Patient Cubans still waiting for the good times to roll

PUBLISHED : Monday, 29 November, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 29 November, 2004, 12:00am

More than baseball, tobacco, rum or rumba, Cubans these days are increasingly preoccupied with la cola - the national pastime of waiting and queuing.

Through the labyrinths of Havana's ciudadelas - the large crumbling mansions subdivided among six or seven families - young couples wait for old neighbours to die in the hope of taking over their housing allotment and securing bigger accommodation.

In the mornings, the able-bodied among Havana's 2.5 million residents wait for the government's water-ration trucks. At state-owned stores, housewives wait for lonely shelves to be refilled. Workers stand by the roadsides waiting for a ride home or to the city. Most nights, students stay up late, waiting for power supply to resume so they can do their homework.

And then, there are those who continue to wait for the next boat to Miami, an intermittent and invariably tragic affair.

In and beyond Havana, nearly all of Cuba's 11 million people are waiting for something to happen - anything - to Fidel Castro, their 78-year-old president.

On October 20, something indeed happened to Dr Castro, an event that some Habaneros probably took as a sign of an even more uncertain future: after finishing a televised speech, the president fell, shattering his left kneecap and breaking his right arm.

But five days later, as if to prove his supernatural reputation, Dr Castro unveiled a shocking, though not totally unexpected, measure - the banning of the gringo's US dollar.

And so, since November 8, tourists can only swap euro, Canadian dollars, pound sterling or Swiss francs with the convertible peso. Locals who swap their greenbacks with the convertible peso at state-owned shops must now pay a 10 per cent commission.

The aim is simple - reassert the government's control over the economy by killing the black market and taxing the estimated US$1 billion sent annually - and illegally, in the face of the US embargo - by Cuban exiles in the US.

'The government has long wanted to control the dollar remittances from the US,' says Luis Zurillo, a security guard-cum-bellhop at a top hotel in the old district of La Havana Vieja. 'And, of course, there's also tourism.'

The tourism industry - at least the legitimate sector controlled by the government through its monopoly, such as the giant Habaguanex based in the capital - brings in about US$2 billion a year.

And yet, despite government controls, close to US$1 billion annually seeps and vanishes into the vast underground network of family-owned paladares, or bed-and-breakfast operations, and pseudo-legal tourist services such as car hires and massage-escorts, and the procurement of what Zurillo calls 'prohibited happiness'.

Happiness is, indeed, hard to come by in Cuba these days, where everybody is mired en la lucha - the struggle.

Most people in Cuba have multi-barrelled job titles, such as Ramon Cortez, the driver-gardener-guide at Havana's Colon Cemetery, or Guillermo Santos, a hotel manager who is also the bartender.

Despite all this socialist version of multi-tasking, the average salary in Cuba is equivalent to US$10 a month, and a hotel security guard such as Zurillo earns three times what a brain surgeon at a government-run hospital makes, thanks to standard US$1 tips from tourists.

But to most Cubans suckled by the milk of revolutionary propaganda, en la lucha is part of founding a socialist paradise. For instance, Santos, the bartender-hotel-manager, finds it shocking that some people continue to doubt the achievements of the Cuban socialist revolution.

'The government provides health care and education for all, housing, monthly rations for households, cheap utilities and public transport,' he says.

Cortez and Zurillo, however, scoff at the state subsidies, which are strictly monitored through the libreta, or ration book.

'Each household gets six pounds of rice, three pounds of split beans and six eggs a month. Tell me how you can survive on that,' Cortez says. 'Is it any wonder you cannot find any fat Cubans around?'

With all the shortages and the new opportunities opened up by tourism, to get rich in Cuba is not only glorious; it is also a matter of survival.

Locals will tell you that everybody in the cities, whether in Havana or Santiago de Cuba, is on the make, a practice known locally as jineterismo, from the word jinete, or jockey.

A young woman who latches on to a tourist is called a jinetera, and the horse-riding nuances of the word need no elucidation. However, it's not all profits and prosperity for these anomalous capitalists: they have to shoulder steep fixed taxes, whether or not they are open for business.

'I had to pay US$35 a month and that's even on months when I had to shutter down for days because of the hurricanes,' says Salvacion Dolor, a former bookseller. 'In the end, I had to close my business. Otherwise, I would have gone hungry and mad.'

The government's decision to dump the greenback is not expected to cripple the tourism industry, as almost 80 per cent of the two million visitors to Cuba are from Europe or Canada.

In effect, by imposing a 10 per cent charge on swapping US dollars one-to-one for the convertible peso, the government gets a piece of the lucrative remittance pie and siphons off precious dollars, which it desperately needs to buy petroleum, machinery, food, technology and other essentials to keep its rickety subsidy-based economy chugging along.

True, the policy will definitely mean longer queues at the foreign-exchange counters or the sparsely stocked state-run shops.

But expect the Cubans to simply shrug their shoulders, for they know the genie of capitalism is still out of the bottle, and it will be next to impossible for the government to force it back.

Instead of an underground dollar economy, expect the Cubans to shift to an underground euro economy. It may not happen overnight, but it will not matter, for the Cubans have become consummate players of the waiting game.