Shopping in Cuba and My Sense of Guilt

By Amrit

Carlos III Shopping Center. Photo: Caridad

HAVANA TIMES, Jan 26 — I have to say that this might sound unbelievable, but I assure you that it’s 100 percent true. Some time ago, I started experiencing a strange anxiety every time I had to go to a store (one that sells goods in hard currency).

I was deeply concerned that the employees seemed kind, since I preferred that they didn’t act like that.

The cause of this surfaced quite surreptitiously in their kind-heartedness as I realized that they were expecting tips.

The very second in which I picked up on that subtle message, I felt so distraught that I didn’t know whether to put the product down that they were showing me (and that I needed) or to stand up to their reproachful look of frustration when I paid the exact amount.

Sometimes my shyness compels me to leave some money, but the problem gets worse when one is literally “shopping” and looking for several products in different departments.

Everyone from the employee at the bag-check area to the old lady who tends to the bathroom seems to expect the spare change that I know I’m going to need, even for paying the bus.

Last year I went through this experience several times while I was preparing for my first trip outside the country.

With the money I was trying to stretch — as if from my harrowing pedestrian reality I could actually jump into a world of magic only by ignoring the prices — shopping became something so tormenting that I would get back home from those stores with a headache.

In the boutique of Havana’s Hotel Inglaterra I had a very uncomfortable experience. I was interested in a bag, but apparently there was only one of them left – the one on display.

Photo: Caridad

However, it was a little dirty because of it having been handled by the customers. When I was going to buy it, a clerk — who was very friendly — showed up from the storeroom with one that was clean, like any unused object for sale is supposed to be. I thanked her several times, but when I paid the exact price, it cost me a sneer that made me leave the store deeply bothered.

I went more than once to the shops at the “Gallerias de Paseo” mall, where my guilt complex was triggered by the self-employed vendors that line the edge of the street.

My avid looking at their goods, done only out of habit, would always made me the target of undue attention.

This unease stemmed from my one time being taken hostage — literally — in an alley in Old Havana. A found myself trying on and even buying(!) a knitted blouse that I hadn’t even remotely planned on purchasing.

On another occasion, my husband and I were taken in tow by the cunning kindness of a girl in Chinatown. We ended up finding ourselves sitting in a restaurant and ordering a lunch we had never intended on having.

I can say that in none of the stores that I visited with friends in several cities in France did I ever have that same sensation.

I’m not so naive as to fail to perceive that every object on display was designed with the intrinsic purpose of seduction, especially during the holiday sales.

The French offer tantalizing spectacles with everything — starting with the packaging — serving to fabricate “needs” and create dreams.

I saw the billboards with all types of ads, and I recognized their approach to consumers in the seas of souvenirs on the banks of the Seine and in everything that appeared to the traveler as a way to optimize their life.

Nevertheless, I had the physical and psychological freedom to explore at my leisure – without watchful eyes analyzing my interest or getting upset with my indifference.

I know this comfort is based on the salaries of the clerks; and though I don’t know how much Cuban store clerks earn, just from the tacit harassment I’ve suffered I know that it must be insufficient, as almost all wages in our country.

It’s an undeniable fact that customers have the full right to that freedom that I experienced outside of Cuba.

But at least to me, and I know to others, I don’t want to become as cold as those Parisians who I saw walking by insensitive to the plight of beggars.

However, I do want to enjoy a cordial relationship with clerks without feeling that they’d prefer a tip to a genuine smile – or what’s worse! …feeling that I’m responsible for their pitiful wages.


6 thoughts on “Shopping in Cuba and My Sense of Guilt

  • I just don’t get it. As far as salesmen going into attack mode, there are many wages in the capitalist world that are based on commission. Some of them even pay well, if you are a good salesperson. Nobody needs to punish anybody for anything. If these state employees feel that they are being abused by Roul then walk out the door, down the street & get a self-employment license. He will not be upset in the least if the door doesn’t hit you on the way out. You have freedom staring you in the face. Like they say here in Canada, get a job! (As if we can compete with monopolistic retail giants!) As a consumer I tend to shop where the clerks are most helpful, not the most aggressive or rude. I’ll bet there will soon be some new boutiques that will develop the art of salesmanship in Cuba.

  • For supporters of the revolution such as Elizabeth Farone it is hard to accept the fact that Cuba’s ‘nuevo hombre’ is mercantilist not socialist.
    Good intentions – if that is what it was – resulting in the opposite should lead to those at the very top who failed to deliver on their big promises to be held accountable.
    If given the choice Cubans will choose capitalism not socialism because socialism can never be imposed from the top. What can be imposed from the top though is a police state. As a socialist I have to accept that reality.

  • In the US, Amrit, retail clerks are not tipped, nor do they expect to be. Sit-down restaurant workers are often tipped, as are other personal service workers (bellhops), but retail clerks? Rarely or never.

    May I suggest that you forget their accusative stares and do your business without guilt. It would be as unreasonable for you to tip a retail clerk, as for you to expect a retail clerk to tip you for making a purchase.

  • Elizabeth: Do you tip retail workers when you travel Europe or North America? I doubt it.

    Their government has taken it upon itself to provide “fair” wages. How are their wages her responsibility? She has
    every right to enjoy her shopping experience without the unrealistic expectations of a tip. Sadly, this is the way in Cuba. An innocent yet curious look at a product tends to push the seller into attack mode and they immediately want to lock you into a sale.

  • It is obvious that not everyone can afford to leave tips everywhere they shop, that is a ridiculous assumption.

  • Maybe, in an indirect way, you are responsible for their pitiful wages? Their wages are inadequate, but that doesn’t arouse your pity. Instead, it arouses your anger. You really should be tipping them in order to ensure that they are provided for.

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