Cuba is subject to all kinds of disruptive activity aimed at its economics and politics. This includes inundating Cuba with counterfeit US bills, so special procedures are in place to cash anything over a $20.00 bill. Cashiers in stores ask for your passport (if you’re a foreigner) or your ID (if you’re Cuban). They note your passport or ID number, and the serial number of the bill. This was done almost everywhere.
The only exceptions were for stores or restaurants where I knew the owner personally, and in one notable case, at an upscale market in Miramar called Le Select, a place frequented by diplomats. (They must figure if you’re a foreigner or a diplomat, and you shop there, you’re not likely to be passing counterfeit money, and you’d be annoyed to be asked for ID.
There were very unusual (for Cuba) items are available, like trail mix, four different kinds of German sausage, and many unusual liquors. I noted a full hindquarter of lamb on sale there for $204.00 USD. However, prices for familiar Cuban products, such as Crystal beer and Cubita coffee were identical to the stores where “regular” Cubans shop.
Waiting in Line: Lines at the market, at the movies, at the bank and waiting for the bus. Lines are a constant feature of Cuban life. The Spanish word for “line” is “la cola” and the word for “last” is “la ultima,” as in “Who’s last in line?” There was one truly striking thing I experienced several times. Suppose people were lined up, waiting for a bus. It came and filled up. But some couldn’t get on and they had to wait for the next bus. The line would break up and people would stand or sit wherever. When the next bus came along a bit later, people quietly resumed their previous place in line.
People would come up to me and ask, “la ultima?” (“Are you the last?”) and then get in line behind me. I was amazed by this self-organized responsibility, coming from the US where everyone tries to be (has to be?) first in line, or to drive the fastest, or whatever. When I asked how they cope with the lines, the poor phone service and so on, I most often heard the word“acostumbrado” (“I’m used to it.”) It’s so commonplace most people don’t even think about it.
At times I felt that workers who deal with the public should have to watch the movie “Muerto de un Burocrata” (“Death of a Bureaucrat”) at least once a year. This famous Cuban comedy shows how crazy things can get when rules are inflexibly enforced. Such experiences could be extremely frustrating. Yet on many other occasions people went out of their way to be helpful and to explain how to get around such bureaucratic hassles.
SUPPLEMENTING INCOMES INDIVIDUALLY
Last year I saw a few people begging. I was told these people were mentally ill. This year there seemed a few more. It was still a handful, far less than in the US, but those I saw were men missing one or both legs. They sat on the ground or stood on crutches, with a forlorn expression, holding a cardboard box in which passersby were meant to throw coins. They also were clutching small hand-made figurines of men with missing limbs holding crucifixes. This seemed very strange, because Cuba makes its own prostheses and trains people in their use, and there are organizations that work on the rights of the disabled, the blind, the deaf and so on.
Cuban Vice-President Carlos Lage told a 1997 UN conference, ” Two hundred million children sleep in the streets in the world today. None of them is Cuban.” Lage’s comment was posted on Cuban billboards. This was the Cuban reality that I saw. Yet, there are some adults who seemed homeless. Interestingly, all of these adults out panhandling on the streets were white.
Some older people, on Cuba’s very small pensions (as little as 150 pesos per month), earn money hawking newspapers, like Granma, Juventude Rebelde andTrabajadores. They buy papers at their cover price (20 centavos) and sell them to the public for 1 peso each. People understand they are helping their less fortunate neighbors this way.
Some of the most basic commodities are heavily subsidized, and available to Cubans through government stores called bodegas. Most food must be purchased in outdoor markets and department stores, mixing state and private sales. The markets accept Cuban pesos or dollars while department stores or supermarkets (all publicly owned) only accept US dollars.
Produce at the outdoor markets is adequate but not attractively displayed. Selection is limited. You bring your own plastic bags, or you buy them from vendors at four for one peso. Meat (and there’s plenty of it these days, especially pork) is widely available. However, it was displayed both unrefrigerated and uncovered. Flies land and walk on the meat. I never got ill because it was fully cooked. I learned from experience to ask and sometimes show the butchers how to cut and trim the meat. If not, you might get bones smashed from the swift blow of a carelessly aimed cleaver, rather than neatly separated at the joint. Some butchers have a lackadaisical attitude toward this work.
Once a month there are massive outdoor sales of fresh food, off of trucks which bring it in from the countryside. Prices are half of those in the regular markets. People put up with very long lines and inconvenience to stock up. The food is the same quality as in the regular agro-pecuarios. This shows that people have the capacity (that is, refrigerators and, in some cases, freezers) to store all of this food.
For most Cubans over age 40, having electricity and refrigerators at home remains something of a novelty. Lack of money and the inability to replace machinery require Cubans to find ways to keep things working. We’ve seen pictures of the ancient automobiles still plying Cuban streets. Where I stayed, the refrigerators were 40 or 50 years old or even older, and US-made. Besides having tiny freezer sections and needing frequent defrosting, these aged machines worked quite well. Indeed, when we tried to locate a new refrigerator for my hosts, they firmly insisted they’d keep the old one, and not discard it, if a new one was obtained. Cuba has begun to manufacture its own refrigerators, as well as selling Korean and other models. US brands like GE, by far the most expensive, were also on sale, though I didn’t find out if they were US-manufactured. The Cuban models are substantially cheaper, but they aren’t frost-free because that uses much more electricity. Cuban refrigerators I saw featured a distinctive design that allowed for a much more spacious freezer section than traditional models, and looked excellent.
Cubans seem to have an insatiable appetite for mayonnaise and sugar. Sandwiches are often made with just mayonnaise. I saw people eat it with a spoon! (I should talk: I eat peanut butter with a spoon…) Sugar is beyond popular. Massive amounts are used in tiny cups of coffee and even added to the sweetest of fruit juices.
Many workplaces provide food for their workers at heavily subsidized prices. The quality of the food can be discouraging. One day I ate lunch at a commissary, across the street from an office building. The meal, scrambled eggs with bits of ham and rice on the side, along with something which seemed soup-like, cost 50 centavos. (Remember: that equals 2.5 US cents!)
Workers who’d been there long enough to remember said that the food was quite good while the Soviet Union still existed. The alliance provided Cuba with a steady supply of much-needed commodities at stable prices. Cuba was able to limit to an extent the effects of fluctuations in the capitalist world market. The bottom line was that food was subsidized and cheaper for the Cuban population as a whole in those days.
Lunch was served in a plastic tray with separate compartments, no plates. We were given spoons, not knives and forks, and no napkins. It seemed more like an elementary school or a psychiatric hospital. One friend carries her own fork because she doesn’t like eating with a spoon. Late last year at times there was no food left when workers came for lunch. It was later discovered that commissary workers had been stealing the food and taking it home.
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