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Cuba? Why Cuba?
CUCs, CUPs, and Creation
Making do. Making do with what one has often enough. Creation from things at hand. That impressed me most as I wandered over the Island. Signs of this genius showed throughout the countryside and throughout eras.
This is a mailbox. They decorate buildings hundreds of years old. Need a mailbox on your wall? Why not do it up right? I’m told they are still in use.
Even if you’ve got nearly nothing.
Cuba operates under a dual currency system. She has done this since the “Special Time” forced an opening of Cuba to tourism, a beginning of private businesses, expanding agriculture endeavors, and other reforms. The Special Time (a time of extreme hardship) followed the collapse of the Soviet Union that ended Russia’s subsidizing Cuba. Made worse by the continuing US embargo.
Cuban citizens have wages and prices set by the Cuban peso (the CUP), while Cuba’s tourist economy uses the Convertible peso (the CUC). The CUC is paired, 1-to-1 or nearly so, with the US dollar. At the time of our visit, a CUC was equal to 24 CUPs. In a government-run store (vastly “superior” to the citizen’s bodega), I saw pretty blue British bicycles costing about 120 CUCs or 2,400 CUPs.
I wish I had a better picture but I was more interested in the sheetrock sold for recovering from hurricane damage than I was in the bikes.
Most Cuban families rely on the “Libreta de Abastecimiento” (literally, "Supplies booklet") for their food and other needs. These are government subsidized products that are available at the local neighborhood bodega. This bodega is a convenience store that supplies everything from meat (at the “carniceria”), groceries, cigarettes, matches, fuels for cooking, even home supplies such as lightbulbs.
Products vary according to age and gender. Children below the age of seven, the elderly, the ill, and pregnant women get a litre of subsidized milk per day. When we visited the bodega, families could get five eggs per person per month. The eggs lay stacked on cardboard trays and were carried from the store in plastic bags that customers brought in. Bread, in the form of what looked like large wheat buns, are distributed daily. I saw these stacked in a huge glassed bin as I entered the bodega. Behind the counter, shelves displayed meagre amounts of things like flour, dry baby formula, canned beans, and some feminine products. Huge sacks of Vietnamese rice lay on the floor.
This is the “Kelvenator” holding refrigerated items. It must date from the 1930s, if not earlier. See the eggs and sacks of rice.
In Cuba, you don’t waste what can’t be replaced.
There does exist a “Mercado negro”, a black market in Cuba. Often called a “por la izquierda” – by the left hand. But this may merely mean items sold by unlicensed vendors (like a fisherman’s catch or home-made things).
The Art of Making Something from Nothing.
That “art” impressed me more than anything else I saw on my tour. With few other choices, these islanders must make do with what they had. Low wages under acute, communal socialism. Removal of Soviet subsidization. The American Embargo. Marine isolation.
Necessity breeds creation. Nothing goes to waste.
Note the herculean effort, used parts harvesting, and shear mechanical genius that keeps all the old cars on the road and looking good. Note the reinvention and repurposing that turn bicycles in to canopied, three-wheeled pedal taxis. Note the ever-increasing plethora of hypermodern, organic farming you may see tucked, here and there, among the forests (Cuba begged assistance from Australians and others “not embargoed” to help and train its citizens for this). Note the technology repair shops dotting every town, where parts are pirated from broken cell phones and computers to repair what can be repaired.
The best glimpses I got of this necessity came from the cigar factory and the several “artist colonies” we visited.
The time honored art of cigar rolling probably remained the same since the beginning. The Cuban “twist” at the factory famous for the top tier Montecristo, shows both a communal spirit and the art of making do. People seek out and wait in line to get hired for this repetitious job. The company bosses make a great effort to keep their workers happy in it. A hungry workforce – a company café. No piped in music or diverting widescreen TV – dig up an old PA system and have someone read books while the workers work. Tolstoy and Tolkien. Rowling and Hemingway. They cheered us when we interrupted their work day and they found out that we were from the US.
The Cubans are born and bred artists. We visited a world class dance troop. College aged kids that rehearse six hours a day and get to tour the world. They share this art with the children of the neighborhood.
College aged guitarist and violinist serenaded us at lunch with old instruments and skills they learned from parents and school.
An art colony, for lack of another term, that created sculpture from car parts, abandoned bricks and stones, and leftover house paint. It housed itself in an uninhabited water tank they refurbished themselves. They altruistically teach art, music, and dance to neighborhood kids.
An artist that makes paint from muds of various shades and of coffee grounds. He also teaches his skills to neighborhood children.
He does his art in an abandoned apartment complex lent him by the government. Look right to see his work displayed.
Look left and see what looks to be a bomb crater. You make do with what you have.
I did not see any unhappy Cubans during my tour. Figuring that the one’s we visited were selected for that, I did get to roam the streets freely. Only saw one child cry. She fell and skinned her knee. Only a few look ragged-poor. But they sang in the nights, visited and gossiped with each other, played chess or made music with each other. They displayed pride in their accomplishments and looked hopefully at us wanting us to recognize those accomplishments. Many times, on the streets, Cubans shouted their patriotism and were glad to find Americans visiting their island. They kept up with our politics. They followed our sports, especially baseball, and they knew the Cuban expats that played the game.
Cuba was not an armed camp. No camo wearing, machinegun toting patrols walked the street. No checkpoints. I didn’t even see all those huge propaganda posters of revolutionary heroes or the latest president I expected. We passed three or four military complexes. Small affairs of unimposing buildings and landscaped lawns. An easily spotted pair of uniformed guards walked an ambling sentry and these appeared unarmed. But for that handful of policemen, I saw at the airport, there was no great police presence. We Americans are more stridently policed than are the Cubans.
Many on the streets wanted “normalization” of relations with the US. None showed any resentment toward us.
Those are my observations of Cuba. I know a week is a blink in time but I saw what I saw and felt what I felt.
The previous entries of this series can be found in the 2017 Archives. Link to them from the column on the upper right of this page.
If you have any thoughts or questions about what you read on this blog, feel free to email me at the address listed at the top of the page.