Final article (part 4) in a series on lines in Cuba.
By Pilar Montes
HAVANA TIMES — On October 8, Cuban filmmaker Juan Carlos Cremata Malberti told BBC World that, “unlike the rest of the world, going to a bank in Cuba right now can be a highly traumatic experience.”
Endless lines of people (especially when retired people collect their pensions), power cuts and problems with the “server” are commonplace. Undisciplined employees and, most significantly, the inhumane mistreatment of the public can make clients waste an entire morning.
Having shared Cremata’s vivid description, I would also like to point out that there are people at banks who try and keep lines orderly, and that they insist people stand in a single queue, even though individuals go to banks for different reasons, including making deposits in their savings accounts, withdrawals, collecting check payments, paying taxes and private business license fees, settling electricity, gas and telephone bills, seeing into expired credits for building or repairing homes and paying installments for household appliances.
Payment of Traffic Tickets and Police Mistakes
Sometimes, unnecessary delays are caused, not by the long lines of people per se, but by regrettable mix-ups caused by identical last names.
Notary’s offices, real estate registries, State law firms and other entities where people get paperwork processed also do not solve people’s problems in a single day. Lines of people are a recurrent sight there as well.
This degree of indolence is also evident at State stores that now handle both Cuban currencies – convertible and regular Cuban pesos – where clerks take their sweet time because they are counting the cash available or a truck full of goods has arrived and all sales must be put on hold until the vehicle has been fully unloaded, the products have been inventoried and price tags applied.
Lines of people also have a series of typical characters, like those who walk slowly up and down the line trying to find a friend or neighbor willing to let them cut-in, those who put on their Sunday best and walk to the front of the line like they own the place, to talk to some higher-up.
These con-artists ask people permission to go to the front of the line to “ask a question” and, suddenly, one sees that, after asking their question, they stay to get their problem solved at the counter.
The Unwritten Rules
Lines of people in Cuba are governed by a series of unwritten – but binding – rules:
1) You not only have to ask who the last person in line is, but also who is ahead of them in the line;
2) If someone leaves the line – to do something else and come back or simply leaves – they must tell the person behind them, especially if they’re holding someone’s place in the line.
3) Nearly all lines of people are overseen by people – custodians, officials or clerks – who have relatives, friends or favorites. If you find this demeaning, you best leave the line, because those people will always be allowed in before you.
4) There are times when the rules governing the line are clearly established. For instance, banks have employees who ensure order across the line. Even though people go to banks to collect pensions, exchange money, make deposits or withdrawals (in convertible or regular pesos), request credit and other transactions, there is but one, indivisible line. That said, some clients seem to be more equal than others. There are those called to the counter first, even though they’re standing at the end of the line, or who get there last, even though they are at the front of the line. This is known as “moving the line.”
5) There are self-appointed organizers of the lines of people at hospitals, notary’s offices, real estate registries, immigration and other State offices. These people draw up slips of paper with numbers that aren’t always accepted by the institutions or by those who slept in situ, that is to say, who spent one or several early mornings there to be the first in line.
My suggestion for those who enjoy writing (in any genre) is to stand in these lines often (the longer and noisier the better), because they are an inexhaustible source of short stories, novels and essays.
One could end up writing an epic poem, the lyrics to a rap song or rhyming quartets after standing in one of these.