Tag Archives: private business

Today’s Cuba Reveal: Cuenta Propismo

I know more than a little about ‘cuento propismo,’ which in Cuba means freelancing (see note 1). I’ve been a cuenta propista writer since my grad school thesis was published and while writing is qualitatively different from slinging soggy pizzas from a Centro Habana tenement, many of the same principles apply. Tax burden and penalties; supply and demand; competitive advantage; 7-day work weeks and phantom vacations; plus a good dose of self-discipline, accountability and responsibility all come in to play when you’re your own boss. You also need to hone or have a knack for selling your product.

Here in Havana, where small businesses are sprouting like zits on a teenager, the learning curve is steep. Marketing is largely limited to twinkly lights, decals, and flyers and it’s not uncommon to see half a dozen or more cafeterias selling the same greasy grub on a single block. To date, over 400,000 people have solicited licenses to run or work at private businesses (tellingly, statistics released by the government fail to mention how many of these businesses have closed or failed since the licenses became available), the majority for food sales, preparation and services. It’s an experiment in market capitalism unfolding as I write this and it’s changing the face and feel of the city.

Some of the transformations are good, others are bad, and a few are ambiguous – for now anyway. Like a ‘sleeping shrimp,’ I’ve been swept along, but Havana is starting to feel vastly different for both individual and societal reasons and whenever I get this ‘oh shit, the roller coaster is about to dip and bank’ foreboding, I know it’s time to write about it.

Because I’m consciously, doggedly trying to emphasize the positive, I’ll start out with the good changes first.

The Good

More choice – For too long, Cubans have had to settle for what was available, when and if it was available. This is a result of severe scarcity on a national scale, for reasons well known (see note 2), coupled with centralized control of every sector of the economy. Today, you can choose from where you buy (state or private) and from whom – a friend, neighbor, family member, the muchacha you have a crush on, or the little old man trying to make ends meet. Both purveyors and consumers are still learning about how competition combines with supply and demand to drive choice, but at least now there is a choice – for those who can afford it (more on this under ‘The Bad,’ later).

Higher quality goods and services – The quick learners fast realized that they needed to provide quality products and services if they were going to survive. The savviest of Havana’s new small business owners – many from the Diaspora returning to the island to get a jump on the post-socialist Gold Rush – provide guarantees for their services and inculcate in their staff the philosophy that the customer is always right (not an easy feat in the Independent Republic of Saben lo Todo). On the consumer end, Cubans are starting to appreciate the value of paying more for higher quality – in other words, ‘you get what you pay for’ is starting to take hold.

Greater control and room to breathe/dream – One of the benefits to all this private enterprise – as intangible and unquantifiable as it may be – is that people working in the cuenta propista sector feel they have a modicum of control over their lives and destinies. This isn’t very practical in the state sector where the rule of thumb is ‘we pretend to work and they pretend to pay us (a pittance),’ and decisions can be made without explanation and seem absurdly arbitrary as a result. Striking out on your own, meanwhile, takes courage, fortitude, and a semblance of vision; how you dream your future can’t be arbitrary. It’s particularly nebulous, this ‘dare to dream’ benefit of the new economy, but I think it’s one of the critical changes we’re undergoing here. I’ve been hanging out with a lot of 20-somethings lately and this craving to ‘create your own reality’ is especially relevant to them. Working in the private sector puts money in their pocket – decent money, often for the first time – and habilitates dreams of how to spend it, teaches them to budget and save, and plants the seed that if you work hard, you’ll have the means to make bigger dreams a reality (see note 3).

Now The Bad…

Haves vs Have Nots – All those choices and quality goods, not to mention that entrepreneurial get-up-and-go? It’s only available to those already with the means. Sure, the government has started providing small business loans, but what’s really driving the new economy is that part of the population with the money to buy what’s on offer, invest in a great idea, or renovate a killer location for their new venture. Examples abound: fancy private gyms and spas; lounges a la London or New York serving $25 highballs; multi-bay car washes; and dog boutiques (yes, you read that right). And on the consumer end, we have ‘tweens with the latest iPhones, packed 3-D movie theaters, even paintball at $10 a pop. It’s the classic burgeoning middle class, but for every giddy kid with a new tattoo he’ll surely regret (I know of what I speak!), there’s a sad-eyed child wanting one of the fancy pastries in the window and an angry youth playing soccer barefoot. While I hardly register the flashy moneyed folks, each grim-faced granny and struggling single mother sticks with me. And I’m seeing more and more of them these days.

Life on fast forward – It’s amazing how slow, lethargic Havana has picked up speed of late. New cars hightail it through residential backstreets as if kids weren’t playing there; cafeteria patrons drum the counter top saying ‘I’m in a rush, hustle it up’; and ‘time is money’ is taking root as an economic/life concept. The digital boom fuels this and while I’ll be the first to champion faster internet, I worry the day will come (for some it’s already here), when we no longer make the time to spend time with the ones we love. I have to admit I’ve been guilty of this from time to time.

Prices are outrageous – Since the free(ish) market is brand new, charging ‘what the market will bear’ is being taken to absurd new heights. Agricultural cooperatives charge 10 pesos for four plantains (just a year or two ago these cost half this or less), while young men with bad hair charge 10 CUC for fixing a cell phone on the fritz; total labor: 15 minutes, meaning they make in a quarter hour what many make in a month. Service-based businesses are especially guilty and often don’t post prices, preying on the desperation of the customer who needs their phone fixed/car washed/business cards printed. I actually had this happen recently and when I took the guy to task, he said: ‘next time I’ll tell you the price beforehand’ (see note 4). I let him know there wouldn’t be a next time because I would be taking my business to the (more transparent) competition.

Key items go missing – When products suddenly disappear from store shelves here, we say they’re perdidos – lost or missing. And many things are missing of late since private restaurants and the general population shop at the same stores. This is a real point of contention for cuenta propistas who (rightfully) complain that they have to buy all their materials at retail prices, heavily compromising their profit margin. For the rest of us, certain items are increasingly hard to find – coffee, butter, cheese, toilet paper – as they get snatched up by restaurateurs stocking their larders. This creates even more societal friction and deepens the rift between the haves and have nots.

I don’t know how The Good and The Bad will eventually shake out, but I think we’d all be wise to buckle up because I predict The Bad is bound to get Worse. On the positive tip, there are a whole lot of creative, resourceful, intelligent and determined forces being released and connected right now which I admire. Whatever happens, you can bet I’ll be writing about it. Until then…

Notes

1. The literal translation is ‘by one’s account’ and in today’s changing Cuba refers to all small businesses from grannies selling bras and barrettes to Olympic stars running chic, expensive bars. These small business endeavors are permissible under what’s known in English as the Economic and Social Policy Development Guidelines, which began to take effect about two years ago.

2. Namely, the US blockade, the collapse of the Socialist bloc and ensuing Special Period, scarce resources in general and mismanagement.

3. As I write this, an email arrives in my inbox with this bit: “follow your dreams is sometimes a bit of a load of crap since your dreams don’t always pay the rent”. So far, so (pretty) good following my dreams, but point taken.

4. My bad for not asking the price ahead of time, but I needed the service provided desperately.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban Revolution, Expat life, Living Abroad, Travel to Cuba

The Cuban Food Question

[tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]Not questionable Cuban food, mind you, but questions about Cuban food which continue to dog me, even after 10 years here, like: why are there no croutons? Or guacamole? And why don’t Cubans cook with coconut (Baracoa excepted)? Or bacon? I mean, it’s not as if there aren’t enough cocos and pigs to go around. To be fair, bacon is making inroads (see note 1) and I’ve seen a couple of coconut dishes here in Havana, but a tasty use for stale bread and old avocados?! You’d think the frugal out of necessity and habit Cubans, people who always use a tea bag twice and for whom disposable diaper is an oxymoron would be all over these past expiration date preparations. But no.

As devoted readers of this blog well know, I’m preoccupied with food, maybe disproportionately so, but that’s what happens when your formative years are spent in a food insecure home (see note 2). Whether that’s the reason my mom and siblings are such avid, fantastic cooks, I can’t say, but it rubbed off on me. This devotion to inventive, well prepared food coupled with the hundreds of restaurants, bistros, cafés, buffets, and drive-ins (Hawaiian kine) I’ve had to review for guidebooks makes me an expert of sorts (the bad, overly critical kind perhaps, but hey, someone has to steer you clear of shitty food in your travels).

Not surprisingly, I’m both excited and wary about the explosion of new restaurants in Havana. Excited because the quality and diversity of menus are improving – even in state restaurants which seem to be upping their game in the face of stiffer competition. Wary because I know how horrifyingly crappy Cuban food can be and the tricks used to try and cover the fact. At the same time, I’m concerned for my fellow travelers since everyone is writing about these new eateries, including amateurs and hacks who are dangerously unqualified – either due to a lack of regard for good food in general or ignorance of Cuban cooking and context specifically. These poseurs shall remain nameless, (that would be tacky), but their “work” on the topic has motivated me to help out with some observations about eating in my fair city.

All the examples below are from new paladares which are currently or soon will be listed in my app Havana Good Time.

An Indian restaurant sans raita – So Cuba has its first “Indian” restaurant (note quotation marks people – punctuation has a function!). The space is quite lovely and the staff is attentive, but the food? Like the guy I lost my virginity to, being the first is not enough to win me over. I know, I know, I should be thankful that we even have an “Indian” restaurant here (see note 3), but you know what? I cook better Indian food and mine is accompanied by the requisite raita. For those not familiar with Indian cuisine, this traditional sauce is used to cut the spiciness of dishes while adding a dynamic flavor layer to the palate. And before you jump down my throat about the unavailability of certain ingredients here in Cuba: raita is yogurt, cucumbers, and garlic – three items that rarely go missing here in Havana.

“Vegetarian” spring rolls – It’s really too bad that the new Vedado paladar serving this toothsome finger food doesn’t heed punctuation as religiously as we do: when I cut into one of these rolls recently, out spilled bok choy, scallions, cabbage, carrots and…ham. When I asked the waitress (nicely, my shoulders unburdened of any NYC or foodie chip) what was in these rolls, she confirmed the presence of the ever-present pork. I pointed out that this could result in some serious problems – not only with vegetarians (see note 4), but also with Jews and Muslims too, who take as much solace as herbivores to see vegetarian selections on the typically pork-laden Cuban menu. When I asked why they call them “vegetarian,” she said with a straight face: ‘because there are lots of vegetables in there.’ 

Deep fried olives are considered nouvelle cuisine – I don’t know what was more shocking: seeing something besides Gouda cubes and croquettes as hors d’oeuvres or the realization that they had actually deep fried olives to serve to a group of foreign VIPs. While far from heart healthy, I have to admit these were disconcertingly tasty, which can be said for almost anything except the deep fried cucumbers I had last week. Both of these examples, by the way, hail from Habana Vieja, part of Eusebio Leal’s wickedly clever fiefdom (which is usually head and shoulders above regular state enterprises). Alas, sophistication is not an overly common Cuban trait, as evidenced by…

Oil & vinegar, the one and only dressing – Sure, you might get a nice honey Dijon in someone’s home, but in a high end paladar? Not likely, where the same tired oil-vinegar- salt trio prevails (lucky you if that exotic spice we call black pepper is available!).  A few places are starting to provide balsamic and olive oil, considering this the height of haute, showing how far we are from raspberry vinaigrettes or tahini-lemon dressing. Granted, raspberry vinegar and sesame paste are in short supply here, but honey, Dijon, blue cheese, anchovies, capers, soy sauce and many other ingredients for inventive dressings are available sin problema.  But this lack of sophistication is even more blatant in the place with…

Busty waitresses in low-cut blouses and Daisy Dukes – I don’t care how hot you are (or think you are or your manager thinks you are): I don’t want my steak served with more flesh in my face than Copacabana sees in summertime. In a word: inappropriate! Especially at this expensive high-end restaurant featured recently in several glossy magazines (which made a glaring omission of the “uniforms;” unsurprisingly, all the articles were written by men). Havana Hooters anyone?

The $4 fruit shake – Argue with me all you want (welcome to the club!), but this is simply wrong in our context and distorts the local economy like the thousands of bright-eyed NGO workers who rush into post-disaster Haiti or Indonesia and pay triple the going price for bananas, potable water, taxis, whatever. To all the new places offering the four dollar shakes and similar: consider yourself boycotted on GPs.

Musing about all this leads me to believe the absence of croutons, guacamole, and coconut-based dishes is due to lack of knowledge, experience, creativity, motivation, or a combination thereof.

What do you think readers? Any surprising omissions in your Cuban culinary travels?

Notes

1. I predict crispy bacon (not the flaccid, fatty crap at hotel buffet troughs) will explode in popularity as US visitors continue to pour in and restaurateurs realize the egg/bacon/toast triumvirate is as American as inequity.

2. Mom was a single mother of four which made her, out of necessity and habit, a creative, but stretched cook (and very Cuba in her way which is a big factor as to why I’ve been able to survive/thrive in the peculiar conditions on this side of the Straits. Epigenetics might have something to do with it too). We all remember with a shudder living on oatmeal for two weeks solid and the fight over who got more noodles. This fracas is still dragged out to this day – but in the best, sibling rivalry type of way now that our oatmeal and noodle days are behind us.

3. In the interest of full disclosure: everyone I’ve talked to who has eaten there – visitor and Cuban alike – was very impressed with the place which means one of two things: my standards are too high or theirs are too low.

4. I have seen a strict vegetarian take a bite into an egg roll he was told was 100% veggies and the resulting fisticuffs – never underestimate the strength and rage of a pissed off vegetarian!

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Filed under cuban cooking, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Travel to Cuba

Trip Tips: Havana Independently

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Havana is hot and I’m not talking about mulatas or the weather: from Cayo Hueso to Regla, Cementerio Colón to Ciudad Deportiva, you can’t swing a dead gato around here these days without hitting a tourist. To tell you the truth, I don’t think I’ve seen this many foreigners in Havana since the 2006 Non-Aligned Meeting (see note 1).

There are reasons of course. The Cigar and Young Filmmakers Festivals are going strong as I write this, we’re getting a couple of monster cruise ships docking each week, and all-inclusive packages from Canada are mad cheap (see note 2). But most importantly, Havana’s streets teem thanks to Obama’s rollback to Clinton’s policy whereby US college students and select others can travel “legally” to the island. I’m surprised the effects have been so lightening fast – the new/old regulations were just announced in January – but everywhere I turn these days there seems to be a fresh-faced co-ed in Wesleyan gear or a Teva-shod geek. I hope they all have iPads.

Many of these people won’t end up liking Havana (hell, even I don’t like Havana some times). Starting with poor air quality, negative travelogues grouse about the expense of this place; perceived levels of state control; difficulties scratching below the surface +/o contextualizing their experience; and of course, crappy goods and even shittier services.

The dramatic economic changes happening around here – legalizing 178 types of private business from clown to cook, masseur to manicurist – are altering the travelers landscape (see note 3). So that Here is Havana readers can maximize their visit to this enigmatic city, I dedicate this post to travel strategies designed to get you beneath Havana’s skin.

#1. Talk the talk. There is no better way to maximize an independent holiday here than to speak cubano, with all its chopped off words, odd pronunciation and slang (see note 4). Even if ¿que bola asere? and ‘la heva está enpinga’ isn’t in your repertoire, try at least to dust off that high school Spanish since surprisingly few Cubans dominate English (and many of those that do are unusually accomplished charlatans). Not speaking Spanish doesn’t mean you’ll have a bad time – on the contrary. But it will limit your ability to get information, negotiate, learn and arrange logistics.

#2. Embrace pesos cubanos. As soon as you’re able, get some moneda nacional, also known as pesos cubanos and CUP. There’s a myth out there as tenacious as herpes in a whorehouse and which no amount of posting, commenting, and conversing seems to dispel: that tourists can’t use this ‘local’ currency. Complete rubbish. The truth is, most visitors simply don’t know how to use CUP. I suggest starting your trip by changing $5 of hard currency (24 CUP = 1 CUC = 0.82 USD) into this funny money to use for fixed route taxis, movies, food, condoms, cigars, and stepping out.

#3. Roll like a local. Long-finned Pontiacs, Capone-era Dodges, and other ‘Yank tanks’ leap to most minds when Cuba is mentioned. Undeniably cliché, these cars are everywhere, plying Havana’s streets working as communal, fixed-route taxis. For 10 pesos cubanos (about 0.40 USD), you can hail one of these endearing jalopies (I climbed into one yesterday that had packing tape upholstery and a ceiling lined with old refrigerator boxes) between Playa and Vedado or Habana Vieja, out to Miramar or Marianao. Longer routes – from Habana Vieja out to the Playas del Este beaches for example – will run double. To grab one, just stick out your arm parallel to the ground and ask the driver if he’s going to where you need to be. It helps to be on the right thoroughfare: 23 or Línea in Vedado, San Lázaro or Neptuno in Centro Habana, Avenida 31 or 41 in Playa, Calle 51 in Marianao, or 3ra Avenida in Miramar.

c. C Gorry

Even lower down on the transportation food chain is the guagua (pronounced wa-wa) – the Cuban bus. A ride literally costs pennies and while not especially comfortable or efficient, riding the guagua gives a real taste of Cuban daily life with all its attendant humor and hardships.

If these options don’t appeal, consider renting a car and driver. Part of the new regulations stipulate that licensed freelance drivers can now be contracted (by anyone, including foreigners as I understand it) to provide transport islandwide. There are no set fares, with rates to be determined between driver and client. Already nearly 6,000 choferes in Havana have applied for the freelance license; 2,000 have been granted. If the market has its way, the increased competition should make for more bargaining power and improved service. At the very least, it provides visitors an alternative to renting a car for $100 a day (which will somehow end up costing more when the agency is done with you). I predict that freelance drivers who speak English are going to do very well under these new regulations.

#4. Make yourself at home. One of the great benefits presented by the new regulations for travelers is the possibility to legally rent an entire house. This means you can shop at the agro (using those pesos cubanos) and cook for yourself, throw a dinner party, or introduce Cuban friends to the concept of brunch. Having your own private space means you can channel surf Cuban state TV (University for All! Little House on the Prairie! Seinfeld!), take mojitos on your porch to the delight of the neighborhood gossips, or stumble in carefree at 4am.

Another idea for a different Havana experience is to take lodging in more off-the-beaten-track places like the beach towns of Guanabo or Baracoa or Cojimar – the fishing village made famous by Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea. These are close enough to enjoy Havana but just far enough removed to give a taste of small town life.

c. C Gorry

#5. Get primped & pampered. The new regulations approve all sorts of services which visitors can now enjoy without any sneaking around. Now your visit can include a 1-hr massage for $20 (really $10, but you might be charged double – the foreigner tax digamos), manicures for $2, and haircuts for $5 (careful with this last however).

If you’re interested to learn if someone – driver, masseuse, pizza maker – proffering these and other goods and services is licensed to do so, ask to see their licencia de cuenta propista. Most people are proud to flash their spiffy new ID cards.

#6. Spread the wealth. Frankly I weary of travelers asking me how they can avoid patronizing state businesses. That’s like asking how to avoid death or taxes. From the moment you buy your $20 tourist card to enter the country, to the minute you’re paying the $25 tax to leave, you’re supporting the Cuban government. What’s so evolved about this place is that paying into government coffers does in turn support the Cuban people (maybe not how or to the extent you’d like, but in my book the Cuban approach is fundamentally better than subsidizing bombs in Afghanistan and spies in Caracas). If you have a problem with this, do us all a favor and go to Cancun.

Having said that, I do recommend spending your hard-earned cash at a mix of state and private enterprises, but how to tell the difference? With eateries, there are some telltale signs. If your server is wearing a uniform or hairnet the place is probably state-owned. If your food descends from a balcony in a bucket it’s definitely private.

With taxis it’s even clearer: 99% of the old Motor City monsters (and many of the Ladas) brandishing taxi signs are privately owned. When in doubt, do like the Cubans do and look at the license plate (see note 5). There’s an entire code for plates here, with the first clue being the color: blue is for state-owned, yellow is private. All hotels, meanwhile, are at least 51% state-owned, but casas particulares (rooms or independent houses for rent) are privately operated. Look for the blue ‘arrendador divisa‘ sign.

c. C Gorry

If you’re interested in learning more of the Havana ‘mécanica‘ including bus and fixed-fare taxi routes, the best spot for 75 cent whisky shots and $1 lunch, Cuban line etiquette and more, please check out my iapp Havana Good Time.

Notes

1. It’s highly doubtful we’ll reap the same benefits however: when Cuba hosted the meeting as is customary for the country holding the rotating presidency, Havana’s main roads were repaved, trees were planted (including many of the trees lining Boyeros every visitor zooms by on their way from the airport) and house facades all along the arrival route were painted up nice and spiffy for the visiting delegations.

2. These 7-day all inclusive deals are oftentimes cheaper than just a Toronto-Havana Cubana flight. Savvy travelers just book the package and stay a day or two at their resort and then travel independently. As an aside, tourism figures for January indicate a 16% increase for the same period last year. Top countries visiting Cuba: Canada, Italy, Germany, France, Russia, Argentina, and Mexico.

3. I say travelers here instead of tourists because I believe there is a fundamental difference between a person who passively observes a culture and someone who desires to actively participate in it. If you’re one of those disposed to take issue with the tourist vs traveler terminology, I invite you to focus on the phenomenon/philosophy I’m talking about rather than the etymology of the terms used to describe it.

4. Those interested in Cuban slang and phrases should check out this Dichos iapp. I haven’t been able to get it yet (the US government blocks iTunes from operating in Cuba) but am loca to try it.

5. This national reflex is widespread and wild to watch: no matter what type of car you’re in, observe how passing Cubans immediately drop their eyes to check out the license plate. Via the coded plates, they’ll know if your car is from Havana or the provinces, whether you’re a foreign resident or visiting, even if you work for the state, a mixed Cuban-foreign enterprise, a church or an NGO.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, cuban beaches, Cuban phrases, dream destinations, off-the-beaten track, Travel to Cuba, Uncategorized

The Corrective Cut

“Tell me the truth. You took scissors to your own hair, didn’t you?” (see note 1)

Victory is clearly mine. [tweetmeme source=”connergo” only_single=false]

Ay querida,” I tell my new favorite hairdresser in that mix of English and Spanish that comes naturally to the bi-cultural. “Is it that bad?”

She meets my gaze in the mirror and gives an unequivocal nod.

Ingrid grows wide-eyed as I explain Anabel’s lazy layering technique and scissor-happy strategy – indignities which were foisted on me nine months prior in an upscale Havana salon.

“Tsk tsk,” is the sum of her response. Seems there’s some sort of unspoken hairdresser solidarity that prevents her from dissing a faceless colleague, despite the butcher job she will now proceed to try and fix.

We talk at length – about my lifestyle, my outlook, and my hair-related derring-do. How short am I willing to go? Bangs or no bangs? Ingrid blanches when I tell her I don’t own a blow dryer. Luckily she recovers quickly.

“I’ve cut lots of Chinese hair – don’t worry. We’ll achieve maximum volume with the cut. No extra product or tools needed.”

And she gets busy. It takes over an hour and some clever techniques to correct the god awful mess I’ve been sporting since October. It immediately becomes clear, however, that this is simply the first of a pair of corrective cuts I’ll have to endure (and pay for) to repair damage done to me in that private Havana salon that shall continue to remain nameless. Even in Ingrid’s able hands, my head is somewhat of a lost cause – the layers are so drastically uneven they remind me of the laughable styles favored by the pseudo rebels at 23 & G (see note 2).

Sure, Ingrid’s work is costing me $45 instead of the $5 I paid the bedazzled bunny of a hairdresser Anabel, but it is worth every penny. Even here capitalist truths rule: you get what you pay for.

Thanks mujer for the killer haircut and for finally giving me something positive to say about Miami! (see note 3).

Notes

1. If possible, Ingrid’s question was even more endearing than my 12-year old niece’s observation from a week before: “Aunt Conner! From the back you look like a teenager!” Bless both their hearts.

2. Calles 23 & G in Havana’s Vedado neighborhood is where tweens and teens congregate by the hundreds to get tipsy on rum, flirt and maybe sneak a couple of cigarettes. All very vanilla, but interesting to see what the Cuban youth are up to these days. My conclusion? Not much.

3. If you ever have a longish layover in Miami, head to Angelo’s Hair Port in Terminal E and ask for Ingrid. Tell her the NYquina who lives in Havana sent you!

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Living Abroad