Dual currency, doublethink and Fidel fetishism –
21 rules for survival in Cuba
Chris Moss, The Telegraph
On New Year’s Day, Cuba celebrates the start of 2019 along with the rest of the world. But January 1st also marks the 60th anniversary of the revolution.
Over the 25 years I’ve been visiting the island, it’s perhaps the least changed of all Latin American nations. My first visits, in the Nineties, took place during the so-called “special period”, a characteristically Cuban euphemism for the disastrous economic fallout that ensued when the Soviet experiment collapsed.
A return trip just before Christmas allowed me to see Cuba again, post-Fidel, post-Raúl (though he’s in the shadows, rather like O’Brien in Orwell’s 1984). There were perhaps more tourists, though not the rush of Americans some in the media predicted when Obama tried to ease relations. The US of Donald Trump is once again Cuba-baiting, Cuba-hating, and while liberal-minded US tourists are spottable here and there, and flights continue to operate, numbers are down.
The Old Town – La Habana Vieja – where renovation is ongoing, continues to look like part-film set, part-bomb site. The old Chevys and Dodges are still running, mixed with knackered Moskvitches, new Ladas and lots of Chinese vehicles. Hotels and food and museums continue to look and feel old and amateurish, and are run with varying degrees of inefficiency. Genuinely Anglophone Cubans are few and far between. There are more Fidel hoardings than ever, exhorting the masses to keep on struggling and producing – posters of white old men glaring down earnestly over cool young black and mestizo people sums up the ambivalence of this six-decades-old political experiment.
It’s intense, intriguing, occasionally infuriating – and made bearable by the kindness of many Cubans, despite their individual circumstances. Cuba is not North Korea with sunshine and salsa, but it remains a single-party state with a centralised economy, strictly limited freedom of expression and movement, and just as it uses two currencies – the CUC, used by tourists, and the CUP, the main legal tender for Cubans, operates shops for dual markets and even runs buses for rich and poorer travellers, it asks of visitors to do what Orwell called “doublethink”: to accept two contradictory realities. It’s a bit like thinking in code and, for visitors who might be going for the first time in 2019 – perhaps to see what Havana does for its own 500th birthday – here’s my list of lifestyle-cum-survival tips for making at lease some sense of the land of Gran Hermano (the Spanish name for that TV show everyone used to watch).
1. Cubans will tell you they like to dress “smart but casual”. This does not mean Alan Partridge catalogue-wear, but can mean (for him), a semi-translucent white shirt, tight white trousers, white pumps, a white baseball cap or (for her), a wafty day-glo orange top covering the upper body and a miniscule pink mini skirt, with, say, gold platform shoes. Dress down – stand out!
2. That said, clothes, like everything else, are often in short supply, so you may see the same item all over a town or even across the country. During my visit, every tenth person seemed to be wearing “Supreme” streetwear – a job lot from Central America, I was told. It reminded me of my home town of St Helens, where a new blouse from Marks and Sparks used to proliferate like a rash.
3. The customer is always wrong – or perhaps, to be a bit kinder, almost always irrelevant. Cuban service providers do not share the US belief in treating the consumer as god. This is natural, since they work for the state, and for a pittance. Try to be tolerant, patient and imagine what the duality looks like from the other side of the counter/desk/menu.
4. Tipping is tops – Cuba has warmly embraced the most capitalistic practice of all – expecting the punter to pay what the employer (i.e. the government) will not. Guides or baggage handlers may even say the word “propina” so you get the hint.
5. Hombres, take note: the glad eye from a Beyoncé lookalike does not mean you have suddenly become more handsome, younger or very interesting. You have merely attracted the attention of someone after a “trick”, a dinner with extras or, even, a UK visa.
6. Mujeres – you take note, too: many Cuban men, notwithstanding Che Guevara’s much vaunted inauguration of the New Man, are unreconstructed machistas who will stare and turn their heads when women pass and most likely toss off a piropo – a lewd “compliment”, possibly referring to a body part or act of congress. On the upside, they take rebukes on the chin, usually with a smile.
7. Museums and memorials are not necessarily different things. Havana’s Museum of the Revolution is guarded like a shrine and even has an eternal flame outside. In Santiago de Cuba, Castro’s tomb features a changing of the guard every half hour, and you have to pay CUC3 to see it.
8. Locals use CUPs – national pesos. Tourists are expected to do all their spending in CUCs – convertible pesos. The former is valued at around 1/25th of the latter. And there are CUC3 notes, which is wonderful! Fresh fruit and cinema tickets and roadside treats can be bought in CUPs, however, so get a few before setting off from Havana.
9. CUC versus CUP versus coffee: a tiny cup of watery, sugary coffee at a roadside shack can cost 1CUP – less than 1/25th of a CUC (80p). A coffee in a Havana hotel can cost fifty times that. Go figure. Forget coffee perhaps!
10. Forget the internet – the government-issue Internet scratch cards are a racket: they cost a punitive CUC1/hour but it seems nigh on impossible to disconnect, so when you log on a second time you’ll probably have lost most or all of the time that you hoped was remaining. Moreover, the passwords are designed to be scratched off by even a gentle rub.
11. Forget wine – it’s overpriced and the red is usually chilled. Rum’s the “when in Rome” thing to drink here.
12. Forget potatoes – spuds are as rare in Cuba as big cigars are in Limerick. Have a chip-free holiday!
13. Forget beef – there isn’t any in the provinces. Cows do milk, ox pull things. The government “buys back” old beasts of burden, for risibly low prices, to prevent any being slaughtered “artisanally”.
14. Forget rock and pop; if it’s not salsa, or son, it’s reggaetón.
15. Remember, Cubans have been living like this for 60 years. Most people can’t remember anything else. The internet – which costs them a bomb – is of course showing them how the rest of the world lives, but so far, they’ve not been tempted to revolt against the revolution. People may seem passive, even submissive – then again, Brits have been paying for royal skiing holidays and crowns for a thousand years or so.
16. Food in Cuba is generally doubleplusungood, at best. In fruit-growing areas, state-run hotels serve tinned pineapples and dull grapefruit slices. Stop by the road and stock up on mangos, soursop, even country cheeses and take them down with you in the morning. Most towns have one decent restaurant or paladar (supposedly a kind of home kitchen that is, in fact, just a restaurant these days). You can eat grilled fresh pargo (red snapper) and rice for as little as CUC3.
17. Cubans are educated and engaging; language permitting, they will speak quite openly about human rights issues in Cuba, and the drawbacks of the centralised economy – especially the difficulties in finding satisfactory work. Don’t slag off the Castros to anyone over about 60 or who is wearing khaki.
18. Enjoy an eye holiday. There’s no advertising, no consumerism, and you don’t see the usual US global brands – Coke, Fanta, McDonalds etc.
19. In the absence of luxuries, Cubans value their social spaces, notably salsa and son music venues, ice-cream parlours (pennies for a tub), coffee shops and, above all, the streets and coastal promenades.
20. The highways are almost empty and traffic is still generally slow; car hire is recommended. Bus journeys are also fairly pleasant.
21. Urban smoke pollution, despite low traffic volumes, is nasty, especially in the morning rush hour: Noise pollution is also a MAJOR problem, especially in cities. Take headphones.
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