Saturday, 24 September 2016

Thoughts in Progress

Ricardo’s stall (not his real name and not his stall either) is nestled at the end of a short row of stands. Tourist-friendly merchandise covers most of the display tables leaving him a tiny space for his chair. After trying to flog me a few necklaces and bracelets, he realises that I am the “other” type of Cuban and strikes up a conversation with me instead.

We are standing almost in the shadow of the Morro Castle, a picture-perfect image of colonial Havana. Built by the Spaniards in the 16th century to protect the city, the fortress is now a must-see tourist attraction for those wanting to get acquainted with Cuban history. Especially the part about how the capital fell to the invading British army in 1762. Between the castle and Ricardo’s stall there is a moat, 15-to-20-foot-deep, which has never ceased to scare me. The scenery is as picturesque as they come but the seller’s mind is troubled by more serious matters.

This is not my stall. The artist who makes all these crafts is somewhere else now. But we are thinking of closing this shop down.” The reason is simple: at 300 Cuban pesos for the space, 280 for the licence to operate and 250 for insurance, Ricardo and his friend need to make at least 20 CUC (more about this later) per day to keep afloat. In reality they are making only 5 or 6 CUC, if lucky. Although strategically placed near the entrance to the castle and therefore a tourist magnet in their own right, the rest of the stall-holders tell me a similar story.

This situation is not atypical. Since the younger Castro brother, Raúl, “freed” the economy a couple of years ago, laid off thousands of state workers and began the slow dismantling of the governmental monopoly, there has been a steady increase of private businesses on the island. Why the quotation marks for “freed”? Because all Raúl did was legitimise what had been going on for decades.

For any Cuban it is not a secret that it has always been the black market that has run the economy in our country for years on end. All the Cuban government can do is play catch-up. In the 80s, whilst we were still under the patronage of the former USSR, Cubans began to trade dollars with foreigners (mainly overseas students), which was considered illegal (strangely, possession of dollars was not illegal, but trading in them was. Never mind, I know a guy who did eight years in jail for having 20 cents of a dollar in his pocket. Eight years, 20 cents.). The government, then, legalised dollars in the early 90s. Already in ’92 and ’93 there were people in Havana renting a spare room out to foreigners or turning a kitchen into a private restaurant. That was against the law, but as long as you gave the local bobbie his share and kept the president of the CDR (Committees for the Defence of the Revolution) happy, no one bat an eyelid. The legalisation of private restaurants and casas particulares years later followed the same trend. The black market sets the pace, the government has to, then, swallow its pride and follow suit.

End of the working day, but, for how long?
The difference now is that the message from Raúl and his gang is confusing. Shifting workers off the state payroll, hoping that they will use their own initiative, might sound revolutionary to some (especially those I call the “plastic socialist” brigade), but the reality is more complicated. Take Juan (again, not his real name): he is part of a new breed of entrepreneurs, in his case, the famous parqueadores (literally, parking attendants) who render Havana an auburn hue with their red bibs. These are the people – mainly men – who look after your car for a fee. They do not park it (the parking bit is misleading), but guide you in the process of parking it (please, do not laugh), keep an eye on it whil you nip down to the shops, or in my case, stay a few nights at a hotel. Juan is an OAP who has done pretty much every job there is out there to do: welder, teacher, fisherman, builder, interior decorator (a profession that deserves its own post on this blog, so hard to explain it is in a Cuban context). What led him to become a parking attendant, I ask him? “My pension is not enough. I get about 240 Cuban pesos a month and that goes in the first week when I get the food on my ration card. Before becoming a parqueador, I made ends meet by walking someone’s dog, or cleaning cars. Being a parking attendant means that I can at least take home a couple of CUCs every day. Juan is seventy-nine, going on eighty. When I ask him what kind of car he would like to drive if given the chance, he answers, a perspicacious half-smile lifting up one of the corners of his heavily wrinkled mouth:  I can’t drive”.

In order to understand why a seventy-nine-year-old man prefers to sit or stand outside a hotel in a blazing heat of 35-37 degrees and 90% humidity, you need to understand first the money system in Cuba. The official currency is still the Cuban peso, which has to compete with the “convertible peso”, which is the currency used to buy in tourist shops. A Cuban convertible peso is worth 25 Cuban pesos. Which means that Juan’s pension is about 10 convertible pesos (one sterling pound is worth 1.26 CUCs at the current rate. Yes, even in Cuba Brexit affected me). Because the rice, black beans, oil and other products he buys on his ration card are not enough to last him the whole month, he has to go to the convertible-peso shops where everything is more expensive. A bottle of oil will set him back 2.90 CUC (if he can find it). As a parqueador, Juan pays the government 200 Cuban pesos per month for the permit to operate. Whatever he makes after paying off, is his. The fees he and his mates set vary according to the person whose car they are guarding. In my case, I cough up 5 CUC per day because I drive a tourist car (down from 6 CUC per day. Oh, yes, I bartered).

Cyclical government bulletins update the Cuban population on the private businesses that are allowed to operate. What these regular updates do not tell people is the hurdles they must overcome in order to make their business commercially viable. Take hairdressing, for instance. With frequent shortages of shampoo and conditioner in shops, many Cubans started using “mules” to provide them with the goods they needed. The “mules” were mainly, although not specifically, people who lived in the US, especially in Florida. The government got wind of this and closed the loophole. What they did not do was to think of an alternative way to make it fair for hairdressing salons to acquire the products they needed. The consequence? A black market within the black market. Whereas before, shampoos, conditioners, combs, hair gels and other cosmetic goods were being traded (albeit at exorbitant prices), now they are being hoarded, waiting for the highest bidder (at even more exorbitant prices). The result? Many hairdressing salons and barber shops are closing down.

I put these questions to Elena (not her real name). Elena is staying at the same four-star hotel in Varadero (a beach resort, in the province of Matanzas, a couple of hours east of Havana) I am. Elena is a buyer/seller for a hotel chain. Her husband is a high-ranked tour guide and they have a primary-school-age daughter. Although only three or four years younger than me, Elena is from my same generation and, like me,  graduated as a teacher. "I could not carry on teaching. I did it for a couple of years and when the first opportunity to work in tourism arose, I did not look back. I do not regret it. There is no respect for teachers in this country anymore." All I can do is nod in agreement. When I was little, the teaching profession had a big reputation. By the time I finished my degree (three or four years before Elena), education in Cuba was in crisis. The exodus of teachers leaving for more dollar-generating jobs such as hotel porters or public relations reached its peak in the mid-to-late 90s and has never recovered.

That much is hinted when I switch the telly on that night. Havana has had to import 1,200 teachers from the provinces for the new academic year. Many of this personnel had already retired from the profession ten, twenty, or even thirty years ago. The measure smacks of a temporary and not well-thought out one. Rather than making a teacher's salary more valuable, these new recruits will be given more "ideological training" to deal with Cuba's current situation. Basically, they will be taught socialist drivel. Elena tells me that at her daughter's school the headteacher is a former teaching assistant who was not able to train as a teacher, nor (as it turns out) as a headteacher. Some of her daughter's teachers leave without giving notice, as soon as they land a job at one of the big hotels springing up in the Cuban capital.

The consequences of all these changes in practical terms are scary. First off, there is a young population who did not live under Fidel fully. Like him or hate him (and I have been highly critical of him for many years), Fidel had the smooth-talking, avuncular-looking charisma to convince people of what he was saying, even if what was coming out of his mouth contradicted what was happening in the country. Raúl is not the same. All he has is the support of the military (he was in charge of it for many decades). It is the military nowadays that administers major commercial enterprises, from tourism to construction. Once Fidel is gone (and Raúl will surely follow him shortly after. He is no spring chicken), there will be a vacuum left behind which will be hard to fill. Second reason to be alarmed is that many of our youngsters are not aware of the US blockade and its damaging impact on our economy. Not as in "not knowing what the blockade is". Of course they are aware of it from a propaganda-rich perspective. However, when it comes to analysing its effects on our exports/imports, their lack of understanding is astounding. I am not one to blame all of Cuba's ills on the embargo, but it is true that the American Congress decision to isolate Cuba economically all those decades ago has cost us hundreds of millions, if not billions of much-needed cash. But then, when I make this argument to a couple of twenty-somethings on separate occasions, they answer in almost the same way  even though they are not related. Who is to say that if the embargo comes down and trade relations are re-established with other countries, the revenue from this exchange will not be wasted? That's the third factor: mistrust. There is a lack of trust in the Cuban government because corruption and lack of transparency and accountability have been allowed to go unchecked for far too long. No one knows anything about anything.All you get is shoulder-shrugging and answers along the way of "You were born here, bro. Don't play the British card on me now. You know the saying: no one can topple this, but no one can fix it either". Conclusion: no one cares.

When talking to both Ricardo, Elena and Juan I cannot stop thinking of that famous Monty Python sketch, the 100-yard-race for people with no sense of direction. Apposite it is, as well, since the Rio de Janeiro Olympic fest is on. The sad truth is, however, that Raúl starting gun’s shot has failed to produce much merriment. The runners have all scattered in different directions but no one is laughing.

© 2016

Photo taken by the blog author

Next Post: “Let’s Talk About…”, to be published on Wednesday 28th September at 6pm (GMT)


  1. Como mejor leer la vida real de Cuba de mano de un cubano, me has hecho recordar momentos pasados en Cuba e historias explicadas de casos similares.
    Un abrazo

  2. Wow. Excellent information. Thanks. If the U.S. doesn't start paying teachers better, and treating them with more respect, I fear the same thing could happen here. To attract and retain good teachers, they must pay a decent wage.

  3. Whoa--thanks so much for this informative post. I think of what happened in the old USSR when it turned back into Russia--and all the money made really by gangs, etc--connected people--so sad really. I certainly don't know the solution, but I do just hope common people do okay. Thank you. k.

  4. It would be fascinating to read political "weather forecasts" by CIA analysts regarding what will happen in Cuba when the Castro boys depart for the "great unknown," especially if Raul should die first. I have no knowledge of what the roles of other family members -- siblings and their children -- might be or of the power structure beyond the family. Or, what the existing state of the anti-Castro sentiment is among those who fled to the United States and still have claim to property in their homeland. I wish I did have insight into these matters .... internal turmoil again might be the fate of Cuba.

    I think many countries in the South American sphere, such as Venezuela, Brazil and Cuba, have very uncertain futures and political upheaval is a definite possibility.

    After more than fifty years of living in a "socialist paradise" under a rather tyrannical dictatorship, the primary question seems to me to be how much longer people such as those you write about in this post, CiL, will accept life as it currently exists for them. It is not well advertised, but thousands still flee the island each year in anything that floats trying to reach the U.S., plus thousands of others leave with authorized travel documents, but fail to return "home."

    This is a multi-faceted predicament, CiL .... you need to write a book about this ....

  5. Excellent post, and as someone said, you should indeed attempt a book...I think the possible upheaval people speak of is very real, just as it is here, unfortunately. As for teachers, to attract and retain, pay and benefits must be increased, along with less pressure to teach to the standardized test. Incentives for teachers who wish further schooling or national board certification are also important.

  6. Powerful and poignant. Here in Australia our teachers (and nurses) are underpaid too. A mistake I fear we will pay dearly for.
    Thank you so much for this informative post. Much to consider and chew over (even if the taste it leaves is not ideal).

  7. Sad and scary times - I wonder how on earth people still manage to live and work? I suppose you have to carry on no matter what.

  8. Hi ACIL - that was really informative and I'll be back to re-read ... a lot to take in. So sad - yet the blame seems to be on the States and not Russia ... Sadly the elite will continue to bribe and will not change - seems to be the way. The parking scenario happens in South Africa too - though may have improved since I last went.

    Thanks for this really interesting post - to help our understanding of life in Cuba ... cheers Hilary

  9. As you know, I've been there - and it's so sad to see that the thawing if relations wit America and easing of restrictions on entrepreneurs have brought no benefits. When I was there I was struck by the impact of lack of access to the Internet - do the only real source of information is the government. Which left so many people unable to engage in discussion as alternative viewpoints were not presented (such as the man who insisted the embargo would never be lifted because all Cuban Americans would demand compensation).

    I can't help hoping that freer Internet access would bring knowledge and the freedom to explore different ideas. But I've always been an optimist.

  10. This was certainly a riveting read. It brought home to me how lucky I am, in more ways than one.

  11. Yeah, so many useless things given money yet teachers are paid crap. They deserve more indeed. Sad that all one does is shrug too without a care.

  12. Wow... this is informative.
    And this is hard hitting .... eight years for 20 cents.

  13. Very touching and powerful. You have an amazing talent for sharing information and feelings, and I think you would be a great book writer!

  14. You're such a gifted writer and this was a compelling read.

  15. Brilliant insights here. Thank you for this providing us with this powerful insider's view.

  16. I have been absent for a while, but glad to be back here, to catch up with your unique perspective and astute observations.

  17. always great to read your observations and perspective

  18. love the header as an image. But I would not want to live there.

  19. por que no escribes en cubano?
    amo los giros cubanos



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