Considering the cost of a meat-based diet to a blockaded country, one might think (or at least hope) they would be open to alternatives to meat, but not yet. There is ONE vegetarian restaurant in Havana, at the national botanical gardens. Here, the cost was $10.00 USD for foreigners and 28 Cuban pesos ($1.40 USD!) for an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. The meal was delicious, and completely vegan, not a speck of it animal-based. I asked one of the staff if she were a vegetarian and she said she was, and that the other staff members were beginning to get into it. This restaurant is linked to six other vegetarian places around the world, including one in Thailand called “Cabbages and Condoms!” On a second visit we were told there wasn’t enough food, so they offered all we could eat for half price. The four in my party were filled and satisfied.
Cuba will shortly open a soy processing plant in Santiago. Built in record time with a $27 million (USD) investment, its production is aimed at export to the Caribbean using the latest Swiss technology. Maybe it will find a market inside the island in time? However, people are slow to change tastes. Soy milk and soy yogurt were also offered for a time but are not popular. When I asked Cubans what food they REALLY like, almost invariably the reply was: MEAT!
WHO’S LEAVING CUBA?
Cubans who left in the earliest days of the Revolution are among the most hostile, and most supportive of the wealthy right wing of the Miami Cuban community, like the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF). They opposed the revolution politically, and many of them lost businesses and property. They refuse to visit Cuba (at least openly) and oppose normalizing relations.
Cubans who have left since 1980 are mainly economic emigrants. They hope to make a better life economically than they think they can in Cuba. They visit Cuba regularly and I met some. Some who left in 1980 have become supporters of the Revolution, after living in the US for more than a decade! I spent time with one of these emigrants, who returns to visit his family in Cuba at least once a year.
In 1996 Cuba and the US agreed on a lottery system which is supposed to permit 20,000 people to come to the US annually. This would be in addition to those who come illegally, and are admitted because of the Cuban Adjustment Act.
Some marry US citizens, often Cuban-Americans. I met two with unusual reasons for leaving. One was gay, the other a lesbian. Both got permission to leave by marrying Cuban-Americans. Neither expressed any hostility toward the Revolution. I met them through people who strongly support Cuba. They hoped to make better money abroad and, perhaps, to live more openly as homosexuals. (I’m guessing as they didn’t say this to me.)
There are a few people from the US who live and work in Cuba, and have met and married Cubans. Though they must go through some red tape, and they paid a $1,000.00 fee, they received all approval. One has taken his Cuban wife and their Cuban-born son to and from the US. But this isn’t always easy. One friend didn’t get his final permissions for his vacation trip until literally hours before departure time.
Some Cubans who want to visit the US temporarily are denied permission by US immigration authorities on the grounds that they might stay in the US illegally. These same people had been told by the US Interests Section that they could get a permanent visa if they wanted to leave and not come back!
Tourism is Cuba’s principal foreign exchange source. Old hotels and tourist facilities have been upgraded. New ones are being constructed in partnership with foreign firms. The effort has been very successful. Tourism has brought problems, too. Workers in other sectors are drawn toward tourism. I met people who had been teachers, but who felt compelled to work in tourism to make ends meet.
Others rent rooms in their homes or establish private restaurants, known as paladars (paladar is the Spanish word for “palate”). Those who rent rooms need a license from the state and are taxed heavily, $250.00 per month, if they’re in popular tourist areas, $200.00 in less-popular areas (and I think only $100 out in the provinces). They must pay the tax whether their rooms are occupied or not, so they are very eager to keep their rooms filled. You see signs posted outside and people passing out business cards with their information. They hustle!
By the way, the term “paladar” originated in a Brazilian soap opera. The female entrepreneur in the soap founded a restaurant called Paladar and the name stuck. There is also another Cuban term:cuentapropista, which means someone who works on his or her own account. It’s descriptive of all proto-capitalist activities, from family restaurants to private taxis.
Prostitution is a distressing reality. Its virtual elimination was a major early goal and gain in its first years. It reappeared in the 1990s due to economic recession and expanding tourism.
The young women engaging in this are not jailed, but the penal code has been changed to make procuring (pimping) a very serious offense. It’s easy (and sad) to see young women of school age but who are obviously not wearing school uniforms, and who have a universally recognizable appearance. I heard that the schools and universities are working together with psychologists, sociologists, the women’s federation, etc., to raise awareness around this. Of course, only improvement in the economy can reduce prostitution to its previous (1960s-1980s) almost non-existent level.
HUSTLERS AND COPS
Newspaper accounts of Cuban police in relation to tourism are mostly negative. I had a positive experience. My appearance and clothing (casual: jeans, polo shirt, T-shirts, etc.) and demeanor somehow made it obvious that I was a foreigner. (I laughingly told Cuban friends that I seemed to have an invisible poster across my chest with the word “Extranjero” [“Foreigner”] emblazoned on it.) I realized I was a magnet for some people whose interest in me was not necessarily friendly. Such people might have wanted something more tangible, like my money…
Walking home one evening, a young man struck up a conversation with me. His dress told me he was a hustler. He offered to introduce me to a nearby paladar, and to take me there, saying it was close. Always curious, and thinking I would just tag along, see about the restaurant, and learn a bit by listening to him, I followed.
He began complaining about how he’d been hassled by the police. When we got to the paladar, it was closed. Next he wanted to show me some other place. I declined. Then he said he just wanted to walk with me to Coppelia, the famous ice cream emporium about a block away. I said “no” again, but couldn’t shake him.
So I was pleased when a Cuban policeman came up and politely asked him for his identification (carnet). I kept walking, relieved that the officer had come along so I could go home. No, the guy wasn’t doing anything specifically, but the officer was protecting me (a tourist, a foreigner, someone unfamiliar with the lay of the land) from someone possibly after my money. The officer was also protecting me from my own naiveté.