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.
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 west 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. Not in real terms. Of course they are aware from a propaganda-rich perspective. However, when ti comes to analysing its effects on our economy, the lack of information 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 put this question to a couple of twenty-somethings on separate occasions, they answer in almost the same way (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 will not be wasted? That’s the third factor: mistrust. There is a lack of trust in the government because corruption and lack of transparency have been allowed to go unchecked for far too long. No one knows anything about anything.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”.
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.