A year after Fidel’s death. Has anything changed in Cuba?
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 few 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…