Tag Archives: pesos convertibles

Conner’s Cuba Rules Part II

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false] About six months ago I wrote Conner’s Cuba Rules, a super popular post that raised the ire of some readers. Rereading my musings six months later, I better understand some of the dissent offered by commenters. Given that much has changed here in Havana since then and I’ve had several opportunities to travel outside of the capital thanks to my day job, I’ve compiled a new, hopefully more positive, set of rules to complement the first ones.

The Revolution will be televised: I’ve met a lot of visitors (and even some foreign residents) who have never seen Televisión Cubana. Granted, there are only five channels here, but you’re missing out on a big chunk of Cuban culture if you don’t surf those five at least occassionally. For the intersection of politics and journalism, check out the Mesa Redonda (see note 1) and the prime time news. The latter is important in and of itself for the weather report; pay special attention if Dr José Rubiera is forecasting. Meanwhile, a good baseball game can rivet entire households, the novela even more so. Only if you watch TV here will you understand what Cubans mean when they say: “it was like the Saturday night movie” (see note 2). Meanwhile, the music shown down here – videos, documentaries, concerts and jam sessions – can be as moving as the live thing. I’ve seen Chucho Valdés, Clapton and Queen, the Festival of Modern Drumming and some guy from Uzbekistan singing Talk Boom, a riveting song I’m still trying to track down – all in a single night on Televisión Cubana. Watch it; you’ll like it (or at least get a good laugh or song lead).

Pack a sense of humor: It always amazes me when I read something that disregards, overlooks, or otherwise fails to recognize the Cuban sense of humor, which ranges from the side splitting to the sublime. The writer can be someone who knows and loves Cuba long time or a visitor who has parachuted in and out on vacation. No matter the source, the frequency with which folks miss the funny stuff here is alarming. It’s true, a lot depends on speaking Spanish (or a crackerjack translator), but however you resolve the language question, if you’re comparing Cuba to China, Vietnam, or the defunct USSR, you’re missing one of the most important ingredients in the Cuban character. These folks love to share stories, jokes, and the occassional tall tale, and use their verbal prowess to enliven, laugh, and woo; it is what has enabled these people to resist so much for so long. Even without Spanish skills or a translator, if you’re not laughing a lot on a visit here, you’re doing something wrong in my personal and professional opinion (see note 3).

Use pesos cubanos: If you know even a little about Cuba, you know we operate on a dual currency system with pesos cubanos and pesos convertibles circulating side by side. Since one of my goals of Here is Havana is to bust myths, I always take the opportunity to debunk one of the most pervasive: that foreigners cannot use pesos cubanos (AKA Moneda Nacional, MN), but only pesos convertibles (AKA divisa, chavitos, CUC). This is 100% false. Anyone can use either currency. It’s what each can buy where the difference lies. Certain goods and services, for example, are only available in CUC including cooking oil and butter, hotel rooms and the internet. But fruits and veggies, surprisingly pleasant cigars, fixed route taxis, movie tickets and lots of other stuff are sold in pesos cubanos – if you know where to look. My advice? Change some CUCs into MN (1:24) to experience firsthand how much pesos cubanos can buy and how the double economy works.

So as to avoid confusion +/o more myths: you can always pay for goods and services priced in pesos cubanos with hard currency pesos convertibles but never the other way around. And some services (interprovincial buses, concert and ballet tickets) are sold in pesos cubanos to Cubans and residents, but in hard currency to visitors.

Bring your own reading material: Rarely a week goes by when someone isn’t griping to me about the lack of English-language books and magazines here. What is available is largely limited to historical and political titles and they are very expensive (and make for dull beach reading besides). The Kindle can be handy in this regard, but the bonus to bringing print publications is that you can pass them along to some avid English reader (like me!) upon departure. Drop me a line if you have some good (ie no romance novels or sci fi pulp) English-language reading material to donate to the cause.

Hightail it out of Havana: This may seem contradictory, given that I have an iApp to the city and I recommend in my guidebooks and elsewhere that visitors consider basing their entire trip in Havana. But things are changing fast here and though I’m a city girl by birth and breeding, I’m back peddling a bit on that advice. Havana, with its dirt, garbage, and graft, noise and air pollution, and materialistic ways (I did call Habaneros ‘logo whores’ after all) is distorting Cuba’s image. In short, Havana is not Cuba, which can be said of every major city around the world from New York to Manila, Managua to Dakar. But since visitors often request recommendations for “authentic” experiences and how to discover the “real” Cuba, I now find it prudent to advise getting out of Havana and exploring farther afield. With more flights, both charter and commercial, to provincial capitals like Holguín, Camagüey, and Santiago de Cuba, this is also a more practical proposition than ever.

Above all, have fun and keep your head about you!

Notes

1. The Mesa Redonda (Round Table) is a nightly “debate” show which discusses a topic (US aggression overseas; Latin American intregration) on which all four guests and the modeator agree.There are many jokes in these parts about the program; the shortest and sweetest calls it the Mesa Cuadrada, meaning ‘Square Table’ in literal Spanish, but meaning something more along the lines of ‘Dogmatic Table’ in Cuban.

2. The Saturday night movie here is prefaced by a parental warning, the most common of which alerts viewers that the Hollywood action shlock about to be shown contains Nudity, Violence, & Foul Language. To wit: the old, slow, over-crowded camello buses (of which I took many), were always called ‘the Saturday night movie.’ [NB: did it annoy you to have to scroll down to read this note? Yeah, me too, but I haven’t been able to figure out how to hyperlink notes within posts; if someone has a solution, please get in touch].

3. Trying to connect to and use the internet excepted. Even casual visitors know that connectivity is no laughing matter here. Indeed, I flirted with the ledge and sharp knives today as I frittered away several hours trying to connect. Once I “succeeded,” it topped out at 9.6kbps – not nearly fast enough to load even a simple web page before timing out.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cigars, Communications, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, lonely planet guidebooks, Travel to Cuba

Cuba: Going to the Dogs?

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In my forthcoming article for NY Magazine, I write a bit about Havana’s newly-moneyed. Whether it comes from remittances, self-employed work, or working over tourists is irrelevant. What piques my interest (and hopefully retains yours, dear readers), is how wealth – relative as it may be – manifests itself here, how it changes behavior and tweaks norms heretofore adhered to.

Faithful followers of Here is Havana will remember my thinly-veiled diatribe against Cuban marca mania – if I’m not mistaken, I actually called my compatriots ‘logo whores.’ I repeat: not all Cubans, everywhere, but there does seem to be an inordinate amount of importance placed on logos and bling here. I understand why Cubans are attracted to shiny, pretty things, but at the same time I’m biased: one of my abiding principles holds that nothing you can buy builds character (except maybe psychotherapy). The whole status symbol compulsion and keeping up the Joneses – is it inherently bad? I don’t know, but I do know I’m hard pressed to find anything good about it.

These days status symbols are displayed with as much pride as cadres display their photo with Fidel (see note 1). Gold teeth and braces, anything Mac (even if it’s just the iconic white apple sticker), cell phones (working or not), and pure-bred dogs. It stands to reason that Cubans are drawn to perros de raza since they’re a walking (shitting and barking) status symbol.

Now, those of you of my personal acquaintance know I’m not a pet person. A tortoise, perhaps, or a crafty cat that can paw open the door and hunt down a bird when it’s hungry, I’m down with. But a dog? They’re dependent, they shed, they smell, fleas like them, and often they age poorly – farting as they lumber about on rickety bones and bump into furniture with their cataracts. Plus, they hamper travel. Sorry to Sam, Sadie, Paka, Bob, and all the other great dogs I’ve known, but when it comes to canines, I subscribe to my Dad’s axiom: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus.’

But let’s put this dog question into context: I’m sure the average Cuban doesn’t give much thought to any of this. A dog here – whether in the city or campo – means added security. Dogs keep vermin of all types at bay and sound the alarm. In Havana, I’m sure you’ve noticed, folks are very concerned about the safety of their stuff and enclose entire houses – balconies, doors, windows, all – in rejas (iron bars and gates). Even taillights on motorcycles have their rejitas; check it out next time you’re in town.

So a dog is an added source of protection. I get it. But it’s also another mouth to feed and represents all manner of unanticipated expenses like when they get parasites (and they all do) or when the heat wreaks havoc on their fur (hairless perritas chinas excepted of course). They also need to be walked, adding another task to already overworked Cuban women, who, if my observations are accurate, do most of the dog care. In practical terms therefore, I’m not convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs of keeping a dog here. But what I simply can’t get my mind around is Havana’s new status symbol: Siberian Huskies.

They are all the rage: from the grimy streets of inner Habana Vieja to the bourgeoisie boulevard of 5ta Avenida, you’ll see people trying to walk, train, and tame these über Alpha dogs. And what about the heat? Have you been here in August? Just being in your own skin is a sauna – imagine if you had a pelt adapted for permafrost. It disturbs me inordinately, so I’ve started asking around…

According to my dog trainer friend Yamel, these dogs make challenging pets under the best circumstances. They’re a bitch to train because they’re bred for dominance and it’s difficult to establish supremacy. Even Yamel – who works his magic with rowdy shepherds, disobedient Dalmatians and other maladjusted dogs – says he’d never have one for this reason.

My neighbor is case in point with her trio of Huskies. They pull their leashes taut, dragging her behind, paying her no never mind. Recently, I’ve seen her working with a trainer (another expense) in the park nearby. I’m sure she watches Cesar Milan – prime time TV fodder here – religiously. Then there’s the heat. Yamel tells me they adjust, but I’m dubious: I know of at least one retriever who died of heat exhaustion here.

I was completely taken aback on a recent visit to my dear friend Carmita to see she had acquired a Husky pup. This is an unlikely pet for an unfortunate household. She’s an 84-year old pensioner living with her college-age grandson. They get a little economic help from Miami and other points north and are church-going, so have some support, once in a while, from the congregation. But Iker – named for the Real Madrid goalkeeper – is no black market Husky; he’s the real deal. Offspring of Massimo Zar de la India and Bella Bon (I’m not making this up!), Iker was purchased at one of the periodical dog shows here (see note 2) for the exorbitant price of $200. Despite my prejudices, I put a good spin on it to Carmita.

“That’s great! Now you have company while Maykel’s in class.”

She makes that smacking, sucking sound which in Cuban means ‘bullshit.’

“He’s a pain in the ass and makes a mess of everything.”

Gotta love Carmita.

We don’t mention how much his food and care must cost. Why bother?

To be fair, the vet school here has services available in both pesos cubanos (24 to the dollar) and CUCs (one to the dollar), so are technically accessible cost-wise. The CUC section of the school is sparkling, there’s no line to wait in, and medicines are available. Meanwhile, the peso cubano section swelters with people and pets waiting their turn and the pharmacy may or may not have what your dog needs that day.

But the differences don’t end there: In the waiting room of the CUC services, snappy, pretty posters extol the benefits of pure breeds; above all, the posters underscore the beauty of these dogs. Shuffle over to the peso cubano waiting room and the script is different. Here, the posters are yellow and curling and don’t celebrate poodles, spaniels, and Afghans, but instead list the virtues of mutts, pointing up their strength, resilience, and force of character.

Pure breed or mutt? Pesos convertibles or pesos cubanos? Welcome to today’s Havana: suelta sin vacunar (on the loose, without her shots).

Notes

1. Every visit with The Comandante is documented by a state photographer. A few days after the meeting, a 6×8 matte photograph of you and Fidel arrives at your door.

2. While not Westminster, dog shows are serious business here, with breeders showing their stuff and buyers perusing their pups like johns trolling for ‘company.’ When purchased, Iker’s name was Kritop D’Spiritu Libre.

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