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Crystal Balling Cuba

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Get your mind out of the gutter: this isn’t a pornographic post – which I know will be a great disappointment to some of you (I see every naughty and downright nasty search term used to find Here is Havana, you know). Rather, in this post I bring decades of capitalistic serfdom and 10 years of Cuban residence and observation to bear on Havana’s not-too-distant future. Making predictions is a dicey proposition and I will do it just this once, so pay attention. Here’s what I expect to unfold:

1. Bicycles are going to make a roaring comeback.
I mentioned this recently to a pair of Cuban journalists who fairly scoffed, decrying the idea as incredibly naïve and ill-informed. The hangover from the Special Period was too potent, they proclaimed in that annoying, know-it-all way, and the bike as a means of conveyance? Largely dead (and unlikely to be revived), it’s association with hard times, hunger, forced weight loss, and transport of last resort too fresh and caustic still.

I offered no rebuttal since Cuban journalists are not typically known for their insight or analytical chops (see note 1) and I was sure my theory on the resurgence of cycling would have been lost on, or worse, appropriated as their own.

What I didn’t say then but will now: as more people – young people especially – enter the private sector as wait staff, bartenders, hairdressers, parking attendants and in scores of other decent wage-earning jobs, they’re going to have to be at work on time. And public transportation is too unreliable. ‘La guagua no llegó’ was viable enough excuse when they toiled in a state cafeteria or the post office, but ‘the bus never arrived’ isn’t going to cut muster with their boss at the paladar or private spa. These gainfully employed folks will also have the resources to buy a bicycle. Moreover, I know intimately how efficient riding a bike to work or play can be. And if there’s one thing capitalism hammers into adherents early and often it’s find efficiencies or perish.

My Havana ride: Frances

A secondary and complimentary reason why bikes are going to come back into fashion is that Cuban women are beginning to feel the pressure to shape up. This isn’t a health craze, far from it. Instead, the pear/guitar-shaped figure that has always driven Cuban men mad is being supplanted by standards of developed world beauty. This super skinny/no hips archetype is problematic for a culture bred and bothered on fat asses and love handles – for centuries the ideal Cuban woman was one who had something you could grab onto. But slowly, surely, Cuba is headed for Barbie land – because buying into what they’re selling is what the “free” market does best. It makes me sad; one of the joys of this place for me is its proud nonconformity to dominant paradigms.

2. Pull back on car sales/private taxis.
Day by day, Havana’s streets become more dangerous, traffic-jammed, and accident-prone. This isn’t surprising considering the number of vehicles – new and rebuilt – that have been injected in a short period of time into a city laid out centuries ago. This is thanks to the relative ease with which cars can be bought and sold now, but there are other, less obvious, reasons why our streets are more perilous for motorists and pedestrians alike.

First, a small, but important change was made recently affecting the fixed taxi almendrones that ply main avenues around town: beginning last year, owners of those cars were permitted to subcontract out the vehicle to other drivers. Whereas previously only the owner could hack his car, now he can hire a driver to do the drudge work, freeing said owner to claim his spot at the domino table, slug back rum, and rake in cash. And the driving “skills” of some of these hired drivers are downright scary: they barrel down heavily-traveled thoroughfares at breakneck speeds; learn their routes – even how to drive – on the job; fight with unstable steering columns; and fiddle with the regguetón videos on their dashboard-mounted screens (thereafter becoming engrossed in the soft porn therein).

So bad drivers, in cars they know less intimately than some of their fares, is only part of the problem. The other part is that for the first time, SUVs are on the scene and in the hands of Cubans. This has a two-fold effect: first, these behemoths limit the sight lines of other drivers – I dare you to try and drive a Polski behind a Land Rover and test my assertion – and second, they give drivers an (increased) sense of invincibility.

Itty bitty Polski, photo by Caitlin Gorry

So I predict pullback. The market itself will play its part since the number of Cubans who can afford cars is finite (and prices are insane right now: $8000 or so for a used Lada or one of the aforementioned Polskis). Furthermore, the state will also be motivated to cap the number of cars on the road since accidents are among the top five causes of death here. And there have been a lot of accidents in my neck of the woods lately.

3. People will tire of the 50 cent pepper and the 5 dollar shot.
While outsiders and the foreign press, farmers and their middlemen praise recent economic changes allowing for direct food sales, ag cooperatives, and prices based on what the market will bear, my opinion is decidedly…measured.

I’m not as gaga over these developments for the simple reason that I subscribe to Mandela’s sage observation that ‘where you stand depends on where you sit.’ And if you’re sitting on mountains (or even molehills) of disposable cash, the reforms affecting food production and sales are deliciously welcome. Tomatoes in July, avocadoes in October, exotic crops like broccoli, cauliflower – the diversity and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 19-year love affair with Cuba. But if you’re struggling to make ends meet – if you’re sitting with the Cuban 99% – all of this is moot because you can’t afford any of it.

Green peppers, onions, and beans (staples all) are so astronomically priced these days, going to the agro can feel like a museum experience for many of us – except going to a museum feeds the soul, while food out of your financial reach just feeds your hunger and a simmering rancor (see note 2). In the veggie markets charging what they can (as opposed to state markets where prices are capped), produce is at least double the price. The guys wheeling carretillas from street to street, carts heavily-laden with bounty bought from those subsidized state markets, resell at triple the price.

Those who can afford exotic and not so produce at whatever price are largely oblivious to this I’ve noticed. They shop happily at the ‘diplo-agros’ (ie affordable only to the foreign diplomatic corps and other 1%-ers) for carrots, bok choy, white onions, parsley and lettuce – none of which are available, at any price, at the state markets where the rest of us shop.

Price distortions and places for “us” and others for “them,” are dangerous to the social fabric, especially because the gap isn’t only widening, it’s deepening. Translation: the types of goods and services available to only a select portion of the population is growing, while those locked out of those options is also growing.

I went to a “private” bar last weekend where cocktails started at $5 (see note 3) and topped out at $25 for a highball of Johnnie Walker Blue. Seems to me we’re on a bad course when my neighbors exist on rice and lentils; you can get laid by a working gal for $10; and too many people can’t afford toilet paper, but you can sidle up to a bar in your knock-off Blahniks and drop the average monthly Cuban salary on a glass of whiskey. It’s not only gastronomic that has gone astronomic: some state concert venues have doubled, and in some cases quadrupled, ticket prices, putting culture out of reach of many, as well (see note 4).

Don’t get me wrong: part of this distortion is due to decades of over-subsidizing and preferential pricing. But price spikes without concomitant salary increases is not only dangerous, it’s cruel: those punished are disproportionately poor or those doggedly dedicated to the revolutionary project who’ve tried to do good; do gooders never get rich, this much we know.

The price/salary disconnect is a hot topic around here these days and I predict backlash – a rash of failed restaurants which won’t make it selling $10 pasta and $15 pork; a rejection of easy and exotic, but expensive, options for procuring raw foods like from the uncapped markets and carretillas; and a growing gap and related aggravation between the haves and have nots.

4. Major changes in leadership.
Got your attention now, don’t I? But this is far from news: Raúl and the historic leadership are facing biological inevitabilities, plus, that same leadership recently instituted term limits of two consecutive five-year terms. So this is more affirmation than prediction, and while it remains to be seen who will walk the halls of power and policy in the coming years, I know there are some good and fair, wickedly smart, and hard working people to choose from. For their future and ours, I predict: no es fácil, pero tampoco imposible (it’s not easy, but neither is it impossible).

Notes
1. There are some notable exceptions of course: I worked with the fabulous Fabiola López while in Haiti after the earthquake; Julia Osendi, who covers sports for Televisión Cubana, has more guara than most; and Rolando Segura, who has been covering Africa and the Middle East lately, does a bang up job.

2. For this same reason I reject sidewalk cafes – you need only walk by such a place, once, your stomach knotted with hunger and no means to quell it, and smell a juicy burger to know the inherent cruelty in taunting hungry people with a meal close enough to touch, but out of reach. People, I beg you: take meals inside if there’s any chance a hungry soul will happen by (eg in big cities and on busy streets).

3. A non-drinker for years, I stuck to the $1.50 Tu Kola.

4. Just today I received a note about a new disco charging a $10 cover.

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