It’s only a matter of time before Havana turns you into a liar
She’s beautiful, I thought as I approached the Buick in the parking lot outside Hotel Inglaterra. The car was parked in its regular place. My business partner Arian had washed her the night before, as we usually did when transported tourists. The mint-green paint shone in the sun. The round headlights peered at me like the eyes of a fish. I got in, pressed the button that started the engine heater, counted to ten and turned the key.
I had received a book grant to write about life in Cuba, and had used the money to buy a taxi, a 1953 Buick Roadmaster Sedan. Twelve thousand eight hundred dollars was the price for this literary experiment. The idea was that the car and I would be taken into unknown terrain, like a breadcrumb in an anthill. The experiment would provide material not just for the book I was writing, but also the anthropological research I was conducting about the Cuban market reforms that Raúl Castro had started a few years earlier.
I had never been one of those evangelical youths with a poster of Che Guevara in my bedroom, but in recent years I had become curious about what was really going on in Cuba, now that the leaders of the Communist Party declared that they would “update” socialism and allow more private business. In 2015, I landed in Havana with the foreigner’s enamored gaze, these eyes that follow the vintage American cars from one street corner to the next, that wander between the Spanish archways in the old town and look for signs of everything that is changing. I also came to Cuba with the foreigner’s hearing, these ears that everywhere hear whispers of new times, which become convinced every time someone talks about hope and change. There was still much that my eyes did not see, much my ears did not hear. It felt like I was tying my shoes and taking my first steps in a new world. I was looking forward to everything I would going to learn, everything I would to experience.
But then there was this curious thing that happened to my cellphone –the first sign that my new life would not go quite according to plan. A day after I spoke to a relative back home in Europe, she told me that our conversation had been replayed when I hung up. Click, it had said, and then all the words got repeated. How strange. My friend Yaima laughed when I came over to ask for help to understand what this could mean. As an independent filmmaker in Havana, Yaima was used to being in the authorities’ spotlight. She rocked her rocking chair, folded her hands over her pregnant belly and explained, “It’s one of their tricks, they want to show you they’re listening to the conversation. But don’t worry,” she comforted, “you just have to say hola to the one listening in on the conversation, I sometimes do that.”
The idea that someone was monitoring my conversations had worried me but talking to Yaima calmed me down. Her tone was undramatic. It was only to be expected that my cell phone was tapped. Yes, maybe it was just routine from the telecommunications authorities when it came to foreign researchers. Nothing to worry about. But then, a few days later, my anxiety returned.
It was morning, the Buick was stinking in the parking lot. A few days ago, the electrical system in the engine had caught fire. Arian and I had towed the car to a repair shop. Now I was standing in line to get on the bus in San Lázaro street. My cellphone rang. It was Manuel, the supervisor I had been assigned from the academic institution where I was about to register as a student. Being attached to a Cuban research center was necessary for me to extend my residence permit and stay as long as I had planned on fieldwork for at least eighteen months. Manuel had helped me with the paperwork, and everything had seemed fine.
“There has been a problem,” Manuel said.
“A problem?”, I said, expecting him to break into a joke. We always had a humorous tone.
“This is really… embarrassing…”, Manuel paused between the words. For a moment I wondered if he was about to hang up.
The problem, as Manuel explained it, was that the quota that the academic center had been allocated to accept international students was now full. Therefore, they had to cancel our collaboration. I had never heard of any “quota” for international students. On the contrary, my impression was that the center would gladly collaborate with me, not least because I would pay several hundred dollars in fees every quarter. Hadn’t my research project already been registered and approved by the Ministry of Culture?
“I don’t know what to say,” said Manuel, “I’m also surprised.”
He suggested I find another academic institution to partner with and gave me a couple of names. Then he wished me luck and hung up.
A liar is born
My work was only just beginning, but without an extended residence permit I had no future in Cuba. Currently I had five weeks left on my visa, then I had to leave. I immediately started calling around to find a new academic host institution. If I managed to get the papers in order before my residence permit expired, I had to be lucky. But the replies I received were not promising. Several of the institutions claimed they no longer provided international collaborations. I was already aware that the authorities that approved foreign research applications considered the topic of my research, Cuban business, to be sensitive.
In recent years, large parts of the business world had become legal in Cuba, but the island was after all still ruled by a Communist Party. Researchers like me could often get permission to investigate more innocent topics, such as religion or musical traditions, but studying Cuba’s popular economy was controversial, even among Cuban researchers. Days went by without getting any responses from academic host institutions. I began to wonder if the reason that Manuel had ended our collaboration was something else than the international “quota” that he had talked about. Perhaps a message had spread in the research community that for one reason or another they should not collaborate with me.
Two months would pass before my visa situation was resolved. By then I had had to travel back and forth to Mexico to get another tourist visa, and finally, to my relief, I managed to partner with one of the centers that Manuel had recommended, called the Fundación de Folklore. When I showed up at la Fundación with my papers, a young case manager took one look at my project description and decided that the “market reforms” were too sensitive a topic to research. I had to remove several sensitive words, such as business, reforms and private sector and rather emphasize that I was researching diffuse themes, such as identity, tradition and music among street vendors. We sent the censored description of my research to the authorities and finally got the visa application approved. I was assigned a new supervisor and given a Cuban ID card with a temporary residence permit.
The day I slipped my new ID card into my wallet, I cheered on the inside. Finally, I had a legal reason to research and remain in Cuba. At the same time I realized that I had now become a liar. Every three months I had to give an account to my new host institution, and to the authorities, about my study of musical traditions among street vendors. Luckily, I was curious about the topic, and therefore it was not difficult to report as the center asked me to. Nevertheless, I understood, without any of my contacts having said so directly, that the reports could not contain the full truth about what I was researching. From that day on, I never escaped the feeling that I had something to hide.
The oil and the machinery
I began my field research about Cuban business somewhat coincidentally. One day I had heard about a shopping street where you could allegedly buy “anything”, but where there were hardly any tourists. Calzada de Monte reached from the old town for nearly two kilometers, down to Cuatro Caminos, the old market hall that had gathered traders for decades.
I went to Monte and found a microcosm of Cuba.
State dining halls served watered-down soup side by side with exclusive bars, run by the country’s new entrepreneurs. State-owned hardware dealers competed with illegal merchants who whispered offers to passers-by. Fruit sellers sang about the outstanding quality of today’s oranges. Repairmen sat in corridors, fixing lighters and mobile phones. Music retailers demonstrated the quality of their goods by cranking up the speakers, blasting out the most popular reggaeton songs, with vulgar lyrics that everyone seemed to know by heart. The intersection of Monte and Cienfuegos was known throughout Cuba as a place where men could buy sex. A few blocks away, one could regularly see protests from the Ladies in White. The white-clad mothers and spouses of political prisoners rarely had time to do more than shout “Abajo el Communismo!!” and throw some leaflets in the air before being taken away by the police.
Monte was an unruly place which the authorities nevertheless tried to govern. One of the attempts to create “order”, as party leaders called it, was a series of market halls that the authorities had opened in recent years. State-owned shops had been cleared out to make room for private small players who were each allowed to rent a stall where they could sell shoes, clothes and other consumer goods, as long as they had the papers in order.
Without thinking much about it, one day I walked into one of these market halls and told some of the sellers there about my research. I wanted to learn as much as possible from Cuban market people about how to live and survive, and how their businesses operated. “Tell me, hermano,” replied a young man standing wide-legged in the aisle between the stalls. “How much time do you have?” Riqui was my own age, in his early thirties, with black hair pulled back with wax. “Ask me whatever you wanna know.”
Cheating with capitalism
I soon learnt that Riqui was one of the little kings at the market. He sold shoes, and I got to help, first by putting out goods in his vending stall in the morning, but eventually I also became familiar with other parts of the business operation. Riqui and I carried supplies across the city and met importers and relatives whose job it was to travel to Moscow, Panama and other places in the world to buy goods that they transported back to Cuba in suitcases. Gradually it dawned on me that Cuba was a kind of suitcase economy.
Most of the consumer goods –clothes, mobile phones and other things that people wanted– were transported to the island with luggage in ordinary passenger planes. State companies imported only a fraction of what the population was interested in; the rest were brought in by private importers and their helpers, called mulas. A “mule” was a fellow traveler whose job it was to make his permitted luggage weight available to an importer. The goods found their way to merchants such as Riqui, who did their best to trade them in the market hall.
And the taxi? After the fire in the engine, we had towed the Buick to a garage, but it would be several weeks before I heard back from the mechanic. The car spent more time in the workshop than on the road. Now I understood why Cubans called such vehicles “old ladies with make-up”. She was maybe beautiful on the outside, but the Buick was basically a wreck.
While waiting for the taxi to be resurrected, I started a new career, as a Riqui’s market assistant. To say that I was of use to those I met in the market would be an exaggeration. I turned up every day and helped when I could with cleaning, packing and selling. When the plainclothes inspectors appeared, an alarm would pass from mouth to mouth among the sellers –inspección! Anyone who had illegal goods for sale rushed to hide them away. Riqui and I stuffed fake Nike and Adidas shoes into bags which we locked in closets; Gillette shaving foam, toothbrushes and various juggles from China disappeared in a flash, because all this was considered “contraband”, illegal items for sale. Only home-made products, clothes, shoes and other things that the sellers could produce themselves were considered legal goods on the market.
Few of those who worked at the market had any good explanation as to why they should not be allowed to trade in imported clothes, shoes and other goods that Cubans wanted to buy. This was just something esta gente, “those people” who ruled the country, had decided.
The problem was that most Cubans, and especially the young, were not at all interested in dressing in the T-shirts or shoes that were made by tailors here in the city. They wanted to stand out with branded clothes and the latest fashions, just like young people elsewhere in the world. This left cuentapropistas like Riqui in a dilemma. They had to choose between a legal business model that gave them a poor income, or a type of trade that was illegal but produced more money.
The fact that Cuban retail traders could only sell goods that the population was not interested in, was a contradiction. But then, Cuba was an island of contradictions. The country is ruled by a Communist Party and is considered one of the world’s last planned economies. Nevertheless, here I was, working smack in the center of an unrestrained market, in the middle of the nation’s capital. At the markets in Monte, there were no negotiated agreements that regulated minimum wage, holidays or breaks during working hours, or other legislations that protected employees.
Poor people on informal contracts were grossly exploited. Youngsters coming in from the countryside to seek their fortune in Havana had to work six days a week for an income that barely surpassed government wages. The fact that this was taking place in the heart of state socialism, next to propaganda poster from the Communist Party, did not surprise most Cubans.
Riqui, my friend and companion, explained that “the kind of socialism we have here has always been cheating with capitalism”. I had to believe him, he added, because he knew a thing or two about cheating.
It was not easy to understand how all the pieces in this system fit together, but slowly I gained more of an overview. Every evening I transferred my notes from small pieces of paper where I wrote observations, interviews, and experiences throughout the day, onto a computer.
Everywhere I found Cubans living on the brink of laws and regulations that they either struggled to understand or didn’t really care about. Gradually I understood that it was not abnormal to bend and break the rules in this country. On the contrary, the black market was the very foundation of the economic system. Corruption and petty bribes were the oil that lubricated a machine. Banknotes and “gifts” made bureaucrats and inspectors look the other way, so that everything that didn’t really work just limped along.
In the end, this was also the case with the Buick. Finally, the mechanic called. Gustavo, as he was called, was an eighty-year-old firebrand with huge, worn fists. He wanted Arian and me to come over for a personal update on the status of the car. The engine was close to starting, Gustavo promised, it was just that the battery was flat. Arian connected the battery from the company car he had borrowed from work. Gustavo told me to get in the driver’s seat and turn the ignition on his order. “Now, compadre!” shouted the old man, like a general facing a soldier holding a cannon. I turned the key, and we waited for the redeeming sound –the sweet purr of the engine– but to no avail. The machinery coughed like a cat with a hairball in its throat.
Our problems with the taxi continued. We needed a new diesel pump, but for several weeks it was impossible to obtain, not even among the best importers on the black market. When we finally got hold of the spare part, Gustavo had to send it to an acquaintance who had what he called a “laboratory” where the pump could be adjusted to adapt it to our engine. Almost two months would pass before we finally got some good news.
Gustavo called, and for a change, his voice was optimistic. When Arian and I turned the street corner by the workshop, the mechanic was already sitting ready in the driver’s seat, looking proudly towards us. “Listen to this,” Gustavo said, turning the key. Arian, who rarely showed any emotions, could not control himself as the Buick began humming happily.
“Estoll!” he exclaimed, beaming (Cubans could never really pronounce my name). “What a lovely sound!”
Much like Arian, I had learned to appreciate such rare moments in Cuba, when the oil and the machinery hummed in harmony, convincing me that the next breakdown would be far away.
 To ensure the safety of the real persons implicated by this story, the identity of the vehicle and the name of the academic institution has been changed.
Simply brilliant! It’s good to see a foreigner visit Cuba with both his eyes and ears open, without his evangelism for “El Che” clouding the picture!
What a lovely read. You were able to describe the Cuban contradictions perfectly!
FYI the reason your Buick had constant electrical problems is most likely from the conversion process to diesel. A lot of the electric system has to be reworked and most mechanics are lousy electricians. My dad and brother did our 1958 Nash Rambler conversion and I had TWO electric fires! My brother sold it right before leaving, I miss that car so much. Fires and all 😢
Hi Ted, hi Felix, many thanks for your feedback! I also appreciate the tip on the electrical system. Unfortunately this was just one in a series of incidents, as you can imagine