Cubans have an innate ability to survive the difficulties of life. They do this by harnessing their vibrant sense of humour to an endearingly lateral approach to making money from tourism.
Have an old car held together with spit, paint and fencing wire? Turn it into a taxi. Know some good bars and restaurants? Become an unofficial tourist guide. Have an interesting face? Pose for photos. The upside is that the enterprising Cubans can expect their stipends in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) which are issued only to foreign visitors and are worth 20 times more than the Cuban Pesos (CUP) the locals use. Officially, locals aren’t allowed to handle tourist pesos but there’s a thriving trade nonetheless.
The CUC was introduced to give the government greater control over foreign currency. British pounds, Canadian dollars, Euros and Japanese Yen are all extremely welcome. US dollars can be exchanged but the Government rubs it in by levying a 10 per cent fee on top of the normal currency exchange transactions. The Americans don’t seem to mind too much; they pay 10 per cent more for the currency to buy cigars that cost 70 per cent less than they do back home if they can get them. They seem to think it’s a win-win situation.
Locals ready for their Kodak moments congregate around the Plaza de Armas at the waterfront end of the Calle Obispo. The site of the Plaza was where Havana was created in the 1600s and it grew outwards from there, becoming the first city square and an important part in its social life. One of the most important buildings surrounding the square is the baroque Palace of the Captain Generals, built in the late 18th century, which has performed many duties over the years and is now a museum.
The park in the middle of the square is lush and shady, providing welcome shelter on hot days. Around the edges are stalls selling antiquarian and second-hand books, many of which deal with Fidel Castro. Some of the sellers also offer vintage gambling chips from the 1950s when American gangsters such as Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano ran Havana casinos.
There are always locals eager to pose for photographs if the price is right. Some dress up in elaborate costumes such as Carmen Miranda (overlooking the minor detail that the fruit salad-draped movie star was born in Portugal and raised in Brazil), others are content just to be themselves.
What they do with the money they make is anyone’s guess. When I visited a local supermarket, I found aisle upon aisle empty except for one section that had hundreds of tins of Nestlé Quik. As fresh milk, like most other foodstuffs with the occasional exception of rice and beans, is in exceedingly short supply, and what is available is prohibitively expensive, it’s little wonder it hadn’t flown off the shelves.
Words and photos © David Latta