By Yudarkis Veloz Sarduy (Progreso Semanal)
HAVANA TIMES — In my household, nobody could believe what journalist Boris Fuentes was telling us on the “Cuba Says” segment of the National News on Cuban TV one night at the end of November.
If a bunch of onions costs 30 pesos in one market, the same bunch could cost you as much as 70 in another, and a pepper, take note, one bell pepper, just one, could cost you as much as 15 pesos. The reporter also talked about the price of steaks: 40 or 50 pesos, and salesmen said that if they received meat for 25 pesos, they couldn’t sell it for less than 50 so as to earn “a little”. A little?
I couldn’t help but remember that chorus in “Todos se roban” (Everybody steals) by Carlos Varela and I continued to watch spellbound before the revelation of the bad weights on scales at markets and packets that don’t reach a full pound. A victim myself of all of this, far from being pleased that government media were finally keeping tabs on this subject, I swallowed my enormous grief and shame.
Well there you have it, Havana is another country, and inside Havana there are another many different countries. In Regla, you can paint your nails for 10 pesos, but in some private salons in Vedado they charge you 3 CUC (75 pesos). And I used to pay just 2 Cuban pesos a few years ago for the same hand treatment, and between one and the other, the salon in Regla and Vedado, is there only a difference in glamour? Not really: they both use the same nail polishes and even – I was able to verify this at the De Luce Unisex Salon, on 23 and F Streets, that they don’t even use the expensive gloss, they fill up small bottles that were once L’Oreal or Golden Rose with what they buy in bulk
A friend of mine paid 15 CUC there to have her hair washed and styled with a brush and hairdryer. What’s happening to the Cuban people? My dear friend, 15 CUC are 375 Cuban pesos, the basic monthly salary of many ordinary Cubans. How are there people who charge this amount? But worst still, how are there people, and a lot of them – because otherwise prices would have been lowered by now – who pay these exorbitant amounts?
However, I don’t think you should question the person who progresses and increases their income with the money that other people pay them for a service. Not when products in hard-currency stores are taxed 200% on top of what it cost the country to buy them abroad. With or without the blockade, this is a mind-boggling affair.
The same Nivea shower gel bottle you can buy “abroad” for 2 euros, costs 6 CUC in Cuba, and on top of that, remember that 2 European euros are 2 euros out of a basic salary of 1000 euros, while 6 of our CUC are 150 pesos out of an average salary here of 687 CUP.
How many days does a Cuban person who earns an average salary have to work to buy, not a bottle of Nivea shower gel, as this could be considered a luxury, but a pair of shoes which cost, those of an extremely poor quality, 20 CUC?
The most basic of math: 20 multiplied by 25 = 500, 687 divided by 24 (number of working days in a month) = 28.62
A Cuban who earns an average salary earns 28.62 Cuban pesos a day, so, 500 divided by 28.62 = 17.47 days
A Cuban has to pay what they earn working for nearly 18 days in a month for a pair of shoes of of very questionable quality, and will their salary for the remaining 6 working days in the month be enough for them to eat, clean themselves, pay for urban transportation and the rest of their daily needs?
Everything is extremely surreal in this country. People survive, they fall into debt by asking for loans, they set up businesses, they resort to this Cuban magic which even those of us who practice it so much don’t really know what it’s made up of, and we survive one more month, making projects and we’re offended by the prices in stores but we continue to pay them for products we need.
Luckily, the boat which crosses the bay still only costs 10 Cuban cents although they don’t always give you all of the change, like on the buses, and its best that I don’t go into that. And luckily, there are still regulated products and that ration book which don’t last until the end of the month either. Luckily yes, we have healthcare, and education…, but it isn’t news for any newspaper that what you take on the side for the doctor ensures medical assistance, can move up an appointment, and improves the treatment you receive or can make possible a surgery.
A small act of kindness
What we have become is painful to see. “A small act of kindness”, the girls at the housing office call what they ask from people who are desperate because the process is too bureaucratic and takes longer than they can wait depending on their personal circumstances or any rational logic.
And “a little act of kindness” is the CUC which is given as a gift to the dentist who does have the material needed to do a filling. “A little act of kindness” are the 50 pesos which somebody pays on top of the price of their bus ticket which no longer appears at any agency, but there is always one where it does. And I’m NOT talking about bribery. Let’s not be gullible.
I get goosebumps when I hear at Camaguey bus station: “Havana, Havana, ticket to Havana,” and when I get closer and ask because I really need to get there, I’m told that for 15 CUC I can get onto the bus that is about to leave, and that I shouldn’t worry, that those 15 CUC include the ticket office’s price. And rightly so!
Luckily, there is always a manager on shift who isn’t too rigid and sees that you really need to go by looking in your eyes and helps you, and doesn’t even want to accept the 14 pesos change that he has to give you for the 106 pesos that the trip in the Yutong bus costs you, and you find yourself pinching yourself and giving a sideways glance while you do the math, knowing he’ll make enough with the overpriced tickets he sells to everybody else,” and you thank him and even hug him, because “in Cuba people don’t help you without ‘a little kindness’, you should know that by now.”
In order to get an appointment at the Mexican Embassy, you have to pay 30 CUC to somebody who only God knows how they manage to do it, and they do, in most cases, but it’s already agreed in advance that if it doesn’t take place in the end, they’ll give you back 25 CUC. What is this? What diabolic mechanism has encouraged the fact that in order to “manage” something you have to let go and let go and let go, and at these prices?
Then there’s a Cuban passport which costs 100 CUC, one of the most expensive in the world if we go back and work out just how many days a Cuban person has to work in order to pay this sum. And getting a birth certificate, a marriage or death certificate, final wishes and an inheritance declaration cost 50 CUC at the Legal office, and of course, this is so it has validity abroad. But you’re still paying out of a Cuban pocket, or out of the pocket of another Cuban who had to leave the country beforehand so as to pay for all of these authorizations, legal fees and charges; and others.
Then you find yourself asking why a milkshake costs 25 pesos, a glass of fruit milkshake, my God, in one of those new places that have sprung up all over Vedado, and you drink it thinking that the 5 peso juices on Obispo Street have a lot more flavor and are four times cheaper, but you’re not going to pay those 10 – or is it 20? – pesos that the old collective taxis charge just so you can satisfy your palate and your wallet, even though you have to pay 25 CUC this afternoon to the man who put in your window even though you bought all of the materials needed.
“Everybody wants my money,” Meryl Streep says in the movie Music of The Heart where she plays a violin teacher, and I imagine that this is a global issue, but do all currencies have this irrational exchange rate? This unscrupulous reality? This feeling that you’re being taken advantage of? And most of all, in a society where we supposedly fight for the complete opposite?
“They steal from you when you’re sitting in front of the TV and they steal from you when you’re at a counter, and they rob your will, your will to love,” sings Carlos Varela, and it pains me to admit that the project has been twisted to such an extent, and I become overwhelmed with despair.