The spoiled pups of the regime do not conceal their taste for high cuisine and selfies. Black market dealings in Cuba’s shanties continue to rely on shady deals and shortages.
(*) Traducción de HT del reportaje publicado en Vanguardia de Barcelona, España.
HAVANA TIMES — The slice of dry-cured Spanish ham comes with feta cheese and asparagus. It is a rather simple starter in the style of the locale, one of the most expensive private restaurants in Havana. The establishment is frequented by diplomats, sport figures, local artists, foreign businesspeople and many of the tourists who are arriving in Cuba en masse this time of year – all who are able to pay the bill in CUC, Cuba’s hard currency, nearly on a par with the US dollar.
Considered one of the top 10 restaurants in the city, Starbien is based on a “broad conception of high cuisine,” inspired on traditional Cuban dishes. It is also a meeting place for the new socialist elite, the spoiled children of the revolutionary jet-set, who appear to be swimming in money. One of them, Jose Raul Colome, is behind this business venture.
Smiling and carefree, decked in expensive clothes, he welcomes patrons or takes a selfie while enjoying a drink with friends. Jose Raul is the soul of the place and its ideal promoter. Everyone knows he is the son of General Ablardo Colome (Furry), Minister of the Interior, Hero of the Republic of Cuba and one of the architects of Cuba’s intelligence network. He is one of the most powerful and feared of regime officials, part of Raul Castro’s close circle and of the business conglomerate the military have built around the tourism industry, Cuba’s main source of revenues.
Jose Raul is not only open about his family. He also rather boastfully announces that many of the products offered in his restaurant are imported (chartered from abroad, to be more precise). This may be why there are so many rumors about the preferential treatment the State offers Starbien in terms of marketing and promotion.
At any rate, the young men of the Marxist-Leninist crème de la crème know nothing of culinary plights or shortages, much less about how much millions of Cubans struggle to be able to include some protein in their diet and add to their flimsy food rations (consisting of rice, a small amount of beans, sugar, coffee, oil, salt, eggs and milk for children under seven).
Average Cubans devoid of connections in the high echelons of power barely manage to get by, selling and buying wherever they can – in humble neighborhoods such as San Miguel del Padron, a Havana suburb where the black market of La Cuevita operates. In the labyrinthine streets of this Haitian-styled shanty, all manner of products that arrive in the country as remittances or packages brought by mules are offered. Any product can be sold illegally to add a few extra bucks to the flimsy Cuban peso salary that State employees receive. Mercedes was one such State employee, part of the workforce that Raul Castro hopes to reduce at all costs in order to “update Cuba’s socialist model” and avoid bankruptcy.
“They laid off nearly a half million employees, offered licenses for some 200 different trades and they call that ‘self-employment.’ But they cook people alive with taxes and whatever is left is barely enough to live on,” the stout 39-year-old mulatto woman explains while organizing the clothing she sells outside her ramshackle home.
At the other end of the neighborhood, in a dirt alley, Luis contemplates the hustle-and-bustle at the market. He drives a tank truck for a State company that supplies Havana with water. He earnes 360 Cuban pesos a month, some 15 CUC. “I’m starving on my salary, the situation is awful,” he mumbles while cursing the government. Leaving the country is not an option for him. “Going up north (to the United States)? Who’s gonna give me a job? I’m 63, I’m already too old for that.”
Luis’ words short-circuit at the mundane ambience of Starbien. There are laughs here and there, light music plays, smoke issues from expensive cigars. At a neighboring table, a group of Cubans from Miami toast with a Chardonnay. Who dares call them “worms” today, now that President Barack Obama authorized a 400% increase in remittances to their relatives on the island?
Remittances arriving from across the Strait of Florida are Cuba’s second largest source of revenue after tourism. They support hundreds of thousands of people, fill up the State coffers and nourish the informal economy, such as the one that operates at La Cuevita. They also bolster the market of information censored by the government.
Part of the money arriving from the United States is invested in TV programs pirated from international networks. These DVDs, sold at 50 Cuban pesos under the table, offer a varied menu: BBC news segments, debate programs aired on Spanish television, National Geographic documentaries, music videos and popular TV series such as Breaking Bad or Mad Men. Cubans defy the information fence built around them by the official media and connect to the world, one such package at a time.
What’s more, these sales mean an extra income, much like the CUC tips the waiter at Starbien receives after delivering the main course: red snapper sprinkled with coriander, with a side of crunchy fried sweet potatoes. The fish, inaccessible for most Cubans, may have gotten caught in the nets used by Lazaro, who asks to be identified as such “to avoid problems.” He takes his boat out at the coast of Guanabo, a small fishing town to the east of the capital, whose beaches are frequented by residents of Havana.
He hasn’t been heading out to sea because of the weather, but he tells us what he usually does every day: “Eighty percent of everything I catch goes to the government. They pay me 38 pesos per kilo. I am free to sell the remaining 20% at the market, up to 50 CUC per kilo.” Like other activities, this occupation also found the way of cheating State control. Before arriving at the port, fishermen hide most of what they fish underwater, in sacks marked with buoys. This way, they reach the shore with very little to sell the State. During the night, they scuba-dive to retrieve their catch and sell it to private customers who pay in hard currency. Despite the difficulties, Lazaro expects a brighter future, in contrast to some of his friends, who drink beer at the bar and expect nothing out of the diplomatic thaw.
Miguel, an auto-repair mechanic, waiting outside the private restaurant in his 1956 Chevrolet taxi (splendidly restored using the money his family sent him from Nebraska), is actually planning on moving to the United States. The time for dessert has arrived: caramel-covered flan with candied cherries. The bill is 26 CUC, nearly two months’ salary in Cuban pesos. “You kill yourself working here and you never have anything to show for it. People don’t leave because of political problems. They emigrate because they have no future here. I’m leaving,” Miguel tells us.
His older brother, who took to the sea on a raft eleven times to finally reach US soil, will be sponsoring him in 2016. In the meantime, he’ll continue working with the stupendous car he has refurbished, now playing a pirated copy of a rap album by Los Aldeanos, the most popular hip hop band in Cuba (despite their anti-establishment lyrics). The song declares: “Their abuse doesn’t end, it grows like a hive / what you want is starve us to submission / young people are stressed, there’s no balance that can hold / the desire to graduate and marry a tourist (…).”