By Frank Simon
HAVANA TIMES – Natasha is 19 years old, we agreed to change her name in this interview in order to protect her personal safety. “I’m afraid of the repercussions I might suffer if I show my face, even though I know I have reason on my side,” she says and she shows me the documents in her file as an aspiring employee at the Cayo Santa Maria tourist resort in the north of Villa Clara province.
“Somebody came to my house yesterday and told us that the director of the Gaviota company in the city of Caibarien, Villa Clara, was really corrupt and had been kicked out, but we know that these people are just moved to another management job somewhere else, plus people say that the person who replaced him is even worse, so I’m not very hopeful about my prospects of entering the keys.”
EL CAYO (the keys) are the two words that are drummed into many children in Villa Clara’s heads from seventh grade onwards as the magic answer to leaving poverty behind and having everything that so many flaunt as a result of abusing their power, taking part in illegal activities and granting fake permissions.
“All of my old friends work in the keys, they tell me horror stories about life on the inside, but they at least dress and eat quite decently. I have gone from paladar to paladar (private cafes) to try and make at least 60 pesos per day, it’s doing me in.” At 19 years old, Natasha already looks like she’s well into her 20s and you can’t see any dreams or innocence in her gaze.
“I left my pre-university studies to go to the Polytechnic school which trains up tourism’s future employees, as my family couldn’t afford to pay for my stay at university, you have to dress well there, have a computer, buy food, pay for transport and we don’t have enough to pay for all of that; only rich kids study at university nowadays. So I decided to make it no matter what the cost and after a year and a half at the key’s school, where the training was awful, they drew up the hierarchy to give out placements and that’s where hell began. You either buy fixed places or you get in because you have leverage.”
At 15 years old, Natasha already discovered a world where you either have money or you sink, which is the logic that rules in a Cuba that is becoming more and more corrupt, where company bosses sharpen their teeth to declare themselves business owners on a post-communist island.
She tells me that after she finished that school, they were given internships at the tourist resort for a few months, unpaid, with just food expenses covered. Then they were sent home and told that the company would get in touch. Natasha and many others like her are still waiting and it’s already been a few years, during which the Caibarien Gaviota Agency has ignored their complaints. “I found out that they use us, that during the time of our placements we are free labor, then they take us out and bring other students in and that’s how they save themselves paying wages,” she says.
Natasha missed out on studying, now she’s trying to get her twelfth grade education at a night school for workers and farmers, but she says the classes there are awful and she knows that “even though the piece of paper says graduate, it’s all a lie and it won’t help me at all.”
Ever since she was 17 years old, she has essentially been an unemployed or underemployed young woman, given the fact that she prefers to work nights at private restaurants to earn some extra cash and not have to pay for the self-employment license. This girl doesn’t exist for Cuba’s working and professional world, “many women are telling me to marry an old man with money, who will solve my problems, but I wouldn’t do it that even if I was dead.” There are many women like this in Cuba, there’s no doubt about that, who we can call heroines sacrificed in the holocaust of Communist corruption.
While Natasha is complaining to Gaviota and works late nights getting older by the day, I reached out to two friends who are already on the other side of the sea. Their ticket out was THE KEY, or what they call “Terminal 3” (in reference to the most trafficked International terminal of the Havana airport). Both of them were studying languages and literature at university and they agreed to leave their studies in the third year, as their families couldn’t pay for their studies let alone maintain them (a graduate in this subject is one of the most poorly paid in the country).
So the almost graduates went straight to the Cayo Santa Maria tourist resort without going through the Polytechnic school and using an influence which Alejandro refuses to tell me about: one as a guide and the other as an entertainer. “We started changing without us even realizing, we were fighting with our girlfriends, we started having lots of foreign lovers, I even took a HIV test at one point, as news was going around that there were foreigners with AIDS.”
Alejandro and Carlos stopped being a couple of art and humanities lovers to go on and court women from anywhere, the law of statistics said that one of them would take them out of Cuba and that’s what they aspired to do.
“Inside the resort, there are rules for some people and no rules for others, for example you shouldn’t have any kind of relationship with tourists, but thanks to my contact, we did as we liked. Another rule is you can’t tell anyone how much you get paid, as your pay slip says 400 USD and Gaviota converts that for you into 400 Cuban pesos (16 USD) or less, but at the end of the day, a foreign woman would give you a lot of money as a present for a night of sex and maybe even solved all of your problems in one go,” Carlos tells me, from his apartment in Australia. He has already separated from the girl who got him out of Cuba, “I didn’t like her, compadre, I used her, there’s no point in lying.”
“We did literally everything, but we used our university studies which helped us a bit there, as nobody or very few members of staff have any culture in the Keys, much less the military men. Some Chinese homosexuals invited me to go and eat once and I went. One of them fell in love with me and, even though I’m not gay, I was willing to sleep with him on the condition he get me out of Cuba.”
This story of Alejandro’s took another direction when an Austrian woman decided to marry him, “I thought she was ugly and boring in the beginning, but we even get on well now and I’ve begun to like her as a wife, maybe I was really lucky.”
Carlos and Alejandro are both considered to be winners by their friends, families and the majority of Cuban society. The other side of the coin is Natasha, who needs to fight alone every night in exchange for a few crumbs.
Both guys left “many university graduate classmates behind who are walking a tightrope in Cuba and can’t even pay for food for a month which is the most basic thing, in spite of their excellence. We know that many of them try to get into the keys, but they don’t have the same leverage we had, that’s why there’s no future for them in this corrupt country,” Carlos says, who also says that he tries to learn the native culture as quickly as possible and thanks to his physical appearance, he can pass for being an Australian, “I’m even ashamed to say I’m Cuban.”
Meanwhile, the landscape is front of the Gaviota Agency’s offices in Caibarien doesn’t seem to change, as many, too many, prefer to try their luck in a world that will never belong to them, in spite of all these stories and many more. Under the midday sun, these young people, university and polytechnic students, outcasts, wait in line hoping to catch a few of the crumbs that the new boss will throw out.