Cuba: The Big Bad Wolf is Coming

Veronica Vega

A very popular cafeteria in Havana's Vedado district.
A very popular cafeteria in Havana’s Vedado district.

HAVANA TIMES — Even though the “thaw” between Cuba and the United States appears to have come to a halt, and despite the fact people aren’t yet seeing the “Coca Cola or the gum”, as someone put it, some have not lost hope and are readying for the start of the capitalist race, where, as we know, those unable to run at the required speed are mercilessly left behind on the track. They accept the need to train for one or more trades and are willing to work hard, a habit that almost went extinct here.

More pragmatic individuals adhere to the maxim of “seeing is believing,” and say: “Until I get a slice of the cake, I’ll continue roughing it, as though nothing had changed.” Mentally, however, they are open to new developments and are already weighing different strategies for when the big leap forward comes.

We also have a fair share of skeptics, accustomed to seeing changes remain only as words and swept away by the winds. So they continue to do what they’ve learned, or rather, unlearned to do over decades of dysfunctionality: to sell whatever they can steal from the factory, bakery, pharmacy, hospital, school, kindergarten, funeral parlor and even cemetery.

They continue to embezzle State resources, altering the books, hiding documents, selling people appointments and delaying paperwork to get bribes.

In short, they continue to do what has put food on their tables (sometimes quite a lot) and have taught their children that these are the rules of the games that will remain in place forever.

The crisis of values already being talked about officially has had an impact on private businesses, where business owners complain about how indisciplined the young are, about how these youths want “easy money” and are not to be trusted. A taxi was saying to me: “Every time I hire one of these youngsters as a drive, he breaks something in the car and then refuses to pay for it!”

Restaurante in Havana's Cotorro district tries to attract customers.
Restaurante in Havana’s Cotorro district tries to attract customers.

At private coffee shops, they hire young people to draw more customers, but “you can’t drop your guard, because they’re vicious,” a self-employed man tells me.

“If I earned a good salary, I wouldn’t have to scrape the barrel so much,” a young woman who has worked in several coffee shops says. “The owners pay you the same, no matter how much you sell. I water down the beer, take home cigarettes and sell them before the owners do. I also tell drunk people they haven’t paid, when they have, and pocket the extra cash.”

Having no other ideology other than money, they do not regard it as a reward for hard and patient work, much less an ethical conduct. They look at their parents and grandparents and are determined to let blind faith and financial uncertainty die with them.

The ubiquitous black market includes contacts who smuggle homemade products into hard currency stores: jewelry, shampoo, deodorant and even fake Nestle ice-cream (purchased wholesale at State cafeterias and placed in plastic containers recovered from garbage bins). They also sell us cookies, in industrial wrappings, that turn out to be the cheap chocolate products they sell at peso stores.

Entire generations who have developed a skills that prove useless in an organized system, sometimes holding degrees they have bought, lacking in or entirely devoid of training, in practice master no trades at all.

How will they suddenly face a change to the brutal market economy which beguiles them from afar? How will they insert themselves into this prosperous capitalist system, into the large corporations where reliability is an essential requirement?

Where will they go when they see that the big bad wolf, as in Aesop’s fable, is actually coming?

2 thoughts on “Cuba: The Big Bad Wolf is Coming

  • The reward for sloth should to be left behind. While it is human to take care of the weak and slow, they are not owed the rewards of the productive. Society works best for everyone when effort is rewarded and corruption is punished. It is a simple understanding of human nature.

  • Why such negativity, Veronica? My friend and I have just returned from Cuba (my ninth trip) and we’ve seen examples of the new economy sprouting up all over. Contrary to your observations, the services in the new paladares and cafes we patronized were efficient, the waiters or waitresses friendly and knowledgeable, the food outstanding, the interiors artistically designed and decorated. In short, the opposite of most–not all–state restaurants. Ditto the casa particulares. There are now twice, maybe thrice, in number I remember from just my last visit, a few years ago, and all of the many casa particulares where we stayed (Matanzas City, La Boca, Cienfuegos, etc.) were excellent (save for the one in Centro). Sure, there were some folks who are just time-servers in their jobs (such as the travel agent at the Hotel Kohly, and almost any employee at ViAzul, which was once an admirable system, the waiters at some state restaurants, etc.), but for the most part those providing services for us, such as the travel agents at Cuba Travel Network’s Plaza Vieja office, who went more than the extra mile for us, or the travel agent Cubatur’s Trinidad office, who informed us about, and made the arrangements for, the Valle de los Ingenios “Little Engine That Could” trip, knew their job and did it well. The time-servers must content themselves with their $20/month. For those who make an effort, the rewards are greater.

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