Ivan Garcia, 10 June 2015 — A week before her Miami relatives landed in Havana, Milena hired a crew to paint the interior and the facade of her home in the bucolic Casino Deportivo neighborhood.
After two coats of paint and minor touch-ups on the walls, they did a thorough cleaning, and just above the door they placed a chain made of silver paper with a Welcome Home sign.
“My cousins haven’t come to Cuba for twenty years. We want to give them a reception in style. Thanks to the little money that they’ve sent us, we fixed up the entire house,” says Milena.
It’s understood in every other country that the host pays for the entertainment. But Cuba is a different story. For Gisela, a hairdresser, having relatives abroad is more than a blessing.
“I was able to start my business with the dollars that my daughter provided me. Everything I have—a 42-inch-flat-screen, a computer, a mobile phone, and air conditioning—I bought with the money she sent. Sometimes I’m assailed by a doubt: what if we Cubans didn’t have family outside?” Gisela wonders.
Well, they would fare very badly. Take for example Felix, a six-foot tall Afro-Cuban. He has no relatives abroad and has only seen euros and dollars in the movies on Saturday night.
He is the father of four children who barely gets by doing informal masonry work. “I don’t receive remittances and nobody sends me food parcels, clothing, or medicine. I have to fend for myself,” he says frankly, while drinking cheap beer in a dirty state-owned bar on October 10th Road.
Citizens like Felix are in the minority. According to some analysts, slightly more than 60% of all Cubans have a relative or friend abroad who regularly sends money or packages.
The average person calls this kind of help “throwing a Hail Mary.” In a nation where the average monthly wage is $23 (you would need six lifetimes to pay for a car, and repairing or furnishing a house is a true luxury) it is not reprehensible that migrants help their poor relatives on the island.
What is alarming is the brazenness. At the first opportunity, a large segment of Cubans send tweets, emails, or collect calls, urgently pleading for money from their relatives in exile.
“What nerve. Every month I sent a hundred dollars to an aunt and two cousins. When I could, I provided them household necessities. But a while back, my relatives started asking me for more money, using any pretext—to celebrate a daughter’s fifteenth birthday or to buy a toilet. In Cuba they think that the Cubans who live abroad are rich. I have to break my back working just to make a decent living,” said a Havanan living in Florida.
Aquino, a truck driver from Pinar de Rio who lives in New York, describes his experience. “I went twelve years without visiting my family. Truthfully, most Cubans ’throw it in your face’ (are inconsiderate). All they want to do is talk about their problems and ask you for money and things. I gave my niece a mobile phone and she disrespectfully told me that it was already an old model, that she likes the Samsung Galaxy. Young people don’t want just any cell phone or tablet, they want the latest model. They’re ungrateful,” he says.
The culture of hustling goes beyond prostitution. Many Cubans are convinced that their relatives are rolling in dough. So it is therefore OK to ask for whatever they want. Some make small requests: disposable diapers or jeans. Others believe that their family member is a real life version of Scrooge McDuck.
And they make plans at the expense of relatives living abroad. “Look what my nephew came up with. He wanted me to give him ten or twelve thousand dollars to buy an almendrón (classic American car) and turn it into a taxi. It’s amazing the number of people in Cuba who are clueless. They don’t know that almost all Cubans living abroad work two or three jobs to be able to pay the rent and debts. They aren’t satisfied with anything. They always want more without lifting a finger,” says Osvaldo, who lives in Tampa.
A considerable part of Castro’s military-controlled economy is designed to be borne by Cuban emigrants. The prices in the shops have unbelievable taxes aimed at capturing foreign currency. And the airport and postal tariffs could cause heart attacks.
The State and many Cubans milk their families like cows. And if they previously begged them for food, clothing, toiletries, and medicines, they now want them to pay absurd charges for everything from passport renewals to cell phone recharges. Not to mention pleas for next-generation smartphones, usually used as status symbols.
Natasha, employed in a commercial office of ETECSA, says that “80% of the money for recharging hours on cell phones in Cuba is paid for by relatives or friends living in other countries. ETECSA is one of the agencies that benefits most from the former gusanos (worms),” she says wryly.
More than one Cuban living abroad has asked when and how their relatives became leeches, sucking on the wallets of their families in other countries.
“One answer could be because of the perennial shortages suffered by the Cuban people for 56 years. But the real answer is Fidel Castro. He is guilty of perverting the Cuban people, creating the mindset of squeezing the exiles. In 1980 he invented the acts of repudiation against those who left from Mariel, calling them scum and saying he was glad they were getting the hell out. They’re not going to screw me over any more with such perversion. I wouldn’t think about returning to Cuba,” said an obviously upset Cuban American visiting Havana.
The economic disaster and cyclical hardships created by the Castro regime have spawned a breed of beggars. And scoundrels. By day they pretend to support the government and by night they make a call to Miami. After telling their tale of woe, they ask for money or things. It’s the easiest thing.