It was during the nineties and a Chilean woman known to my niece, who had come to Havana as a guest of the Federation of Cuban Women (FMC), to participate in their conference, contacted me.
At the end of the conference, this young woman also named Camila, but different from the one named Vallejo, showed her interest in knowing the real Cuba. She added that one of the things she most noted in her recent experience here, was the unanimity on all matters submitted to a vote during the event.
“That’s impossible,” she confessed to me. “Neither in my country, nor in any other self-respecting country, is there a unanimity of opinion.” I suggested to her that if you want to know the whole country, it’s impossible, but at least I could show her the real Havana.
“Tomorrow leave the protocol house, forget the car with official plates, put on some comfortable shoes and I’ll pick you up early.”
Camila was really motivated to see the city, especially the known haunts of Hemingway. We went through it walking all over Vedado, along the Malecon, and to the Prado. There we went in search of La Floridita restaurant. “You have to pay for the drinks,” I told her, “because they’re priced in dollars and as a Cuban I am not allowed to possess this currency, at the risk of arrest. You know it’s penalized.”
“Yes, I know,” she answered, “your niece clued me in.”
Then we went to La Bodeguita del Medio, very decadent, and repeated the scene. “We still have to see La Terraza de Cojimar,” I said, “but it’s a bit far, we’ll have to take a tourist taxi. You pay for the transport and I’ll buy the snack, it’s a deal. That is, when we’re in the place and eating, don’t reach for your bag, leave it to me.”
We arrived and there were two lines: one to pay in Cuban pesos, with squalid food, and another a little better, but in dollars. We got into that one. We were served right away because there were only three or four tourists. We sat down at a wobbly table. I pointed it out immediately to the staff who did nothing to fix it.
When I finally asked for the check, it came in the usual little tray covered with a red napkin. I picked it up, checked the prices, and the total was $10 U.S. so I left a nice brand new 50 Cuban peso bill. When the waitress saw what I had put down she told me, “I can’t take this money.”
“What’s wrong with it?” I asked.
“This money isn’t valid here.”
“Tell the manager I would like to see him,” I asked.
The manager came out accompanied by a security guard (a comrade from State Security).
The first, turning to me, said, “Madam, that money is not valid in this establishment.”
“Are you telling me that the money I am paid by my workplace is invalid?” I answered.
“No, no, Madam, it’s not that, it’s that it has no value here.”
After debating this for several minutes, drawing the attention of those present, I showed the bill in question to the administrator and suggested:
“Read what it says here, on the bottom of what is printed. “
He began to read, “This bill is valid to pay any debt contracted in the entire territory,” and began to swallow hard, and turning to the waitress said, in a loud voice, “Look, charge the lady.”
“In what money?” she asked.
“In Cuban pesos!” he replied angrily.
A few seconds after this scene, the waitress reappears, carrying the aforementioned small tray with 40.00 Cuban pesos on it. At that moment, I got up, extended the palm of my hand to her, and in a characteristic gesture said, “Leave it, keep the change, all this money is worthless!”
Before the astonished looks of everyone, Camila and I left heads held high. When we got to the bus stop she took a deep breath and told me, “I didn’t know how much moxie you had!” I took it as a compliment. It cost me a little dearly to show it, and we continued our stroll, a couple of citizens on foot, talking and sharing with different people, whom we came across on our tour.
When we parted Camila said, “Thanks, friend, for showing me the real city!”
April 11 2012