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Cuba Contradictory

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]While other bloggers are making their end-of-year lists, I’m just waiting for this year to end. Loss and sorrow is what 2011 has meant for me and while a turn of the calendar page won’t cure what ails me, you, or the world, it can provide a dose of hope – false and fleeting as it may be – to help us keep on stepping. Like a car with an empty gas tank, the warning light red and taunting, we know we’re running on fumes, but moving forward nonetheless; ‘bound to cover just a little more ground,’ as the song goes.

Havana circa December 2011 feels similar: we may be running on fumes, but at least we’re still running.

But that’s today. Other days, Havana hops with energy and enthusiasm and drive, where the theme song is instead ‘How do you like it? How do you like it? More, more, more’ – more millennial and hip, more sophisticated and noteworthy. This fuel injection comes from new economic regulations permitting private businesses, the buying and selling of cars and homes, and relaxed travel rules by Obama for Cubans in the USA wanting to visit family on the island (see note 1).

So how Havana feels largely depends on the day you measure her. And your outlook, what you see and experience, and who you talk to. Just like anywhere else, I suppose (if you’re paying close enough attention), except this place is like nowhere else. The contradictions are starker, more frequent, funnier.

Here are some that have caught my attention recently:

The Limousine/Ox-Drawn Cart

When Cubans of a certain means and bent get married, the bride and groom tour around town in a convertible festooned with satin bows, the novia perched atop the back seat waving to passersby while the driver lays on the horn (some honk out the wedding march, others the Godfather theme). But a few days ago, I crossed paths with the newest fad of the nouveau riche: the black tinted stretch limo (there’s only one) rented from Rex Autos covered in the same satin bows. There was no horn honking, however, and no visible bride – defeating entirely the purpose of showing off to plebes and passersby. I guess the thrill of a limo ride is reward enough for some and it did turn heads, including mine.

A short time later, I waited as two oxen were maneuvered with coos and stick by their expert handler. They carted behind them the water tank (known as the pipa in these parts), that makes the rounds of neighborhoods without municipal water. The pipa is the savior of all those homes and families which only have water un día sí, un día no (or even more infrequently).

Stretch limos and oxen carts; conspicuous consumption and water shortages: Es Cuba, my friends.

Penthouse Too Big/House Too Small

Estrella lives in a propiedad horizontal – a floor-through apartment. And it’s a penthouse no less. These huge, luxurious flats are found throughout Vedado high-rises and are more reminiscent of Manhattan than Havana. They usually feature phenomenal city and sea views but are also a pain in the ass – hard to clean and maintain, they’re also a real liability during hurricanes when their height, exposure, and plate glass windows put them in direct path and danger of the elements. For these reasons, Estrella is looking to permutar her penthouse for something closer to the ground, a more manageable home in short.

Contrast this with my friend Gloria – 68 and a spitfire who has dedicated her life’s work to helping the revolution work, she shares a bedroom with her 6-year old grandson and 10-year old granddaughter. If you know Cuba and the housing crisis we’re in, you know multi-generational sleeping arrangements are common. Except in Gloria’s case, she not only shares the room with her grandkids, but a double bed with the boy to boot. Sadly, this is also not terribly uncommon.

Both Estrella and Gloria are equally revolutionary and politically committed; this too, is Cuba, dear readers.

Chocolate-filled Churros/Pallid Pizza

As the new economic regulations gel, Cubans are figuring ways to live with the Gordian Knot that is capitalism. Folks with money to invest and a head for business are differentiating their products and services – and making money hand over fist as a result. The full-service car wash that everyone is talking about is one example of entrepreneurial pluck and vision, as is the nearby scuba school. Since I have no car and don’t dive, these are simply a curiosity for me. Not so the cafeteria selling chocolate-filled churros; jamaliche that I am, this development piqued my interest. Using a machine imported from Ecuador, these folks crank out a fried, filled sweet treat that drives Cubans gaga – and all for the nice price of 3 pesos (less than 15 cents). Also taking the city by storm is the burger and pizza joint with one of those inflatable playhouses kids love so much in the yard. While the kids jump and play, their parents nosh and drink, dropping a bundle in the process. According to my sources, this cafeteria is netting 1500 pesos a day (around $62 – not bad for a startup here).

Meanwhile, block upon block of new cafeterias sell the same forgettable hot dogs and egg sandwiches, bread spread with cloying mayo or croquettes. Some of these places serve terrible food – tasteless or cold, on day old bread or presented to customers just after the flies have been swatted away. Last week, I stopped by a new cafeteria in my neighborhood selling the smallest, palest, saddest pizza I’ve ever seen. With cheese congealing (despite being placed beneath an office lamp), the pathetic pizza sold at Rapidos around town look delectable in comparison. No wonder the government estimates 80% of these new businesses will fail within a year.

The contradictions abound caballeros. Every human and society has them. But we’ve recently had many complexities introduced into our reality here on the island which are deepening these contradictions. It’s a confusing time – anxiety-ridden once you scratch the surface – but it seems these complexities have also sparked a new line of critical thinking and reflection.

Over several visits with different friends and families over the past week, discussions have turned on the theory and opinion that what we’re experiencing today can largely be chalked up to the Special Period – that time in the 90s when the Cuban economy crashed and burned, threatening to take the Revolution with it. So that wouldn’t come to pass, people tightened their belts, took a hold of their bootstraps, and sallied forth. But at a cost. These conversations didn’t focus on what the new economy is or isn’t doing for our present, but rather the hard times of the past and how they eroded values, placed the pursuit of things over relationships, and planted the seeds of individual survival over the collective.

“We used to live here so naturally.”

“People changed overnight.”

“It was 180° turn, fast and dizzying.”

These are some of the comments made to me recently about those trying years, but in relation to our current situation. Interesting food for thought and worth recalling, 20 years hence, as we contemplate the changes in Cuba circa 2011.

Notes

1. You should see what folks are bringing in from abroad to start their families’ businesses here – everything from car parts and coolers to snorkel masks and jungle gyms. Permissions for Cuban families from the USA to travel here is being threatened by political (but powerful, ojo) dinosaurs in Congress. Although it seems Obama isn’t going to let this happen, I encourage all Here is Havana readers to keep the pressure on to lift both the travel ban and the blockade.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban cooking, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban phrases, Relationships, Travel to Cuba

Cuba’s ‘New Normal’

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Things are pretty tense around here. And it doesn’t help that Hurricane Irene is heading towards Port-au-Prince as I write this. When it’s threatening this close, we swing into action (see note 1). 2011 is a particularly harrowing hurricane season because we’ve escaped major damage for 2 years running (toca madera/knock on wood). Like an unfaithful spouse who spends too many Saturdays ‘at the office’ or ‘runs errands’ at odd hours, you just know the luck is going to run out one of these days. But I digress.

Followers of Here is Havana know that I’ve been covering the changes in Cuba (however sporadically and anecdotally; see note 2). And now – as marriages fail; savvy metrosexuals return from exile to launch private businesses; and the bourgeoisie distract themselves with whiskey and Facebook – seems like a good time for an update.

This installment focuses on ground level detail and how Cuba’s newest capitalist forays are affecting us, the hoi polloi. I’m talking about viejitas selling knick knacks and caps from their crumbling porticos and gentrification of neighborhoods which for generations have been mixed. Meanwhile, rainbow umbrellas signposting private cafeterias sprout like mushrooms in cow shit and ever-more-evident class divisions, combined with a certain impatience and market madness, weigh heavy on my mind.

Hanging on for dear life: I don’t have a car, which is an anomaly for most foreigners here and has drawbacks, clearly, but is also advantageous since it obligates me to navigate the public transportation system. In practice, this means I have no problem getting a bus from the Capitolio to Marianao or the Cine Chaplin to La Copa (see note 3).

Since I make much more than the average Cuban (but much less than the average resident foreigner – a hard concept for most Cubans), I also take the 40 cent fixed route/collective taxis that ply Havana’s streets. However, a significant change in the law regulating these taxis is putting our lives at risk: whereas it used to be only the owner of the almendrones (those pre-1959 hulks tourists go gaga over) could drive it for fares, now they can subcontract driving duties.

This small change on paper has meant big changes on Havana’s streets. Drivers are now young, restless, and reckless; it’s plain some of them have never even driven before (and are unlicensed, if one of my insider sources is to be believed). Others are so blatantly young even Cuban law would prosecute me were I to bed one down.

The result? Tank-like Dodges, Buicks, and Fords caroming along major arteries like Línea and 23, Calzada del Cerro and Calle 51 at high speeds, only to peel out of traffic with a hard turn of the wheel and screech up to the curb to snatch another 10 peso fare. I’m not the only one who lets these wild child choferes continue on their way, opting to wait for an older, more seasoned driver who cares at least for his car, if not his clients.

Ration cuts: Slowly but surely, the monthly rations (really fortnightly rations since they only last that long, and only then for the thriftiest and most creative cooks) are being cut. Not everyone needs them, let’s be frank, but for the millions that do, this is a problem. In Cuba, libreta rations aren’t free, but almost; since they’re so highly subsidized, payment is a token gesture. But hard times call for hard cuts and some rations – beans, most notably – have been reduced, while others (soap, toothpaste, laundry detergent, cigarettes), have been eliminated entirely. This can be crippling for old folks especially, but also working class families and other vulnerable groups.

But that’s not the only effect of this new policy. Take the cut in the salt ration for instance. Once upon a time, each household received a kilo of salt every three months. That ration has now been halved and may be discontinued altogether, meaning when you run short, salt has to be purchased at ‘parallel markets’ in pesos cubanos or hard currency “dollar stores,” (I suppose people peddle the white crystals on the black market, but I’ve little energy for that particular hassle and hustle). Either way, salt is now a pricey commodity.

The subsidy slash, combined with the cost of salt outside the libreta, make it virtually impossible for those unfortunate enough not to have access to hard currency to augment their salt stores. No salt means blander food, of course, but it also means we no longer knock on our neighbors’ door asking for a bit of salt – not at the new prices. Borrowing sugar, lending salt: these are diehard habits in Cuba and are among the daily threads which give the mantle of solidarity heft on the island. Let’s see how it holds up moving forward.

Cafeterias ad nauseam: One of the most immediate and visible effects of the new regulations has been the veritable explosion of private cafeterias and snack shacks across Havana (see note 4). No matter that each of them has an identical menu of fruit shakes, egg sandwiches and cajitas (to be fair, the ones that are good tend to be great – at least at the outset anyway). And no matter that some of them are churning out such poor quality fare I’ve actually seen people dumping food into the closest trash bin.

That said, some families are really making a go of it. However, just as the taxi sub-contracting policy and striking salt from the ration card are having unintended side effects, I suspect this cafeteria mania is too: I fear it’s making people sick. Sure, there’s always an uptick of stomach viruses in the summer, but this season, I know a lot more people with explosive diarrhea, fever, and projectile vomiting – usually all at once. While I have zero proof, poor food preparation and storage, plus sketchy hygiene, can mean food-borne illnesses. And since the government doesn’t have the inspectors necessary to inspect and monitor all these new cafeterias…Indeed, e coli warnings have begun appearing – a first for me in 9+ years of living here.

Marketing learning curve: The operative word here is steep – very, very steep. Forget that every cafeteria is making the same sandwich and that the same pirate DVDs are sold everywhere, from Vedado thoroughfares to dark entryways in Centro Habana. Lack of product differentiation is only one of the problems with the emerging capitalist experiment. The real question is: how do you distinguish your pan con jamón from the next gal’s or make your Jackie Chan ‘combo’ stand out from the rest?

This isn’t a query occurring to most entrepreneurs here, if the twinkly Christmas lights and hand-lettered signs around town are any indication. But some folks – whether they’re returned exiles, have advice coming in from Miami, or are just putting Cuban ingenuity to a new test – are on it. At major intersections and big grocery stores for example, hot, young Cubans pass out flyers advertising the newest paladares, some of which I’ve had the pleasure to try thanks to this publicity (the best are included in the newest version of Havana Good Time, out next week).

But one mode of advertising which has recently appeared in my neighborhood and is insoportable wherever it’s found are mobile megaphone announcements. Loud, obnoxious, and largely unintelligible (I still haven’t been able to divine a single good or service advertised by these noise polluters), these ads are delivered by enthusiastic barkers via bicycle, motorcycle or car-mounted megaphones. This is annoying enough, but I fear these ads may be the death knell for the sing-song call of the pregoneros – hawkers who pound the pavement advertising their wares in a melodic, iconic incantation. These were effective – it’s how I got my new mattress, after all.

Stay tuned for more on-the-ground impressions of evolving Cuba.

Notes
1. For the curious: I’ve passed so many hurricanes in Havana I’ve lost count and Cuban preparedness and response is efficient, effective, and a wonder to behold. Lives are very rarely lost – even in the most heinous, category 5 cyclones – which underscores the absurd tragedy that is adverse weather events in the USA à la Katrina or the recent Missouri River floods.

2. Dedicated fans will be happy to learn Here is Havana The Book is finally receiving some overdue attention; I hope to have it out by this time next year. Stay tuned!

3. Bus travel in Havana is generally a bitch, but for visitors who speak Spanish, I suggest taking at least one to eavesdrop: there is probably no more effective way to take the pulse of the population than to listen to a busload of Habaneros quibble and kvetch.

4. As of April 2011, 20% of the nearly 222,000 permits issued to private businesses have been for food service. The government estimates 80% of these start ups will fail in the first year.

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