You Are Poor, and We Will Treat You as Such

Nonardo Perea

Foto: Juan Suárez

HAVANA TIMES — In Cuba, your pockets may be full of all kinds of bills and you can still run into all manner of obstacles and mistreatment at stores while trying to make a simple purchase. The lesson of the story is that, on the island, money doesn’t change things.

I’ve said this before: for some people, it seems I’m mere decoration. I’ve even come to wonder whether I’m a ghost, for I’ve gone into a perfume shop that’s practically empty and, of the four clerks there, not one has moved from the counter to come help me.

Every time I want to get some service, I stand in front of the counter, looking at the products in front of me like an idiot, assuming that a clerk will notice I’m there…to no avail. Perhaps my face expresses so much poverty that they don’t even go to the trouble of asking whether I want anything.

That’s when I get angry and start speaking like a madman, while I glance about me. Am I alive? Do I exist? Am I a ghost? After asking the three questions out loud, the clerks look at me and one finally deigns to help me. Without budging an inch, she yells at me, asking me what I want. I tell her to come closer, that I don’t like to shout, and she does, with a nasty look on her face. I ask whether they have any shampoo for oily hair and she doesn’t know the answer. To my surprise, she doesn’t know what products they carry.

Finally, I decide to head to another store that’s close to my house.

Surprise, surprise: I got there, found the product I needed but, in the department that carried this product, there are no clerks working. I decide to wait.

At a prudent distance from me, three clerks are chatting, while a third talks on her cell phone. People begin to gather in front of the counter. Like me, they’re interested in buying something, but the clerk there is nowhere to be found and none of the others there have any explanation as to the delay. We don’t even know whether the department is working (though it’s only 2 in the afternoon).

After a 20-minute wait, the young woman – a stunning young lady – shows up, holding a cell phone. She’d seen she had customers waiting from a distance, but that doesn’t matter. The products she’s selling aren’t hers and she probably doesn’t get much of a commission for her sales. Besides, customers are a bother: they bicker and complain about everything.

When she got to the counter, I told her I was about to leave after waiting for very long. She replied: “Really? What a shame.” She said that without even looking at me, with her eyes fixed on the cell phone.

No one in line said anything. They only looked at one another as if to say: “this is hopeless.” And that’s the truth, no one will try and change what seems unchangeable. As long as this system continues to exist, these daily situations will continue to happen and, at every store, even if we have the money to buy things, they will continue to treat us like what they think we are: a bunch of miserable Cubans.

Nonardo Perea

Nonardo Perea: I see myself as an observant person and I like to write with sincerity what I think and live first hand. I’m shy and of few words; thus it’s difficult for me to engage in conversation. For that reason, my best tool for communicating is writing. I live in Marianao, Havana and am 40 years old.

14 thoughts on “You Are Poor, and We Will Treat You as Such

  • I have always had very pleasant treatment from shop assistants in both the US and UK, especially the US. And I have had friendly interactions with shop assistants in Cuba,(although I am a foreigner – perhaps that had something to do with it), and also unpleasant interactions too — for example, the woman at the currency exchange booth in the Departures section at the airport was terrible.

    On the other hand, when my wife and I were in a car wreck in the US, we were taken to a charity hospital, and my wife was treated abominably by the admissions person. In the UK, i have had generally good treatment from the staff in the socialized medicine system, but not always.

    So it’s not 100%. But the description of shop assistants in Cuba sounds very like my experience of shop assistants in the old Soviet Union: in two words, bovine indifference.

    I don’t think it’s just lack of material incentives. if, for many of your interactions with customers, you’ve got to say, “We don’t have it,” and perhaps get the blame for not having it, you would not look forward to interactions with customers, and it would show.

    But … are there no mechanisms for correction within the socialist system? Can’t these problems be taken up with your local Popular Assembly representative?

    As for Kennedy Earle Clarke, I disagree with the disdain shown for him here. He’s actually a very principled man. Just consider — he could emigrate to socialist Cuba, but instead, chooses, selflessly, to live in the capitalist hell of the United States. A new Che Guevara, braving everything the American system can throw at him (all those dangerous consumer goods for example). Let us salute him!

  • Kennedy, I am English!! Yes we queue and yes we get irritated if someone tries to push in. The point is that you only have to queue if it is busy. You are not prevented from going into establishments or forced to queue when they are not busy, it is first come first served whatever your race, colour or religion, a resident of the UK or a visitor it is all the same. If I want my passport I get a form I fill it out, I get my doctor or some other person of some authority who knows me to witness it and I send off my application with fee, a few weeks later I get a spanking new passport. When it expires I fill out a form for renewal send off the form with the fee and hey presto a new passport. I will not get stopped by the police if I have tourists in my car, home or be treated any less courteously. I love Cuba and it’s people, but freedom of life, speech and travel and free access to your constitutional rights without fear or favour is something the Cuban citizen has not got. The revolution was absolutely justified but somewhere between then and now the Government and Bureaucracy have lost their way. Up until the Russian Federation broke up and Cuba opened it’s gates to Canadian, European and Far East Tourists and Investment were the Cuban people relatively happy with their lot. Because if when I went to Cuba 1997 there was no point working hard to earn extra money as the shops were virtually empty. The American Government were and are complete idiots, the blockade of Cuba completely supported the Castro Government. If the USA blockade had not in been in place, the shops would have been full, then your average Cuban Citizen would be very unhappy because here are shops full of goods he cannot afford. I firmly and truly believe that if it were not for the USA blockade the severe strangle hold that the Government and Bureaucracy has on the freedom of Cuban Citizens would never been formed or tolerated. As I said the Revolution was the best thing to happen to Cuba but in 50 odd years it has lost it’s way and purity. For a 3rd world country the Cuban Citizen is unique, everybody has somewhere to live, has food on their table, Health care is free, education is not only free but compulsory however limited that these resources are . There is no one living in the gutter, homeless, starving and dying from lack of resources. Show me another 3rd world country than does not have this, in fact any country!!! The USA, Canada, even the ever so disciplined and orderly society of England and every other country in the world has people dying from the lack of resources. They have those people who have so much money and privilege that it is obscene while at the bottom of the hill lies the ordinary man without a penny. Why has the USA got the highest crime rate and highest percentage of the population in prison. Mainly because those that have nothing look at those that have everything and want it for themselves. Since the Canadian and European tourists started visiting Cuba, has there been more discontentment? more petty crime? Yes of course there has, and tear on year it has increased. The Cuban Citizen sees tourists from every corner of the world come freely without Government restriction with their fancy clothes, jewellery, staying in fancy Hotels built especially for them, eating fancy food that they have never seen let alone eaten, all that and still a wad of money in their back pockets. Why should they not be able to have these things for themselves, why do they have to loose there jobs if a tourist decides to offer to pay for them to visit another country. In 2005 when my Cuban girlfriend wanted to come to England it started with a Lawyer translating my letter of invitation into Spanish and verifying it. Passport Photograph including hire of the white shirt and black jacket required. Resignation from job and letter from Manager to say that she had worked for the Government long enough to pay for her education. Apply and pay for the passport, Travel up to Havana, first get yet another letter from the manager at head office. AHA visit UK Embassy, in 5 minutes I am told all I have to do when I get home is fax copies 3 months of Bank Statements to prove I can support her, my letter of invitation, the details of the flight booked and paid for and pay £60.

    I then had to leave Cuba as it was the end of my holiday, but my girlfriend had to stay for another week as she daily had to visit the offices of the Minister for Tourism to get his signature on a form. So yes well nearly everyday apart from Hurricane Katrina the Offices were flooded that day. Then she went to the UK Embassy where they now had her visa ready. Back to Holgiun waiting all day the day before she flew to the UK in an office waiting for the ‘White Paper’ which would allow her to leave Cuba, no longer a true citizen and if she returned no job. When we returned as tourists after our marriage with her British Passport and Citizenship can she use it NO she has to use her Cuban Passport and is additionally checked and searched whilst I go straight through and collect the luggage. My wife with her hand bag approaches the desk for inspection ¿Dónde es usted maleta? she is asked aquí she says proffering her large handbag. ¿Usted no tiene ninguna maleta? she is asked brusquely. Ningún tengo todo que necesito en este bolso! she replies ¿tu eres Cubano? she is asked again. Sí soy un turista. They let her through. At the hotel she gains her wrist band, we visit her family and friends distributing the presents I had in the suitcases I had put on the coach whilst she was being checked. She then remembers she has left a present in the hotel and returns on her own to get it, as she goes in she is challenged by the doorman, who thoroughly checks the validity of her wrist band and lets her enter. When she tells me I am angry it is this attitude that I object to those with a little power not freely giving the rights another Cuban has. I told her next time just to hold her head high and totally ignore anyone who challenged her entering the hotel, after all she could very easily just put here UK passport in their face.

    Her grandparents live in a wooden hut that has one living room with a television, 2 easy chairs a settee and a table and 4 chairs, 1 bedroom 1 large bed, a small kitchen, no cooker or sink just an electric ring and a shelve to prepare food, oh and a large Fridge freezer. You can see daylight through the wall of the house, it is as immaculately clean, and the concrete floor with it’s paint mixed with the top layer of cement polished to look like marble. They have a communal well in the garden of the next door neighbour, there is a palm cover open structure that has an open fire for cooking and a corrugated concrete board for scrubbing the clothes clean. The toilet is a few upright boards with a door and a palm leaf roof and a toilet seat suspended over a hole, the walls have even greater gaps than the house and there is no need to check if it is vacant as you can see whether it is or not from the kitchen door. Then there is the most important area of all for a Cuban the Pit for Roasting the Pig. As I have said I love Cuba and it’s people, but I could not live there permanently. I was planning to buy a place for myself and let one of my Cuban friends who is a widow live there permanently and pay her to look after it for me and in my retirement come and have long holidays when the weather in the UK is to cold for my bones. However if or rather it seems when the USA Embargo is lifted I think the flood of Americans Tourists and those looking to make a quick Buck will be the ruin morally and ecologically of Cuba and I am not so sure I could or would want to see that. After all that was what the Revolution was all about wasn’t it???? Getting rid of the American Politicians, Mobsters and the Rich Elite who used Cuba especially Havana as a toilet, to practice all the misogyny and corruption that was illegal in the USA. 99% of the country owned by 1% of the population.

    Beware Cuban Citizens!!! Beware of Greeks Bearing Gifts! an English translation of the story recorded in Virgil’s Aeneid of the wooden horse of Troy, used by the Greeks to trick their way into the city. “Do not trust the horse, Trojans. Whatever it is, I fear the Greeks even when they bring gifts.”
    Sophocles had the same to say:
    “Nought from the Greeks towards me hath sped well.
    So now I find that ancient proverb true,
    Foes’ gifts are no gifts: profit bring they none.”

  • KEC, I have lived in Cuba. I am married to a Cuban woman whose family continues to live in Cuba.

  • Your comments are very odd, very personal. ….persecution complex perhaps even. A comment from HC Menkin comes to mind
    “The central belief of every moron is that he is the victim of a mysterious conspiracy against his common rights and true desserts. He ascribes all his failure to get on in the world, all of his congenital incapacity and damfoolishness, to the machinations of werewolves assembled in Wall Street, or some other such den of infamy.”

  • Moses, if you had said something different,I would have suffered a Sanford( a big heart attack, Sanford and Sons) but you have saved me going to the Hospital for treatment. Thanks for that. Moses, when you deliberately tell those big L’s you are going to suffer the consequences. Come on Moses, you have never ever been to Cuba or else you could not be so barefaced and boldfaced to decry the kind of service rendered by the Cubans who go far out of their way to make you feel comfortable and at home in their land. Come on Moses, you are over doing it now. You have never, ever, visited Cuba. You are the real propaganda rag you are accusing Cuba Si of being.. Moses you must always stand for the right though the heavens fall!!!.

  • Martin, have you ever been to England? It is an enlightened society where they line up for everthing; you go to the fish market, they line up; they conduct business at the banks, they line up. You go to catch the bus, you line up and woe be unto anyone who is in a hurry and try to break the line. It is the mark of a dsciplined and orderly society. Are you from the Wild West why this is a bother to you? Come on man! You try to find fault with everything Cuban. In the Phillippines the discipline there is very strict. An indisciplined young American visited and believed that he had a God given right to scratch up people’s vehicles.The Police caught up with him and whipped his bottom. The Phillipines are a very disciplined society and the crime rate is very low. What is so wrong if the Cuban people line up at the stores/ When I visited earlier this year and the other times that have visited, I had to line up in the supermakets and the staff were very kind. I visited two hospitals and the treatment I received there surpasses thai which I receive in my homeland and I am well beknown there. What are you peeved about? Discipline is discipline man, Just fall in line and do as the Romans do!! Behave yourself. You are no bigger and better than anyone else!

  • If Cuba Si is a propaganda rag, what is Havana Times which distorts the true picture and image of the Cuban people and their 1959 Revolution? Why would FIVE VERY BRAVE MEN sacrifice their freedom and spend Fifteen years of their lives in American Prisons if there was nothing about the Cuban Revolution to safeguard, To protect, to defend? Why would they make such an Herculean Sacrifice, jeopardizing their freedom, if there wasn’t something sacred, something worth the while, something to defend, something concrete? Look for what they have seen in the Revolution and join the people who are building a new Cuba. Look at how many professionals from Third World Countries who have been trained in Cuba since the Revolution? Viva Cuba, Viva the 1959 Cuban Revolution, Viva the brave and heroic peoples of Cuba, Viva The Outstanding Heroic Gulliver’s in the form of the Cuban Five. Viva Fidel, Viva Raul, Viva all those who have received their Professional Training from Cuba!!

  • Informed Consent, You are an oligarch who long for the good old days when the ordinary Cuban was treated like a second and third class person. I keep asking the question,”How can you educate a person and still subjugate him/her? When the Castro’s took over, 70% of the Cuban population were illiterate. The UN has declared Cuba free of illiteracy? The literate rate in Cuba is higher than that of America and other more advanced countries of the world. What is your gripe? Give credit where credit is due! Do you begrudge the ordinary man and woman in Cuba the right to free education from kindergarten to University? Does the ordinary American child possess this right? You cannot open my eyes by educating me and still prevent me from thinking for myself. Totally impossible. As a youngster, I could not attend High School for it was a privilege for the Sugar Cane Planter’s Children. Today, it is a right for my children and grandchildren and do you know something? The planters and their children and those who worked for them, are behaving just like how you are behaving, for they do not and cannot relish the idea, the thought that my children and grandchildren whose parents are working class have access, have the right to a free Secondary School education. I understand your plight, but we have a right to enjoy the fruits of our land too!! You cannot trample upon educated people for their eyes have been fully opened and they can see clearly now that the ignorance and the suppression and exploitation and the degradation and the inhumaness are gone!!..How can you prevent me from using my hands when you have untied them? How can you prevent me from thinking for myself when you have loosened the chains and the barriers which once kept me subdued, ignorant, and unable to think for myself? Tell me?.

  • This blog is called Havana Times. Focusing on the inefficiencies of capitalist America would be another blog. Cuba Si is a propaganda rag. They don’t even try to tell the truth. HT does an excellent job allowing CUBAN writers to express themselves and their opinions. You don’t live in Cuba. When you visit Cuba, like me, your experiences are tainted by the color of your passport. The truth is that customer service in Cuba, in general, is very bad.

  • I totally disagree with the comments of Kennedy Earle Clarke. Yes I have been a tourist to visiting Cuba one or twice a year since 1997. My first experience in 1997 was on approaching one of only 2 shops in Guadalavaca the clothes and hardware store I noticed a queue of people waiting outside the door whilst the shop seemed empty. As I neared the shop door opened and I was eagerly invited in whilst at the same time 2 Cuban customers were ushered out. I questioned this action and was told that they did not allow Cuban citizens in the shop whilst tourists are there. This made me very angry and I protested loudly and proclaimed my intention to leave the shop immediately if the Cuban customers were not let in, after a protracted argument around this subject the 2 Cuban customers were begrudgingly readmitted, but there was still a queue of 10-15 customers outside a virtually empty shop with 3 sales persons. Since that time I have made many Cuban friends but at the same time been appalled by the manner, lack curtesy and denial of customer service and their civil rights especially by those in positions of authority. Any Cuban approaching even the most minor government official has to provide a “Little Present” in a very discreet manner in order to obtain even the smallest of rights. In 2005 whilst when a Cuban girlfriend came to my Hotel again she was virtually ignored whilst she waited to get the staff to ring my room. However on leaving the Hotel to visit the British Embassy I requested a taxi and to my astonishment and delight a huge black Mercedes limousine pulled up. The Embassy had again a queue of Cubans outside, on site of my British Passport the gates were thrown open and I was seen immediately and left within 5 minutes. After leaving the Embassy I decided it would be fun to take my girlfriend to the Hotel Nacional de Cuba Havana, on arrival we pulled up to the front doors of the Hotel and a very smart doorman came immediately to the limousine and opened the door and graciously took her by the hand and escorted both of us up to the entrance and welcomed us to the hotel and wished us well.
    I subsequently married and on a few occasions on other visits to Cuba we occasionally had reason to complain especially at the Havana Libre. When I tried to complain the staff and the management would speak to her in Cuban dismissing us, however I told my wife when complaining or seeking service always speak English, she did and did not have any further problems with obtaining her rights in Cuba. Although since 1997 things have relaxed a great deal and Cubans can even pay to stay at tourist hotels, but the bureaucracy has not changed, and still even the most minor official with the smallest of powers over a Cuban citizen’s rights automatically expects a “Little present” in exchange for doing their job and providing the service they have a right too.
    I love Cuba it’s country and especially it’s people, I have many friends in Cuba and I am always welcomed warmly and with good service, I am just appalled at the way Cuban’s treat each other.

  • You seem to forget that this is a website about CUBA. The stories and observations submitted for publication are based on the experiences of its authors in Cuba. The editor publishes their stories here. Instead of complaining, perhapse you would care to submit a story for consideration?

    …and by the way, I’m happy you’ve visited Cuba. Next time you go why not go beyond the turist destinations, see how the real Cubans live, because unlike you, I am Cuban. And I don’t share your enthusiasm for the Castro regime.

  • Dear Havana Times, Why are you always attempting to cast Cuba in a negative light? I keep advising you that you must focus on the inefficiencies of capitalist America which has been in existence since 1776. Moses has already repented by admitting that no country is perfect, so why keep harping on Cuba? The other day you carried an article about prostitution in Cuba, but isn’t there prostitution in America and the rest of the world? So, why single out Cuba? If there was nothing good about the 1959 Revolution FIVE CUBAN HEROES would not have risked their LIVES and their FREEDOM to protect the REVOLUTION. Do you possess the testicles, the courage, the mettle,the conviction to be imprisoned for all the nasty articles you have been publishing about CUBA?? Why don’t you change course and become objective in your reporting? Why not copy the example of CUBA-SI. It is a good thing that I am an Independent Thinker and search for information disallowing myself to blot up all that negative tripe you spew out to the unsuspecting. I have been to Cuba. I went shopping, I stayed at Hotels, I visited shopping Centers, I visited Hospitals and the service was par excellence. The doors are wide open now, so, go and see for yourself. I met Americans who came through Canada and they were all enjoying themselves and experiencing the human kindness of the Cuban people. Kindly desist from spewing out your negative tripe. Do your own investigation. Print first hand knowledge and experience.

  • He’s right. For the most part, customer service sucks in Cuba. Especially in state-owned businesses.

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