The Smell of Money / Cubanet, Rafael Alcides

Photo from the Internet
Photo from the Internet

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CubaNet, RAFAEL ALCIDES, Havana, 3 February 2015 – In the Havana of recent days, hope and despair continue to grow. Hope, in the people: who have already begun to paint and fix up their houses, with visions of the peaceful invasion by the Americans of the future. Because, it is said with much authority, without anybody knowing the provenance of this fact, by about the end of April, we will have them arriving in waves of a million per week and, of course, neither the State-owned hotels nor the paladares (private restaurants) currently existing have the capacity to accommodate them.

An acquaintance from the neighborhood, retired and living with his wife and son, a doctor, in a small, two-bedroom apartment on the ground floor, facing the street, has already begun remodeling to take advantage of the coming boom. He has built a separate entrance to the unit from the side that faces a hallway, and on the patio has fashioned a little guestroom equipped with a shower, sink and toilet. Now he is on the hunt for a bidet, an air conditioner and a mini-fridge – all of which need to be of the “gently-used” variety, because that is all he can afford with the bit of cash sent to him from Miami. Besides, he still needs a pair of twin beds to replace the box spring inherited from a sister who emigrated 20 years ago, and which will continue to be his son’s bed until the first American arrives to rent the room.

The government, of course, could try not to cede any ground, to take advantage of the negative effect of the struggle for democracy on the future psychological wellbeing of the people, and it will not ratify the United Nations covenants on human rights nor, much less, hear talk of elections.

Pitying me, an acquaintance of my daughters – a successful owner of a paladar who was in the midst of preparing his papers to leave the country when an opening to a bonsai-type of capitalism designed by Murillo* appeared – told me that, to him, “all that” about democracy and Human Rights is of no interest. He is no politician, he said, nor has he dreamed of writing for the newspapers. Rather, he is a businessman who has done well for himself, and he expects that with the million Americans expected to be flocking here every week, he will do even better. Making money is his thing. To that end, he has already begun setting up a second “paladar.”

Hence the sorrow, in that word’s best sense, or perhaps, the despair, of the opposition. It is a sad fact, but also inevitable: the smell of money tends to make conservatives out of even the ultra-radicals of yesterday (as we saw happen in the USSR lately). A reaction, this, all the more terrible in a country such as ours where 70 percent of the population, never having known democracy, has learned to live without it — and also being a country where survival has required pilfering here and there, dreaming of having things, of being able to live like one’s cousins in Miami. A dangerous indirect alliance with the government that will not be easy to break.

The opposition’s despair increases with the government’s silence, its apparent immobility. I say “apparent” because the government has not ceased to make changes, to transfer to “non-agricultural cooperatives” (and by extension, it is fitting that the newspaper Granma should one day speak to us of “non-veterinary doctors,” “non-merchant marines,” “non-porno artists,” “non-retired military personnel”) even small-town aqueducts. Another shift not even dreamed of before now: a new investment law with room for the native citizen (i.e. the Cuban residing on the Island) in joint venture with foreigners or as sole proprietor – a development which, it goes without saying, cancels, makes obsolete, Murillo’s brilliant and sophisticated botanical design.

However – and I repeat, however (and this is indeed the great enigma): Is the government making these changes with an eye towards opening a path for democracy? Or conversely, is it to facilitate the Chinese method, in which the pessimistic opposition presupposes the State will be immersed waist-deep in its eagerness for continuity? Only time can tell.

Apart from these “non-Lenten winds”** optimism reigns supreme. Havana goes on renovating itself, When carpenters cannot find lumber, they buy old armoires, tables, doors to recycle the wood, to keep up with their orders and deliver furniture to the owners of houses or paladares who are preparing to accommodate a million Americans per week. Those who grow flowers increase their sowings. The bricklayers charge ever higher prices. A spirit of rejuvenation reigns, as the romantics might say, throughout the land.

Of course, regarding elections, I hear less and less.

Translated by Alicia Barraqué Ellison

Translator’s Notes:

*Marino Murillo is Cuba’s Minister of Planning and Economy. The late Cuban economist Oscar Espinosa Chepe, a regime opponent, coined the term “bonsai businesses” to refer to the types of small private businesses now allowed by the regime: bonsai, of course, are very small, and are subject to constant “trimming” to make sure they are not allowed to grow to any significant size. 

**Likely a reference to the novel by Cuban writer Leonardo Padura, “Los Vientos de Cuaresma (Lenten Winds)”. The protagonist is a policeman who is growing increasingly disaffected with contemporary Cuban society. The story takes place in the spring, during the Lenten season, when hot southern winds arrive in Cuba.