july 21, 2009
okay... okay... cuba does have its charms. primero... el ron! the rum. not bacardi. no, fidel threw those capitalist swine out a long time ago. now it's havana club. cheap... and... muy bueno! but since raoul completely closed down the marijuana and drug trade, also years ago, it's the only recreational game in town. and yeah, okay.... "buena vista social club" music still plays full force every night of the week en la plazas of tourist-friendly old habana. and true... the classic cars and retro architecture certainly capture the fast eddie felson style and imagination of the american 50s. and... the food is good... if you can afford the restaurants or expensive grocery stores. but it's hard to find elsewhere. the island no longer grows its own produce. imported fruits and vegetables are first come, first serve in the local markets... if you get there early enough and you have the fortitude to survive the long lines. this double whammy makes it a bit hard on vegetarians such as – da wife.
and money? oooow... that's another story all together.
for example, let's start with this little story. right from the airport. in the classic red and white '57 chevy. it begins, you see, with our cuban-american amigo from LA, ciro, the very amigo who has arranged for doctor elian to pick us up in the '57 chevy, who also has arranged for us to stay in a casa particular. that's a private room, or rooms, in someone's private home that father fidel has allowed his cash-strapped citizens to rent to tourists. for approximately $25-$30 a night. a good deal all around, you say, right? the only thing is that papa fidel... charges 400 dollars a month for the privilege of this little legal rental arrangement. which means... whether or not the homeowner rents his room, or rooms, during any particular month, he still owes papa fidel and the government 400 CUC (pronounced "cook", meaning "convertible currency", and not exchangeable on the international market). again, that's whether the homeowner rents his room, or rooms, or not! consequently, you might say, this puts more than a little pressure on the home owner. in good months, like now, june thru august, the homeowners are mostly flush, but contrarily, during the rest of the year, they are often desperate and strapped of cash flow.
now ciro and his wife, olga, have really jazzed us on this little casa particular, right in the heart of vedado. they tell us that it has four, small but charming, rooms above the main house, including a kitchen and private bath, that it's right around the corner from the biggest fruit and vegetable market in the area, and best of all, it's only $175 a week! "we stayed there ourselves. you're going to love it." it's owned by their amigos, jose and maria, and we've e-mailed back and forth many times, confirming our arrival date and the length of our stay. that's right, cubans can e-mail over the internet; they just can't use a browser! which basically means... no google, no yahoo, no internet explorer, no microsoft, no.... informacion. why, you ask? ask el commandante, fidel. simple answer: he doesn't want his citizens to be members of, or have access to, the modern world. furthermore, el heffe allows no purchase of new cars (except for government officials and by car rental agencies for tourists), and only censored information from the rest of the planet over the world wide web. talk about 50 years of isolation? not only do the gas-guzzling automobile beaters barely run, not only are the old buildings straining and cracking in disrepair, but el presidente allows only fidel-approved information from the outside world to filter down to his fellow cubanos! welcome to the 21st century, amigos!
ok, now let's talk a little bit more about papa fidel and his american "friends". particularly in regards to money. particularly in regards to his "cook" (CUC/convertible currency), the fluidity of his currency, and his rate of exchange. now, as i said, the problem with CUC is that it's not exchangeable on the world market. it's only good in cuba. so if you're going to buy anything in cuba, you have to exchange your currency for fidel's. i.e. CUC. consequently, the problem is... well... big. say as big as the 50 year history between our two antagonistic countries. in case you didn't know, it's been tit for tat for half a century, babies. titted embargoes retaliated with tatted expulsions. titted political hostility returned by tatted economic punishment. in both directions. for 50 friggin' years. finally in 2006, during the great dubya's second presidential term, fidel finally stopped accepting US dollars altogether, and came up, instead, with the "cook" (CUC). 1 CUC equals 25 cuban local pesos – making the former cuban currency, in the language of most cubanos, "shit." "caca." worth practically nothing. 1 CUC also is worth 1 US dollar - equal - minus a 20% penalty that fidel has imposed on all americans since 2006. go to a local cadeca to exchange money, give them 100 US dollars, get back 80 CUC. that's right, lose 20% of your cash from the get go. and i said "cash", because fidel won't accept american credit cards, american debit cards, american cash, or any other form of american barter. it's all "cook", chico! payback for treating his island like shit for 50 years!
of course, this is one stupid-ass policy. cutting off your cuban nose to spite your cuban face. it does the opposite of welcoming any fat cat, flush american tourists to cuba. why go to a place where your money is, right off the bat, worth 20% less than it was the moment before you exchanged it? cash $1000, get $800 back. add that to the US embargo that forbids americans to spend any money in cuba (no, it's not an embargo that forbids americans to travel to cuba, just an embargo that prevents them from spending money!)... well then... you have one hostile and unwelcoming situation. stupido!
anyway, back to our story and our little casa particular. doctor elian of the '57 chevy drops us off at la casa de jose y maria en vedado, and they are both very warm and friendly. in fact, they are celebrating their son's 16th birthday with a little party for their friends this very afternoon. it's busy as hell, with guests having already arrived and the food now spreading out on the tables in pot luck waves. our arrival in the middle of all this is taken in stride, and we are welcomed through the house... to a windowless room above the garage. huh? i thought we booked the 4 rooms on the second floor at the front of the house. "no, i speak to ciro," jose says in his minimal englis, "an' he say you need only 1 room. is ok?" huh again! no, it's not okay. this room would be tough on even a poverty stricken student. no window? above the garage? for a 60 year old man and his wife? c'mon, jose, what are you thinking?
oh.......... i get it. you found another tenant for the front 4 rooms while we were gallivanting around jamaica. and they can rent it for a longer period than we can. and pay you more dinero. oh, i see. fuck the agreement we had as recently as 2 days ago when i confirmed our reservation with you by e-mail for yet the umpteenth time. fuck that we are friends of ciro, your friend, and that olga, his wife, lived in those same 4 rooms for 3 years while she studied at art school in havana. fuck that you gave us your word and we flew all the way from LA via montego bay to stay in your home when we arrived... in the same rooms that ciro and olga arranged for us. in fact, fuck us altogether, right, jose? oh...... entiendo... i understand, you have to pay the government 400 CUC a month, and this is the busy month... so you have to take the expedient offer. si, chico, entiendo. you're hassled. you're broke. the system doesn't work.
bienvenidos a cuba!
welcome to cuba......
your man in havana,