An “Atypical” Fair

Osmel Almaguer

International Book Fair, Havana 2010. Photo: Caridad

Each nation has its own customs and ways of doing things; this is what we call culture.  Within each culture are some features that stand above others; these we know as traditions and idiosyncrasies.

When visiting a country, the first thing we can find is something like this, like a superficial membrane within which is displayed a kind of artificial exaggeration of the features held as typical of that nation.

This does not escape foreigners in Cuba, save perhaps those who come out of scientific interests or on business.

The stereotype has been sold to them that we’re partiers, that we all know how to dance; that we love salsa music, rum, and tobacco; and that our women are obliging (as well as cheap).  There are even some people who whip out their wads of money and play their parts in scenes staged as if they were grand actors.

It’s not that these elements don’t exist.  Rather, they’re manipulated, exaggerated and even ridiculed by people who use them, turning them into money-making machines.

We think that contact with the “strong” currencies of tourists is one of the most profitable sources within the context of the lack of money —almost chronic, almost typical— among most Cubans.

I speaking of people who work for tourism companies, and also those individuals who cheat and sell off whatever.  And I fear this tendency is rapidly becoming one of the features of Cuban tradition.

I can give the example of the sellers of used books “whose production is subsidized by the State,” according to one minister.  They earn 10 or 15 CUCs (US $12 to $18) for each volume.  Meanwhile, the enormous Cuban book industry, having received millions in allocations, sells each of its books for at most 30 or 40 regular pesos (US $2 or less).

I’m not judging those vendors, struggling to make ends meet; but I am criticizing those people who decide on publishing and sales practices.  Perhaps we could optimize the policies to create a balance between the commercial, the political and the conceptual without losing certain coordinates.

The annual book fair is now being held, and the institutions promoting it seem to be taking a hit from the “typical” lack of money.  The budget relied on by the Cuban Book Institute is so limited that the organization of the event —in terms of everything from security, the needs of workers, services, and book options— has been described as “very bad” by those people interviewed.

In my case, for example, for the snack money that all of us employees receive, they paid each of us only fifty pesos in national currency, which is enough to stretch one or two days – but the event goes for ten.  I can’t even buy a book.

I’m a consultant for a television program that is broadcast on the fair, and therefore I have to work late into the night during this period.  However, they don’t provide us food at that hour.

Similarly, though there should be two mini-vans for the production of the program, they’ve assigned us only one.  This is why I have to get to work on my own and the work is behind.  I get there late because there’s no car to pick me up, as is usually done (given the situation of Cuban transportation).

There’s an endless list of problems that, when complained about, receives only the following reply: “This is atypical, Osmel, this is an atypical fair.”