How Have Cubans Benefited Since December 17? / Ivan Garcia

"Now you are a saint"
“Now you are a saint” (Still from the video below)

Note from The video is not translated into English. The gist of message (other than what is obvious from the images) is that things in Cuba haven’t changed for ordinary people since the announcement of the reestablishment of US-Cuba relations.

Ivan Garcia, 16 October 2015 — Seated at the helm of his polished 1958 Impala convertible, Eduardo Colón, a private taxi driver, listens to Adele’s concert on his player, while he waits for the marriage of an American couple outside the Saratoga Hotel, very close to the National Capitol in the heart of Havana.

The couple arrives with relaxed tourist faces, wide-brimmed sombreros, video camera in hand, and before climbing aboard the ancient Chevrolet, they take a selfie with the car in the background.

If anyone has benefited from the more than 100,000 Americans who have visited Cuba since the December 17 thaw, there’s no doubt that private taxicab drivers are at the top of the list.

“Speaking economically, since the Day of San Lázaro* last year, things have gone better for me. Especially with the Americans. For a couple of hours’ drive around the city, they pay me up to 60 chavitos (65 CUCs, “dollars”), Eduardo pointed out.

The owners of homes for rent and private restaurants in the medium- to high-price range in the usual tourist zones in the capital are earning more money.

“I rent three rooms at 30 CUCs a night. And in 2015, of the 17 people who rented from me, 11 were from the U.S. When the bonanza begins, the infrastructure of hospitality, gastronomy and transport is going to collapse. For me I’m doing well, but I admit that the markets continue to be short on supplies and telephone calls to the U.S. are still very expensive,” said Elsa, the owner of a spacious house.

For Onilio, almost ten months after the Americans, neighbors to the north, stopped being enemy número uno, the balance of positive things is little.

“I work hard at selling illegal cigars to tourists. I notice that there are more Americans, who are cooler and who help the clandestine cigars-and-rum business. But it still isn’t very good,” said a seller in the Hotel Inglaterra vicinity.

Kirenia, a prostitute, doesn’t think that Amercian affluence has caused an increase in prices. “It’s still the same: 50 or 60 bucks for a night. If the client looks like he’s well-heeled, you can ask for a hundred. But up to now the Americans I’ve seen aren’t coming in waves to link up with whores.”

For most of the people interviewed, the scene hasn’t changed too much. “It’s more peel than potato. For those who do business downtown, where the rich foreigners are, things are going better. But for those who live far from the center of Havana, life is the same,” states the proprietor of a private bar.

Still Yasmani has noted benefits. He has a bar that offers tapas, and he rents out five rooms with a spectacular view of the Malecón for 35 CUCs a night.

“I do business with Airbnb, and I almost always have clients,” he affirms. The State hotels, mainly administered by military companies, can’t complain either. “This year we are cheek to jowl (full), comments Eusebio, a receptionist at a hostel in Old Havana.

In restaurants like Los Nardos, a joint venture between home hotels and the State at kilometer zero** in Havana, it’s almost impossible to get a reservation for dinner.

“I notice there are better opportunities. Although at the moment they haven’t fallen into my pocket. I’m still earning 10 CUCs a day, like always,” says Joel, the doorman.

Those who haven’t seen any benefit are the majority of Cubans who own nothing. “I’m still earning the same shit (550 pesos/month, around 23 dollars) as before December 17. And as far as food goes, buying it takes almost my whole salary, and when I need a bottle of cooking oil, I have to save in order to buy CUCs so I can get it in a “shopping”***,” notes Manuel, a bus mechanic.

A wide segment of the population complains about the shortage of food and the sky-high prices. “No one understands that now that we Cubans can buy food from the U.S., the markets are empty,” says Rosa, a housewife who prowls the shelves of Ultra, one of the large dollar stores in the capital.

According to a recent article by Juan Juan Almeida in Martí Noticias, in a journalistic investigation among foreign businessmen in Cuba, the Regime has a silent strategy to reduce the buying of food and merchandise in the U.S. as a way of putting pressure on the U.S. business lobby to force a more energetic campaign for repeal of the embargo.

Almost 10 months after December 17, not too many benefits are felt in Cuba. The olive-green autocracy continues without implementing a road map that would please private workers, to whom, supposedly, Obama’s measures are directed.

The official sinuous politics awakens resentment and mistrust in Cubans on the street. “Before, the Government complained that we couldn’t access the Internet because of the blockade. Now U.S. businesses offer us free Internet, and the State says that they prefer to be in charge. They are interested only in exploiting Cubans with steep prices and abusive taxes,” comments Reinier, sitting on a sidewalk under the sun on Calle 23 in Vedado, while he tries to communicate by IMO**** with his relatives in Florida.

A few meters away, Diosbel waits in a Havana Tour office to buy a ticket to Miami. “We thought that after December 17, the price of airline tickets was going to go down. The flight to Miami is as expensive as the one to Colombia. And the Government doesn’t give us any news about the ferry. They’re saying that the U.S. Post Office is going to negotiate with the Cuban Post Office. What for? Those sons of bitches only permit you to send something that weighs one and a half-kilogram, and if you go over, each kilo costs 20 CUC. The reestablishment of relations hasn’t brought anything that’s good for Cubans,” he says, annoyed.

In Havana opinions are divided. Some believe that in 2016 gaps will inexorably open up, and there will be better conditions for those Cubans who have only coffee for breakfast and who don’t receive hard currency.

Others are more pessimistic. And they’re certain that the Regime won’t move its chess pieces until the Americans lift the embargo. And if the Regime is good at something, it’s inertia.

Translator’s notes:
*One of the more popular saints in Cuba, venerated on December 17.
**The location from which distances are measured and from which you can set your odometer, usually in a capital city.
***Special stores that take only Cuban Convertible Pesos, which can be bought in exchange for Cuban Pesos; these stores carry food items not found in the Cuban Peso shops.
****Popular program for audio and video chat.

Translated by Regina Anavy