Cuba (not so) Libre
Hi. Bookstore Owner Kelly Hughes here. I promised you my Cuban travelogue before we were so rudely interrupted by the near-demise of McNally Robinson. Here's my take on Cuba (not so) Libre. (I was the only guy at the beach taking notes.)
First of all, who smokes at the beach? Filthy Europeans, that's who. (I'm just kidding. Europeans are wonderful. In addition to inventing cheese and the Heimlich Maneuver, they are also known for their courageous fashion choices, such as the Femullet [Dutch and German women only] and the black banana wrapper bathing suit [overweight and over 60 men only].) To be fair, there were a few filthy Quebecois smokers too.
We've been to Cuba before (back in 2001), and I'm always amazed at how it runs. Slapped with a U.S. trade embargo since 1960, Cuba has to make do with what it can get from farther afield. As a communist country, Cuba's government owns and runs virtually everything. Now pea-brained North American conservatives often think of Communism as discouraging enterprise. On the contrary, a system of strict controls and low wages causes people to hustle for tips and pursue black market strategies. I suppose western corporate types are just jealous. If they could control the entire system and pay really low wages, they'd be in hog heaven.
There are two sets of rules in Cuba. The official rules and the rules that everybody knows. There are two parallel systems. The illegal cigar store runs out of the alley right next to the actual cigar store, probably with the knowledge of the local police. It seems that the unofficial economy (and I don't just mean the black market) is encouraged, or at least tolerated. Most people understand that the official system has its limitations and that's where the unofficial system takes over. They even have two sets of money. Since the Cuban peso is worth about three cents, Cuba used the U.S. dollar as their de facto currency until a few years ago. Then they invented the Convertible Peso, which is currently pegged at 8% above the USD. It should actually be called the Unconvertible Peso. It's worthless outside the country, and within Cuba can't be exchanged for any other hard currencies. (You can only buy it, not sell it.) Add that to the 25 bucks they charge you just to leave the country, and you can see where this is going without a whole treatise on Cuban economics.
With a lack of a U.S. corporate presence, you also notice that things look different in Cuba. All the stores are basically the same store - state-run retail operations with approved merchandise either made in state-run factories or bought in bulk from China. And as a result, you don't see giant logos everywhere, like you do in every other U.S.-influenced place (including China). When you do see a logo, it's a lot smaller and has no real meaning to a foreigner. There's of course no point in branding when you have a completely government-run system. But the one thing that is branded is ideology. The face of Ché (the original dirty hipster) is ubiquitous. Billboards exist, not to promote McDonald's, but to further a political agenda. The revolution is still being pushed over half a century after the fact. It's even someone's job to paint revolutionary graffiti on walls and buildings, as if they're still trying to subvert Batista. And the way that they market the revolution is pure brilliance. Ché is for sale everywhere. I was even accosted in Havana by a Ché look(sort of)alike who wanted a peso for a picture with him. (Like seeing Marilyn on Sunset Blvd or Elvis on Freemont Street.)
The Cuba Libre that's offered for sale includes the idea of a Cuban joie de vivre, the old "we don't have much but we're happy" bit. It's likely quite genuine at the heart of it, but the way they peddle it to tourists is completely disingenuous. And they start 'em young. Children learn to wave at passing vehicles in the hopes of getting candy or money. Everyone is so friendly all the time. Everyone is your best friend. I got a little sick of it. (I started to feel like I must look like a giant roast turkey or something.) I had one nice interaction with a guy whose job it was to tend the snorkeling gear. He said he liked my sunglasses, and I asked him if he wanted to try them on. He did and he loved them. I tried his on. They were cracked and terrible. (I guess there aren't any Sunglass Hut kiosks there.) I asked if he wanted mine, and he seemed genuinely delighted. He said I was crazy, actually. That I liked. For a few choice images from our recent trip (including a little more commentary, plus pics of Hemingway's favourite lunch spot), click here.
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