Crystal Balling Cuba

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Get your mind out of the gutter: this isn’t a pornographic post – which I know will be a great disappointment to some of you (I see every naughty and downright nasty search term used to find Here is Havana, you know). Rather, in this post I bring decades of capitalistic serfdom and 10 years of Cuban residence and observation to bear on Havana’s not-too-distant future. Making predictions is a dicey proposition and I will do it just this once, so pay attention. Here’s what I expect to unfold:

1. Bicycles are going to make a roaring comeback.
I mentioned this recently to a pair of Cuban journalists who fairly scoffed, decrying the idea as incredibly naïve and ill-informed. The hangover from the Special Period was too potent, they proclaimed in that annoying, know-it-all way, and the bike as a means of conveyance? Largely dead (and unlikely to be revived), it’s association with hard times, hunger, forced weight loss, and transport of last resort too fresh and caustic still.

I offered no rebuttal since Cuban journalists are not typically known for their insight or analytical chops (see note 1) and I was sure my theory on the resurgence of cycling would have been lost on, or worse, appropriated as their own.

What I didn’t say then but will now: as more people – young people especially – enter the private sector as wait staff, bartenders, hairdressers, parking attendants and in scores of other decent wage-earning jobs, they’re going to have to be at work on time. And public transportation is too unreliable. ‘La guagua no llegó’ was viable enough excuse when they toiled in a state cafeteria or the post office, but ‘the bus never arrived’ isn’t going to cut muster with their boss at the paladar or private spa. These gainfully employed folks will also have the resources to buy a bicycle. Moreover, I know intimately how efficient riding a bike to work or play can be. And if there’s one thing capitalism hammers into adherents early and often it’s find efficiencies or perish.

My Havana ride: Frances

A secondary and complimentary reason why bikes are going to come back into fashion is that Cuban women are beginning to feel the pressure to shape up. This isn’t a health craze, far from it. Instead, the pear/guitar-shaped figure that has always driven Cuban men mad is being supplanted by standards of developed world beauty. This super skinny/no hips archetype is problematic for a culture bred and bothered on fat asses and love handles – for centuries the ideal Cuban woman was one who had something you could grab onto. But slowly, surely, Cuba is headed for Barbie land – because buying into what they’re selling is what the “free” market does best. It makes me sad; one of the joys of this place for me is its proud nonconformity to dominant paradigms.

2. Pull back on car sales/private taxis.
Day by day, Havana’s streets become more dangerous, traffic-jammed, and accident-prone. This isn’t surprising considering the number of vehicles – new and rebuilt – that have been injected in a short period of time into a city laid out centuries ago. This is thanks to the relative ease with which cars can be bought and sold now, but there are other, less obvious, reasons why our streets are more perilous for motorists and pedestrians alike.

First, a small, but important change was made recently affecting the fixed taxi almendrones that ply main avenues around town: beginning last year, owners of those cars were permitted to subcontract out the vehicle to other drivers. Whereas previously only the owner could hack his car, now he can hire a driver to do the drudge work, freeing said owner to claim his spot at the domino table, slug back rum, and rake in cash. And the driving “skills” of some of these hired drivers are downright scary: they barrel down heavily-traveled thoroughfares at breakneck speeds; learn their routes – even how to drive – on the job; fight with unstable steering columns; and fiddle with the regguetón videos on their dashboard-mounted screens (thereafter becoming engrossed in the soft porn therein).

So bad drivers, in cars they know less intimately than some of their fares, is only part of the problem. The other part is that for the first time, SUVs are on the scene and in the hands of Cubans. This has a two-fold effect: first, these behemoths limit the sight lines of other drivers – I dare you to try and drive a Polski behind a Land Rover and test my assertion – and second, they give drivers an (increased) sense of invincibility.

Itty bitty Polski, photo by Caitlin Gorry

So I predict pullback. The market itself will play its part since the number of Cubans who can afford cars is finite (and prices are insane right now: $8000 or so for a used Lada or one of the aforementioned Polskis). Furthermore, the state will also be motivated to cap the number of cars on the road since accidents are among the top five causes of death here. And there have been a lot of accidents in my neck of the woods lately.

3. People will tire of the 50 cent pepper and the 5 dollar shot.
While outsiders and the foreign press, farmers and their middlemen praise recent economic changes allowing for direct food sales, ag cooperatives, and prices based on what the market will bear, my opinion is decidedly…measured.

I’m not as gaga over these developments for the simple reason that I subscribe to Mandela’s sage observation that ‘where you stand depends on where you sit.’ And if you’re sitting on mountains (or even molehills) of disposable cash, the reforms affecting food production and sales are deliciously welcome. Tomatoes in July, avocadoes in October, exotic crops like broccoli, cauliflower – the diversity and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 19-year love affair with Cuba. But if you’re struggling to make ends meet – if you’re sitting with the Cuban 99% – all of this is moot because you can’t afford any of it.

Green peppers, onions, and beans (staples all) are so astronomically priced these days, going to the agro can feel like a museum experience for many of us – except going to a museum feeds the soul, while food out of your financial reach just feeds your hunger and a simmering rancor (see note 2). In the veggie markets charging what they can (as opposed to state markets where prices are capped), produce is at least double the price. The guys wheeling carretillas from street to street, carts heavily-laden with bounty bought from those subsidized state markets, resell at triple the price.

Those who can afford exotic and not so produce at whatever price are largely oblivious to this I’ve noticed. They shop happily at the ‘diplo-agros’ (ie affordable only to the foreign diplomatic corps and other 1%-ers) for carrots, bok choy, white onions, parsley and lettuce – none of which are available, at any price, at the state markets where the rest of us shop.

Price distortions and places for “us” and others for “them,” are dangerous to the social fabric, especially because the gap isn’t only widening, it’s deepening. Translation: the types of goods and services available to only a select portion of the population is growing, while those locked out of those options is also growing.

I went to a “private” bar last weekend where cocktails started at $5 (see note 3) and topped out at $25 for a highball of Johnnie Walker Blue. Seems to me we’re on a bad course when my neighbors exist on rice and lentils; you can get laid by a working gal for $10; and too many people can’t afford toilet paper, but you can sidle up to a bar in your knock-off Blahniks and drop the average monthly Cuban salary on a glass of whiskey. It’s not only gastronomic that has gone astronomic: some state concert venues have doubled, and in some cases quadrupled, ticket prices, putting culture out of reach of many, as well (see note 4).

Don’t get me wrong: part of this distortion is due to decades of over-subsidizing and preferential pricing. But price spikes without concomitant salary increases is not only dangerous, it’s cruel: those punished are disproportionately poor or those doggedly dedicated to the revolutionary project who’ve tried to do good; do gooders never get rich, this much we know.

The price/salary disconnect is a hot topic around here these days and I predict backlash – a rash of failed restaurants which won’t make it selling $10 pasta and $15 pork; a rejection of easy and exotic, but expensive, options for procuring raw foods like from the uncapped markets and carretillas; and a growing gap and related aggravation between the haves and have nots.

4. Major changes in leadership.
Got your attention now, don’t I? But this is far from news: Raúl and the historic leadership are facing biological inevitabilities, plus, that same leadership recently instituted term limits of two consecutive five-year terms. So this is more affirmation than prediction, and while it remains to be seen who will walk the halls of power and policy in the coming years, I know there are some good and fair, wickedly smart, and hard working people to choose from. For their future and ours, I predict: no es fácil, pero tampoco imposible (it’s not easy, but neither is it impossible).

1. There are some notable exceptions of course: I worked with the fabulous Fabiola López while in Haiti after the earthquake; Julia Osendi, who covers sports for Televisión Cubana, has more guara than most; and Rolando Segura, who has been covering Africa and the Middle East lately, does a bang up job.

2. For this same reason I reject sidewalk cafes – you need only walk by such a place, once, your stomach knotted with hunger and no means to quell it, and smell a juicy burger to know the inherent cruelty in taunting hungry people with a meal close enough to touch, but out of reach. People, I beg you: take meals inside if there’s any chance a hungry soul will happen by (eg in big cities and on busy streets).

3. A non-drinker for years, I stuck to the $1.50 Tu Kola.

4. Just today I received a note about a new disco charging a $10 cover.



Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Fidel Castro, Raul Castro

24 responses to “Crystal Balling Cuba

  1. Pingback: Crystal Balling Cuba | Home Far Away From Home

  2. Pamela simon

    Another great article, Conner. Bikes may come back but like everything else are they not expensive and limited in supply?

    • Thanks Pamela. Like many things here, there are mitigating factors re bike cost. First, there are bikes in CUC and bikes in MN. That’s always the biggest/most important factor! If you know the right people, you can get a MN bike at a reasonable price. Then there’s the quality of the bike, if it is rebuilt from parts, if you buy it in a store, if you buy it stolen, por la izquierda etc etc.

      There are horribly crappy mt bikes from China in the stores for about $300 and there are old flying pigeons for $30 or so….

  3. Mary

    Tell us about your close call with Isaac.

    • Here in Havana, Isaac was a non event, gracias a los/as dioses/as. Basically, it is good for our plants, grass, and embalses (reservoirs). I have been through some fierce and scary hurricanes here (a couple cat. 5) and something like Isaac is child’s play and practice for our readiness.

      But it looks like it IS becoming a hurricane on its way to Florida. Poor Republicans. hehehehe.

  4. Ole

    Well. I appreciate your honesty, Conner, but am missing whom you blame.

    Is it the rapacious Capitalists yet again, or perhaps the failed Socialist Paradise?

    Or is no blame to be laid? Just the rough transition as Cuba enters the real World?
    I remember finding broccoli at a market many years back, and being delighted to introduce this healthy vegetable to my Cuban family! Needless to say, my efforts were not fully appreciated- i ate a Lot of broccoli, while they wolfed the cole, pepino y tomate.

    i hate to think of the traffic problems should many more autos enter the grid- it will not be pretty.

    I reminisce about the days before Obama let 400,000 Cuban Immigrants have the right to return yearly, and i was a King of sorts, alone and with efectivo to spend.

    Alas, Cuba will never be what it once was for me, and with the wife here in the Imperalist Norte, I am less likely to ever return- I prefer Cartagena.

    Good Luck. May you get Guillermo Farinas, and not Ramirito Valdes after the two Castro Despots are dead and buried.

    Ciao, pescao.


  5. What you are describing, particularly in #3, is the inevitable and saddening widening of the gap as as socialist system attempts to move into a more ‘liberal’ economy. I have lived in Vietnam and Laos and seen this, and of course the Chinese middle class is now travelling the world.

    • You got it. And the vietnam model is the one we’re most closely adapting/morphing with lots of small businesses and the state attending the bigger picture.

      • Ole

        But after the first 10,000 pizza stands are up and running in the New Socialist/semi-Capitalist Paradise, there may have to be a further step, would you not agree?

        And with a would be entreprenuer now facing $10 CUC per kilo import duty on the stuff he needs to get up and running,which are unavailable from Cuban State sources, might that be a slight impediment to the hoped for VietNam model?

        Just asking. Would never want to burst your cubana wannabe Bubble, but is it possible at All that the Masters are not really serious about all this private enterprise thing?

        Let’s wait till the two brothers are dead and buried. Then we may see, and then we may not.
        But when the daughter of the Vice President of Cuba defects to the US, then What must the rest who will be inevitably left behind think?

        Ah, mija- I think I will go with the rayas de rojo. Con el Tomi Bohama. LOL!

      • Wholesale stores/prices for small businesses are key to helping these new enterprises succeed, and must happen soon, agreed. The duty-free food imports were never intended for small businesses, however, but for families (the tax free regs for food pre-date the economic reforms allowing private business) and so no, I think those folks with a good business plan, sufficient money to invest, and the agallas to work long and hard will make it. The govt says 80% of these new businesses will fail w/i a year (par for the small biz course anywhere in the world) – that’s capitalism!

        And yes, I do think the govt is serious about this private business model, but it’s a question of competing priorities. Change is painful and takes time.

        Your posts, Ole, are regaining that ornery tone that we’ve talked about before (and there are some real oddball comments also, which, since not relevant, I’ve chosen not to post); please keep it civil.

  6. Brigitte

    Dear Conner, once again, you made my day, thank you so much for your virtual cremitas de leche and for sharing your insights habaneras!
    Note 1, barbie bodies: indeed, for the first time in almost 20 years of my cuban love affair, I talked some days ago to (“perfect”) cuban women (in their 30ties) who a) told me that they are thinking about plastic surgery and b) that they are panic about put on weight. Still, most women (and men) are soooo enviably relaxed about body norms. But I’m sure the influence of international model/publicity business will increase in Cuba too. Resently I read in a foreign newspaper about women who are ashamed about eating in presence of their lover/husband… welcome to Absurdistan. I hope so much too that cubans save themselfes a big piece of nonconformity.
    Note 2, car accidents: You forgot an important detail: how cubans get their driving licence: if they don’t reach the demanded points to pass the exam, with a bottle of whisky to the examiner you get the licence (seen 3 weeks ago in Havana). Another point to mention: If you have ever seen cubans repairing their cars (and you know that everybody living in Cuba does), you know that the cars are “un invento”. My father-in-law repaired his Polski that conkes out every single day because of another reason, with parts of Bucanero-cans and superglue…
    Note 3, prices: absurd pricing in hotel swimming pools in Havana: most of them raised the entry prices for non-hotel-guests. At some places you pay now 15-20 CUC (2 years ago it was 5CUC). As we asked the hotel staff about the high increase in prices, we got a “remarkable” explanation: foreign hotel guests were complaining about too many cubans in the pool area so they fixed a price that is out of reach for most of them. Another thing, difficult to understand: Mostly you pay 20 CUC to enter and 15 of it is “a consumir” what means a) you eat about 5 pizzas or b) you’ll get completely drunk/your blodd turns to sugar syrup. (We (a group) wen’t home with 20 TuKola cans and 9 Pizzas in a plastic bag).
    Love to Havana!

    • Brigitte: thanks for helping the conversation along! love it. Plastic surgery is becoming big here – I’ve had many a conversation with friends from 16 to 80 about this new trend (newish anyway: ladies of a certain age were always getting facelifts here) and it breaks my heart a little bit each time I hear a beautiful young and fit woman talk about getting her breasts enlarged. Im all for live your dreams (it’s my motto!) and doing what makes you happy (as long as it doesn’t hurt someone else) but Im also Nature Girl to a fault and know that these standards are forcefed women and are, on the whole, unhealthy.

      On the drivers license: I know this intimately. Up close and smell the spooge intimately because I got my driver’s license here 2 years ago. People cheating on the written and buying their way out of the road test: yes I saw it. But as you’ll read here: bribing a Cuban cop isn’t as easy as it may seem and getting a license here (legally), harder still.

      On pool prices: I guess my predictive powers ARE pretty good: I wrote about Cuban tourists driving away foreigners at this time last year.

  7. Candysita

    Oye, mi hija, best come live in my pretty town in the Oriente, where bicycles have always been the primary method of transportation, along with horse-drawn wagon-taxis, modified bicycle moving “vans” , and horses. One market on Saturday, the most exotic thing is beet leaves (that up until recently my suppliers would provide for nothing until I would clean them out of it). Beer is still 85 cents (CUC) for a tourist brand, 25 CUP’s for a domestic, everyone gets into the public swimming pool for free ( best not to go first thing in the a.m. as it doubles as the local meeting place for lovers at night and it might take a while for the water to clear). Never seen any high end brands of liquor for sale and although the young chicos pant over the skinny yumas that come to town, they still always end up with someone with congris substance.

  8. Amazingly insightful and beautifully written as usual! Any predictions about the upcoming U.S. election and the potential effect (s) it will have in Cuba/on Americans wishing to travel to Cuba?
    P.S. I am about 7 months into my love affair with Cuba- here’s to many more!

    • Hmmm. You ask a tricky question since the answer is not at all logic dependent as the last 5 decades of this policy has shown! but I like a challenge so here goes:

      If Obama wins: he’ll have to find his cojones and fly in the face of the lobbyist/legacy to drop the embargo (even the parts he can amend w/o Congressional approval)

      If Romney wins: he’ll have to grow ovarios to do anything positive vis-a-vis Cuba.

      • Pamela Simon

        Romney and Ryan both mentioned Cuba in the same breath as Iran during their convention speeches. Hmmm. AND asked Cuban/American Senator Rubio to introduce Romney. Hmmm.

  9. shane

    Well, although not really a post about Cuba per se, the view from the UK (and indeed Europe) is that Romney and his Cohorts (or should that be Co-whores) would set the US, back 60 years,…surely Americans are intelliigent enough not to vote for the likes of Romney/Ryan, for God’s sake what can they offer that Obama doesn’t?

    • What Im afraid of Shane is that Americans are racist enough to not vote for Obama….which answers your question: R & R offer white skin.

      Never underestimate the power of prejudice (or good sex).

  10. BG

    Much like Asia, Cuba should produce/sell less cars and more CoCo taxis. The autoricks of Bangalore dominate the streets, although there was only one time that the meter was turned on – much like the NY of old…

    • Producing cars won’t happen – we don’t have the industrial capacity, economies of scale, etc but smaller, more efficient and ecological options should definitely be a policy! Thanks for writing in.

  11. Pingback: Conner Gorry on Living in Cuba as An American Ex Patriot

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