Friday, January 13, 2017

The Black Market, Subsidies and the Strange Economics of Cuba

For a couple of capitalists, traveling in Cuba was strange and mystifying. There is a Cuban urban myth about the poor retirees living on $20 a month and state employees earning not much more than that in their jobs. While we heard of these people over and over, we really did not see any of them. It is estimated that 95% of Cubans participate in some way in illegal activities in order to make ends meet. We regularly paid $5 to $50 for short and long taxi rides. One night in a "Casa Particular" with breakfast and dinner for two costs about $60, or twice the official monthly wage of Cubans. One family did not even blink an eye as they exchanged $200 in currency with us. They are not as poor as they would lead you to believe. Cuba has definitely gone through huge changes and has suffered large economic shocks. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Cuba lost its primary benefactor and trading partner. Now, Venezuela is collapsing and the steady stream of free oil from Venezuela is about to dry up. Still, despite all of the hype about Cuba being so poor and how life is so hard, it did not look much different from other Caribbean countries we have been to. Take away the old cars and the socialist propaganda, and you could be in Puerto Rico, Trinidad, Bonaire, Grand Turk, or some of the more remote parts of the Yucatan. Many Caribbean islands had their heyday in the sugar and banana industries but those industries are now globalized and what you have left are a bunch of relatively arid limestone islands with limited economies mostly relying on tourism. Cuba is just the biggest one of these islands. The big difference is the way the economy works and, as a tourist, it is hard to figure out. 

First, imagine a country with no drugstores, no bike shops, very limited clothing shops, and definitely no department stores. All shops are tiny, poorly stocked, and generally sold out of a number of items. We normally think that we can buy things as we need them while traveling but that simply isn't possible in Cuba. Need Tylenol, decongestant or bandages? Forget it. Bring everything that you need for your stay. You may have some luck in the big tourist hotels, but it will be hit or miss. Also, everything is completely thrashed. We went scuba diving once, and the gear was leaky, torn, and barely functioning. The scuba shop was clearly pulling in a good amount of money because the dive bus was full. Cuban tourism industries seem to be in a position where they have money to invest but can't spend it to improve the experience because there is simply no place or process for buying scuba gear. They can't just order spare parts off of the Internet or from another country because import and export is not allowed. 

Apparently, in 2010, Cuba came to terms with its bloated payrolls in the state enterprises and fired about 500,000 state employees. To compensate, they started to allow limited private industry in the form of taxi drivers, shop owners, room rentals and restaurants. All stores must buy their goods from the Government, because nobody is allowed to import or export. So, how do you make money if you are buying from the Government and then reselling the same goods that the Government also sells? A lot of Cubans make a living by getting to the store and buying out large quantities of government goods, and then reselling them at a profit. This leads to shortages for the average working Joe, as one of my teachers bitterly pointed out. If you have a day job, you can't go to the store and wait in line to get what you need. The unemployed wait in line, buy it all, and then resell it in their shops at a markup. As a tourist, it seems that none of the stores have anything worth buying anyway, but the average Cuban relies on this meager stream of goods to survive. 

In 2015, many of the restrictions on money transfers (remittances) from Cubans living in the USA were lifted, and now a steady stream of money is heading into Cuba from Cuban Americans. We could usually tell the households with foreign money coming in because they are rebuilding or expanding their homes and running Airbnb businesses. Speaking of Airbnb, we found our hosts to be very helpful because, in order to get a taxi, you have to know somebody who knows somebody. We would tell the host where we wanted to go and when we wanted to leave and, in a day, they would let us know that they had located a taxi and they gave us the price. Clearly, if we were just going cross town, we could get a taxi on the street, but to go from one town to the next, you need to use the social network. Everybody gets a little cut. 

We went to the cigar "factory" in Trinidad. About 40 people in a room full of old small desks. They made pretty crappy cigars at that place but, as we walked by, the workers would open up hidden drawers and try to sell us the good stuff from other factories. A lot of workers in state enterprises pocket things to sell on the black market. Everyone from hospital employees to cigar factory workers. I got two of these (surely fake) Cohiba cigars from the boss lady's secret stash and smoked one. It was the best smoke I have had in a while. It is probably a factory second from the main production plant. Nicely rolled, excellent flavor, aesthetically pleasing. Best fake cigars on the planet.

The economics of condoms in Cuba

We had two odd condom experiences in Cuba, both of which are a commentary on the state of the economy and the politics. While in Havana, we were sitting on the sea wall one night and we saw a fisherman using what looked like three big balloons to help float his bait out into the water and to also keep "sailing" the hook out into deeper water. Since ordinary Cubans can't own boats for fear that they will sail north, they have to find other ways to deep sea fish. As he was floating/casting the line, I said to Sherry that those looked like condoms, not balloons. Apparently, condom fishing is actually a thing in Cuba:

Our other experience was in one of our Airbnb houses. I walked into the dining room and saw a few hundred boxes of 3-packs (like the one pictured). I asked him what he was doing, and he said that the condoms in Cuba are heavily subsidized, so he gets a bunch of them, and then sells them in Europe somehow. I didn't get details on the whole process, but this is probably a familiar story anywhere that portable goods are heavily subsidized by the government. He also said that they make good temporary plugs for flat tires. 

Cuba is a challenging place to travel and, even after 3 weeks there, we were still not entirely sure how many mechanisms work or how to make simple things happen. 

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

The Cult of Personality

In Cuba, even though he is dead, the national dialog is all Fidel, all the time. Fidel and Che are everywhere. I found it ironic that Cuba is proud of its high rate of literacy, but there is nothing to read. The only reading material is about The Revolution, Che and Fidel. There are two newspapers in the country - Granma and Juventud Rebelde, both of which are thin, published by the government, and cover the same stories. The stories are, you guessed it, about Fidel and The Revolution. Other popular topics are the continuing struggle for the victory of the revolution, increased agricultural output for some crop or another, and the latest successes of the Cuban chess, boxing or baseball teams. We are accustomed to a society with debate and different views from the press and access to the foreign press. Cuba has been subject to this unending propaganda for 59 years. It was really hard for us to tell if the people believed in the propaganda. When we would ask, the answer was never direct or particularly enlightening. Certainly, nobody said "Yeah, Fidel was an asshole", so the opposition is clearly suppressed. There is one political party, and the candidate always wins with 100% of the vote.

This abundance of propaganda was particularly strong around Bay of Pigs. Dozens of anti-American billboards, old tanks and airplanes in the roundabouts,  and "defend the revolution" signs everywhere. The invasion happened before I was born. I am trying to imagine an America that is stuck in 1960 and has not moved on. Sherry and I went scuba diving in the Bay of Pigs and we actually swam around one of the American landing craft sitting in about 40 feet of water.  There was a big fat juicy Lionfish swimming around in it, but they don't seem to have an eradication program on that reef. Too bad, those things are tasty. We saw 6 or 7 during the dive. 

We did come to realize, however, that the vast majority of Cubans feel that the revolution was beneficial to the country and everyone had some measure of support for it. Despite the clear problems that developed after the first years, many of the citizens here would have been in slavery or close to it if it weren't for the revolution. Today, everyone in the countryside has a little bit of land and a concrete box to live in. Nobody is forced to work, there are no flagrantly rich people, and the communities seem to pull for one another in a way that we have not seen before. The beaches are all open to all citizens, and there are no big villas or gated communities (that we saw). I think that we are both still trying to come to terms with what we saw and reconcile it with our western way of looking at things. 

We saw Cuban flags on the official buildings everywhere - here is a particularly large one 

This is the corner bookstore. We saw one or two "brick and mortar" book stores (just a room about the size of an American living room) which had an equally narrow selection of books. Che, Fidel and the Revolution. Oh, and Hemingway. His "Old Man and the Sea" is big here in Cuba - all of our teachers had read it. They do seem to have a good selection of Cuban poetry books, but I never read any of them. I suspect that the poems do not cross into politics.

Here is a huge mural of Fidel on the side of a building. He had just died about three weeks before we arrived, so his picture was more prominent than usual.

Every little town had dozens of these murals painted on the walls. This one says: "Our obligation: Produce for the people!" "ANAP" is the organization for small farmers.

Another big flag commemorating Fidel's "26 July" movement AKA The Revolution.

I think that 5 September is when the city of Cienfuegos fell to the revolution. Makes sense, because this sign was painted in Cienfuegos.

The people make the revolutions. The citizens of Cienfuegos are solid/unwavering, I have no doubts. Fidel.

Getting Fed in Cuba

Normally, when we travel, we try to do quite a bit of the cooking in our rented apartment. It may sound odd, but eating out 3 meals a day gets old in a hurry. A simple breakfast with coffee, toast and yogurt and some sandwiches for lunch gets us through the day and then we are ready to go out for a nice dinner. I think that this is what we had imagined when we left for Cuba. As you have probably figured out already, this is not how it played out. Here are the barriers:

1) Your apartment may not have any cooking equipment at all. One of them had a nice private kitchen but no stove and no cooking equipment or plates or silverware, one had only a shared dining room with a sink and a refrigerator. One had a kitchen with a few pots and pans and a little electric hot plate. We could at least make our own coffee in the morning. Cubans simply don't have that many things and to put pots and pans in the rental part of the house means that they are not available in the main kitchen of the house. Thankfully, they all have refrigerators or access to one, so no worries with cold beer.

2) Good luck buying food. If you find something that looks like a grocery store, it will have liquor in the front half, and a random assortment of frozen mystery meat, oddly matched canned goods and overly large containers of condiments. Remember those pictures of Soviet grocery stores? It is like that. 

If you want fresh produce, you buy that on the streets from small vendors with horse carts, or little corner stalls. Above is a picture of one of the larger corner vegetable stalls in Havana. Eggs seem to mysteriously appear - just look for the doorway with a line coming out of it. Milk? Forget it. We didn't see it the whole time. You can get a big bag of powdered milk, or 1-liter boxes of condensed milk.  Fresh meat is also sold from small stalls or from doorways. Look for the pig parts dangling from the doorway. I think that it takes most people a few hours per day to do their grocery shopping, and only because they have a strong knowledge of the local community. 

3) Your apartment will have no food in it when you arrive. I mean, no salt, no pepper, no cooking oil, no rice, nothing. Most Airbnb places will have some of the basics left over from other tenants. Not here. You would have to buy every little thing.

OK, so no cooking. We paid for our hosts to make us breakfast and then ate at restaurants for lunch and dinner. With few exceptions, the meals had a certain sameness. The only type of rice is white, the only bread is white. Almost every meal comes with black beans and rice, fried plantains or banana chips. a salad with tomatoes, cucumber and cabbage, and your choice of chicken, pork, shrimp or beef. You may get lucky and find lobster or fish. You can choose from three different types of generic beer (Presidente, Buccanero, or Crystal) and any of the standard rum drinks. Rum is dirt cheap here.  We actually found one "hip" bar that went out of its way to make good cocktails, but that was an exception. Mostly, it is Mojitos, Cuba Libres, Daiquiris and PiƱa Coladas.

We did find some really nice ceviche, more than one good ropa vieja, and Sherry got lobster whenever the occasion presented itself. One of our hosts, Luis, did amazing things with the limited basic ingredients available to him and he also is a beekeeper so we had his honey every morning. Another one of our hosts made us breakfasts and pretty good dinners because the town was so small that the restaurants didn't look too appealing. But, after three weeks, it became harder and harder to get excited about going out to dinner, knowing that the menu would be essentially the same no matter where we went.

The big upside is that there really isn't much junk food in Cuba. There is soda, but we don't drink that stuff anymore. We rarely ordered dessert because, after eating a big breakfast and a restaurant lunch and dinner, we really weren't hungry anymore. I'm not sure if we lost weight, but I don't think we gained any either. Midnight snacks? Sorry - nowhere to buy anything that you would want to eat.

We didn't ask any of the all-inclusive hotel people that we met what their experience with food was. Maybe they serve something entirely different in the big tourist hotels. Lots of Canadians down here - maybe they have a Cuban spin on Poutine.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

First, let's talk about the cars

When we told people that we were going to Cuba, the first thing that most people were interested in was the old cars, so here we go. The following is in no particular chronological or logical order, as is fitting for our entire Cuban experience.  Cuban cars come from three basic generations:

1) American cars left over from the Victory of the Revolution at the end of the 50's. These include a lot of late 1940's and early 50's cars along with the more famous mid-50's American cars. 

2) Russian cars from up until the collapse of the Soviet Union around 1990. The most common single car in Cuba is the Lada 1600, which is a Soviet version of the Fiat 124. If you are trying to get economical taxi cabs on the street in Havana, this is the most likely thing you will be riding in. Here is what they looked like when they were new:

3) While Cuba is generally unable to import cars for economic and political reasons, there is still an influx of cars due to rental car agencies, embassies, multinational companies and, apparently, sailors who are able to import cars after serving the fleet for some number of years. I got this information from a taxi driver whose Spanish I could mostly understand. 

Our first taxi was from the airport and it was a generic modern-ish thrashed car, probably from the around 2000. There are several of these in the larger tourist cities, and they generally serve the airports. They have functional A/C and have no historic or aesthetic value. 

Here is our second taxi. This is what Cuba is famous for: late 40's and early-to-mid 50's American cars. You will only find these in Havana and in the other big tourist area, Varadero. By now, the majority have had their engines replaced several times over and are Franken-cars. Toyota brakes, Lada engines, whatever parts can be scrounged. This one had A/C which was taken from a mini-van and you can see the unit behind the driver's head. The suspension on all of these cars died an agonizing death some time in the 90's. They are cool looking, fun to be in, and suited for speeds under 40 mph on smooth roads. Perfect for Havana. 

You can find rows of these classics in various places around Havana. With some bargaining, a drive across town costs about $6. If the cruise ship is in port, the price will be higher. 

Here is the other side of the Cuban taxi experience. A generic steering wheel attached to a late 40's American car with the mechanic riding shotgun. When was the last time you rode in a car with a 2-piece flat glass windshield? Most of these cars have no suspension of any kind, and are little more than a shell surrounding just enough machinery to move forward. Seat belts? What are those? 

Here is Sherry posing with a first-generation Corvair. We saw a few of these rolling around.

 Another classic American 50's car in Havana

 This is what you are more likely to see - an early 50's car without much historic value, pained a flat color. These function as "collecivo" taxis - they run the same basic route and pick up anyone who flags them down. You just pack in with whoever is already in the cab. We never really figured this system out, and ended up just getting a cab for the two of us. These old cars will also just take two people to their destination if the price is right (generally $5).

 More classics hanging out in front of a large tourist hotel.

 Another older 2-window car that we took. Original steering wheel this time.

What is missing from the tour books that we read, and the nostalgic image of Cuban cars is the fact that these are really old cars and they pollute at impressive rates. Between the old busses, the ancient cars, and the complete lack of any kind of emissions controls, the streets of Havana are just filled with smoke, burning oil and clouds of diesel. London in the 90's has nothing on Havana. According to one of our hosts, Cuba imports wrecked European cars, especially diesels, and parts them out in order to keep the old cars going. Quite a few of these cars are running on old Peugeot or Mercedes diesel engines with huge numbers of miles on them. Remember those old diesels in the 80's that spewed black clouds? Now run them for another 25 years and you can start to imagine the situation. Thankfully, Havan is right on the ocean, and the breeze blows the smoke away overnight and, by morning, the air is clear again.

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Getting from DC to Havana

There are rules about going to Cuba. According to the State Department:

Travel to Cuba for tourist activities remains prohibited by statute. However, the Department of Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) has issued general licenses for 12 categories of travel.  

The reality is that nobody checks. Our most rigorous interrogation came from the confused check-in clerks at Dulles who had clearly never processed anyone going to Cuba before. They were looking up the rules and asking us questions until one of the supervisors came over and just said to just let us check in. At the gate in Newark, we had to pay $75 each for our tourist visa and then check one of the 12 boxes indicating our reason for traveling. End of questioning. Upon returning home, there was no question of any kind regarding the purpose of our visit. The take-away is that, at least for now, you can just go. Check the "people to people" box for your reason and get on the plane.

We had signed up for 2 weeks of Spanish Language classes, one week in Havana and one week in Trinidad. Because we flew down on Thursday, and classes started Monday, we had three days to settle in and yet another day after classes were over before we left for Trinidad, so 9 days in all. More on that later.

If you have ever been to a Caribbean island, you will feel a certain familiarity when landing in Cuba. The heat and humidity, the chaotic airport scene, 100 taxi drivers trying to take you to your location. The whole works. It took a really long time to get through immigration because they have to take your picture and check your visa and stamp the passport. I think that the picture has to travel via serial port to the mid-1990's 286-powered computer for processing, based on how long it took for them to move from one person to the next. If you have booked a package tour, then you will just meet with your tour coordinator and get on the modern air conditioned bus that will whisk you to your hotel. If not, get ready to stand in line at the one and only money exchange window at the airport to get some local currency because your ATM card and credit card won't work here, and then haggle for a taxi. Actually, not much haggling at the Havana airport. It is a flat standard fee of 30 CUC ($30) to get to anywhere in Havana.

Now, sit back and relax and watch the next half hour slip by looking at the old cars, the concrete architecture, and the oddly abundant motorcycles with sidecars. The plants and geography are  the same as you will find in nearby Puerto Rico, Jamaica, the Yucatan Peninsula or the Bahamas. Limestone and a low scrubby jungle.

Getting to a particular address generally involves at least two stops to ask directions. The address system is incomprehensible to westerners, and generally you are given a street name and the two cross streets. Taxi drivers tend to just stop and ask locals where the place is located.  We chose to stay in the "Vedado" neighborhood in Havana. It is a bit of a haul from there to old Havana, but it is quiet and not as loaded with tourists. It was about a 20 minute walk to our classes in the morning, so we would get in a quick bit of exercise before sitting down for a few hours.

We stayed at an Airbnb (link to the apartment) and it was lovely. I think that it was around $40 per night We got lucky and had the big bedroom that connects directly to the porch for all of the nights but one. Here is from inside of the living room, looking out.

This is the porch where we wait anxiously for our coffee

Another view of the porch. Apparently, we did not take a picture of the bedroom, but it was nothing special. As we came to realize, none of the bedrooms anywhere in Cuba have furniture unless it was built-in during construction. Often times the bedframes had been nailed together out of old shipping crates and, generally, the individual mattress coils could be discerned. Everything was very clean and comfortable enough, but the lifestyle is a bit monastic. Thankfully, all of the rooms had some kind of window unit air conditioning to help our mid-Atlantic bodies slowly adjust to the humidity of a DC summer again, and to drown out the dogs, horns and roosters. If this type of travel doesn't suit your taste, there is always the option to stay at one of the tourist hotels in Havana or Varadero. They cost between $250 and $400 per night and have, I assume, all of the comforts of home. I can't deny that there were a night or two where that option seemed really appealing.

Breakfast is served for an additional $5 each per morning. Seemed like a good deal to us. The other reason that it was a good deal, is that there really aren't any breakfast restaurants or diners in Cuba. No coffee shops. The little pastry shop below our apartment did not open until 9am, so we would have missed classes in order to eat a few sugary snacks. I don't think that I have ever consistently eaten this much fruit in my life. Every breakfast came with a big plate of fruit and a pitcher of just-now-blended fruit juice. The little bottle in the bottom right corner has space left for rum to make our 5pm cocktails.

So, about 8 hours after leaving DC, we were unpacked, settled in, and out looking for dinner. Stay tuned.