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Archive for the ‘Economy’ Category

Jorge was selling his art on a narrow street in Havana Vieja, the historic section of Havana.   His art isn’t the usual bold colored paintings of the old cars roaring through Havana streets.  His color pencil scenes are softer, deeper.  He could tell I wasn’t going to buy any of the art he had displayed, so he pulled out a few more from a battered portfolio behind his chair.  The first that caught my attention was of a neighborhood street with a fifty-seven Chevy, hood up and wheels on blocks.  It wasn’t caricaturized like his competitors paintings, but simply parked indefinitely behind a 54 Willy’s Jeep that was stripped of all but its essential parts.  

“You can see this scene still, near my house,” he said pointing in the direction of his neighborhood.  “I just finished this yesterday.”

“I like it,” I said, “and this one too.”  I pointed to a picture of the Cathedral.  It’s one of the most photographed, painted and drawn buildings in Cuba, if not the world.  The building’s disrepair and weathered façade only adds to its charm for tourists and artists.  But in Jorge’s drawing it was white again, and perfectly restored.  It was healed. 

“These are wonderful,” I said, “why do you have them hidden?”  I asked in Spanish.

“I prefer we speak English,” he said.  “I need to practice.”   He looked at me and without saying so, we both knew why he wanted to be good at English.  It would mean a better job if he ever made it to Miami.

“I must keep these other drawings behind me,” he said, “because they don’t meet the standards. If the police see them, I will get a ticket.”

“The standards?” I asked.

“Yes, the government gives us license us to sell in tourist districts only if we make the scenes they tell us,” he said.

“How much for both of these” I asked.

They were the equivalent of about $22 together.  I gave him $30.00 and we continued to talk as he carefully rolled my new treasures in brown paper.

“Is this your only job?” I asked, “being an artist?”

“No,  . . . I mean yes,” he said,  “It’s my only real job.  I make enough to pay the fees to the government and then a little more.“

After handing me my package, Jorge began to pack up his paintings.

“Are you done for the day?”

“I’ll be back later when the crowds increase,” he said.

I offered to buy him lunch so that we could continue our conversation.   I had two hours left before I had to meet the group.  I had planned to sit in one of the bars that Hemmingway used to haunt, La Floridita or La Bodeguita del Medio but Jorge told me they were only for tourists and had expensive watered down drinks. 

“Follow me,” he said.  “I know a good place.”

We walked toward the Malecón, the famous break-wall that protects the roadway and promenade along the northern coast of the city.  He led me into a dark little bar that was neither for the “casual” tourist nor the typical Cuban.  Jorge noticed my reluctance and assured me I’d be safe and welcome. 

“Travelers come here for specific reasons,” he said.  “You can talk to the bartender here and find whatever you need if you have dollars or chavitos.” 

“See the women sitting over there by the corner window?” he said a little too loudly.

“Yes,” I whispered. 

“It is OK,” he said, “she only speaks Spanish, and Russian I suppose.”

“Russian?”

“Yes, she came here from Russia in the seventies,” he said.  “Thousands of Russian women came when the beard [Castro] was what you call ‘in bed’ with the Soviet Union.  They married Cuban men or came as singles looking to find Cuban men.  They wanted freedom, socialism, anything but what they had .  I think they got a warmer version of the thing they were trying to get away from.  Since the Soviet Union fell, they have been stuck here, living on small pensions and unable to return to Russia, even to visit their families.  Yulia – over there –  is an old woman now, selling imported drugs like ibuprofen and Robitussin to Cubans with dollars, and selling Viagra to the old tourists who come here to find jineteras, prostitutes.  Yulia’s husband left her years ago for a younger women.  He left the young one too, for a boat made of plastic and powered by an electric engine and the battery from his old Ford.  There was talk that he didn’t make it to Miami, and there is no talk that he made it back to Cuba.  After he left, the soldiers came to her house and confiscated everything, her furniture, her refrigerator, everything.”

Jorge’s English was very good and his stories had my full attention.

“When the Soviets were here, times were OK for awhile. They brought us the Ladas and Moskoviches,” he said, referring to the boxy cars that still share the roads with the U.S.-made cars from the 50’s.  The Cubans say that the Lada is not really a car, but they like them because they are simple to repair and replacement parts can be made from scraps of other cars.”

“The Russian influence is large in Cuba,” he continued. “It is why we wear our wedding rings on our right hands, and why many Cubans born in the 70’s have difficult names that start with the letter Y,” he said laughing.

“Tell me how you survive,” I said. 

Jorge thought for a moment and looked at me as if he had some special way of knowing whether I could be trusted. 

“My other job,” he said, “is to help people like Yulia do their jobs.  I meet tourists all day with my drawings and talk to them.  I find out what they are doing here, what they need.  If they are looking for a cheap place to stay or a good place to eat, I take them to a casa that has clean rooms, good food and cheap prices. If they need a cab to take them to another city, I find them a driver with a car.  If they need a companion, I find them a young girl.  If they need help entertaining the young girl, I bring them to Yulia here for a blue pill.  Every time I find a customer for one of my friends, I make a small commission.” he said.  “And to be honest the bartender here will give me a few pesos for bringing you here to buy food and drink.”

When we finished our plates of roasted chicken, with rice and beans and salad, I told Jorge had that I had to meet our group for a bus tour.  He walked me to the Malecón and I promised him that I would bring the group by later to see his art.

“Will you be expecting a commission if they buy something?” he asked with a laugh.

“Yes, fifty percent,” I said. 

“OK, fifty percent.  Now I will have to raise all my prices before they arrive.”

“Jorge, what is that?” I said pointing to a huge white sculpture of Jesus on hill on the other side of the harbor.

el_cristo_de_la_habana2

“Ah, that is Jesus.”

“Yes, I know, but what’s the story?”

Jorge was as well informed about Marble Jesus as he was about Russian Yulia.  “The sculpture was commissioned by the Batista family and completed in 1958.  It was designed by a Cuban sculptor Jilma Madera and made of 67 blocks of marble that were brought from Carrara, Italy.  It stands 66 feet high,” he said.  “The eyes are hollow so that he appears to be looking at you no matter where you are when you see him.”

“There are many stories about him,” Jorge said.  “The statue was inaugurated only a few days before the beard (Castro) and his men arrived in Havana.  And on the day Castro entered the city, the statue was struck by lightning, ruining its head.  It has since been repaired,” he said.

“Jorge, I want to see it up close, can I get there with the tour bus?”

“This is the best view of it, right here.  Anywhere in the city, really!”

“I know, but I’d like to stand under it and see how big it is.”

Jorge seemed a little peeved. “It’s best to see it from here,” he said.  “If you go up there, they will charge you just to walk around in front of it and  . . . “

“How much?” I asked.

“It’s a dollar each.”

“It’s only a dollar!” I said, forgetting that ‘only a dollar’ is a meal or two for Jorge.  “Come with us,” I said.  “I’ll pay for you to see it with us, and my group will buy some of your work.”

Jorge’s anger was not directed at me when he raised his finger and said, “I will not pay a single centavo to Fidel Castro to see something that belongs to the people of Cuba.”

The bus horn interrupted my stunned silence and Jorge said he needed to get back to his business.  I thanked him for taking time to talk with me and promised to look for him later.  He shook my hand and asked if we would be going up the statue. 

“Not a single centavo,” I said.

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His name was Ricardo. He was speaking to my group of American Students in a private home on the south side of Havana. It was our last day in Cuba and these students had seen the poverty of the streets, the crumbling conditions of once beautiful buildings, the unhealthy conditions of rural hospitals. They met a man who had been incarcerated for nearly three decades for his opposition the Castro regime and they had viewed the Libreta (ration booklet) of a family that could not afford to supplement the government’s meager allotment of food. But Ricardo was the first man who had agreed to speak with them freely.

“I’ll answer your questions honestly,” he said.

There were conditions, of course. There always are. First, the students had to agree not to write about him or to use his name on the Internet. He told of a friend whose family suffered a long string of “problems” after the friend’s opinions were published on the Internet. Second, the students could not take pictures or video of him. (Well, maybe a few pictures if you give him a copy.) Third, his children really need shoes.

I was only half listening to the interpreter, so I wasn’t sure what he was saying about shoes. He didn’t ask for shoes. He didn’t ask for money for shoes. No Internet. No video. And, by the way, his children don’t have shoes.

As he began to tell about his life and his work in the sugar fields, I noticed something being passed around among the students. When it got to me, I saw that it was an envelope stuffed with dollars and chavitos (Cuban Tourist Dollars). It simply said “shoes”  on the envelope. Apparently my students understood perfectly what he was saying.

“Do most Cubans want the Castros to die or lose power?” a student asked. I was stunned by this abrupt introduction to the Q and A, but our guest was not fazed.

“Many do, but many don’t,” he said without elaboration.

“How can some Cubans not want something better?” another student asked.

I was with them. How can it be that some still believe Fidel’s smooth tongue after fifty years of broken promises and unfulfilled rhetoric? How can they buy Raul’s promises of a more open system and a better economy? How can it be that they won’t fight for better health care, or freedom of speech? I didn’t understand. Ricardo was as interested in hearing the questions as my students were in hearing his answers. He explained the history and economy of Cuba and the “diabolically brilliant” mind of Castro.

“Fidel has convince many people that the problems of Cuba are the result of the American ‘blockade.’ He tells them that if they give in, the U.S. will take Cuba and its heritage and destroy it. People will be without health care and food. The rich capitalists will use up Cuba’s resources and leave it in worse condition than ever.”

He had a point, I thought. It brought to mind our involvement “helping” other countries.

“But I’ve heard that Raul Castro has made changes,” said one student with his native sarcasm. “He’s had public meetings to seek input for a more efficient system, loosened restrictions on access to tourist destinations, and allowed cell phone use. Right?”

“Yes, some of the rules have changed,” Ricardo agreed, “and that’s good for the image of Cuba abroad, but it changes nothing for me. A night in a hotel – a cheap hotel – costs three months of my salary. And while I’d love to have a cell phone, I could have had one before if I had a rich Miami relative and put it in his name. Legal or not, I cannot afford a phone and my ability to afford one is controlled by the Cuban government. We have a phrase: Raúl Castro es el mismo perro con diferente collar,” he said. Same dog, different collar.

“Oh, and we have a joke about those public meetings,” he said. “At the first meeting, a party leader came to the large auditorium and it was filled with people. He talked about the sweeping changes meant to improve conditions. When he was done he asked if anyone had any questions. One man raised his hand and asked why the chocolate in our stores so bad? The leader said he didn’t know the answer to that question, but he would check on that and report back at the next meeting.”

“At the next meeting the room filled again and the party officials made their comments. When they were finished the party leader asked again if there were any questions.  A different man raised his hand. The leader asked him if he too wanted to know about the chocolate in the stores.”

“‘No, the man said, I want to know where the man is that asked the question about the chocolate at the last meeting.”

When Ricardo finished the story he chuckled at his own humor. The students were horrified. “That’s not funny,” I heard one of them say.

“It’s a joke, but that’s how it works,” Ricardo said.

“But the man in the joke, what happened to him – hypothetically,” asked a girl on the edge of tears.

“Maybe he got a threatening message. Maybe his son lost some privileges at school. Maybe he got a ticket for an expired license. Maybe his paycheck was docked for that time three weeks ago when he was late for work. Nothing official, but he got the message.”

“We tell jokes about it because if we weren’t laughing, we’d be crying,” he added. “I still don’t understand why more people don’t want things to change. Why they follow Fidel or Raul. Why things are so slow to change even after Fidel has given up his presidency,” I said.

Ricardo took a long breath. “There’s a story we tell in Cuba,” he said, “another joke. It will help you understand the psychology of some Cubans.”

I looked around the room. Ricardo had the undivided attention of every student.

“There were three men walking down the beach together,” he began.  “One was an American, one was a Cuban, and the third was a Russian.”

Ricardo laughed. “Already you know this is a joke, right? Because Cubans are not allowed on the beaches with the tourists. . .”

A few students chuckled nervously.

“But let me continue. They came upon lamp that was partially buried in sand and covered with tarnish and dirt. The three of them had heard of such lamps and they frantically cleaned it and polished it. Finally a genie emerged, thankful for his release. I’m sorry, said the Genie, but I only have three wishes and therefore I can grant only one to each of you.”

“You are first, he said to the Russian.”

“I would like to own all of the oil fields in Siberia so that my family might be wealthy for generations to come, the Russian said. “

“Your wish is granted, said the genie.”

“And you, he said pointing to the American.”

“I would like to be wealthier than Bill Gates, said the American.”

“The Genie snapped his fingers and granted the American’s wish.”

“And you, he asked the Cuban, what do you want?”

“I know of a man who lives in Havana, said the Cuban. He has a beautiful house with many bedrooms and bathrooms. It has a swimming pool and a three-car garage. He also has a home on Varadero, the most beautiful beach in the world. He has four cars, and money in three different banks.”

“So, the Genie said, you’d like to live like this man lives?”

“No, said the Cuban, I want HIM to live like I do.”

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Cubans are not allowed on the best beaches, hotels, resorts or restaurants of their country.  My friend Jose tells me, “in this country WE are the extranjeros (the foreigners).” My rule is that I never go anywhere where the Cuban people are not welcome. The law was in place “for the protection of the tourists.”  But everyone knows the truth, Cubans comingling with tourists could lead to anti-government sentiments. So, last year when I stopped in a small town where I knew the local priest, I offered to take him and a few of his friends to a beach on the north shore.  He had put me up for a couple nights on a previous trip, so I was trying to return the favor.  I had a rented van that held 11 people, and there were only 7 of us Americans. So we crammed Father Miguel, three women from the church and their three little boys into the “gua gua.”  None of the children had ever even seen the beach before. 

The women offered to pack lunches, but I insisted on taking care of the food.  We packed only water and thermoses of café Cubano.  In the states I drink my coffee black and mild, but in Cuba I drink it the way the Cubans drink it: Sickening sweet and thick as sludge from the Exxon Valdez.

I assured my guests that I had been to this beach before and that there was an open-air thatched-roof restaurant where I would buy them all lunch. It wasn’t a “tourist” resort, so Cubans were permitted.   After an hour and a half drive we came to the road that leads to the beach.  We were stopped by a soldier who checked our documents.  He carefully noted in his book how many Cubans and how many Americans were in the van. A little further down the road we were stopped again. A government worker made us pay an entrance fee before raising the gate.  A few centavos each for the Cubans and ten bucks each for the Americanos.  Another mile and we pulled into the familiar parking lot on the beach.  Well, it was half familiar – the other half of the lot along with the restaurant, bathrooms and changing rooms had washed into the ocean during the last hurricane.  All that was left was a small stand that sold beer, soda and water.  No food.  I decided we’d figure out the food later.  Let’s get these kids on the beach!

For a song you could rent snorkel gear, umbrellas, or a small paddleboat.  For a few more chavitos, the Cuban tourist currency, you could actually rent a small speed boat, although Father Miguel tells me it only has a one-gallon gas tank. The water was crystal clear and the sun sizzled above it as it broiled any skin left unprotected.  Once everyone had what he or she needed I looked for Miguel and saw him talking to the guy at the stand.  I joined him and relieved the guy of his entire supply of water and soda.  If Father Miguel hadn’t been there, I’d have taken a few beers too.

I suggested that he stay with the others while I drive back to the nearest town and find some food. 

“You can’t do that,” he said.

“Why not?”

“You came into the park with 7 Cubans, they won’t let you leave without 7 Cubans.” 

When he said this he turned and looked north toward Miami, only 90 miles over the horizon.  That was the reason they counted the Cubans.  That was the reason for the one-gallon gas tank.

As I contemplated this, the man from the stand ran up and said to Miguel, “He agreed to show you.”

Father Miguel told the guy he’d be right there and pulled me aside.

Que pasa?” I asked.  “What’s up?

Miguel explained that he had talked to the man while I was getting the group organized on the beach and he knew of another man who could get us dinner – a man that has a “business.”  I was familiar with the casa particulares, home businesses.  Some were legal and pay high fees and taxes for the privilege of operating their trade.  Others were not legal, part of the mercado negro.  These pay their fees, if any, in the form of bribes.  This was very common, but Miguel was very cautious, very protective.

“I will go and check it out,” he said.

He walked toward the parking lot as I ran to kids who were splashing and calling for me to get in the water.  A while later Miguel returned and yelled for me to join him away from the others.

“I went to the place where they will feed us,” he said. “It’s OK.  It’s clean and the food looks fresh.  Each person will get grilled white fish or grilled lobster, some salad, rice and bread.”

  At this point I was sure it was not a “legal” business.   Lobster is only allowed to be caught and cooked in state-run restaurants or for export.  

They can only handle 7 at a time,” he said, “so we will have to eat in shifts.  The Americans will go first.  It will cost  5 U.S dollars each.”

“$5.00?” I said, “for lobster?”

Si!” he said smiling.

“Great!” I said,  “but you’re taking the Cuban families first.”

“No, no . . . ”

He started to argue, but I stopped him. 

“It’s not negotiable,” I said.  “These women and kids haven’t eaten since early this morning.  My team, on the other hand, can easily live off the fat of the land for another hour.”

As Father Miguel led them back toward the parking lot, I went back into the water to inform my troops.   Each of them chose the lobster without hesitation. 

By the time our Cuban friends returned from lunch they looked happy and satisfied. 

“Follow me,” Miguel said. 

We followed him through the parking lot and past the cars.  There, two men joined us and led us down a different part of the beach for a few minutes, and then onto a trail into the woods.  I looked through the trees for the house where we would eat, but saw nothing.  In a small clearing, Miguel said, “Here!”  I was a little bewildered at first, until I saw the small fire, with lobsters grilling, another fire with a pot of rice, and a piece of wood with plates and flatware stacked neatly on a cloth.

We ate salads and rice and bread first as the two men grilled the lobster and plopped them one at a time onto our plates.  Most of us were standing, so maneuvering a fork to pull meat out of the shell required a bit of a learning curve.  Eventually we did learn – it couldn’t be done.  So there we stood holding the shells up to our faces and sucking out this charred delicacy made of equal parts adventure, ambience and hunger.  

When we had devoured every last morsel, it was time to pay up.  This is never comfortable in Cuba.  It’s one of those events where cultures clash.  Miguel saw me reaching for my wallet and he approached. 

“Give me the money and I will pay him,” said the good father.

 “No, no, I can handle it.” I assured him. 

I calculated in my head:  14 people, 5 bucks each, a generous tip for risking their freedom to feed us.  No problem.  I’ll make it 7 bucks each.  I counted out the money and handed it to the man who seemed to be in charge. 

“It’s good,” I said handing him the money, “no change.” 

On the trail back to the beach I saw Father Miquel ahead talking to Andy, my best Spanish speaker.  Miguel seemed rather agitated, but Andy appeared to be amused. 

“Hey,” I yelled, “what’s going on up there?”

Andy turned and laughed. “Father Miguel is not happy with you,” he said.

Miguel grabbed him by the arm and hurried him forward to stop the conversation, but I caught up with them.   

“What is it, Father?”

But Andy looked over at me and said, “It seems our hosts originally wanted $7 per person and Father Miguel here spent 20 minutes talking them down to $5.”

“Ah, but Miguel,” I said, “it is a good thing that you did that for me, otherwise those $7 lobsters would have cost me $9.”

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When Cuba Sneezes

When a women sneezes in Cuba, a gentleman will often say, “Salud, porque belleza sobra.”  Loosely, “to your health, because your beauty is already overwhelming.”

Although this simple phrase seems a little over the top to me, it’s a microcosm of the eternal optimism and innate opportunism of the Cuban culture.  A sneezing women could mean a cold, bad allergies or worse. But to a Cuban, it’s an opportunity to remind a lady that she is beautiful.

This attitude is both sad because of the resignation that exists to the brutal communist rule, but also hopeful because of the resilient faith that lives independently in the hearts of so many Cubans.  Many have written that Cuba is a country in waiting.  Some say it is waiting for the end of the US embargo, others say the end of Castro’s rule.  But the Cubans I’ve met aren’t waiting for anything. They’re living their lives as best they can in the political and economic environment that surrounds them. 

 And like a sneezing women, the Cuban economy has symptoms of illness.  When the Soviet Union fell, it abruptly stopped fueling the Cuban economy and no one stepped up to replace them.  Since then, Cuban life has puttered along like a ’56 Ford on a Havana street.  The old Ford has lost its shine, gets no factory made replacement parts, has tires that are patched and mismatched, and is powered by a long line of black-market engines made in Russia, Japan or China.  The engine is known but not seen by the Cuban government, and kept running day to day by the ubiquitous, resourceful, genius, bribe-paying, never-say-can’t mechanic. 

Cuba’s Mercado Negro, its black market, is what keeps cars on the road, food on the table and shoes on feet.  Without it, there’s no Cuba.  The state economy has no street cred and most Cubans don’t have an on ramp to the information highway.

 Other than a carefully controlled tourist industry (fed by cheap or adventurous Canadians, Europeans, and Asians) Cuba is isolated from the “global economy.”  In other words, when the global economy is sick, Cuba keeps puttering along.  And when Cuba sneezes, nobody notices.  

 

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