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Why is money green?
Because lawyers pick it before it’s ripe.
To be fair, two of my closest friends are lawyers, which predisposes me to their ilk, but I had no clue how often I’d be relying on their craft when I landed in Cuba. To wit: the organization I work for is completely lawyered up and my husband and I required representation to get married. I’ve had clients advise me to retain counsel before they axed me unlawfully and I surely have a fat file somewhere in the bowels of the State Department (hopefully this will never be cause for me to call on my attorney friends).
I’m required to navigate all these legal hoops due to the simple, but paradoxically complex fact that I fell in love with a Cuban who, like 70% of his compatriots, was born under the US blockade. I’m based here in full compliance with US law, but no matter: I still require a phalanx of legal eagles.
The stated purpose of this 51-year old policy is to topple the revolutionary government. When a policy hasn’t worked for over half a century, it’s time to try something new, don’t ya think? Maybe I should write Poli Sci for Dummies for those bozos in the Beltway. In addition to failing to achieve its goal, it makes US administrations and the Florida PACs that yank their chains look like an abused spouse: they know it’s not working, witnesses and allies tell them it’s not working, but they keep coming back for more, taking a beating in the process (see note 1).
Sad and illogical for regular folks, but good for the lawyers.
I grew up in New York, but didn’t see my first dead body until I moved to San Francisco and didn’t see my first gun until I moved to Havana. As might be expected on a blockaded island, weapons are extraordinarily rare in Cuba (the woman-to-woman withering stare and crippling bureaucracy notwithstanding) and Havana is the safest place I’ve ever lived or traveled (see note 2). But people talk…
Especially around Christmas and New Year’s, when money is both needed and tight, crime rates spike and run-of-the-mill rumors are spiced up with brazen robberies and cheeky scams. Since the daily papers and nightly newscast favor potato harvests over politics and international crises in lieu of the domestic variety, our only way of learning about heists, busts, or protests is through these rumors AKA radio bemba, the coconut wireless, and the grapevine.
As 2010 drew to a close, everyone was talking about the stick up at the Trimagen on 42 & 19. It wasn’t the ideal place to hit, what with the police booth and cameras on the corner adjacent. That area is a hive of activity too, meaning all of Havana was a-buzz with the story of the two masked gunmen and their derring-do. Robberies always dominate year’s end gossip, but the use of a gun distinguished this tale.
When a buddy of mine from rough and tumble Lawton shared stories of armed thugs robbing women for their gold chains in his neighborhood, I wondered aloud: ‘where are all these guns coming from?!’ (see note 3).
“There was a container full of guns stolen back in the 90s. They’re still floating around,” my friend explained.
Hearing about guns (or quakes or snakes) is one thing – coming face-to-face with them is quite another.
It was an inky, moonless night when we broke down by the side of the road. We were between here and there on Cuba’s main highway, called Ocho Vías for its eight lanes that in reality are reduced to four when you factor in all the potholes and horse carriages. This isn’t a highway in your sense of the word. Here, there’s no shoulder or lights, no roadside service or emergency call box. To get out of there we’d have to fix the Lada ourselves or walk to get help (we were too close to Havana to flag someone down – those days are largely over as suspicion displaces solidarity in the big city).
As I fretted about getting clipped by a passing truck on the side of that dark road, my driver – an ex cop who shall remain nameless – reached beneath his seat.
“Don’t worry. If anyone messes with us, they’ll be sorry,” he promised, brandishing the first pistol I’d ever laid eyes on. And I was worried about other drivers.
Money: it makes even the most isolated, bull-headed island go ’round. This isn’t news – except perhaps for all those lefties whose rose-colored glasses are clouded by wishful thinking and dewy-eyed nostalgia. It has been a long time since Cuba was immune to The Market, marketing (Red Bull anyone?), and the opiate of the masses peddled by the likes of Steve Jobs, Barry Levinson, and Mark Zuckerberg. Cuba’s resistance was inspiring while it lasted and let’s give thanks that it lasted as long as it did. But those halcyon days? Konet.
I admit my relationship with money is fraught with difficulties and contradictions. I know we all need the green (some more than others, certainly), but I’m miserable at making it, more so at managing it. This is a deadly fiscal combination – especially in Cuba where it’s dreadfully hard to make money and life is expensive.
Playing the money game is something I’ve never been good at, which is painfully obvious when it comes to international banking – or lack thereof as the case may be. For those of you who don’t know, American credit and debit cards don’t work in Cuba. If your bank even so much as has a branch on US shores, your plastic is useless due to (again) the US blockade.
To give you an idea of how incredibly insidious this is, I ask you to consider the last time you traveled somewhere – even to the next town over – and couldn’t use plastic money of any kind (see note 4). OK, maybe during a long weekend in the woods or on an off-the-beaten track Asian odyssey, but living for months at a time, with no access to your bank account, nor capability to purchase anything with a credit card? How would you do it? (see note 5).
I’ll tell you how we do it. We mule in cash. Fat wads of Euros, pounds, Canadian dollars or whatever’s giving the best exchange rate at the moment (see note 6) are carried in by Americans forced to do so. As I type this, big stashes of cash are being tucked in bras and under clothing to wing their way from Miami to Havana.
Let’s hope there are no armed robbers lurking at Arrivals. My advice? Have your lawyers number handy just in case.
1. Many people have written on the economic boon lifting the embargo would mean for key regions in the US, notably Florida and the Gulf States.
2. Save for the Big Island which in so many ways is unto a class itself (see note 4).
3. It’s difficult enough to sneak in a hard drive or dried sausage these days past Cuban customs, let alone a firearm.
4. Residents of and visitors to the “cash is king” Big Island excluded.
5. I should mention here that there’s a Canadian outfit called Caribbean Transfers which sets up a totally usable card for you to use in Cuba to get cash and make purchases. I personally have not had luck with them, though I know other people who swear by this company.
6. Despite being called the ‘convertible peso,’ it’s impossible to procure or change (ie convert) Cuba’s hard currency outside of Cuba.