Researcher: Pedro Mosqueda
by Mimi Chakarova
Dany is a jinitero,
Slouching against the white,
wrought iron fence of the Plaza Mayor, he watches weary, sun-burnt tourists
wander in and out of a simple church the Spaniards left behind more
than a century ago. A blue-bereted policeman on the corner watches too,
stoic and motionless. Behind him, a fierce orange sun slips into the
horizon. When its glow fades, he disappears, out of sight. On cue, Dany
is in action. He calls out to a young couple: "Hi, how are you,"
first in English, then in Italian. A "bon jour" finally turns
He's on them quick, flashing
a sweet, jaunty smile as he makes his pitch in fluid French. He is afrocubano,
tall and dark, handsome even beneath the dingy tee-shirt and faded red
shorts he spends his days in. The silver rings that weigh on his long
fingers flash bright against his smooth skin. His confidence is contagious.
"I can get you anything you need," he tells the couple: private
lodging for two in a real Cuban home, just $20 a night; a succulent
home-cooked lobster served with fried bananas and fresh green tomatoes
for $5; a guided horseback ride into the nearby Escambray mountains
to visit the magnificent El Cubano waterfalls and swim in its pools.
He absentmindedly snaps his right hand as he talks, trying to add urgency
to his offer.
But the two have their response
ready: They already have everything they need, thanks. He lets them
go. Undeterred, he returns to the fence and gets ready to try again.
Dany is one of Cuba's new
entrepreneurs, and this is the new Cuba. If the people of Trinidad have
something to sell, he will make sure the foreigners the yuma
buy it. In return, he gets a cut off the top. And everything is for
sale in this pristine colonial city on the island's underbelly. From
the slew of government controlled resorts, hotels, restaurants, and
shops even bars and clubs to the counterfeit cigars sold
from dark corners, a two-tiered, post-revolutionary economy has developed
to divest tourists of their money.
There is no shortage of
pocketbooks. Each day, sleek tour buses wobble over the cobblestone
streets in the town's old center to dump their loads: Europeans, Canadians,
even Americans package tourists shipped in from the beachfront
resorts on the white sand Peninsula Ancon just twelve kilometers away.
Over the last ten years, tourism in Cuba has grown from a trickle of
Soviets and native vacationers to a $2 billion industry, thanks to a
careful opening to foreign investment. Most of the money goes to straight
to the government desperately needed hard currency to pay the
island's external debt but Cubans have found ways legal
or otherwise to keep some of it for themselves.
country has a national sport," explains Dany whose name,
along with others in this piece, has been changed to protect his
identity. He grins unabashedly. "Cuba's is looking for dollars."
"Every country has
a national sport," explains Dany whose name, along with
others in this piece, has been changed to protect his identity. He grins
unabashedly. "Cuba's is looking for dollars."
Just on the outskirts of
town a luxury tourist bus from Havana rolls into an empty lot. Eager
Trinidadians are already there, pressing their faces to the metal gate
that keeps them out. They know the schedules by heart.
Disoriented and groggy,
I step off the bus just as the din erupts. A taxi driver grabs a couple's
bags and hoists them on board without waiting to be asked. Jineteros
and homeowners wave makeshift white business cards and call out prices
as the foreigners disembark, fighting to lead us to private rooms. "Ten
dollars. It's my house. Very comfortable," one tells me, shoving
his card in my face even after I have brushed him off. Three others
follow me, two on bicycle, one on foot, up the gentle hill into town
in a contest of endurance until finally, two give up, and I reluctantly
give in to the third. The bus stop is just the beginning. The proto-capitalist
cacophony here never quiets.
In the center of town, skirting
the landscaped squares and magnificent colonial mansions that tourists
come here to see, open markets line the narrow, labyrinthine streets.
Vendors wait behind tables laden with crafts painted gourds,
handmade maracas, and polished wood statues of drummers and dancers
for spendthrift visitors to wander through. Beautiful handmade
linens, patterns nearly identical, hang one after another along the
curving sidewalks, filling an entire alley with billowing sheets of
white. "Good prices," a woman assures someone who stops to
look. "Fifteen dollars," she says, to get the bargaining started.
"And I'll give you a necklace for free."
by Mimi Chakarova
The city streets
Just around the corner by
the tall, brilliant blue wooden doors of the Galeria del Arte, an old
man, white sideburns peeking out beneath a dilapidated straw cowboy
hat, sells photo-ops with his donkey for 50 cents. Selling on the street
has been legal since 1993, but this is hardly capitalism: hefty government
license fees and taxes divert most of these vendor's profits to government
coffers. They pay for the right to sell, regardless of how much is sold.
Unless they have another source of income, one bad season can wreck
So an illicit tourist sector
has developed alongside the legal one, and the jineteros are its tour
guides. "What's worse?" asks Dany's friend Manuel who sells
counterfeit cigars. "Selling cigars on the street, or robbing and
begging? They call us bad names, like pimp, but we are just trying to
make a living."
A living, the people here
will admit only from the privacy of their dining rooms, that the socialist
system even one bolstered with tourism revenues -- can no longer
provide. Basics goods that Cubans covet, like toilet paper or meat,
are simply unavailable most of the time in the tiny storefronts that
accept the Cuban peso. Instead, they must be purchased in dollars from
the special stores that were initially opened to serve tourists. A government
salary that may have been plenty to live on in the 1980s is today, on
average, worth about $12. That buys about five bottles of vegetable
oil in a country where everything from chicken to bananas is fried.
"If everyone had pesos," says Dany "if I spent pesos,
if you changed money to pesos, it would be fine. The problem is that
everything requires dollars."
He, for one, would like
to return to the days before the "Special Period" the
years of economic austerity that began when the Soviet Union's collapse
left the heavily subsidized Cuban economy in virtual freefall. "Maravilla,"
a marvel, is how he remembers it. He kisses his hand and blows it to
the wind. But then, he was only ten when it started.
Dany, like most in his field,
prefers to work at night, when the darkness provides cover from anyone
who might be watching: police wandering around their quadrants, looking
for trouble-makers, or the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution
(CDR) representatives neighborhood spies sitting on their
stoops keeping an eye on the streets. He knows where they are and is
careful to avoid them, even though some people say they aren't as watchful
as they used to be.
worse?" asks Dany's friend Manuel who sells counterfeit cigars.
"Selling cigars on the street, or robbing and begging? They
call us bad names, like pimp, but we are just trying to make a living."
Hungry tourists looking
for a good meal are his easiest prey at this hour. Tonight he positions
himself at the bottom of the escalera the wide stone staircase
next to the church that unfolds onto the sloping town below. A dominoes
game in the street has attracted a small crowd. Lively salsa lures foreigners
up the steps to an outdoor bar; further up is a terrible state-run restaurant.
Both sell in dollars only, and it is rare to see a Cuban there who isn't
serving or performing. So Dany doesn't mind stealing their business.
And he knows he offers a superior product.
With a sharp eye, he spots
an Italian couple he found dinner for the night before and sidles up
beside them. "You want to eat?" he asks in an animated whisper,
slipping his arm around the man's shoulders. They remember him and pause
to hear him out, laughing to each other at his persistence. His irresistible
grin and impressive high-school Italian wins them over again. "Come
on," he says, motioning, and they follow him obediently, trustingly,
as he steers them towards the dark streets behind the Plaza. He stays
a pace ahead of them to avoid suspicion, and his eyes never stop moving.
"There is a lot of
fear here," he told me. And some say racism, too, despite the official
words to the contrary. Manuel thinks that he and Dany get questioned
by police more often than white jineteros because of their dark skin.
But Dany disagrees. "We just stand out more when we are walking
with the tourists," he says. "White Cubans blend better."
He glances over his shoulder
one last time before he leads the Italians into the living room of a
private home. Two women watching television don't even look up as they
pass through into the tiny, badly lit dining room of this unlicensed,
illicit paladar. Dining rooms like this are hidden all around the tourist
part of town, behind colonial Cuba's trademark mélange of pink,
blue, or green wooden doors. Some paladares are legal, but the license
is prohibitively expensive for Cubans who only have enough room in their
tiny houses to seat eight to ten guests. Dany's services, a mere dollar
or two per guest compared with up to $500 per month for a license, are
cheap. So most who serve food to tourists do it quietly, and keep it
small enough that the CDR are willing to let it go.
Dany stays only a moment
to see his charges seated at one of two rickety tables mismatched
plates, silverware, and scratched glasses laid out on a plastic tablecloth.
"They want lobster," he whispers to the woman of the house.
"I told them five dollars." He'll get his cut later. Within
seconds, Dany is back out on the street, looking greedily for his next
Dany's other big moneymakers
are the casas particulares, the private homes in which Cubans rent out
rooms to more budget-conscious tourists. Most are licensed, but proprietors
who do not have the time or nerve to go out into the street to find
their own customers still have to pay Dany a $2 per night for every
guest he delivers. This, on top of the $150 per month per rental room
for the license and 10 percent yearly income tax they pay the state,
means scarce profit. The government justifies the fees by the heavy
housing subsidies every Cuban receives, but many people have to secretly
rent out additional rooms or sell egg and papaya breakfasts to their
guests just to afford them.
The town is teeming with
jineteros tonight, jockeying for untapped tourists. David, tired
and grungy-looking beneath his 5 o'clock shadow, is trying to pull in
anyone Dany hasn't gotten. In another life he'd be a scientist. He studied
geophysics for three years before the Special Period began and he had
to give it up to work. At 31, he doubts he'll go back to school, but
he hasn't stopped reading and studying on his own. He has plenty of
ideas, like almost everyone here, about what the dollar economy means
for Cuba's future.
"The government knows
that Cubans are inventive and that they will find a way to survive,
but shhh," says David, leaning across the table in a dingy paladar,
whispering. He thinks a little extra money making has been tolerated
as a safety valve for discontent as long as it's kept quiet. But it's
a theory no one in Trinidad wants to test. The 1500 peso -- $75 dollar
fine for selling anything without a license, be it a taxi ride
or a steak dinner, is enough to keep everyone on edge. And Cuba has
its own three-strikes law on the third fine, it's off to prison.
by Mimi Chakarova
But now that the economy
is picking up, David fears the government is trying to phase out the
entrepreneurial class, and him and Dany with it. There are eight new
luxury hotels in various stages of planning and completion rising up
on the peninsula to accommodate an influx of visitors that has been
increasing by 5 to 10 percent per year since 1995. Names like Sandals
and SuperClubs of Jamaica, even Club Med, have teamed up with Cuban
companies to fill in the island's spectacular beachscapes with all-inclusive
resorts and five-star restaurants. In theory, the tourists will have
everything they need at these new hotels lobster, air conditioned
rooms, guided horseback rides and scuba diving, even painted masks and
woven straw bags and all of their dollars will go to the investors
and the state.
"It is very difficult
to get a small business license now" David says licenses
that many of the jineteros use as a cover for their real work -- and
the government is supposedly cracking down on the people who wait at
the bus station to greet potential customers.
For now, though, there are
plenty of tourists to go around, even towards the end of the peak November
through April season. Dany has made three sales tonight. In addition
to the Italians he took to dinner, he dropped a pair of Americans at
the most expensive paladar in town, and found rooms for them too. All
in all, a pretty good evening.
And as for any twenty-something,
a hard day's work means a night of play. Dany lopes up the hill behind
the church, through a labyrinth of barely-lit streets towards home,
to change out of his dirty sneakers and sweaty clothes. The underground
tourism economy is still in full swing in this part of town. He passes
a guy standing in his doorway who offers "real Cohibas, just like
Fidel smoked" to every passerby. "My mother works in the factory,"
he whispers to the unwitting tourists. More likely, the guide books
will warn you, they are fakes, rolled from the tobacco sweepings that
ended up on the factory floor. Dany, however, insists he can get the
real ones, but says he only offers them to tourists he has befriended.
He arrives on his sagging
doorstep and squeezes through the chicken wire gate in no time. High
up on a dusty road where the cobblestones have faded into dirt, this
tiny house his father built long before the revolution is too far from
the Plaza Mayor to be part of the government restoration plan. The whole
town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, but although a good portion of
the tourism revenues go towards maintaining its genuine Cuban character,
most is reserved for the tourist sector. So Dany is financing his own
restoration project. His overgrown side yard has already given way to
a bare gray cement skeleton that will one day be a new house for the
two of them.
His mother isn't around
anymore. She was only 23 when he was born and wasn't ready to settle
down with his 62-year-old father. Now she lives in Cienfuegos, about
an hour from here by bus, and has a new family.
pulls his dog-eared Union of Young Communists (UJC) card from
his wallet and holds it up to the light.
means I am an exemplary youth," he says, smiling.
From outside the door Dany
can hear the Soviet-made radio crackling from the dining room, where
in a dark, cluttered corner, his father sits with his eyes closed, rocking
slowly in his time-worn chair. The bedroom father and son share is the
only other room, save a small entryway and a crude kitchen. A pot of
thin bean and squash soup is already heated up. "He is a good son,"
says Dany's father, getting up from his chair. At 84, he is still fit
beneath his brown wrinkled skin from a lifetime of cutting cane. His
smile is bigger than Dany's as he lifts his eyes toward the ceiling,
as if to thank God for his good fortune.
Dany sits down at an old
wooden table covered with dirty white canvas. "I am twenty-two
now," he says, his voice tinged with frustration. "I probably
won't be finished building until I'm twenty-six or twenty-seven."
His brother, who might have helped, is in prison for "evading work."
Dany could go to jail too, if he gets caught doing what he does, but
he won't get cited for being idle. He is still considered a student
while he waits to be admitted to the nearby National System for the
Formation of Tourism Professionals (FORMATUR) school.
Even though he has been
making a decent living in the last year, the $40 or $50 a month he makes
on the street is not enough to buy the dollar-only cement he needs to
complete the house. For that, he'll have to go to work in the formal,
government controlled, tourism industry of high-class restaurants and
luxury hotels these days the most lucrative job a Cuban can hold.
are many people who just sit around and beg tourists," says
Aragon, the white-haired 78-year-old who rents his donkey for photos.
"I myself don't believe in begging, but if a tourist wants
to give me something, that's different."
Dany pulls his dog-eared
Union of Young Communists (UJC) card from his wallet and holds it up
to the light. "It means I am an exemplary youth," he says,
smiling. And, he believes, it is his ticket to a real job in tourism.
"I'd like to be a tour guide," he says, "because I love
learning the languages." And traveling the country, meeting people
from around the world, staying in nice hotels, eating good food, and
most importantly, earning dollar tips.
The school Dany has his
future riding on is one of twenty-two FORMATUR schools in the country
that train Cubans of all ages and backgrounds from highly educated
professionals changing jobs to recent high school graduates to
serve food, make drinks, sweep floors and greet guests. The training
is mandatory for job placement even in the lowest tier of the tourism
industry. The school also prepares the select few who prove their worth
for management positions in one of the five independently operating
tourism companies that fall under the government's tourism ministry.
The really lucky ones go from FORMATUR to one of the Spanish or Canadian
companies that have joint ventures or management contracts in hotels
around the island.
Unless a student enters
the program straight from secondary school, getting in is no small feat.
Applicants need a graduate degree, recommendations from the local CDR
representatives, teachers and employers, and all of the things typically
associated with university admissions. They will also have to pass tests
on politics, economics, geography and history, and be screened and intensively
interviewed by a psychologist.
by Mimi Chakarova
"This is a very selective
process," says Jose Irarragorria Leon, the Secretary General of
Trinidad's 600-student FORMATUR school, gesturing at the piles of papers
on his disheveled desk. And given the high demand, it has to be. Irarragorria
has no doubts about applicant's incentives: "What would you rather
do, be in the hot sun picking fruit, or would you rather work in tourism?"
he asks, lighting up a filter-less cigarette in his cramped and stale
office. But he denies that only the most committed communists are offered
the opportunity to choose. "We try to find the best students. If
a person comes straight from jail, would you want them to manage your
new hotel?" he says defensively.
But that is not the government's
only concern. If it were too easy to work in tourism, everyone might
do it, draining other sectors like agriculture and education, where
salaries are paid in pesos. In the mid-nineties when Cuba's drive for
tourist development began in earnest, surprising numbers of highly educated
people left their jobs in education and engineering to clean toilets,
sweep floors, or serve beer in the new tourist resorts in Varadero and
Jibacoa. If a maid earns an extra $30 in tips in a month, she has tripled
her government salary. And it isn't just the cash. Employees get other
perks too, like jabas, the monthly baskets of food and personal items
that are only available in dollar stores good cuts of meat, shampoo,
lotion. There is ample opportunity for cheating, too. A bottle of rum
only costs three dollars at the dollar market, and a mojito -- the lime,
rum and mint drink that is Cuba's trademark -- sells for two dollars
at any bar. An enterprising bartender could easily bring his own bottle
to work and pocket the money from the drinks he makes with it.
Dany suspects that, given
the high demand for tourism jobs, the people who run la bolsa, the lottery
system by which FORMATUR graduates are selected for job interviews,
can be bribed. "Give them fifteen dollars," he says, "and
they'll pull your name." He'll get to test his theory after he
graduates, if he dares.
"Sure tourism brings
in a lot of money for the state," says David, who is surprisingly
candid in his criticism, "But it also brings money to those who
can get it, and that breeds corruption."
But if tourism money is
creating new temptations for people in privileged positions, it is also
reinforcing the loyalties of the people who have access.
by Mimi Chakarova
"Everything is perfect
in Cuba," says Eduardo Ruiz, who says he earns an extra $30 or
so dollars in tips each month driving tourists to the beach and back
in a bright yellow, egg-shaped, open-front taxi. "When you want
a house, they give you a house. No one sleeps on the street here,"
David, who lives in a tiny,
bare, cement-floored apartment knows it isn't so black and white. He
and his wife pay ten dollars a month to escape his extended family.
Scraping enough money together for rent isn't easy. For him, everything
is hardly perfect.
"Es una imagen,"
he says of the Cuban ideal a facade, a mirage. He still takes
pride in the benefits socialism has brought to Cuba good education
and free healthcare the most obvious among them but he is not
blind to the contradictions the dollar economy has created.
On the street that runs
behind the escalera, a barefoot young mother, bowing with the weight
of a wide-eyed baby that clutches her side, spends her afternoons asking
tourists for money to buy formula. All over town, parents and teachers
are worried about their children, who have already figured out that
tourists are walking candy dispensers. And then there is Maria, a hunched
old woman with no front teeth who walks around most days begging tourists
for dollars and neighbors for used cooking grease.
"There are many people
who just sit around and beg tourists," says Aragon, the white-haired
78-year-old who rents his donkey for photos. "I myself don't believe
in begging, but if a tourist wants to give me something, that's different."
But then, he is fortunate enough to have a donkey at his disposal.
Maria isn't so lucky. She
doesn't have a donkey to photograph, an extra room in her house to rent
out, or an old American car to offer tourists illicit rides in. "I
have always been poor," she says, scurrying off nervously, as if
that were explanation enough. With a government ration card that only
provides enough beans to last a week, it is easy to see where the fault
lines are in Cuba's new economy.
"Before the Special
Period, you could eat perfectly well, just with pesos," says David.
"You could buy clothes, too. But now, prices keep going up and
up." He blames the dollar economy for that.
But for people like Eduardo
who have dollars, the good life is not an illusion. The division between
the dollar-rich and the dollar-poor is visible on any street. Bright-white
Adidas sneakers stand out against worn-out loafers. Well-off kids in
their drab yellow school uniforms crowd into a dollar market in the
tourist part of town to buy sodas and little packages of cookies or
candies. Flashy watches and gold chains are conspicuous next to naked
wrists and callused hands.
by Mimi Chakarova
is the essence of the new consumer. She has had her heart set on a career
in tourism for years. Never mind the bored look on her tanned, round
face as she serves customers at the state-run Restaurante Via Reale
just off the Plaza, writing orders on scraps of paper, or her hand,
and setting down drinks under the direction of a senior server. She
gives away her real motives even as she professes her love for service:
her wild, frizzy blond hair is pulled back to show off aquamarine and
gold plate earrings that match one of several rings adorning her childish
hands. A gold-colored watch, its shine already fading, tells her when
it is time to go home. These are things that in Cuba, only dollars can
buy, and she, like Dany, knows that a job in tourism is the fastest
way to get them.
Chuchy is in her last year
at the Escuela Economia, the secondary school that feeds directly to
the FORMATUR, where she can study for one, two or three years, depending
on how high up she wants to go. To work in one of the peso cafeterias
near the Parque Cespedes in the Cuban part of town, she needs only a
few months of training, but to work with foreign tourists, she'll need
language proficiency. In the meantime, she earns enough tips doing her
internship at Via Reale to keep herself well dressed.
Her husband already works
as a waiter, and his mother works in a gift shop at the Costasur Hotel
on the peninsula. From the outside, the house they all share looks like
any on the dusty block. But inside, it is a veritable temple to all
the things that tourism money buys: a Panansonic 5-CD changer, a new
television and VCR. The family even has a car in the cinderblock garage
behind the house. Their stereo cost $450 in the dollar store. That is
twice as much as it will cost Dany to put a roof on his new house.
In this egalitarian society,
the disparity between people like David and Maria, and Cuchy's family
has not gone unnoticed. Even the Communist Party leaders here readily
admit that dollar tips are creating inequalities and upsetting the wage
structure. But discouraging tipping, as they did in the early 1990s,
was ineffective, and asking workers to hand over their earnings for
redistribution proved unrealistic. Boris Turino, the frumpy but charismatic
Secretary General of the Communist Party at the new Trinidad del Mar
hotel there are party representatives in every hotel in Cuba
has begun to think that tips are a good thing. "If I ask
a waiter, did you get a tip, and he says no, I know that he did not
give good service," Turino says. And since Cuba's five tourism
companies compete against each other for revenues, good service feeds
the bottom line.
pressed, sky blue collared shirt is open just enough to show off
the flat, round, silver pendant, his initials scripted across
it, that hangs on a modest silver chain against his hairless chest.
khaki shorts have replaced his dirty red ones, and as he strides
out into the street, his new Adidas reflect the moonlight.
he explains, are gifts from tourists.
So instead of fighting the
realities of the tourism industry, the government began boosting other
sectors in 1999, including a 30 percent increase in public health and
education salaries and productivity bonuses distributed as magnetically
striped cards that can be used in dollar stores. In some industries,
like fishing, where the incentives for cheating are high, salaries are
now paid partially in dollars.
"In the Special Period,
when there was no money, and when the economy was down, that's when
there was a move of professionals trying to get into tourism,"
says Turino. "Now things are stabilizing."
Sitting in front of his
ancient, Soviet style television with its faux wood siding and milk-bottle-bottom-thick
screen, Dany isn't so sure about that. The beans and rice dinner he
ate for what seems like the millionth night in a row has left its usual
hole in his stomach. He isn't willing to trust that a beefed up government
salary will keep meat on his table. If he wants the real goods, he has
to rely on hard currency -- dollars.
When he steps out the door,
hollering good night to his father over the still babbling radio, Dany
is a changed man. His pressed, sky blue collared shirt is open just
enough to show off the flat, round, silver pendant, his initials scripted
across it, that hangs on a modest silver chain against his hairless
chest. Crisp khaki shorts have replaced his dirty red ones, and as he
strides out into the street, his new Adidas reflect the moonlight. All,
he explains, are gifts from tourists.
"I never buy my own
clothes," he brags, shaking the too-big "titanium" watch
that hangs loosely from his dark wrist. The only clothes he could afford
anyway are the ones in the peso stores, most of them donations from
Spanish or even American church and humanitarian groups. "Nobody
likes the stuff the state sells. Everybody prefers el shoping"
he says, referring to the dollar stores. What he doesn't get free from
tourists, he buys on the black market. That's where he got the watch
and the four silver rings that clutter his hands. The cologne he wears,
though, must have come from Trinidad, since the same scent permeates
every street corner and stoop where young Cuban men gather.
by Mimi Chakarova
Heading toward the plaza,
Dany thinks back to the Italians and their dinner, and wonders aloud
if they will be going to the Casa de la Musica tonight, one of five
state-run clubs tucked into the neighborhoods around the Plaza. If he
finds them, they might pay his $1 entrance fee. Or maybe the French
guys he talked politics with the evening before will. Anyone, really,
as long as its not out of his own pocket. "Last night I had seventy
pesos," he explains. "Three dollars, more or less. I could
have gotten into the Casa de la Musica, but I couldn't have bought anything
to drink. With pesos, we can't even go out in our own country."
The nightlife here isn't
really intended for the Cubans anyway. Dany can hear the music spill
out of the open courtyards all around town, filling the still-warm moist
Caribbean air with a riot of afrocuban beats and the cheerful rhythms
of Son, Cuba's folk music. The medley is the same every night. Songs
from the Buena Vista Social Club are played again and again, in club
after club, to make sure the tourists get the Cuba they expect. Even
local music is a state enterprise, packaged and sold for dollars.
Some clubs are worse than
others. Dany almost never goes to Las Ruinas de Sagarto, just around
the corner from the Casa de la Musica. There, 20-year-old Daniel, dressed
in african-print pants and a baggy green shirt, his Chicago Bulls hat
left behind on a corner table, begins the night's show by raising his
powerful, pitch-perfect voice over a pulsing drum beat. He has been
singing since he was seven, when his father and uncles began teaching
him the music and languages of Santeria, the afrocuban religion that
was one of the few tolerated by the revolution. He plays everything
-- the timbales, the guiro, the claves.
At Las Ruinas, Daniel accompanies
himself with the gurino, a huge, hand-made beaded gourd that showers
pellets of sound into the microphone. A thicket of wires connect a beat-up
amplifier to an old tape player that records performances, night after
night, onto tapes sold later for a little extra profit. Three men seated
behind the timbales join in with a deep, insistent, rhythm that propels
a motley group of costumed dancers who act out the work of the slaves
who toiled in the sugar plantations here until they were freed in 1886.
From their midst, a handsome woman in purple silk emerges, straight-backed
and haughty. Waving a hand broom impatiently, face impassive, she shoves
a straw hat towards a German man sitting in the front row. He's seen
this before and reluctantly pulls his wallet out again. She moves on.
"It is all for the
saints," Daniel says after the show. But it is clearly for the
tourists' money, too. At the end of the night, when everyone else has
gone home, the dancers and the players divvy up the tips, dollar by
blessed dollar. Each of the players and dancers in Daniel's group also
earns a small government salary. Like everything else here, there is
a set process for becoming a musician and performing for the tourists
schools, tests, provincial auditions -- that controls who plays
what and where.
Dany's friend Manuel is
one of the luckier musicians. His band has built up an international
reputation, so for him playing music means travel opportunities that
most Cubans will never have. Half of his group is in Mexico performing
now, and although he was not allowed to go this time, he expects to
go next month. He will even get to keep some of the profits they make.
All it takes, Manuel claims, is an invitation from abroad. While he
waits, he sells cigars on the street. It is easy to see, from his Rolex
watch and brand name clothes, that he's good at that too.
want to live in Cuba forever," Dany says passionately, tapping
his hand to his heart the way people do here when they talk about
their country. "But with money."
In the end it is me that
gets Dany into the Casa de la Musica, an old red brick courtyard with
arched passageways and a lit-up stage on the back side of the escalera.
A stern policeman is standing near the door when they arrive, his conservative
green uniform almost comical next to the skimpy spandex dresses the
Cuban women wear. He is probably just doing his rounds, but Dany won't
take the chance of walking in with his new friend. Cubans accompanying
tourists are automatically suspect, and he doesn't feel like being hassled.
So instead, barely hiding his embarrassment, he takes my dollar outside
and walks in ahead of me, looking around for his friends and an empty
table. He spots Manuel, already talking to some foreign girls. The Italians
are here, too. Dany slaps the man five, puts his arm around him, and
before long, the man hands him $4 for a bottle of Havana Club Silver
Dry rum. That's $3 less than the Italians would have been charged. Passed
around the table with a can of coke, the bottle lasts as long as the
Dany and his friends are
not the only locals at the club. It is one of the few places in town
that has dancing, and that is what the Cubans come for. The courtyard
is full of sexy young men and women, dressed for flirting. When the
salsa rhythms start, the dance floor fills up with bodies moving fluidly
together, swinging in time to the rattling maracas and singing guitars.
The irresistible motion and insistent invitations soon lure the tourists
up from their seats. They are conspicuous in their clumsy steps and
the sporty shorts and sneakers they spent the hot day in.
The end of the night, when
the band reels in the wires and the stage clears, is when the real fun
begins. The pumping bass of Cuban rap comes blaring through the loudspeaker
and suddenly everyone is up, stomping and thumping and rapping along.
It is mostly young people left now, and even the visitors know what
to do. This is what Dany has been waiting for. This is Cuban time.
Later, walking home, Dany
passes a group of young Cuban women, tube tops hugging as tightly as
their spandex skirts, with an entourage of tall pale-skinned foreigners.
"One, two, three," he counts out loud, taunting. "four,
five. Five girls for four guys?" he asks. "Two for one. I
guess that is the Cuban way." There is a fine line here, between
a good time with a Cuban girl and outright prostitution. Dany wouldn't
think of pimping women "straight to prison," he explains
-- but there is nothing to stop women from accepting a few drinks, maybe
a new dress, from a tourist, and going home with him for a few more
dollars. I overheard a couple of men complain, though, that like everything
else here, the women aren't as cheap as they were a few years ago.
by Mimi Chakarova
Tourism has been called
the locomotive of Cuba's economy. And indeed, it is the driving force
behind internal development, and the primary source of hard currency
to service the country's $22 billion external debt. But even as it relieves
financial pressure, tourism and the dollar economy it has spawned are
redefining Cuba's priorities. People who once gave the proverbial middle
finger to their powerful northern neighbor are now increasingly dependent
on its currency. Highly educated engineers, doctors and teachers are
giving up their careers to drive taxis and scrub hotel bathrooms. The
tenet of income equality that underpins socialism itself is being allowed
to disintegrate in the name of economic growth. And everything Cuban
is now up for sale music, art, even women. Like any export-based
economy, the good stuff is appropriated for the foreigners.
But those same dollars that
are driving women to prostitution and the elderly to begging are saving
ordinary Cubans from reliance on a government that can no longer feed
them. Dany is angry that he needs dollars, and yet desperate to get
more. It disgusts him to see the women he went to school with cozy up
to tourists, but even he relies on a tourist to buy him a drink or pay
his way to a club.
Dany doesn't ask for much:
a house big enough for him and his father to live comfortably; a bus
ticket to Havana to visit his sister, so he doesn't have to hitchhike
for an entire day to get there. But to get these things, he has to have
"I want to live in
Cuba forever," Dany says passionately, tapping his hand to his
heart the way people do here when they talk about their country. "But
He fingers the pendant at
his neck and wrinkles his dark forehead as he looks out over the Plaza
Mayor. On nights when he is sad, he comes here to watch the stars, taking
over one of the benches that during the day belong to the tourists.
From here, he can listen as the music dies down and the bars slowly
empty out, as the hushed voices of couples dissolve into the darkness,
as the footsteps of the foreigners fade away. At last, when the quiet
settles in, the town belongs to him again. And from where he sits, it
is easy to understand why he stays. "With enough money," he
says, "Cuba is everything."
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