Tag Archives: private enterprise

Getting Screwed in Cuba’s New Economy

It will take a bit for me to create the physical time and psychic space to write a long form piece on private businesses here – but trust, me: I’ve got plenty to say on the subject. In the meantime, I’ll channel my cathartic necessities through the relating of my washing machine saga, AKA “The Yoyi Affair.”

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I am extraordinarily fortunate to own a washing machine. Anyone who has hand washed a queen-sized sheet, scrubbed towels on a washboard (common to Cuban laundry sinks), or tried to wring out a pair of skinny jeans (and pray for sun because otherwise those clothes are going to smell funkier than a frat boy’s laundry bag) knows what I’m talking about. I lived years here drowning in that routine and now I can’t glimpse a clothesline heavy with recently-scrubbed laundry without wanting to knock on the door and offer the lady of the house a glass of something cool and a rocking chair. It’s terrifically hard work keeping a Cuban household running (forget about smoothly); as you may imagine, laundry is a sticky bitch in the equation.

Luckily, a few savvy Havana entrepreneurs have pinned their cuenta propista hopes on privately-operated Laundromats, where dirty duds are returned to you clean as a whistle, for just a couple of CUCs a kilo. I hear the one in Miramar is making bank, but their folding lacks attention to detail. There are (dark, uninviting) state places too, with cute names like Little Laundry or no name at all. You just have to know they exist and where they are. These are cheaper than the private outfits, but with unreliable hours and workers who filch your soap. I’ve been down that road and while it’s a more sane solution than trying to wring out your Levis by hand, taking my place in line at 6am for a service which takes two days is not my idea of a good time. So when my mom bought her blushing-bride-of-a-daughter a fully automatic LG washing machine as a wedding gift, it was pure euphoria.

That was almost a dozen years and what seems a lifetime ago, but it has worked beautifully and without complaint since. Ah! To wash sheets at the touch of a button! To have jeans nearly extracted dry! I loved that machine even after it developed a high-pitched squeal like a Christmas pig having its throat cut. It was so loud and piercing, callers often asked: ‘what’s that sound in the background? Are you keeping pigs?!’ ‘No, just the rinse cycle,’ I’d explain. I could live with the squeal – after all, I didn’t have the time, energy or inclination to fix it. I had bigger problems – like deadlines and ant infestations and inspectors. And I was tired: we’re working 60 hours a week, easy, at Cuba Libro, where we go through a dozen individual hand towels a day. And more than the pile of dirty laundry, these towels are the sticky bitch in my equation. ‘Whatcha doing tonight, boss? Washing little towels?! Heh, heh, heh,’ is a common conversation starter among our staff. (Note to self: dock pay for every snarky Saturday night towel comment. Just kidding!) It’s sad, but true however: I spend many an evening listening to my querida machine squeal little towels around as I wait for the dial-up internet to hop to. It only makes me weep on occasion.

One of those occasions was when the machine ceased, definitively, to have a spin cycle. Of course, it happened during an insanely busy week: long-time, well-loved staff departing for foreign latitudes; training newbies; hosting groups; friends’ birthdays; multiple deadlines; and my trip to New York. Have you ever traveled with a suitcase of soiled clothes? Not pretty, but a nice little ‘gotcha!’ for the folks rifling through luggage on this side of the Straits and Homeland Security on that one. For reasons more important than this, however, my immediate priority was Getting My Washing Machine Fixed.

I put it off, but the second time I was forced to look into that towel and soap soup, and rinse and wring out each toallita individually, I knew procrastination was no longer advisable. True, I was drowning in work, bureaucratic bullshit and administrative tedium. In short: I didn’t have one atom of extra energy to confront the jodedera of getting a major appliance fixed in today’s Havana. And then I met Yoyi. He was an affable guy with gold teeth, cafe au lait skin, and an efficient, confident air. His workshop is in a garage a couple of blocks from Cuba Libro, the driveway choked with washing machines in various stages of decay, disrepair and death. When I explained to him the problem, he boiled it down to one of three parts. ‘Let’s go to your house. I’ll assess the problem and if you agree, I’ll bring the machine here to the workshop, fix it and you’ll have it back in 24 hours.’ Transport, parts, labor and a one-year guarantee included. Efficient, professional and good looking private enterprise? Hell yeah, bring it on!

Flash forward to my apartment where two strange men are shimmying the machine away from the wall and peering into its nether regions. “It’s the clutch,” Yoyi tells me. Of course it’s the clutch, the most expensive part, for which Yoyi quoted me $150CUC. This is a total rip off, I’m fully aware. Yoyi was showing me what’s known in Cuba as ‘cara dura’. I was getting the Screw-The-Yuma price (and female to boot! Cha ching!) and I knew it, but I needed that machine in working order like, yesterday. I’m used to Cubans fucking me for my non-Cuban status in terms of pricing, but fucking me up the ass in terms of pricing? This is something else. ‘$150 CUC. That’s rough. You can come down a bit, surely,’ I told Yoyi with a smile.

We settled on $130CUC and away he went with my machine. The next day I went to his garage storefront at the appointed hour where I, along with his employees (who couldn’t reach him on his cell), waited until it grew dark. Yoyi finally rattled up in an old Lada, wedged the machine in the trunk and off we set for my apartment. After he and his pierced, tattooed helper lugged it up to the third floor, they plugged the old girl in and ran it through the spin cycle. Success! There were smiles, handshakes and goodbye kisses all around. I was impressed: within 24 hours, I had a working washing machine installed in my house, plus a one-year guarantee from Yoyi and his guys.

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The next day, I loaded up the machine, turned on the water, added detergent and pushed the magic button. I was answering yet another email from a clueless journalist here on assignment with no Spanish, no contacts, no guidebook or map even, and only a vague idea of what to write about when the machine started beeping. This wasn’t the steady ‘wash is done!’ beep but the frenetic ‘spin cycle won’t kick in!’ beep – the exact same annoying beep that drove me to Yoyi in the first place. Beads of frustration sweat popped to my brow as I went to inspect. It had worked yesterday. Why not today? I tried to restart it, trick it into going through different cycles, and taking out some clothes to lighten the load. Nada. When I looked closely, I noticed Yoyi had switched out my drum for a smaller, inferior one. De pinga.

I returned to his appliance workshop one, two, three days in a row. The place was shut tighter than the doors of the US-Cuba negotiations. Yoyi and crew were gozando with my $130 CUC no doubt. My mind went to a dark, destructive place: I was ready to open a can of NYC whup ass on the dude. On Day 4, I went with a gaggle of Cuban friends to back me up (what a motley bunch of muscle we made: a fellow so skinny his nickname is Periodo Especial; a too-good looking gay friend hitting on the too-good looking mulatto friend, a quiet pacifist, a philosopher…). When we rolled up on Yoyi, he admitted to not having tested the spin cycle with actual water. Duh. And he fessed up to switching out the drum. He promised to return to my house, retrieve the machine and fix it properly. I was peeved, but encouraged – his one-year guarantee had some validity, it seemed.

Then I went to NY. My mighty Cuban muscle paid several visits to Yoyi, but he was as scarce as butter and cheese in Havana circa 2015. That is to say: nowhere to be found. Then Havana got flooded. The pictures were frightening from where I was sitting stateside, but I knew the reality was much more horrifying: collapsing buildings; ruined keepsakes, furniture, electronics; stranded seniors. And I doubted there was hope for returning to a working washing machine.

Two days before arriving back in Havana, I got word: Yoyi fixed the machine, it was back at my house and ready to roll. I sent silent (none have email, alas) thanks and praise to my Cuban muscle and didn’t bother wasting my precious family and friend time in NY washing clothes; I’d do that in Havana and serve up another gotcha! to all airport personnel who deigned to inspect the contents of my luggage.

You see where this is going?

I got home, hugged the dog, and unpacked a small – teeny, really, so as not to overwhelm her – load of dirty laundry into the machine. As it did its thing, I began extracting from my luggage all the teas, spices, shoes, small electronics, feminine products, vitamins and the rest of the pacotilla with which I always travel: every trip Cuban friends and family give me a list of things they need but can’t get here (currently I’m procuring: baby bottles; children’s NyQuil; a lint brush; a motherboard; lubricant and coin wrappers). And guess what?! The machine worked! No frantic beeps! A proper rinse cycle! It was extraordinarily satisfying – $130 CUC satisfying, I’d say.

Fast forward two days. Another night spent alone washing little towels. As I was counting my blessings, the evil beeps started. The rinse cycle didn’t. I was peering again into little towel-soap soup. My knees and resolve to work with this guy weakened: I just don’t have the energy to interface with Yoyi again – in spite of the year guarantee. But when I do, I’m not going to bring him my machine for a third time. Instead, I’m going to bring all my NY Irish to bear and open that can-of-whup-ass all over him and his private sector business. Stay tuned.

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

Havana’s Happy Ending Massage

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Next to a full-blown orgasm, there’s nothing more relaxing than a full-body massage in my book. A good massage even beats out great masturbation if you ask me, and while I’ve had massages in places as far flung as Hawaii and the Bronx, Guatemala and the Yucatán, I’ve been reticent to explore such carnal (albeit platonic) pleasures in Havana. It’s not a question of cost – a full one-hour massage is as little as $10 here – but rather the 1-2 combo of Cubans’ notoriously lascivious nature and a rabidly jealous Scorpion husband (see note 1). Who knew what would go down on that table, yours truly lying there nude, a strange man’s hands roaming all about?

But recently, a different 1-2 combo struck, sending me to that table: first, the need for release and relaxation was too pressing to ignore and then a friend opened a full-service spa. Permissible under Cuba’s new consumer capitalism regime, this privately-owned spa is in a privileged corner of an upscale neighborhood and offers everything from spinning classes and yoga to Brazilian wax jobs and microabrasions.

It seemed like the golden opportunity to invite the strong, well-oiled hands of an unknown Cuban macho to get acquainted with my body…

But before getting down to the nitty gritty, I wonder what you imagine when you hear the word ‘spa?’ Is it some oasis serving cucumber water and salmon/watercress baguettes on Little Palm Island? Or a strip mall in the Valley specializing in waxing, wrapping, threading, and peeling? Whatever images the word ‘spa’ conjures in your corner of the world, I bet it’s nothing like what we have in Havana.

All of the spas I know here (see note 2), are mansions or grand homes at least, with living rooms converted to fully-equipped gyms, bedrooms repurposed for Pilates, and closets retrofitted as saunas. My friend’s spa falls under this rubric, though as educated, well-traveled and cultured as she is, her spa is mucho más allá, offering nutrition consultations, medicinal plants for sale on the landscaped patio, and self-defense classes for women.

Bright, clean and spacious, the spa was welcoming but exuded the contradictory energy typical to Cuba at today’s crossroads: phones rang, appointments were made and administrators made sure it hopped with the hustle and bustle of a profit-making/seeking enterprise, while employees sat around picking their nails and contemplating their navels.

I was shown to a Swiss-clean room with AC, professional massage table, and linens monogrammed with the spa’s logo. In the gleaming, marble bathroom, I was instructed to change into the robe provided. Just then, the masseur appeared. I’ll call him Henry. He was big not wide, which was good, and had the sculpted muscles of a gym rat, nicely displayed in a skin-tight wife beater. Except for his braces (adult orthodontia is big here), he was easy on the eyes, which is neither here nor there since my baby blues would be closed, but like having an unattractive or downright ugly gynecologist, it never hurts. Henry had the smooth, lustrous skin privy to youth and would be considered a hottie by anyone’s standards.

Expectations for popping my Cuba massage cherry were high…

I assumed the position face down on the table and Henry spoke the only words he’d utter to me over the next hour: “would you like your gluteus and breasts massaged as well?”

Wait, what?! I was sure I’d heard right, but was struck dumb for a second as yells of “you can do it señora! Feel the burn!!!” bellowed through the thin walls from the spinning class next door. My mind flew into high gear, considering his query:

– Is a tit massage standard procedure?
– Had I ever even been asked this before by a professional masseur?
– Do boobs even have muscles to massage?
– If the answer to the above questions is no, was there a hidden subtext?
– If I answer yes to the tit kneading, does it open the possibilities for a “happy ending” which, considering the cut of Henry’s jib, wouldn’t be the most unpleasant thing to happen to me today?

“Just the gluteus,” I told him when I’d regained my senses. He got busy.

Things started off suavecito, suavecito and my first thought was ‘Is this a massage or foreplay?’ It was too light and fluttery, nothing that would route out my many sore muscles and overworked tendons. ‘Maybe he’s just warming up,’ I reasoned.” But he kept on killing me softly, even on both feet, committing that all-too-common infraction: neglecting the feet in massage quality and quantity.

When it became clear Mr. Muscle wasn’t going to apply himself, I sucked up the string of drool crawling across my cheek and said: “please: do it a lot harder.” And I think he tried – for half a calf at least, but then lapsed back into the massage mode I call “How to Relax Housewives and Pleasure Slackers.” I imagined him learning the techniques at an intensive weekend workshop somewhere bucolic like Las Terrazas or Viñales. Needless to say, this masajito was doing nothing for the knots tucked deep beneath my shoulders and my related stiff neck. Henry’s approach released no toxins and alleviated stress for about as long as takes you to finish reading this sentence.

His hands were big and strong and my mind’s eye saw them kneading whiter skin than he had probably ever touched. ‘Litro de leche’ Cubans often call my skin tone – not always in a good way. When it came time for me to turn my lily white self over, the draping acrobatics commenced. Since I’d declined the boob massage, he had to flip me while keeping both my genitals and chest strategically covered. He was fairly deft at it, though somewhat mechanical, and I imagined a full third of that weekend workshop in Viñales dedicated to ‘How to Drape Your Client without Exposing Popular Erogenous Zones.’

I asked him once again to put more oomph into it, but he didn’t. I resigned myself to the fact that my mind and body were not going to attain any bliss today. Just then there was a knock on the door; a muchacha entered asking if she could leave her bag in the massage room. Busting in on a naked (albeit draped) me didn’t really rankle: I was used to people barging in here – during couples’ therapy, on the toilet, in the throes. Privacy in Cuba is one of the island’s enduring oxymorons and one you have to cope with if you fancy spending large amounts of time here.

My faux/flojo massage was almost over and I realized the only happy ending was for Henry, when I left him a nice tip – just for trying.

Notes
1. In 10 years here, most of those covering the health system (where almost all massage therapists train and work at some time), I’ve never met a female therapist – something which I predict is going to change fast as more foreigners drop into Havana’s day spas.

2. Watch for my upcoming article on Havana’s spas and their inclusion in the next update of my Havana Good Time iapp. It’s worth pointing out that there are both state-run and privately-owned spas here now.

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Filed under Americans in cuba, Cuban customs, Cuban economy, Cuban idiosyncracies, Expat life, health system, Living Abroad, 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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Conner’s Cuba Rules

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Since I’m from the Estados Unidos (more fittingly known as ‘Estamos Jodidos,’ or the independent republic of ‘We’re Screwed’), very few friends have visited me here on the “wrong side” of the Straits (see note 1). The lengths the US goes to keep Cuba down makes me indignant, but also sad since my peeps haven’t been able to experience this place for themselves and draw their own conclusions as to how good (or not so) things are in my world.

Last week however, the friend blockade was broken by some dear old amigos who finally made the leap and turned up for a visit.

As you might expect, they had lots of questions about governance and control, salaries and employment, the burgeoning private sector, tourism, race relations, emigration and myriad other aspects of Cuban life. Their curiosity and desire to better understand the sometimes unfathomable reality that is Cuba, forced me into a thoughtful analysis of the mundane, germane, and slightly insane features of life here.

Since the contemporary Cuban reality is so complex and different from what most people know, I’ve developed several rules of thumb for travelers wanting to maximize their Cuba visit. Part philosophical, part practical, the following complement Trip Tips: Havana Independently, posted in these pages some time ago.

– 8 out of 10 people approaching you on the street want something. ‘Do you have the time?’ ‘Where you from?’ and ‘Hello, my fren! Francia?! Italia?!’ are the most common lines used on new arrivals by jineteros. These are always asked with a good dose of charm in some of the best English you’re likely to hear in Cuba and it usually takes a couple of days before visitors get clued in to the hustle.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #1: Deny hustlers an easy opening by eschewing clothing or accessories that identify your nationality and learn a few deterring phrases. These might include ‘déjame en paz’ (leave me alone) or for those who won’t take no for an answer: ‘no te metes conmigo, coño’ (don’t mess with me damn it). If you’re a hustler magnet (or hater), consider steering clear of tourist hot spots in Habana Vieja and Centro Habana altogether. In the end, all foreigners are seen as rubes and marks regardless of station, education, or experience.

– Cubans tell you what they think you want to hear. As a rule, foreigners receive the ‘poor oppressed us’ line first. A sympathy ploy laced with political assumption, this tactic is tiresome for its banality and blatant disregard for facts. You’ll be told, for example, about the stiff penalties incurred for killing a cow, but this ‘woe’s me’ contingent will conveniently leave out the part about the government guaranteeing milk for all children under 7, pregnant women, and other vulnerable groups – the reason cows are protected property. Cubans renting rooms in their houses are notorious for this type of incomplete picture peddling, complaining to clients about the taxes levied upon their business. What they neglect to mention is that their income-earning homes are provided by the government virtually rent-free. Wanting a rent-free property to run a business and be tax exempt? That’s chutzpah.

But this cuts both ways. If, for instance, you evidence respect and awe for the Cuban Revolution, you’re likely to hear about free education and the wonders of organic farming. What you won’t necessarily hear about are the overcrowded dormitories with shitty food and water shortages or the country’s experiments with genetically-modified crops.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #2: Cubans tend to see things as black and white, when the truth more often resides in the gray. When picking a Cuban’s brain, always consider the source and listen to the complainers very closely: you’ll likely hear the axe they’re grinding loud and clear.

– You can’t ‘fix’ Cuba. There’s an especially annoying type of tourist who after two weeks here is convinced they’ve got it all figured, that they know precisely how to fix what’s broken (see note 2). Their simplistic ideas often disregard the complexities of Cuban society and illustrate a woeful ignorance of history, geo-politics, even the weather. For example, if you think hurricanes have little connection to health and housing in Cuba, you might be this type of visitor. Even after living here for 9 years, I can’t figure it all out and while it’s possible some tourist is better positioned to analyze Cuba, it’s not likely.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #3: The more you know about Cuba, the less you understand. Remember: it’s better to remain silent and appear a fool than open your mouth and prove it. If you’re truly keen to learn, read widely before your trip, ask lots of questions once here, and avoid declarations.

– The more things change, the more they stay the same. Huge, watershed changes are taking place here, but at its core, Cuba is still Cuba. It’s a cultural constancy that may be drawing to a close as market forces gather momentum, but I’m not so sure. Consider this quote:

 It is plain there is a good deal to be learned here…Things which we cannot do without, we must go out of the house to find, and those which we can do without we must dispense with. This is odd and strange, but not uninteresting and affords scope for contrivance and the exercise of influence and other administrative powers…I must inform myself on the subject of this strange development of capital over labor.”

– Richard Henry Dana, Jr.

 What’s so interesting about this observation is that it could have easily been made yesterday, but dates from 1859.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #4: Cuba is evolving, but not necessarily in the direction or way you or I might think (or want). Though the steps people take to maintain balance might change, the fact that the ground is always moving never does. Do like Cubans and roll with it.

No coge lucha. Threats to national sovereignty notwithstanding, Cubans don’t take too much too seriously, preferring to get and go along over fussing and fighting. I’m convinced it has something to do with the weather – this heat is enough to wither anyone’s defenses – but is probably also related to the fact that there is so little housing and employment movement here, if you piss a neighbor or co-worker off, you’re in for a lifetime of problems.

Conner’s Rule of Thumb #5: Don’t get your knickers in a twist if things don’t go as planned or a government drone isn’t cooperating. Have a sense of humor, laugh it off and follow the old axiom: you catch more flies with honey than vinegar.

Writing all this, I realize I’d be wise to take my own advice!

Notes

1. For anyone new to this blog +/o US-Cuba relations, the freedom for US citizens and residents to travel to the island has been restricted for 50 years. As I type this, the House Appropriations Committee has just voted to reverse the small opening Obama offered US travelers wanting to travel to Cuba.

2. These types really chap my ass, almost as much as the Cuban émigré who hasn’t been here in 20 years or worse, the person sitting at their computer who has never been here.

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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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A Cuban Bedtime Story

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Sometimes being here feels like a punishment. I know that sounds harsh, hypocritical even – after all, being here is a choice. But since hypocrites are as tolerable as scabies in my book, I’ll chalk it up to sleep deprivation instead (see note 1).

Not being able to sleep even (or especially) when exhausted and content or simply post-orgasmic spent, is hitchhiking-in-the-rain frustrating. This is the state of affairs around here recently. It’s not insomnia como tal. We head to bed, make wild love, and sleep – for a bit. But after a while, the trifecta of mosquitoes (see note 2), heat, and our mattress de mierda conspires to rob us of the sweet opiate of sleep (see note 3). Since the heat, mosquitoes, and the changes afoot are largely beyond my control, I present you, dear readers, with a diatribe against the Cuban “mattress.”

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Everyone I know is sleeping on a mattress at least 20 years old. That’s a lie: my friend Angela told me the other day she’s due a new one – hers is 17 years and counting. My sister-in-law, meanwhile, sleeps on the same mattress on which she was conceived…37 years ago. The mattress at our first apartment didn’t seem that long in the tooth – it sagged just slightly and rarely did we roll over onto a spring un-sprung. When we moved to our new place a couple of years ago, the bed seemed fine – at least it didn’t collapse unexpectedly, dramatically at anticlimactic moments and the lumps were tolerably spaced. The first time we flipped it, however, we discovered it was tunneled through with termites; as long as I didn’t think of that visual, I slept fine.

My husband, unfortunately, had more than termites needling him – a discovery I made one night when he was out of town. Turns out his side of the bed was hecha mierda: crappy, wrecked, a god awful mess. Not only did it tilt to port, it featured a fist-sized spring poking into the small of his back. He never complained (he’s an atypical Cuban!), easing into sleep each night stoically. I discovered our inequitable mattress situation when I slept on his side once when he was out of town. No flipping or rotating resolved the problem (besides, I didn’t want to see those burrowing termites again, ever) and eventually, inevitably, the time came to do something about it.

I know what you’re thinking: ‘just go out and buy a damn mattress already!’ But here in Havana, it’s not that simple (what is?!). There’s the cost of course (see note 4), but that’s the least of it: I’d beg, borrow or steal the CUCs I’d need to assure a good night’s sleep for me and my loved one. Unfortunately, here, one thing you learn fast is that there are some things no manner of money can buy. From tortillas to tofu, Rolling Stone to the NY Times, certain things are simply not available ever.

Mattresses fall into this category. There are no mattress stores here, no Bed, Bath & Beyonds or 1-800-Mattres. But I wondered: what do the hotels do for instance or famous folks like Chucho and Silvio? Certainly they aren’t sleeping on 20-year old, termite-infested numbers? I researched cargo from Mexico but that’s over-the-top expensive, as is using the services of crafty Cubans who make a business of shipping over beds, flat screen TVs, fine wines, and other exotic wares from Panama and ports beyond.

So we – or I should say, my husband – sucked it up. Then one miraculous day, mattresses started appearing in stores. Everything from basic twins to not-quite-pillow-top-but-close-enough kings we’re suddenly on sale. The prices were astronomical it goes without saying – the just better than standard double we were ogling ran about $375; box spring excluded of course. We got excited. We started amassing the cash.

But then the reports started rolling in from friends who had already taken the plunge and our fears about these made in Cuba mattresses were confirmed: big sags developing in the middle after a few weeks and couples waking up crashed against one another (and not in a good way). Typical Cuban manufacturing is kind of like French cars and Italian toasters: looks good, works like shit (see note 5). So we soured on the idea even before we had the money together.

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We continued sucking it up. By this point, my husband’s sleep-us interrupt-us was waking me at ungodly hours. Too often we were irritable by day and frustrated at night. We decided to go to Plan B: mattress reconstruction. For almost every Cuban (including those aforementioned friends sleeping on 20-year old units), this is their only option. It’s kind of a hard concept to get your head around. Think of it like a refurbished computer, only it’s your bed. Mattress reconstruction is one of those well-established local private enterprises – like knife sharpening, manicures, and gardening – that are studiously ignored right, left and center. Seems they don’t square with anyone’s concept of Cuba’s state controlled economies. These businesses have been around a long time and the mattress builders, at least, have been getting rich off it, steadily and quietly, for years.

Reparación de colchones!” they yell as they stroll the streets of Playa, Marianao, and Centro Habana.

Once they catch a client, they set up a pair of sawhorses on the sidewalk, roof or back patio onto which your tattered old mattress is heaved. They rip off the cover with strong, deft strokes of a 6-inch knife and start tearing out the stuffing by the handful, carefully picking out the fluff stuck to the springs. After all the stuffing is out and the springs laid bare, they go to work recoiling those gone astray and clip away the pointy parts that have been wrecking your beauty sleep. Once the springs are more or less tamed, they re-stuff the mattress with “new” materials brought for this purpose, envelop it with a new cover, and sew it up with a long, strong needle that would make a good weapon to commit a crime of passion. They finish it off by sewing divots in strategic points like poking holes in a pie being readied for the oven.

Reparación de colchones!” came the cry one recent overcast Saturday. My husband and I went to the window. Already two neighbors had lined up their lumpy beds for repair. There was a knock at the door. My husband opened it to Julio, a big, black bear of a man with illegible tattoos smudged into his neck. I kept to the back of the house – just seeing my foreigner face would jack the price. He quoted his compadre $60 to fix our mattress.

Outrageous! I mouthed to my husband when he came to the back telling me the price. “That’s highway robbery. Besides, we can’t afford it.”

After a call to friends confirmed a mattress refurbishing costs around $50 or so in their rough and tumble ‘hood, negotiations continued. When my husband finally shut the door saying we couldn’t afford it right now, he had bargained Julio down to $40.

“We should have done it!” I admonished my husband once he reported back. “That bed is en llama. We probably won’t get another 40 dollar chance.”

By this time clouds were gathering, the 4-member refurbishing team had three clients still to go and our window of opportunity had closed.

The next day there was an unexpected knock at the door.

“$35. That’s our final offer,” Julio told me.

“Done,” I said leading him and his helper to our bedroom.

Once the mattress was on the sawhorses on the sidewalk below, I stood by fascinated, watching as they tore off the cover and discovered…a layer of cardboard. Old Haier refrigerator boxes mostly, with a couple of corrugated swatches filling it out.

!Miro esto! they exclaimed as they strew it aside and started ripping away the stuffing. They worked quickly, wielding the knife with authority. I noticed more tattoos on the other men’s necks and knuckles – words to live by like ‘Mets’ and ‘Mami.’ The guys were friendly and funny and their boss was a whip cracker of a woman – one of those sturdy country types who doesn’t suffer fools.

“Would you like a blue or beige cover, amor?” she asked me after we’d talked a bit about her business.

“Beige, I guess.”

“I like the beige myself. It’s classier. The blue is mostly for bed wetters – the dark color hides the stains better.”

I watched the men stuff and sew up our “new” mattress. The whole process took about an hour and when they were done they hauled the thing up three flights of stairs and plopped it on our bed.

Things haven’t been the same since.

I don’t know if it’s the absence of the protective cardboard layer or the “new” stuffing of questionable origin or a corner cut here or there to accommodate the $35 nice price, but since that day, neither my husband nor I has had a decent night’s sleep.

It’s getting tiresome.

Notes

1. This type of justification-cum-absolution is one sure sign I’ve gone native.

2. Few Cuban homes have actual windows. Instead, they have wooden slats which cantilever open. These are great for air circulation and more secure than panes during hurricanes, but give free passage from outdoors in to every mosquito, frog, bug, and bicho.

3. Of course, anxiety can’t be ruled out as a co-factor – hearts and minds are racing these days down this way, what with 500,000 layoffs and more in the offing. There are big changes afoot and people are feeling it – not at all positively.

4. Hello?! What’s up with the worldwide mattress mafia? Can someone explain to me why they’re so fucking expensive? It’s a racket I tell you.

5. I know this is a wild generalization but Cubans tend to favor form over function.
As long as it looks good…

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