Category Archives: Raul Castro

Day 1, Year 0: Cuba and the USA

A bunch of people have asked about what I, CCG, personally think about recent groundbreaking announcements vis-à-vis Cuba, the US, and their respective release of prisoners. Some of you folks who follow my blog, but also a rash of people who read my dispatch for the Daily News (New York’s hometown paper!), came around querying. So to complacer them, you, and me, I’ll give you some of my thoughts on this, Day 1 of Year 0.

For me, the tangible effects this is going to have on Cuban families (and I mean that in the most expansive, criollo way possible) is the most important issue. Any improvement in trade, telecommunications, travel, postal and embassy (!) services, immigration policies, and transparency, translates into some sort of improvement for Cuban families. Ahora: the question is at what cost those improvements? Therein lies the rub, which is why it deserves is own short discussion.

I’m hearing a lot of static in the international media/blogosphere about the ‘Americanization’ of Cuba. First off, I suggest anyone using this term study up on Simón Bolívar, with a little José Martí thrown in for good measure. Second, the idea that US companies like McDonald’s and Starbuck’s are going to roll in and over the island disregards two very important components of the Cuban political reality: 1) the state remains steadfast in its commitment to complete sovereignty and 2) they’ve been thinking about this day for over 50 years. It also ignores two important factors in Cuban daily reality: 1) there are more pressing material problems than satisfying a Big Mac/Frappuccino craving and 2) policy makers are aware of the health dangers (ie chronic disease) burgers and milkshakes pose and so should work to keep them out – protecting public health is especially important in Cuba where the government maintains a universal, free system and regards health and well being as a human right.

Taking these realities into account doesn’t mean that no US chains will stake their claims here, but I think the Cubans will be strategic about whom they let in. Marriott, Hilton and other hotels, Cargill, ADM, and their big ag interest friends, Home Depot, telecommunications providers – these are all likely candidates for early entry into the Cuban market. McDonalds and Starbucks, not so much. Maybe it’s too rosy a picture, but I don’t think the folks running the show are just going to open the floodgates and let US interests run roughshod over the place.

The ‘run run’ (as we say here) amongst some, is that the policy changes won’t stick or even be enacted. One camp reasons the Cubans will finesse a flip flop, while the other argues the US Congress and/or next President (should it not be a Democrat or Rand Paul), will roll back whatever Obama and company have in store for the next year. These bits of ‘logic’ defy logic. First of all, the Cubans would be completely loco to announce such policy changes and then not pursue them – this is just a recipe for disaster given the current context on the island. And as far as Washington goes, US business interests want in on Cuba, like yesterday. The bottom line (pun intended): The desire for increased commerce and trade will trump any tantrums thrown by hard-line Cubans and Republicans regarding Cuba. As Obama has said repeatedly (paraphrasing Einstein), pursuing the same actions over and over again and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. And the embargo is a self-defeating policy – another opinion voiced by President Obama in these past few days.

Leaving politics aside, this is an incredibly emotional moment – especially for those of us who have been adversely affected and working so tirelessly to have this Draconian policy reversed. Obviously, change isn’t going to happen with the flip of a switch. There are a lot of messy threads to untangle, many policies and steps to analyze and tweak. For example, the 50% or so of Televisión Cubana that is pirated from US channels – HBO, Showtime, Discovery, ESPN – is going to go by the wayside, sooner rather than later. But after ‘no es fácil’ (it isn’t easy), our favorite saying here is ‘algo es algo’ (something is better than nothing). And the announcements of this past week are a very big something.

Just now, my 51-year old neighbor stopped by. “I never thought I would live to see the day. I knew The Five would return home in my lifetime, but I never thought I’d be alive to witness the normalization of relations. It is a great, great moment in our history.” She came over to congratulate me on the new era of US-Cuban relations (this is happening all over Havana these days: whether stranger, friend or neighbor, everyone is greeting each other with claps on the back, hugs and shouts of ¡felicidades!) and to let me know she’s already renovating a room in her house to rent to Americans, once they can travel here freely.

Personally, I can’t wait. Vamos bien.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Communications, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, Raul Castro, Travel to Cuba

Cuba: What You Know but Don’t Realize

Over the years, I’ve dedicated (probably too) many hours analyzing, writing, editing, and commenting about the differences between here and there. The ‘there’ of which I speak is the US – from where I hail – but could easily be anywhere North, whither Big Macs and reality television conspire to make people fat and stupid.

Did I just say that? You betcha. I’m sorry if that applies to you, but my internal editor has been on sabbatical ever since a guy richer than Croesus got all up in my grill dissing Cuba like he actually knew what he was talking about.

Which is part of what sparked this post.

There’s a type of visitor here – usually imperious, moneyed men skidding down the hill of middle age towards moldering (and the aforementioned rich fulano fits the bill) – who has Cuba all figured after four days here. Sometimes even before getting here. Cuba is more complex than you could have imagined, you’re more close-minded than you care to admit, and your facile analysis belies the intelligence I’m sure you evidence in your back home life. For those in this category, I’ve crafted this post to clue you in. Just a little.

First, we’re facing a wave of economic, paradigmatic change here without precedent. It roils with an energy confusing, contradictory and encouraging (in its way), towards our shores. Indeed, already it’s breaking on our eroding sands. Like a tow surfer (see note 1) whose very survival depends on accurately calculating wave height, speed, and interval, while accounting for hidden (i.e. underwater) and surface (i.e. other surfers and their support crews) factors, we’re gauging the wave, trying to maintain balance, remain upright, and most importantly, keep from being sucked under.

But as any tow surfer will tell you: surviving a 75-foot wave and riding it are two entirely different experiences – as different as summiting Everest with throngs of weekend warriors as attaining the peak without oxygen. One simply takes money and some machismo and motivation; the other requires experience, training, skill, meticulous preparation, and a measure of karma and respect born of intimacy with the context.

So as this monster, freak wave feathers and breaks over Havana, I want to ride it, not simply survive it. And to do that, I – we – have to measure and analyze the conditions, bring our skills and knowledge to bear, channel positive energy, and ensure our fear is healthily spiked with faith. The first step in successfully positioning ourselves to ride this wave, it seems to me, is to understand the culture, in all its contradictory complexities, which brought us to…right…now…

While many emphasize the differences between here and there, between the land of Big Macs and the tierra de pan con croqueta, I take this opportunity to explain how we are the same:

Opinions vary: One of the questions I field most often is: do people like Fidel/Raúl/socialism/the revolution? This is as absurd as asking do people like Obama/capitalism/federalism? Setting aside the fact that the question itself is unsophisticated and dopey (governance and mandate are not about like or dislike but rather about measurable progress and peace within a society, plus, any –ism is just theory; it’s how it works in practice that counts), I posit that it all depends on whom you ask. Up there, a brother from the Bronx is unlikely to share views with a Tea Party mother of two. Similarly, an 18-year old from Fanguito won’t agree with a doctor from Tercer Frente.

It’s obvious, but visitors tend to forget that here, like there, you must consider the source when posing such questions. Less obvious is that here, it also depends on how you ask the question. But that’s a more advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

People like stuff: On the whole, Cubans are voracious shoppers – always have been, always will be. Whether it’s shoes, books, handbags, wooden/porcelain/glass/papier mâché tschotskes, fake flowers, clothes, or packaged food, Cubans will buy it. Or at the very least browse and touch and dream of buying it. Some folks – like the ones who inspired this post – deny capitalist, consumerist culture ever existed in Cuba before now, revealing their lack of knowledge. I’m embarrassed for them; on the upside, it means many up there are clueless to fact that if you dropped a jaba bursting with a new pair of Nikes and Ray Bans, iPod (or better yet, Pad), some Levis, a pound of La Llave, gross of Trojans, and a couple bottles of Just For Men on every Cuban doorstep, with a note instructing them to come over to the imperialist dark side, a lot, the majority even, would do it. Being Cuban, a lot would pledge to ditch and switch just for the swag, of course, but that too, is an advanced topic beyond the purview of this post.

Until that day, folks here are gobbling up stuff as fast as the shelves can be stocked. In short, todo por un dolar is rivaling hasta la victoria siempre as most popular slogan around here.

It’s all about the kids: Here, as there, parents want a better life for their kids. While what constitutes “better” (again, here as there) depends on whom you ask, this desire to leave a more comfortable/equitable/safe/luxurious life and legacy to one’s kids is human nature. It drives people to rickety rafts, May Day parades, and long, hard overseas postings. It makes parents compromise their own mental health, spend beyond their means and completely subsume their own lives to their children’s. Case in point: have you ever seen what a Cuban goes through – psychically, financially – to celebrate a daughter’s quince? Hundreds, thousands of dollars and days, months, years of preparation are spent for the all-important photos, party, clothes, and gifts for their darling little girls. Families living six to a room in Centro Habana spending $5000 for their 15-year old’s celebration remind me of US folks who scrimp, struggle, and sacrifice to pay for their kid’s wedding/down payment/tuition. Children first – at all cost and any price, here as there.

We are the best in the world: Drop in anytime, anywhere in Cuba or the US and whomever you encounter will profess their country is the best. Greatness or weakness such bravado and pride? A little of both, I figure. That such hubris has contributed to where we are today, riding the wave, I have no doubt.

Notes
1. I’ve just finished reading The Wave, a spectacularly, adventurously researched and highly readable book on giant waves and the guys – tow surfers – who live to ride them. Check it out.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Cuban Revolution, dream destinations, Expat life, Fidel Castro, Living Abroad, Raul Castro, Travel to Cuba

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).

Notes
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.

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Let Us Pray

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] I ventured once again outside my comfort zone yesterday here in Havana: I went to mass. It was as oppressive (and let’s be frank – hypocritical) as I remember from Jesuit high school (see note 1), although this one was presided over by the big Catholic kahuna himself, Pope Benedict XVI. It was also mercifully short.

While I’m sure you’re oversaturated with ‘The Pope in Cuba’ news up your way, one of the indelible lessons I’ve learned in my 10 years of island residency is that the picture you get of here from there – especially when refracted through the lense of reporters sent to cover such an event – does not accurately reflect what we’re experiencing on the ground. It’s not only that every media outlet from The Militant to FoxNews has an agenda. The view is skewed also because Cuba newbies rarely grasp the complexities of our context (see note 2), nor the attendant history influencing those complexities. You don’t get this perspective unless you’ve been around and stick around and only if you speak Spanish – even a translator is no guarantee (see note 3).

So let me tell you about the mass I attended yesterday under a blazing sun, delivered by a frog-like man in a funny hat.

What folks are saying: One of the pervasive myths about Cubans is that they’re afraid to speak their minds or offer opinions, and that self-censorship is rampant. While it’s undeniable that people keep their heads far below the parapet in the workplace and have the tendency to adjust responses to what they think people want to hear, I’ve always found Cubans to be fiercely opinionated – once you get to know them. Or more to the point: once they get to know you.

The Pope’s visit confirmed this impression.

“I’m so sick of this Pope.”

“Wasn’t he a Fascist?”

“I’ll come by your house once The Almighty Pope leaves and things calm down.”

“Son of a b@&*h! The Pope took our Internet.” (see note 4)

“Faith, hope, and peace: that’s what it’s all about.”

Rocking our rum-pork-party holy trinity: Another element piquing my interest was how Cubans approached this whole Papal visit. Essentially, yesterday felt much like hurricane preparation and landfall: people laid in stores and stayed home watching events unfold on TV, with some chicharrones and a bottle of rum close at hand. Except – and this was a rude awakening for several of my unprepared friends – authorities instituted a booze ban the evening before, which lasted until the Pope Mobile and its cargo were safely at the airport. So those who didn’t lay in the ron were homebound with pork, friends, and family, but no curda. In my decade here, I only recall a few alcohol-free events: election days are always dry and if I’m not mistaken, they did the same during the Non-Aligned Summit here in 2006. Let me tell you: no rum makes Havana kinda grumpy.

Revenue coup: The cleverness of Cuba never ceases to amaze me and yesterday didn’t disappoint once I saw the huge numbers of tourists in the Plaza for mass. My first clue was the distinguished older gentleman of means dressed in khakis, a pink Oxford, and penny loafers, with not a gin and tonic in sight; clearly not one of us. I started looking closely at the crowd and their clothes and distinguishing different accents. Nicaragua, Argentina, Chile, Panama, the DR, USA, PR, Mexico, Venezuela – flags from all across Latin America snapped in the wind whipping across the Plaza and I realized that aside from the pride and so-called “soft power” the Papal visit signified, it also represented a hugely-needed and greatly-appreciated influx of tourist cash. There wasn’t a hotel room to be found; paladares overflowed; extra charter flights were added from Florida. And all Habaneros (save for cops and docs), were given a paid day off. This is the type of devotion we could use more of and we thank you for supporting the cause.

The US matters less: After Juan Pablo II’s visit in 1998, Bill Clinton’s White House issued a press release announcing new policies ostensibly resulting from this historic trip. Most importantly, the release approved people-to-people visits in order to foment “regime change” and “promote a peaceful transition to democracy” – concepts mentioned no fewer than six times in the short document. Blatantly threatening the national sovereignty of an independent and peaceful country thusly is absurd enough, but that Obama maintains precisely the same policies and parrots exactly the same rhetoric 14 years later – that’s just loco. While the US is embarrassingly and unjustly static in its policy, the world and importantly, Cuba has changed, is changing still. Raúl is a different bird from his brother and that manifests itself in many ways, including less of the ping pong policy-making that based decisions on what the bully to the North was doing. That’s how it looks publically anyway.

holy jama!


As anti-climactic as the Immaculate Conception: I’m sure you’ve already divined that the religious importance of having his Holiness here held no interest for me and in this I’m not alone: I’ve never seen an event so thinly attended in the iconic Plaza de la Revolución in my 10 years here. In fact, we strolled into the central area just a few moments before the 9:30 mass kicked off and were going against the current of people streaming away from the square. “I came and took the pictures I wanted; I’m going home,” a friend I ran into said. The curiosity seekers and thin crowds were surprising but make sense: as a whole, Cubans just aren’t that church-y. Religious and faith-bound, yes, but that’s different from kneeling before a man in a dress and goofy hat while he proselytizes a doctrine peppered with sins bound to doom your mortal soul. Cubans just aren’t down with that, but they do love a spectacle: one of my favorite moments was when a women who wanted to taste the host tried to fake her way through the motions while the priest held the wafer aloft. When he caught on, he patted her on the head and returned the host to his jaba. Though the Pope himself failed to inspire, Cubans never do.

Notes

1. This, Fidel and I have in common, except those same Jesuits expelled me my junior year (another story entirely!)

2. A simple example: journalists arrive here and compose some flaccid or purply prose (even leading with it occasionally, dios mío) about all the old cars rumbling about. For those of us with continuity here, that’s ‘dog bites man.’ The more compelling, ‘man bites dog’ story is the unbelievable amount of new cars on the road and what that means for traffic, transport options, pollution, etc.

3. The press conference by Foreign Minister Bruno Rodriguez upon the Pope’s arrival is case in point: his response to an English-speaking reporter about “freedom of consciousness” was elegant and sweeping in the original Spanish, mangled and less inspired in English.

4. Cuba has limited bandwidth due to the US embargo-cum-blockade which prohibits the island from connecting to underwater cables running nearby. Instead, the connection for the entire island is provided by a sole, slow Italian satellite. This bandwidth was prioritized for visiting press so they could report live from Cuba. It’s back now, thankfully, obviously.

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Black Market a lo Cubano

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If you follow my blog or any similarly semi-intelligent Cuba-related news outlet, you know that things are fast a-changin’ on this side of the Straits. For those out of the loop: in April, 2011, a series of unprecedented policies – which amount to a new (and not without substantial risk) economic paradigm for the country – were approved at the Sixth Communist Party Congress (see note 1).

Though some of my Cuban friends gripe that change isn’t happening fast enough, I’ve been surprised by how many new policies have come to pass as promised: private sales of homes and cars, relaxed regulations for paladares and casas particulares, and the approval of nearly 200 pursuits and services for private enterprise. Other movement towards so-called normalcy is slower and more complicated still: unifying the two official currencies, salary increases, and phasing out the permiso de salida (see note 2) among them.

What these changes will mean for the most vulnerable remains to be seen and I have not a few friends here tormented by uncertainty, anxiety, and a generalized malaise in the face of it all. Uppermost in their hearts and minds: what might these changes mean for the political, social, and ethical tenor of the revolutionary project so many have fought so long to strengthen and so hard to save?

Some days it feels like it’s all going kablooey – that the Cuba we’ve known is reserved now for dewy-eyed nostalgics fingering grainy photos of the 10 million ton harvest. And this is heart breaking to people who have survived so much drama and tragedy: the rending of families in the 60s and 70s, (plus the Bay of Pigs and Missile Crisis), followed by the Mariel boat lift and collapse of the Eastern Bloc in the 80s which led to the torturous Special Period of the 90s. Then there was Fidel passing the baton to hermanito Raúl which I guarantee looks different from your off-island perspective than from ours here in Havana. And let’s not forget the 50 years of sabotage (both bald-faced and covert) by the behemoth to the north, to say nothing of terrorist attacks by US-sheltered individuals and groups.

So before it all goes kaboom (a day late and a dollar short, perhaps?), I’m determined to document the Cuba I’ve known for the past 10 years and the attendant change as accurately, responsibly, and comprehensively as possible. Today, I turn to an examination of the black market.

Jeans and stilettos, perfume and gas. Cigars of course, but also ice cream (Coppelia, the country’s best), and iMacs, milk and meat: it’s all available on Havana’s black market – if you have the hookup or happen upon someone “repurposing” Cuban Clorox or café. In the interest of full disclosure, I have very little direct experience with the black market (or parallel market as Cubans call it) despite a decade in residence; I have no car, so no need for gas, I buy my meat off the cement, fly-spotted counters at my local carnicería, and would love a Mac but don’t earn enough to join that club. Besides, all that shit is stolen (see note 3) and I’ve had enough stuff vicked in my life to know that if you ain’t part of the stolen goods solution, you’re definitely part of the problem.

But then the moral high ground begins to shift (Cuba is funny like that).

—–

Every once in a while, a kind-faced granny shows up at my door selling either eggs (see note 4) or powdered milk – a key ingredient in the Cuban kitchen. Someone on the block must have told her an extranjera lives in Apt 5 because she came straight to my door that first time, knocked hard and called me La Rusa (“The Russian” – old stereotypes die hard). She’s a bit gnarled and I can tell from the edge in her voice and the fade of her blouse that times are tough for the milk-peddling abuelita. Unfortunately, when I need eggs, she has milk; when I want milk, she has eggs. So even though I was keen to help her out, our supply and demand algorithm never quite jived. Last week, her friendly face appeared anew at my door.

“I have eggs,” she said.

“So do I. How about milk?” I asked.

She didn’t have any that day but promised to “resolve” some; I promised to buy it once she did.

Sitting in my office yesterday whittling a Tweet down to 140 characters instead of working, I once again heard her hearty knock at my door. Smiling big, she told me she had three sacks of milk for sale at $2 a pop (a 50 cent savings over the official store price). I agreed to take one, glad I was finally getting the chance to help out granny. Until she pulled the sachet from her frayed knapsack: I, we both, were taking milk from the mouths of Cuban babes. What my elderly friend was selling was the milk the government guarantees to every child under 7 and I’d just purchased 600 grams of it. I knew that milk wasn’t going to be too tasty. 

—–

This transaction got me to thinking about where all this stolen stuff comes from and put me in mind of my friend Alberto. He has an old Lada on which his livelihood depends. Driving around recently, I noticed a balón de gas (the 20-lb tanks used here for home cooking) wedged behind his seat. Seems Alberto had converted his gas-powered car into a propane-propelled one.

This was a smart investment on his part: although the conversion kit cost $350 and had to be imported from abroad, Alberto fills that tank – which takes him 120 km or so – on the black market for just $5. By way of comparison, that same $5 would buy 15 liters of real gas on the black market; just over four at the pump. I’m glad Alberto has figured a way to enlarge his margins, but wonder about the families who show up to fill their kitchen tanks to be told “no hay” (there isn’t any).

This same pattern repeats itself with steaks and blocks of Gouda, stamps for official paperwork (I was surprised to be asked to produce receipts for my bank-bought stamps on my last visit to immigration) and cooking oil. And while I can appreciate the need for every last Cuban having to do something (or something extra-legal) to make ends meet, the more I parse the situation, the more unsettling it becomes.

And it makes me realize that a certain amount of that aforementioned moral ground is shifting below my feet. At these times I’m forced to ask myself: is this is a part of Cuban culture I wish to participate in? Unluckily for my milk-thieving granny, it is not. But I’m sure she’ll find other clients: as long as there are commodities like oil, meat, and milk to “redirect,” and resell for pure profit, folks will do it.

 As I said: old habits die hard.

 Notes

1. These political powwows are held every so often (the last was in 1997) or mejor dicho: whenever sufficient excrement threatens to make contact with the cooling element, if you know what I mean.

2. All of these issues came to the fore in nationwide public referendum-type debates held in late 2010. The permiso de salida is an exit permit which is mandatory for overseas travel by Cubans and residents. It earns the country revenue, but is also a barrier to travel – an issue that has to be reconciled somehow and soon.

 3. Except the goods in the black market Mac store. None of this is stolen, but rather all new, in-the-box gear with warranty and all, purchased in Miami and spirited into the country.

 4. Eggs aren’t usually stolen either, but rather the product of home-raised hens.

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Cuban Tourism 2.0

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New tourism figures were released by Cuba recently and the news isn’t good: arrivals are up (as fans are quick to point out), but revenues are down (as detractors never fail to underscore). Regardless of your love/hate bent (see note 1), the seeming contradiction between more arrivals but less profits makes sense since a Canadian can fly into Varadero and stay a week at an all-inclusive resort for less than a Toronto-Havana plane ticket alone. 

Visitors up and profits down isn’t necessarily a bad thing in the short term save for one small detail: many first timers who visit Cuba say they won’t return.

So what’s a little island to do?

Followers of Here is Havana know my feelings about the golf course strategy Cuba is doggedly pursuing to attract foreign investment and visitors, so I won’t flog that dead horse further. Medical tourism is another growth sector reaping rewards, if the number of Cuban Americans passing through the doors of Cira Garcia (the foreigner hospital here) is any indication. But I’ve recently seen another side of Cuban tourism and it looks a lot like the DR.

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One element of Cuba’s tourism strategy many people don’t know about is the push to get locals into the mix (see note 2). In theory it’s a great tactic: offer unbelievable deals for the domestic market and watch those precious CUCs migrate from under mattresses and into the national coffers. In practice however, it looks more like this:

Voluminous flesh rolling from scanty beachwareCuban fashion is a force majeure under the best of circumstances, but take it to the seashore and it’s a Frederick’s of Hollywood train wreck. Lucite stilettos and lamé swimsuits with cutaway sides and gold buckles of unusual size, plus ridiculously shredded ‘cover-ups’ providing full on views of what four decades of congris does to a woman’s body – like a car crash, you want to look away, but can’t.

Drink, Eat, Sleep – There’s something of the spectacular watching Cubans scrum at an all-you-can-eat buffet. Let’s just say there isn’t a plate big enough for the piles of protein and starch they crave. As a work-around, friends and family members divvy up duties and fan out to the different stations, regrouping at their table with multiple plates so heavy they take two hands to hold: rice for 15, bread for a baseball team, mountains of pork chunks and potatoes, and coma-inducing towers of lard-laden sweets. Once the feeding frenzy begins, it blows over quickly, like a late afternoon thunderstorm. From the table, each diner to a one lumbers towards the nearest chaise lounge and passes out. Look for the beer bellies, listen for the snores.

Cost cutting & control – It’s not as bad as the old days when silverware had to be chained to the tables, but almost – on a recent visit to a beach installation that will remain nameless, it became clear that the cornerstone of the national tourism strategy is to maximize profits while limiting losses and cutting costs. I first realized it cruising the buffet. No exotic cheeses and pasta or steak stations like at other all-inclusives. For us it was claria and hot dogs, butter-less bread and shredded cabbage – more like a ‘comedor obrero’ (worker’s lunchroom) than a resort buffet, right down to the single salt shaker for the 200+ crowd. Other penny pinching measures included ‘honey’ that was really sugar water à la Special Period and to wash everything down, the choice of water or water (boiled, not bottled). No matter – the guajiro behind me at the buffet kept repeating breathlessly ‘está riquiquisisimo. ¡Riquiquisisimo!

Tipsy entertainers – If you’ve ever been to a Cuban all-inclusive resort, you know they’re gaga for animación – entertainment from pool volleyball to salsa classes provided by gregarious, often gorgeous, Cubans known as animadores. At the low-budget place where we went, the animadora was a sweet ‘temba’ (35+) who downed not one, not two, but three screwdrivers before leading the crowd in a rousing round of karaoke.

Then there’s the reggaetón and overall pachanga of which Cubans are so fond – partying and kanoodling, dancing and romping about – often in public places. Not helping matters any are the plastic plates littering the beach, along with cups and fluorescent plastic straws, napkins and even a dirty diaper or two – in spite of the garbage cans spaced along the shore like birds on a wire or lovers on the Malecón (see note 3).

 I wasn’t surprised that this resort was virtually foreigner-free (present company excepted). But I did realize on this trip that the most effective enforcer of so-called tourism apartheid is the almighty Market itself.  

Money talks, bullshit walks – welcome to the Cuba Tourism 2.0.

Notes

1. Longtime Cuba followers know three cardinal rules apply when analyzing any news item: 1) consider the source; 2) read between the lines; and 3) after applying rules #1 and #2, accept the fact that you’ll probably never know the full story.

2. Prior to 2008, Cubans were not permitted to stay in hotels and resorts, leading many to brand the policy ‘tourism apartheid.’ That policy was reversed by Raul Castro

3. Cubans’ aversion to trash cans is rivaled only by their aversion to flushing perfectly functional toilets. What up with that?

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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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