Iván García, 12 November 2015 — Liudmila and Sheila are prostitutes and they don’t know about business or cutting-edge technology. But a colleague sent them a text message telling them, “Come here, the yumas (foreigners) are wild.”
They put on stunning high heels, tight clothing and perfume with an anesthetizing fragrance. Their plan was simple: to prowl around the stands for Canada, South Korea, France and Germany, and see how the fishing was at the International Fair of Havana.
“I can speak pretty good English. Let’s go to each pavilion and ask about the products on display or the possibility of working in a company. When we see some foreigner checking us out, we can go on the attack,” says Sheila, who has seven years of experience in prostitution.
They were in luck. Two Spanish businessmen invited them for drinks and disco dancing that night in Miramar. “At the least the romance will be only a joke. But it could end in a courtship and a definitive exit from the country,” reflects Liudmila, while she drinks a Bucanero beer in a temporary bar at the recently-concluded Havana International Trade Fair (FIHAV) of November 2015.
Of course prostitutes are a minority among those who visited Expocuba, the site of commercial fairs since 1989 (the first one was celebrated in 1982 with a few exhibits from Spain, Panama and Cuba).
At the end of the ’80s, just as the almost-perpetual economic crisis was beginning, you might think it wasn’t a good idea to waste millions of dollars building a space for a fair 25 kilometers southeast of the center of the capital.
Excited by what he had seen on his trip to Pyongyang in 1986, Fidel Castro wanted Cuba to also have a permanent exposition, where it could exhibit the “achievements of the Revolutionary Process.” And on January 4, 1989, Castro inaugurated Expocuba, a space much too large for an economy that was shrinking.
The disintegration of the USSR caused the loss of millions in subsidies, which pointed out the deficiencies in local industry. Ricardo Ortiz, a retiree who for 10 years worked in a food import business, says that Expocuba was transformed into a children’s amusement park and a place where, in the hard years of the Special Period, people could find products.
“As transport was scarce, you had to go on bicycle, and when you got to Expocuba, they gave you the right to buy two packages of fried chicken, 10 breadfruits and flavored yogurt. This was in the same epoch when, for lack of fuel, oxen were used for plowing instead of tractors,” remembers Ortiz.
In the Cuban autumn of 2015, Expocuba shows an obvious deterioration. On one afternoon, a strong downpour obliged hundreds of people to seek refuge under the pavilion roofing. “It rained more inside than outside,” said a Spanish tourist. Visitors to the Fair complained about the lack of informative posters.
“Everything had been organized in a slapdash way. You walked around disoriented, not knowing where the exhibit you wanted to see was located,” says Juliana, an English professor, who was looking for the South Korean stand to find the latest version of the Samsung Galaxy.
When the Havana Fair opened its doors to the public on Friday, throughout the neighborhood dozens of private and collective taxis were calling out their services. For Cubans, a round trip could cost 40 CUC (roughly $40 US).
“For a foreigner, 60 CUC or more,” points out Reinerio, the owner of a ramshackle Lada 2105 from the Soviet era. “But I offer a price of 20 CUC, since my car has a gas engine. Fewer people came to this fair than before.”
The suffocating heat invited people to drink cold beer in the bars, cafeterias and restaurants located in Expocuba. At a glance, it was apparent that a lot of attendees were lunching on Creole food or drinking beer, which ran through the pavilions.
According to Marcia, a Fair employee, “the most happening stands were those of South Korea, Canada and Japan. A few businessmen and book publishers from the U.S. exhibited their wares. For 2016 we expect an avalanche of American businessmen.” When you inquire from foreign businessmen about business prospects in Cuba, opinions go from optimism to prudence.
An official from a Swiss tourist agency explained that they now have a permanent office in Havana. “We might not make a big profit right now. But you have to open a way, occupy a space. I’m afraid that when the Americans arrive, the businesses of other countries are going to have to pack their bags.” An investor, also Swiss, is even more bold and claims he’s building a high-class hotel in the Cojimar district.
With more doubts than enthusiasm, Fabian Koppel and Jakub Brzokoupil, from the German firm Optimum, which specializes in industrial machinery, say that in 2012 they did business on the Island. “But because of various difficulties we had to leave. In Cuba everything is very complicated. But our company thinks that now there are better possibilities,” says Fabian.
The perception among businessmen is that 2016 could be a decisive year. A manager of Egyptian origin from Mercedes Benz hasn’t lost hope. In 2014 they sold only 30 multi-purpose trucks to Cuban companies, and in 2015 that went up to 110. As for luxury cars, from 25 in 2014, they hope to sell 200 in 2016.
This is timid growth, but unofficial calculations show that when the State floodgates open, sales can shoot up. Although a Cuban with an average monthly salary of 23 dollars could never buy a car valued at 70 or 80 thousand dollars.
Liudmila and Sheila, the prostitutes from Havana, didn’t lose the opportunity to take a selfie in front of three Mercedez Benz, as if they think it’s possible. “But we would never buy a car in Cuba,” they say, smiling.
Text and photo: Iván García
Translated by Regina Anavy