Hello again! Welcome to my second installment of Travels with Fork. My series on Havana continues with pictures and commentary about the day-to-day life in Havana, starting with the market. While I think these Cubans are lined up to purchase bread, it reminds me of the lines I saw for Libreta, ration books. Begun in 1962 by Castro, every Cuban is given a Libreta, which is a coupon book for what the government decides is an acceptable living ration for rice, beans, sugar, coffee, milk (depending on your age), meat, oil, and even matches. This along with the $14 monthly salary, paid in CUP is deemed enough to sustain a person. CUP is different than the CUC that you exchange to spend in Cuba. More on this later. Cubans are very patient. I stood in many likes, waiting to buy my measly finds, and no matter what, it took forever. Nobody is in a hurry. I think the concept of “Time is money” doesn’t translate on the island.
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the grinding US blockade has forced the government to ease restrictions on Cuban national’s ability to participate in entrepreneurship. Cubans can now make money by driving a bicitaxi, and small scale production of items such as bread and crafts. This easement has caused a gigantic increase in Cubans figuring out ways to make money, support their families, and be self-sufficient. There has always been, and continues to be, the black market. Everywhere you go there are people selling items on the street. It could be a bag of potatoes, shrimp and lobster (which is regulated by the government and illegal to sell), car parts, office supplies, plastic bags… anything. Remember, there are no raises, no hierarchy based on skill or experience, no bonuses, no incentive. It’s $14 a month for the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, the doctor, the lawyer, and the journalist. Or, when you are talking about Cuba, the “journalist”. So, if you want more, you have to make it happen with your own grit and moxie.
You will see many people around the city selling fruits, vegetables, and trinkets. It’s always the same products, as the government regulates everything on the market, including the price. This picture is a very new development for Cubans. As recently as a few years ago, selling anything as a private entrepreneur was a crime. Speaking of crime. It doesn’t seem to exist. I mean, of course, there is crime. Maybe it Los CDR, (l’ll elaborate in a later post), or just the nature of the people themselves. But I walked alone through the city for hours, taking pictures, exploring neighborhoods, and people watching. I never felt unsafe, nobody approached me, or tried to sell me anything. The most I got was, “Americano?” which was my opening to start a very lively (in Spanglish and broken English, usually) conversation.
There are many small stores around Havana, and they are at once exciting, confusing, and interesting. Most have the same products: fruits, vegetables, meat (usually pork), sometimes chicken, and bread. Like I said, it is illegal to sell lobster, shrimp, and beef. There are no food distribution companies that sell wholesale. Everything that you see on the restaurant menu is purchased where every day Cubans shop, unless it is government owned. So, if you go to a small cafe that is not government owned and they have lobster, shrimp or steak on the menu, rest assured, it was purchased on the black market, is of low or questionable quality, and probably not safe to eat. Now, I have traveled in Asia, Africa, the Caribbean, former Eastern Europe, and I have had no problem eating street food, and dining in local cafes and restaurants. Havana is the only place that I have been that I absolutely did not do this. I ate exclusively at a cafe owned by my European ex-pat that I knew and trusted. The food in Havana is as bad as people say. The fruit and vegetable markets are cool, like a tropical farmer’s market. I didn’t take any pictures when I shopped there (every day) because I didn’t want to come across as being disrespectful. But here is a typical shot of what the produce markets look like in Havana. The meat market was usually in the corner of the market, and looks like this. The government run supermarkets were the most shocking. I didn’t take pictures here because there were many ‘minders’ roaming the aisles, and I wasn’t sure if I would get in trouble. They look like this. All of them. An amalgam of random, useless crap, and LOTS of alcohol, always positioned at the front of the store so the tourists will hopefully not be compelled to go further. And lots of empty shelves.
After the American embargo (or blockade, as it is known in Cuba) and especially following the collapse of the Soviet Union, there was absolutely no investment in Cuba, no importation of new goods and services, and no way to sustain/maintain infrastructure. (HELLO, Americans! This is what happens when you don’t invest in your future!) This coupled with the fact that one day you can get a can of tuna in the market, and then canned tuna disappears for six months, makes living comfortably in Cuba almost impossible. I imagine a little old man sitting in a dark dingy government office making these decisions, with cruel and sadistic intentions.
I saw this around Havana if a few different forms. The first time, i was leaving Old Havana, and scrawled on a street corner was VIVA CDR, or something of that sort. I asked our driver what it meant. He took a deep breath, shook his head, and explained: The CDR is a type of neighborhood watch organization. Each block has one person who serves as the eyes and ears of the government. The unpaid snitch, if you will. Everyone at all times is under surveillance, and every citizen is compelled to ‘mind’ the goings on of their neighbors. It’s complicated.
Cubans make do with what they have on the island. Nothing of substance is coming in, so nothing is able to be replaced. When goods do come in, most people are unable to afford to purchase/replace/repair anything. So, you take what you have on the island and make due. Wood, nails, wrought iron, is re-purposed, reused, and repaired. Noting goes to waste, and seemingly everyone knows how to make something out of nothing, and life just goes on. For a small segment, entrepreneurship lifts them up a bit, and tourism dollars really changes the life of the average Cuban. The Cubans I met who work in the tourism industry made the following point almost to a person: French, German, and Italians are poor tippers and very demanding. Australians and Canadians are always extremely nice. Americans are personable, friendly, and far and away the best tippers. Yay for US!
My friends from countries that have a history of slavery (the Caribbean and Brazil), all say the same thing about race relations in their respective countries: “In our country, we don’t have racism. We don’t see race. Everyone is equal.” To which I call BS. Although every Cuban is afforded the same opportunity for education, black or “Afro-Cubans” overwhelmingly occupy lower paying jobs when it comes to economic advancement, which in Cuba is tourism. I’m not talking about the black server, bartender, or concierge in your government owned tourist hotel, or the black police officer, airport official, or immigration officer. I’m talking about the jobs available to Cubans with independently owned businesses, where Cubans make real money. These jobs are overwhelmingly staffed by white Cubans. I don’t have any answers, comments, or anecdotes. Just an observation.
I took a lot of photos of people’s doorways. I don’t have anything to say about this one, I just thought it was cool. There are a lot of stray dogs and cats in Havana. So… Let’s talk about Cuban currency. Or currencies. There is the CUP, which is what Cubans are paid in, and which is valued at about 24 to 1 with the CUC. The CUC is the currency that you get when you change your Euros or Canadian Dollars to spend in Cuba. Notice I did not say US dollars, which is not legal tender in Cuba. Don’t bring it. You can’t spend it. I changed about $700 US dollars for Euro at the Miami Airport, then changed the Euro to CUC once I was in Havana. It was enough for food, taxis, tips, and a few trinkets (much more on this later) at the airport. The US dollar, the Euro, and the CUC are essential equal value, so it’s easy to know what you are spending. HOWEVER. Make sure when you spend CUC your change is in CUC, not CUP. CUC has “convertible currency” printed on the front. It’s easy to mistake, even for seasoned travelers like myself. I almost spent 60 CUC on $4 worth of produce. If it wasn’t for our driver who accompanied me inside the market, and an honest vendor, I was moments away from paying four months salary for a few bags of produce. Oh, and forget that US credit card. It ain’t welcome here.
Stay tuned for my next post, “Havana Heyday”