment with private industry was launched. This era (1993 to depends-who-you-ask) was dubbed ‘A Special Period in Time of Peace.’

5. I welcome input from other immigrants and expats – have you found this to be true of folks from your country or where you live?

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63 Comments

Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro

63 responses to “Drinking the Capitalist Kool-Aid in Cuba

  1. really interesting read! I thoroughly enjoy your blog and all your insights.

  2. John Abbotsford

    A really great summary of a very complex issue.
    These changes certainly could well result in some people becoming substantial winners economically but it is the probability of many significant losers that concerns me most.
    BTW remember travelling to Greece many years ago from Oz and there were many Oz-Grks returning for the first time to visit family etc – had heaps of presents/electrical items etc and all applauded when plane landed at Athens.

    Was reminded of that experience on my first flight to Havana with returning Cubans loaded down and behaving similarly.

    • Super complex. I didn’t write the half of what I wanted to. This will likely be (at least) a two-parter. I always clap now when we land, whether it’s in Havana or Hilo. People think Im crazy, but it’s a great tradition.

      Yes, some people are going to get filthy rich. It’s the rest of us Im worried about! Cheers.

  3. Doug Haxall

    Conner,

    I read your post with great interest – it’s the post I’ve been waiting for, for a while. As a life-long leftie / socialist sympathizer / hippie-peace-and-love, non-materialistic type, I have always hoped there was a better way than rampant, superficial American consumerism. Unfortunately, I’m not much convinced that the hard-core Cuba model of 100% government ownership of everything is really a great solution. Economically, it deprives people of the opportunity and will to make and sell things, which leads to dependency and hence “special periods”. Politically, it rests way too much power in central authorities, rather than having a diversified field of state, NGO’s and for-profits which help to keep each other in check.

    What I might call “small-market” capitalism – letting people be entrepreneurs and letting them own, buy, sell and produce things and services has always appealed to me. To me, the baubles may be annoying and people’s choices may seem gauche, but those are hardly reasons to impose poverty on millions of people. The real problem with American capitalism is the accumulation of capital and power into the hands of a few gigantic, monopolistic entities that then buy & sell politicians, and control the media… not to mention dictating the terms under which the rest of the world’s people live, as is becoming increasingly clear watching the upheavals in the Middle East.

    Could we not have “small-market” capitalism, where local farmers produce fresh food and distribute it through a network of small business distributors and farmers markets? Could we not have certain caps on the accumulation of wealth and power, so that Apple can make fun toys as long as they don’t buy politicians or become too big to fail? Couldn’t we restore sanity and humanity back to people so that they elect politicians who can actually use government policy to do things, like require sustainable energy?

    I don’t know — the American people are raised to think of themselves as budding young capitalists capable of creating wealth – even if they can’t read, write or spell. So consequently, they believe the hype and vote against their own interests – against labor, against regulation, against government power of any sort. So we are in our own sort of trap here.

    I fear we are living in two worlds of extremes. While there may be no ideal society out there, and while people are going to act like people everywhere (lots of good and bad), I have noticed that I feel a greater sense of ease and happiness when I am traveling in Scandanavia, and I feel a greater depth and level of connection with people when I am traveling in Latin America. And these lead to believe there must be some kind of “middle way” that we can aspire to.

    I hope to make it to Cuba and see you there and learn more about your environment there. I would love to understand it more.

    Cheers,

    Doug

    • Hola Doug and whoa!! thanks for your thoughtful post. So glad I could satisfy (part) of your curiousity. As I said to a reader below, I didn’t write half of what I wanted – just out of pure exhaustion, plus it’s a dense subject – and reading your comment, I see that I probably raised more questions than provided answers!! So in an effort to amend that….

      hard-core Cuba model of 100% government ownership of everything: this never has been the case. There are joint Cuba/foreign ventures all across the island. Brazil, China, Canada, Russia, Spain, Italy, Israel – there are all kinds of foreign firms here. However, they are only allowed to own 49% and never the actual land or buildings the business sits on/functions in. This doesn’t seem a bad compromise to me – good way to maintain sovereignty.

      Also, since 1993 or so, individuals have been permitted to run restaurants, cafeterias, B&Bs, have their own taxis, and loads of other businesses. These business owners complain of high taxes, but a) what govt DOESN’T charge taxes? and b) having paid taxes all my life I can say: these people don’t know from high taxes. Wait until next year!!

      it deprives people of the opportunity and will to make and sell things: The very first thing most people notice when they come to Cuba is how people will make/fix/sell anything at any given opportunity. They are totally, but amazingly ingenious and the creativity is inspiring. The govt has never been able to extinguish this. But I take your point: competition stimulates this which Cubans have in spades and this will definitely prove to be one of the great upsides to the opening up to free enterprise. I predict individual Cubans (and those in cooperatives) will start producing the best food, crafts, furniture, fashion and innumerable other things once this experiment takes off.

      Dependency Boy you said it. I promise to think about this more. Cubans are way dependent on the state and I almost titles this post “Pushing the Baby Birds from the Nest” for this precise reason.

      rather than having a diversified field of state, NGO’s and for-profits which help to keep each other in check hmm. doesn’t the US have this? Are things in check? Also, there are many, many NGOs here and the largest is called the Asociacion Nacional de Agricultores Pequenos – the Natl Assc of Small Farmers. They produce something like 70% of the food here. They are powerful.

      To me, the baubles may be annoying and people’s choices may seem gauche, but those are hardly reasons to impose poverty on millions of people – I in no way meant to imply this since there is no causality between bad taste and imposing poverty. Also, I would never say the Cuban state has imposed poverty on its people because they havent. I was in Haiti for a month – there’s a govt that imposes poverty on its people! Also, the 50+ year US embargo cannot be left out of the analysis, I don’t care what side of the political fence someone sits on, it just has to be factored in.

      The real problem with American capitalism is the accumulation of capital and power into the hands of a few gigantic, monopolistic entities that then buy & sell politicians, and control the media This is way beyond the problem of American capitalism, this is the problem of globalism

      you mention some intriguing solutions, two of which Cuba is way ahead of the curve: small farming (see ANAP above) and sustainable energy. Every lightbulb in the country was changed 4 years ago to the energy saving kind at no cost to consumers, they manufacture solar panels here and well, oxen are still used to plow fields!! OK, maybe some of this isn’t efficient but the trick is to find the balance I guess.

      Thank you so much for writing in and keeping my mind on this subject. Let’s keep talkin’!

      PD – mi casa es tu casa!! c’mon down.

  4. 007

    Siempre un placer leer your stuff my friend! Además de gustar de tu cruda visión de la realidad, lo que se lee por aquí en la amplia gama ideológica de los medios es pura mielda, así que tu blog es muy valioso, al menos para mí, en ese sentido…
    By the way, te mando unos piercings? Jajaja! Besos y mucho cariño!

    • This is what I’m talking About! For those of you with rusty middle school Spanish, here’s what 007 has to say: Always a pleasure to read. Furthermore, enjoying your raw vision of the Cuban reality; what you read in the press here is pure crap, so your blog is very valuable at least for me.

      Also, he mentions sending piercings my way, which reminds me of these friends of mine who came to Cuba with a suitcase full of piercings in 2004 or so. Nothing special – just those surgical steel studs and whatnot that cost a buck or two where you are. They sold them like ice cream in a school yard to Cuban chicks desperate to “perforarse.” Do you know that those 2 sold enough piercings here they financed a trip across the USA for the two of them from Argentina? That’s a lot of freakin’ piercings, a lot of get up and go and a lot of foresight. Hmmm. Maybe I should invite those two back here to help me launch a private bar/restaurant. They’ve got the chops! We could even serve Frenet (shudder)…..

  5. Jo Wilkie de Rosal

    Thanks for this really great summary!

    I suppose some comparisons can be made with Eastern Europe over 20 years ago, especially East Germany. THe West Germans mocked the East for their apparent loss of ideology in exchange for obsessive consumerism. Lord won´t you buy me a Mercedes Benz!

    and I suppose Janis also sang ……….Freedom´s just another word for nothing left to lose.

    • Hola Jo and thanks for commenting. Just so you know (and maybe it will help solve the mystery!) your comments are going into the Spam bucket. I have no idea why but I’ll check there every once in a while to make sure you’re heard!

  6. Aw, man. It is sort of sad to read this. I kind of like to think the Cubans have higher standards or something–like, if _they’re_ not going to resist the charms of materialism, then who will? But I guess that’s not really fair.

    • Hiya!! Yeah, it’s not fair and since I realize this post is not nearly as nuanced as it needs to be (and thanks to thoughtful comments like yours and Doug’s), I continue to fret/obsess/analyze/ponder the situation.

      I guess Joni said it best:
      The greed is the unraveling
      It’s the unraveling
      And it undoes all the joy that could be.

      The greed: therein lies the rub I’m figuring.

  7. Cort Greene

    Thank you very much for speaking out.I like many care about socialism and the Cuban revolution and the efffects this path towards the restoration of capialism holds not just for Cuba but Venezuela and the changes taking place in Latin America.
    Rojo Rojito
    Cort

    • Cort brings up a very important point which I’m not touching with a 10-foot pole (not yet anyway): how Cuba’s current course will affect rest of Latin America (specifically: Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador). Cuba has served as a beacon for the “new Latin American left.” But now what? Too much food for thought on this not-too-fun Friday…

  8. Jo Wilkie de Rosal

    Thanks for digging me out of the spam bucket to live to comment again!

    Yes I suppose Fidel and Cuba have been that symbol of hope for ´something else´ to all of the region. Who or what will replace the Cuban brand for the left?

    Anyway it is so interesting for me to read all these comments in my preparations for the move to Cuba as I am looking forward to chewing the cud with the Cubans on these matters!

    At the moment it is quite interesting to see people´s reactions to our move here in Guatemala …….. they all have a reaction depending on their status or nationality. But this is a country where the bloodiest of revolutions changed nothing. The oligarchy still blames Castro for all the trouble here in the 80s despite the UN statistics.

    • despite the UN statistics, the Report of the Human rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala, despite amazing investigative journalism by the likes of Francisco Goldman….

      (PS – now your comments aren’t coming through as spam….)

  9. Faye

    Am visiting Havana Feb 15-23; (from Toronto, Canada); excited to see what I’ve heard is a beautiful city.
    You are giving me a lot to think about before arriving.
    Any suggestions for small presents for me to bring for hotel workers or children we meet?

    • Im not the “hand out small presents to strangers” type (you can imagine how many little things people who work at hotels get! really nice fat CUC tips are the way to go at hotels) but baseballs and (deflated) soccer/basketballs are great because the whole block can have fun with them, not jsut the kid receiving. Same with magazines – they get passed around, can be educational, etc. Have a great trip!

  10. I hope you don’t mind but I’m going to post this post on my Twitter and Facebook in the morning. Over here (in the UK) we’re so ignorant of everything going on outside of the UK and the USA. I’m always fascinated with Cuban politics and absolutely love your blog, seeing it from someone’s perspective who’s lived in that surreal Capitalist society in the Western world and now lives in an environment where people are so desperate to be seen as successful. Our news is so biased over here. So impartial and uncaring. No one really wants to get to the bottom of anything and find out what’s really going on and how people are living. Especially as the UK’s media is so under the thumb of the USA.

    • Yes, please!! Post, re-post, tweet, re-tweet and give me all that good social networking love!!

      Your comment hits it on the head re: why this blog even exists. I ache to show another side of Cuba that normally gets buried under all the dross pumped out by the US- and business-controlled media. My blood boils when I see reporters filing stories on Cuba when they’ve never actually been here (when reading news about Cuba, be sure to check the byline and dateline – you’ll find a lot of articles are actually filed out of Mexico City or Miami), people repeating myths like “tourists can’t use pesos cubanos” or outright lies.

      So I started this blog to shed a different kind of light. Please, readers, share widely!

  11. Bill

    I just got back from my first visit to Havana and Matanzas. As a tourist, I miss some of the “Kool-aid” but the residents seem to get by very nicely on what they do have, at least compared to many other countries in the region.

    Socialism isn’t a perfect system and neither is Capitalism. Hopefully there’s some kind of middle ground. Contrary to the thoughts of many in the “first-world” countries, a greed based economy is not inherently better than an incentive-killing economy. China’s big socioeconomic experiment is a strange mixture of the two but the jury is still out on what it will do for the huge numbers of poor.

    • Hiya Bill! Would love to hear more of your impressions. Did the place live up to your expectations? One piece advice I always give first time travelers to Cuba is to write down what they expect to see/find/hear/feel when they’re in cuba and then record their impressions during and/or after the trip. This is a pretty interesting exercise in how the media (wherever you live, however you digest news) influences our opinions.

      Nope, no perfect systems or people. But it doesn’t hurt to try!

  12. Jo Wilkie de Rosal

    Ceri
    I beg to differ. I think the UK news and journalism is streets ahead of most other places I have lived in its quality and investigative nature. I have been reading some great articles in the UK papers on Cuba.

    I really miss the open attitudes to Cuba that you have in Europe compared to on this continent. My mother is a fervent newspaper clipping cutter so everything she reads on Cuba (or Guatemala) she cuts and posts to me. But we are Guardian, Observer, Independent readers so we are more likely to read the more sympathetic sometimes romantic views. In my circles people know a lot or want to know more about Cuba.

    However, apparently The Economist just published quite a damning article which I am searching for right now ………… will post a link if I find it!

    Yes we have Murdoch to deal with but there is lots of good stuff being written on line that is not controlled by anyone. Maybe our governments are kowtowing to US imperialism and trotting off to pointless wars but I still feel our writers are out there trying to expose the truth and the hypocrisy. Also I am beginning to find the good websites in the US thanks to a wise old Californian friend I have here.

    Connor have just got hold of Francisco Goldman´s book on Gerardi, looking forward to reading it soon before I have to start diving into some Cuba books.

    Got any recommendations of where to start on my Cuba reading list?

    • OOH Jo, thanks for the fantastic idea for a post: Here is Havana’s Rec’d Reading. I always like to read stuff about where Im traveling when Im traveling (and have a book proposal for this: agents GET IN TOUCH!) and this could be a small way to give back to my small, but dedicated readership. Hats off!

      Some good sites for news:
      Global Post (news written by people in the countries in question)
      The Havana Note (granted, from deep within the Beltway)
      HavanaNews (great daily compendium of Cuba News from within and outside the country; search on Yahoo Groups)

    • Thanks for posting this.

      Having said that, the article is from 2009 so is already dated. The debates organized across the country have already moved to a second round and the changes have been coming apace (for Cuba!) since this article was written.

      Also, whenever reading about Cuba, in whatever fora (including this blog!) it helps to be able to read between the lines. the companera who supported the change brought lunch from home: chicken breast and malanga. Chicken breast, dear readers, is a huge (oftentimes unheard of) luxury for the overwhelming majority of Cubans. Even for Christmas dinner, chicken thighs are considered a fancy meal in homes around the country. So this woman supports the change (!obvio!) because she’s just pocketing the extra $$ since she has hard currency coming in from somewhere else – the only dough-rey-me here that will buy chicken breast.

      And this is what is so scary about these changes: they have the potential to harm the poorest the worst.

  13. Cort Greene

    Conner
    Hope your weekend when well. Just to let you know I got out your post to 28 elists and got a few good comments.

    The offical solidarity movement has been somewhat silent or supported of the changes but they are just cheerleaders in the long run and not what they portend to be.

    Some always keep saying there is a real debate going on but forget to say that the changes in many instances have been going on for years and the “fix” is in already and the debate is a after thought.
    Keep up your good work.

    Rojo Rojito
    Cort

    • Guau! as we say here. Thanks Cort – no wonder Im getting so much new traffic!!

      there is debate – I have participated in each one since….I can’t remember when it was – 4 years ago? however, there are A LOT of layers between what is debated at the neighborhood level and what actually gets implemented.

      One evolution I have noticed since those first debates is that Cubans are more likely to speak their minds these days. For instance, in our neighborhood debate two weeks aqo to discuss the “lineamientos” (these are the economic changes being put forth) one neighbor turned to me and said in sotto voce ‘I can’t believe no one is mentioning the exit permit and bureaucracy around traveling’ (every resident and citizen has to apply and pay for an exit permit before they can travel overseas). When the floor was opened up for comments, a woman came forward and said just that and for the record: when are they going to revoke the exit permit and allow us to travel. It was noted and that will make its way up the line to the halls of real power – hopefully!!

      For readers who may be interested in the lists and comments, would you be willing to provide a couple of hyperlinks?

  14. Cort Greene

    Conner

    I know Tracy Eaton has it on his blog along with a couple of your other posts at http://alongthemalecon.com/

    I sent it to yahoo groups like Venezuela_Today, Working Class News, socialism, change links and lamm in LA, Action Greens, Peace-RI,NetworkAztlan_News,CubaSolidarityNY,stateyourcause, CCJP_discuus in Colorado, Miami Peace and Justice, Chi_labor against war and many others.
    The comments were keep up the good work types ( since I have been one of the very few in the States for over a year who has questioned what in the heck is going and what about thw workers being layed off, cuts in the ration book and services, this is not socialism and what about workers control and proletarian democracy and a critic of the bureaucracy) and other comments are from US people in Cuba who do some translation work their for the gov which are better kept quiet.
    Cort

  15. Jo Wilkie de Rosal

    So interesting all your comments. I think there is a more recent article in the Economist that that one, I´ll check again. I shared your post, Connor with a friend married to a Belarussian who has lived in Soviet Russia and post soviet Russia. here was her take on the situation.

    ¨Indeed very similar to Russian sentiment with the break up of the Soviet Union. My argument though for all the people who pined for the “purity” of the Soviet system was that money didn’t corrupt the people – some people are greedy by nature. It was always about keeping up with the Jones, it’s just that the Jones didn’t drive around in a BMW. I’m a little cynical with the Russians who argue that people used to help each other out – it was only because you couldn’t manage without the help of others – who you knew meant you got a car, a flat, medical treatment – whereas now money gets you that, which is why people help each other out less. It was all “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours”. The concept of giving just for giving didn’t exist, or if it did, it was in the people who have remained unaffected by the money. I think you see someone’s true nature when they have money. Sorry I’m just a little cynical after 20 years of people harping on at me that I have a corrupted soul – actually, no soul – because I am a Westerner with money.
    There’s going to be a really rough transition period, probably 20+ years, and then things will settle. I have friends of Misha’s from his home town who are much worse off now than during Soviet times, but still prefer the way things are now. There are probably a lot more people who were older than 25-30 years old when the Soviet Union broke up who preferred the past, but when you dig deep, it wasn’t all that rosy either.

    PS: I thought the empty bottles of perfume was funny: in Russia, at one stage, the drunkards wanted the full bottles because it was the only alcohol available! ¨

    it seems greed is greed whatever system you lay upon the top ……..

    arriving on 13th will bring you coffee from Guatemala!

    • very interesting take. Intriguing to compare the two experiences – one nascent, one already past the learning curve. And there are those out there who think my experience is wholly individual and doesn’t translate to other situations/people!

      I think Cuba does have a real tradition of solidarity and it is not all ‘I’ll scratch your back, you scratch mine” but that is very present and palatable, no doubt. When I ponder this, I think of my old neighborhood, in a peeling paint/termite infested microbrigada behind a cigarette factory. I have very dear friends there, poor as dirt, no family on the outside to send remittances (only 50% of Cubans receive outside help – just a little myth buster that all have folks sending fulitas from abroad), dinner is often rice and beans, maybe an egg. In 6 years, they never asked me for anything but offered me everything: coffee, friendship, an egg dinner, cigars.

      Yes, greed is the underlying problem. Cynicism? yes, we know that flavor!

      20 years for things to settle?! Dear lord, give me strength.

  16. grant

    Filthy rich not likely! Controls and taxes will prevent that. As a former foreigner living in Cuba(62-67), I can only wish them well.

    • I bet you have some great tales to tell Grant from those heady times! But on to the issue at hand:

      “Filthy rich” is obviously relative and I only have past experiences on which to base my opinion. First, many people all over the world, working under all sorts of (tax-collecting) governments have become filthy rich despite control and taxes and I have no doubt this will happen here. It already has, but thát’s a different post. Second, I have a friend who rents out rooms – with a license – in her Miramar home. To do this, she has to pay taxes and this is one of the highest (if not the highest) tax bracket for renting rooms in the country. After her expenses and taxes, she earns $900 CUC/month (that’s $1080 USD). From where I’m sitting here in Havana and for our context that’s rich, if not filthily so.

      Thanks for stopping by!

    • Interesting article in Juventud Rebelde (one of the 2 dailies here) lambasting the rich. It concludes:

      “one of the greatest problems in Cuba today is how to find a balance between economic success and the true ethics of socialism. Should humbleness and honesty prevail and this balance is achieved, it would be a most effective cure for those neighborhood bourgeoisie types who often get rich through illegal ways and deceit and have no qualms about trading their heart for an extensive wardrobe.”

      http://www.juventudrebelde.cu/opinion/2011-02-07/la-aristocracia-del-barrio/

      • Jo Wilkie de Rosal

        interesting link Connor.

        maybe we can learn something from the Scandinavians and the Dutch. I have a lot of respect for these cultures where modesty and progressive attitudes prevail despite the fact that they are wealthy successful countries you never see bling bling and corruption is minimal. All countries have their problems and Utopia does not exist but as a model for socialism with money and private enterprise maybe Cuba can learn something from these societies.

  17. TGonzalez

    Excellent article, astute and well balanced. Having fled the rampant “postalismo” of Miami years ago, I well understand the collective absurdity of bling etc. which you describe. I only differ in your attribution of Cuban shortages and need, to the embargo. The U.S. holds no monopoly on almost any item. While the term blockade (used by Castro) makes it sound/seem more effective; fact is that shortages and the Cuban people’s dire need is a result of a lack of foreign exchange, plus allowing fertile lands to lay fallow, given the fact that collectivization denies farmers a fair recovery on their work. Add to that the obsession with growing cane sugar and you have a recipe for disaster. Just note that even with recent changes, farmers remain wary and are cultivating recently tendered plots with much restraint and skepticism.

    • This is a super complex issue and we’re both right: it’s mismanagement by a poor country with limited funds; it’s importing WAY too much food while land lays fallow; it’s not using the fertile land effectively, AND it’s the embargo. The US and any and all subsidiaries (this + the extraterritoriality of add ons to the embargo like the Helms Burton and Torricelli bills is what makes it a blockade) certainly does hold a monopoly on certain things Cubans need: medicine for “blue babies,” financial institutions; replacement parts for everything from buicks to xray machines, satellite technology for communications – the list is looooong. Things that ARE obtainable from other countries (Japan and Germany for medical equipment for instance) are triple the price they would be due to international shipping costs. Meanwhile, this stuff could be coming from Louisiana or Alabama – two states that could use the jobs. As far as financial institutions, in 2012 things are going to get really sticky since a US bank (I forget which) just purchased all the SWIFT code technology which is how other govts that are allowed, under US law (read that again to see how absurd/extraterritoprial this arrangement is), transfer funds to Cuba. This means once that bank owns the technology, no one or entity will be able to transfer funds into Cuban banks. Talk about a hard currency conundrum! It’s coming down hard and soon.

      On the farming issue: this is huge HUGE here right now and about as complex as the embargo! Farmers growing organically with help from intl organizatrions which support organic, abandon it when they see how easy and effective pesticides and chemicals are. The Cubans are experimenting with GMOS. And then there are the cooperatives – a hot hot topic – but something I’ll have to study up a bit more on since Im a little out of the loop….I’ll keep you posted!

  18. Andrea Lee

    Hey Conner – it’s fascinating to read about the changes going on over yonder. No, we don’t get much in the way of news traffic, but we get bits and pieces, more if one is good about hounding world/global news feeds. It’s out there. I also don’t get why we all can’t make small changes gradually, until balance is reached, and then continue to tweek and change as needed so that balance can be maintained, but I think like pregnancy and birth, it goes in fits and starts, and leaves behind stretch marks that forever mark the bearer. Cubans are flexible, adaptable. With a bit of nurturing, they would, perhaps, be able to cope w/out becoming addicts. Maybe. Maybe they are just as fallible and vulnerable to social/moral imperfection as any other good ole John/Jane/Juan/Juanita. We shall see. I wish it were different, but I am ever so relieved that I am not in charge…so I guess I can’t complain! Every time I try to move out of this place, I end up getting sucked back in, so again, I can’t complain. Thank you my sistah for inspiring and thoughtful updates! xxx

  19. Cort Greene

    On the food front the US has been the main food supplier to Cuba for over a decade(partial embargo), less this year than in years past but people keep forgetting that the Ag states in the US hold some sway( corruption and $) with the bureaucracy in Cuba.
    That my be one of the reasons for a lack of development in that sector. I do hear that an increase is now going on in local sector, mostly private and some co-op.

    Great article on increase in prices and taxes by a woman who wants to extent socialism not the capitalist path:
    Supply & Demand Transport in Guantanamo
    The Havana Times

    • Nice! Thanks Cort

      True, US is one of Cuba’s largest food suppliers, but that’s relatively new (past 10 years). what happened the other 40 years? Simplified answer: most of the farmers took advantage of free education and moved to the cities to become doctors, lawyers, engineers and the like.

      Yes, increase in private and local growers, but will they be growing the food we need or start sowing corn for ethanol to make more $$? Unlikely since the climate isn’t exactly conducive to maize BUT you get my drift?

      These days the veggie markets are like horns o’ plenty with everything from potatoes (finally!!! we’ve been waiting desperately for these suckers; they had to call over the police this weekend at Tulipan market people were getting so unruly trying to get their papas) to cauliflower. But what happens in August when only string beans and cabbage grow? How much will those commodities cost then? Fresh produce prices are already rising at the supply-demand (where prices aren’t capped strictly by the state) markets. Stay tuned!

  20. papertrail23

    Oh hells yeah: “Already the fury for iPods and 2 inch acrylic nails, nights dancing at the Salon Rojo, naval piercings, and tramp stamps (see note 3) are eroding values and substituting style over substance, form trumping function.”

    Have I told you about mi sobrina?

    Conner, for reals. We’ve got together the next time I’m in Havana.

    -Julie

    • It’s kind of fun to watch the chulas at the store trying to work the register with those nails though!!

      I’m here!! hit me up next time you’re in town.

      (!que pena con el typo! tengo que arreglarlo ya)

  21. Cort Greene

    On the economic front, Cuban media reports that the government is freeing up the sale of rice and sugar after other cuts came earlier that can be purchased on the ration card .

    The measure will cut costs for the government, which spends heavily on food subsidies, and will benefit the new class of self-employed entrepreneurs.

    If you’re an average Cuban, on the other hand, your food just got more expensive.

    Its also being reported that Cuba purchased $ 3 billion doallars from the US in the last decade, sounds a little hifg to me

    • I don’t know about the currency purchasing, but rice and sugar are being cut from the cuota and it’s affecting things here on the ground. Prices are rising (fruit shakes, for instance, once 3 pesos cubanos are now 4), candy and fruit perserves are less sweet (because sugar is now less subsidized and so more expensive. This is good for the palate since Cubans typically like things saccharine sweet but bad for the wallet).

      Already we’re seeing shortages as the freelancers buy up commodities: flour, bread, sugar, rice, blank DVDs

  22. Héctor García

    Thank you very much for your blog. Your sense of humor is highly appreciated, not to mention your sharp political analysis. (Alywas present, even in the bachground) I will look forward for the new ones.
    Hector (from Argentina, living in Canada the last 30 years.)

  23. Certainly will be a shame of some sorts, to watch Cuba the sleeping giant , go the way’s of Costa Rica, Guatamala, well , most all other regions in the Caribbean central america…. Comes the greed then the Crime. Things. Precious things!

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  29. Gabriel Grenot

    Fantastico .
    Felicidades

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  33. acanuck

    What is the real affect of the embargo? Canada and Mexico for instance will provide anything they could possibly want. Name something only available from the US. In Canada any attempt by business to refuse dealing with Cuba is illegal. A law created when Helms Burton happened.
    There is an embargo but I think the main thing it does is prevent Cuba from receiving the financial benefits of US tourism. Most of us are glad that they are not there.
    Cuba is the only country in the Americas suffering an embargo and yet I don’t see that fact benefitting those countries with trade relations. Some are even worse off than Cuba.
    The problem with Cuba is they do not have the foreign exchange to purchase what they need and that is because what they produce to export is limited. Their problem with not finding the credit they need for purchases is linked to this. They have problems paying.
    Their efforts to set up a free trade zone is a step towards dealing with this.
    They have to do much more and freeing up the people to do business outside of Cuba, import and export, is a big one.
    I know that all of this runs against the idealistic ideas of a better way than capitalism. If someone can come up with a way to bypass the evils of capitalism and provide a decent living standard, without micromanaging our lives, I am all for it. State capitalism as practiced by Cuba does not do it.

    • Hola. Im glad you made this comment for a couple of reasons. First, it gives me the chance to elucidate how far reaching and totally jodido the embargo is. Second, it points up two related and important elements when it comes to understanding the complexities of the Cuban context: 1) that someone who has as much experience as you do in Cuba, is married to a Cuban, and comes here consistently, is still not clear on the full effects of the embargo and 2) that Canadians, in general, are less aware of the impact than US travelers here. (i.e. North Americans are not monolithic)

      OK, so how does it effect? There’s the intl banking system. I have NO access, none, zip, zero to my bank account in the States. Im based here full time: Imagine you had to spend 12 months of the year, every year, with no ATM, no bank transfers, no PayPal, no credit cards. It’s a real bitch, let me tell you. Now imagine you had to administer a country working within the same restrictions. This is the effect of the embargo.

      Name something only available in the US? How about software and computer programming packages? Medicines for pediatric congenital heart disease and HIV antiretrovirals? Immunoimaging equipment, reagents for diagnostic testing, and other medical equipment? The computer and pharmaceutical/medical equipment sectors are completely dominated by the US and Cuba is not legally allowed to purchase any of it – not from the US or a third country. This is the effect of the embargo.

      You mention foreign exchange and not having the money to purchase things (and sorry: Mexico and Canada do not produce or have everything Cuba needs and anyway, they can’t legally sell to Cuba since its prohibited by what? The embargo). But leaving those things ONLY produced in the US aside, lets look abroad, which is what Cuba has to do thanks to the embargo (which incidentally hurts US economy too: what the Gulf States – some of the poorest in the country – wouldn’t give to be able to ship to Cuba): Japan, Germany, Brazil, Russia, China. These countries have things Cuba needs, so Cuba goes out and buys those things from “a million miles away” – and that incurs shipping costs. In fact, these shipping costs triple the price of those surgical gloves, motherboards, copper wiring, rebar, whatever.

      I suggest you read up more in depth about the blockade – different from an embargo since it contains extraterritorial/third country regulations and blocks access to financial markets – and use your depth of Cuba knowledge to educate others on how far reaching and very real the effects of this is.

      Im not saying mistakes were not (and are not) made on this end: they are and were, early and often. But the blockade is a bitch and anyone who contends otherwise isn’t seeing the whole picture.

  34. acanuck

    I just noticed your reply Conner but I can tell you that you are very naïve about what countries like Canada, Britain, Brazil and others are capable of providing. When we hear things like that coming from an American you can imagine what we think and say out loud. I won’t repeat it. Your suggestion that Canada has any impediment to doing business with Cuba is totally untrue. I send money to Cuba through TD Bank that has considerable business in the US. Branches all over the place.
    You also ignore the fact that the US is the second largest supplier of food to Cuba. I won’t go into discussing each individual item you mentioned except to say all of that is available to Cuba if they have the money to purchase it. Microsoft software is everywhere in Cuba even though they could use the Linux platform which is entirely outside of the US influence.
    Cuba is its own worst enemy and they want to change that, but it is hard to accept the compromises to their ideology that they must make. Slowly it will happen.

    • Hola Canuck

      Sure, you can send remittances, but that’s how it works on an individual level – at the governmental level it doesn’t work that way. Canada is beholden to Helms-Burton and Torricelli (US congressional legislation) which puts significant restrictions on trade with Cuba; the same applies to sales of food and medicines from the US to Cuba which carries seriously burdensome (and cruel) conditions. I’ll be the first to admit mistakes have been made and will continue to be made on this end, but don’t minimize the blockade.

      And Brazil (of the BRIC?) – Mariel port, national railway system, health system support, building materials – seems like some good stuff to me, but maybe Im just being naïve…

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