HAVANA — Amid the mix of vintage Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles and Pontiacs, several Mercedes cabs, a few dowdy, Soviet-era Lada compacts, and the omnipresent, sidecar-affixed motorcycles, there was no missing the military truck. Towering over the traffic, it had showed some serious acceleration until it abruptly stopped in front of Parque de la Fraternidad near downtown Havana. Then out jumped two armed, sternly-visaged soldiers.
A dissident sweep, perhaps? Overkill in the war against street-corner speculators? The ultimate, strong-arm strategy in the inchoate, frustrating fight against pickpockets and prostitutes?
The two soldiers immediately hustled to the rear of the truck, where they opened the canvas flap. A frail woman, likely in her 70s, was then helped down by the soldiers. Next came a youth of maybe 10; then his bicycle. Then another two dozen civilians.
This was hitchhiking, Cuban style, a microcosm of the island’s indefatigable, make-do mentality. Outside Havana and other cities there are yellow-suited officials called amarillos who queue up hordes of hitchhikers and wave down state vehicles, which are required to stop and give a lift to a companero — or comrade.
It was a graphic reminder that Cuba is still very much in its “Special Period,” as the post-Eastern Bloc-subsidy epoch is known. In effect, in means “tough it out some more” while Cuba, a country reborn of revolutionary rhetoric and raised on ration cards, recovers from near economic collapse with a diet of dollars and a rapid-growth tourism strategy.
Cuba and its 12 million people have learned to live with the punitive U.S. embargo — called a blockade by all Cubans — and, indeed, Fidel Castro has been able to use it for his own anti-imperialist, scapegoating purposes. But it’s the dollars, legal tender since 1993, and the (mostly) European, Canadian and Mexican tourists that have morphed Castro’s socialist dream into some kind of perverse practical joke.
While the country formally celebrates the 40th anniversary of its revolution this year, the requisite, long-winded speeches — not the least of which, of course, are still by Castro — are now muted with caveats against crime and decadence. Both are directly linked to free-market reforms — such as limited free enterprise and legalized self-employment — and tourism. Especially tourism.
Recently Otto Rivero, the president of the Union of Young Communists, laced his revolutionary boilerplate with dire warnings about “…delinquency, economic crimes against state property, prostitution and its effects, consumption of drugs and the proliferation of children begging from tourists…”
While a pretty fair argument can be mustered for any kind of revolution that would have ousted the corrupt Batista regime in 1959 and introduced free medical care, education and food rations, it’s beyond irony that the seeds are seemingly being resown for the next revolution.
Castro himself warned of as much in a speech to police earlier this year urging a further crackdown on crime, which he compared to a “fifth column” of enemies attacking the socialist revolution from within.
“On you depends internal order, and if we lose the battle for internal order, then we lose everything,” said Castro, who, nonetheless, realizes he can’t woo free-spending tourists to a police state. Club Dread would be a hard sell.
Moreover, all such ideological skirmishes are fought in the context of a tinderbox economy. Cuban peso salaries, including those of professionals, currently average about $15 a month. Pensioners draw an average of $3 monthly. The juxtaposition of such Cubans — typically crammed into aging, tiny apartments within large, crumbling neoclassical structures — with affluent tourists coursing around town can foment frustration, disillusionment and jealousy.
The best stores, goods, accommodations, taxis and even hospital facilities are not for local consumption. Pesos are redeemable for only a half bottle of cooking oil, 5 pounds of rice and four eggs per month, when available. They’ll also pay for a baseball game, and a few centavos will also get you aboard one of the ugly, jam-packed, troop train-like buses called camellos (camels). Virtually nothing worth having, let alone luxury items, is available without dollars — often a lot of them.
No revolution yet known to man has been able, ultimately, to negate human nature. People have wants not satisfied by revolutionary slogans. No revolution has ever been able to justify a sense of low self-worth and second-class status in one’s own country. It’s why revolutions are fought in the first place.
No wonder, then, that an all-too-typical street scene in Old Havana includes an eclectic mix of sleek cabs, bicycle-driven rickshaws and fancy tour buses wending around European tourists, cigar hustlers, generic beggars, young hookers and restaurant touts. And it’s not just the Italians, Brits, Spaniards and Canadians who sport the occasional Tommy Hilfiger shirt, New York Yanqui cap and bad Nike knock-off. And audible somehow, somewhere over the street noise are the inevitable strains of “Guantanamera,” now a siren song for foreign tourists.
Literally overlooking such ticklish tableaus are locals peering impassively down from their laundry-bedecked balconies. What might be on their minds might be Castro’s worst nightmare.
“Castro’s done what he’s had to in order to weather the toughest of times,” says Harry Vanden, a professor of government and international affairs at the University of South Florida and an expert on Latin America. “But he’s had to take some pretty extreme measures to pull it off. They can get away with what they’re doing for a few years, but how long does a ‘Special Period’ last?”
As recently as 1990, Cuba hosted only 100,000 tourists; in 1998, it welcomed 1.5 million. The government, largely reliant on European and Canadian joint-ventures for its boom in hotel construction and renovation, projects 7 million tourists by 2010 — even if the bloqueo remains. (Total joint ventures between Cuba and foreign investors now number approximately 340. There were 50 in 1992. Moreover, total foreign investment, including telecommunications and oil and gas exploration, amounted to $550 million last year. As recently as 1995, it was a mere $80 million.)
“Special Period” concessions that have resulted in an influx of tourists, investors and media — and an infusion of hard currency — have turned doctors, attorneys, engineers and teachers into maids, waiters, bartenders, bellboys and cab drivers. Many moonlight; many more have simply forsaken their formal training altogether. Cuban law prohibits individuals from moonlighting in their professional areas, so doctors, for example, cannot see patients on the side. But there’s no proscription against, say, M.D. maitre d’s or cabbie-neurosurgeons, for that matter.
There have now evolved three classes of people in Cuba: Cubans with dollars; Cubans who can’t get them; and foreigners, mostly tourists, with plenty of them. It’s an increasingly volatile mix.
Besides panhandling, drug-dealing and flesh-peddling, the illegal or “anti-social” means of obtaining dollars are unauthorized rooms to let, unlicensed taxi drivers and a myriad of anti-government scams. These range from fishermen skimming a portion of their catch to sell to restaurants to government cigar rollers selling smuggled, contraband smokes.
Except for those with dollar-dispatching relatives and now friends in America, Cubans’ best chances of legally tapping into the dollar economy are through flea-market vending, farmers’ markets, small (maximum 12 seats), private, in-home restaurants (called paladares) and tourism-related positions that are top heavy in tips. (Merely working for a foreign employer isn’t enough, for the government directly collects Cubans’ salaries in dollars and, in turn, pays the workers in devalued pesos.)
“Some of these (nose-in-the-air gesture) tourists treat us as if we were just (ignorant, lower-caste) brutas,” noted Maria, a pretty and pleasant maid in the histo
ric Hotel Nacional de Cuba in the Vedado section of Havana. “I understand it’s that way in other cultures. But we are not brutas. We just have families to support.”
She was by training, she pointed out, an attorney — and bruta connotation notwithstanding — one of the luckier ones.And then there was Arsenio, a cab driver in his 50s who had been educated as an engineer. He had a prime spot in front of the Nacional — as well as a late model Mercedes. He had a track record for being “honest and punctual” he explained, and that qualified him to bid for the luxury cab, which, in turn, enabled him to work the better hotels.
Arsenio was a veritable tour guide and his insights ranged from the early Soviet years to the current “Special Period.”
The Cuban people, he said, were on to the Russians’ agenda from the start. “They arrived wearing sandals,” he said. “We knew why they were really here.”While he was quite capable of working himself into a geo-political lather over the American embargo, he opined that “Either extreme was not good” meaning the worst of capitalism and the worst of socialism. He chuckled in agreement that both Louis XIV and Robespierre had their failings.
But there was little room for levity in referencing the “Special Period.” His anecdotal accounts included the increased incidence of grave robbings (of older generation Cubans who were customarily buried with their jewelry) to the “apathy” of Cuban youth, who have no memory of the Revolution and are less enamored of Castro than older generations.
“They don’t want to go to school; they want what they see on TV,” said Arsenio. They also see an austere life in the midst of plenty as well as a bleak future continually mocked by socialist slogans and revolutionary rhetoric.
For Castro, the epitome of charisma and emblematic of all that is Communist Cuba, such alienation — not embargoes, CIA plots and the Soviet implosion — is his most formidable challenge in years, maybe ever.
It’s undoubtedly too late to rebottle the genie of tourism, and definitely too late for Castro to change. He made that clear enough late last month when he wrapped up an international economics forum in Havana with a declaration that the current global economy will eventually cease to function. He then predicted that the new world order would be “socialist, communist or whatever you want to call it.”
Some would certainly call it unrealistic as well as the philosophic rantings of one scrambling pragmatically to survive the loss of $6 billion in annual Soviet subsidies.
Too bad Castro never heeded the wisdom of Winston Churchill, whose words more than 40 years ago ring no less true today. “The vice of capitalism is that it stands for the unequal distribution of goods and services,” said Churchill. “The virtue of socialism is that it stands for the equal distribution of misery.”
Unless, of course, you have dollars.