Cuba: Money, Magic and Castro
Cuba is a contradiction: wild and tame at the same time. A few years ago, I spent a few weeks there with a guy named Curious George. We rolled around the old cities on skateboards and engaged in confused conversations, our broken Spanish flailing between abrupt and repetitive.
There are two currencies in Cuba, one for tourists and one for locals. The CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso) is the falsely inflated tourist currency and only accepted at designated bars, restaurants and hotels. CUCs are worth roughly $1US and only foreigners, prostitutes and hustlers can afford to go to these places. The Moneda Nacional is supposedly only for Cubans, but if you can get your hands on them you can get everything cheaper and spend your money where the locals do. This disparity between local currency and tourist currency makes it extremely hard to have authentic experiences and really integrate. But it’s not impossible.
In Holguin we stayed with young skateboarders who showed us around and confidentially told us they hated Castro. They told us that having a beard was to show outward support of Castro and they kept their faces clean-shaven in defiance. We bought them beers and went skateboarding together.
In Havana we stayed with an old man named Chigi who had only left Cuba once to fight a war in Angola. He also quietly admitted that he felt oppressed by communism. But this form of communism wasn’t pure, there were people everywhere making money on the side. The free market in Cuba is the black market.
Obviously the locals working in the tourism industry tended CUCs and increasingly in Havana the locals are acquiring and spending the tourist currency. Tourists have directly and indirectly created another market, separate from the government jobs. Moonlighting is common and locals often supply tourists with Spanish lessons, prostitutes, home made liquor, imitation cigars and drugs. In exchange they often seek items unavailable to them in Cuba such as sunscreen, modern cellphones, digital cameras, foreign-made clothing and computers. They also take cash.
George and I had been in Cuba for a couple of weeks and had mixed impressions. George was enthralled by the sense of community, how people were binded by equality and immobility. He noted that in every social setting we entered there was an obligatory, indiscriminate handshake between all present. George described this as the “magic”. Every person was a comrade but it was unclear whether they were mercenaries, guerillas or prisoners.
For me it was odd to see how things worked there; the divide between the local and tourist was strange and depressing. The older generation who’d watched Castro rise were humble and somewhere between subdued and content. The middle aged seemed to feel that they were working too hard for too little. The young were openly frustrated. Some said they felt trapped and others had decided to hustle the tourists however they could. Miami was a fantasy for the young. Many people had confabulated optimistic ideas of America from snippets of information. It was hard to get them to understand that although the wages are absurdly greater, the cost of living is too.
On the whole I was impressed with the spirit of the Cubans, they seemed pragmatic and valiant and yet unfulfilled. There was a strange boredom among the youth, like guns lacking ammunition.
We had beers down at the malecon and then headed to the Cubana Airline office to book our flights to Mexico. The office was in the edge of Havana where the city meets the Gulf Stream. It looked like an airport terminal except much darker. There were huge windows covered with thick vertical blinds. The room was distinctly different to what I’d seen in Cuba so far: a large air-conditioned space with yellow carpet and couches that looked like they had come from the set of Scarface. It contrasted the old haciendas on the highways and the grandiose sandstone of central Havana. There was a queue with very little order and an unfamiliar sparseness to the room. It became suddenly clear that most Cubans never get the chance to leave their country. The people who were here were evidently the elite. I suddenly felt uncomfortable, that we didn’t deserve to be with the elite. We tried to book flights for the following day but neither of our debit cards would work. The woman behind the desk reserved our seats, gave us a reference number and told us to pay for the flights at the airport the next day. She sent us out of the air-conditioning and back to the sweaty streets of Havana.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking between hotels, trying to bleed the ATMs. None of them would accept our cards. We got a couple more beers and talked it over. We realised that we hadn’t yet used an ATM in Cuba and became paranoid that we wouldn’t be able to access our money. We emptied our money belts and counted our collective cash, pulling out US dollars, CUCs, Moneda Nacional and Mexican Pesos. That was when we realised that we were about twenty bucks short of what we needed for the flights. We left the bar without paying for the beers, suddenly tense about our situation.
We soon found out that there wasn’t a bank in the country from which we could withdraw money.
We were overtly aware of the trade embargo the United States had enforced on Cuba but had assumed that a Canadian or Australian debit card would work. Neither of us had thought this far ahead.
We went back to old Chigi’s house and chain-smoked cigarettes. We had to enter the apartment block swiftly and surreptitiously because he warned that it was illegal for Cubans to let foreigners stay in their houses. Apparently this was a measure to prevent people from turning their public housing into black market hotels. Chigi said if he got caught he would lose his house. It was good of him to let us stay but also sad and alienating. I spoke broken Spanish with Chigi while George cooked. Chigi was a nice old man, humble and benevolent. I gave him my pocket-knife and George gave him a torch. You could tell that he was appreciative. He said the torch would come in handy because the power in his house went out often.
The next day we caught the local bus in the direction of the airport. It cost less than five cents and dropped us about two kilometres away but we had plenty of time to spare. We trotted hopefully down the highway in the sun and I wondered if we would make it to Mexico that day. We entered the airport terminal and bustled to the check-in counter. We showed the woman our reference number, hoping there would be a mistake and she would print our tickets and not ask for any money. She told us we owed her 380 CUCs (about $400). George pulled out the entirety of our collective cash and counted it out onto the desk. We were around 20 CUCs short. I was flustered and sweating, ready to resign myself to the power of the authorities. George’s face wore a helpless panic. When she ascertained that we didn’t have any more money she looked me in the eye with complete dispassion and asked in English “What have you got to sell?”
George and I laughed nervously and then started rifling through our bags. She looked at us like we were starry-eyed children. Her simple pragmatism was refreshing. Her eyes seemed to say: this is Cuba, if you don’t have money, you simply sell what you have. I don’t think it even occurred to her that this could make people feel self conscious or ashamed.
We managed to dig up some old mobile phones, a little Nokia and a Motorola. The woman behind the counter scrutinised them, said she wasn’t personally interested but that she would show them around the airport. We watched as she attempted to sell the phones to the other check in counter staff, the food vendors and those at the currency exchange desk. Suddenly all the airport staff were inspecting our phones, testing the chargers and demanding other electrical goods from our backpacks.
“You don’t have camera or ipod?”
Neither of us owned anything much. We were two filthy travellers with nothing but dirty clothes. Nobody wanted the phones so I ran downstairs to the taxi ranks to try to slang them there. The drivers all wore pressed slacks and shiny black leather shoes and asked me if I had any clothing or a watch for sale. I told them that I was wearing my best outfit, which was a creased collared shirt and a pair of old board-shorts. I didn’t own a watch and wore thongs because I had given my Vans away to a skateboarder in Holguin. One of the cabbies seemed half interested in my phone so I showed him the camera setting. He didn’t want it for 20 CUCs so I dropped the price to 19…18…17. He started to walk away and I ran after him yelling “How much will you pay for it?’’ in broken Spanish. I remembered all the times people had hassled me like this in the streets of Havana and I felt some belated empathy. He was genuinely uninterested and ignored me. The role reversal was stark.
I managed to sell both the phones to a woman who worked at the airport. She took me inside her office, gave me 27 CUCs for the two of them and two cigarettes. Then we lit up, right there at the desk. It felt good to be smoking in that office in the middle of Havana International Airport with an overweight Cuban woman who’d just bought two worthless phones from me for 27 bucks.
I ran upstairs, gave George the other cigarette and told him about the money. He told me that there was an airport departure tax of 25 CUCs per person. I suggested that we demand support from our embassy because there was literally no way we could access our money, nor money from parents or friends. We had about two hours until our flight and it felt like we might get stuck in Cuba.
In my money belt I had a US $20 bill with a rip in the corner. I hadn’t been able to change it anywhere but I figured I would give it a go now. At the exchange counter I begged the woman to change it but she simply wouldn’t accept it, telling us we’d have to go to a bank. The cab drivers had said the same thing. Desperate, I asked the woman if she would give me 15 CUCs for it and suggested she take the bill to a bank herself, thereby making about $4 profit. She politely explained that it was totally illegal for Cubans to exchange foreign currency at banks and that the 20 in question represented a whole months wage for her. It would be far too much of a risk, she said. This made my stress feel completely unwarranted. What had felt like an arduous struggle turned to a burning guilt. That’s when it was infallibly proven to me that I am a dumb rich kid who had taken everything for granted. The challenge of getting out of Cuba, now seemed like a fun little game in comparison to her prospects of getting out. I’d seen the economic impossibility and heard about the bureaucratic oppression. It was rough to think that very few Cubans ever get the choice to leave. I thanked her anyway and walked outside, feeling momentarily dejected.
George was out where the cabs were dropping off tourists. He was laughing with some European girls. George is tall, blonde and knows how to talk to women. Before long he had ascertained that they were on the same flight as us and convinced them to lend us the cash for the airport tax until we got to Mexico. He even borrowed a bit extra so we could buy rum and cigarettes duty free.
I was now on my way to Cancun, chasing a woman and George was coming with me. Mexico was an unsealed, indefinite road inside my head and I knew that everything was going to be perfect when I got there. I envisioned being with my girlfriend in the jungle with a bottle of mescal; hitch-hiking and sleeping on the beaches along the Pacific coast. I was stoked but also kind of sickened at what a privileged little cunt I was.
People have often described Cuba as “equality without freedom” and I found this to be as apt as it is depressing. On the flight to Cancun I was perturbed by the obnoxious American tourists and troubled by the fact that a significant part of me valued freedom more than equality.