I was looking for a gift for you today and am still debating what I can safely bring you, a good U.S. citizen who may one day want to run for public office. You know that there is a Fidelista under each bed, don’t you? And if you get caught in a Che Guevara T-shirt or sipping Havana Club Rum or puffing on a Romeo y Julieta cigar or–vade retro, Satane–all the above, it may be as damaging for you as having an undeclared nanny when confirmation-time comes.
I’ll settle for a T-shirt with Fidel and John Paul II against the backdrop of a Cuban flag; it’s cheaper than the various Che T-shirts, which go for $8, although Che is more a la mode, to judge from the apparel of the group of lobster-eating frogs I flew in with from Paris.
But the French are not bound by the Helms-Burton Act, since they can spend their money here–actually, no, they can’t, because they have to spend dollars. Cubans want only U.S. currency, which is one of the ironies of this Cuban-American love-hate affair, and it is definitely too ironic for the Cartesian minds of my fellow travelers.
I’d love to hear the official explanation for why the currency of the enemy reigns here. The Cubans are very good at explaining everything in solid dialectical terms.
But back to my shopping spree: When I was last here, the dollar stores were off-limits for Cubans, and I was often asked to purchase goodies for them. Now there are stores catering mainly to Cubans. Take the “Carlos III” store in the center–it is a pathetic version of a U.S. mall. The Cuban dollars-only department stores have mainly Cuban products (plus some from Latin America, Spain, and Canada), and the choice is about one-third what your nearest 7-Eleven has to offer.
Smaller stores offering a range of some 15 to 20 different products–mostly textiles, some Che lighters, plus coffee and drinks–are all over Havana. They are not only for tourists but also for Cubans who earn dollars because they work in the tourist industry (I guess prostitutes would fit in this category too) and for Cubans who have families abroad.
There is one such cafe-cum-underwear-store farther down the Prado Boulevard. Just across from it is a neighborhood store–it is only a few meters away, but it is on the other side of the looking glass. Cubans who live around here have the right to come to this store with their ration booklets, and if there is meat or eggs they have the right to actually buy some. The customers I met there were quite excited: The one pound per person per month of meat–actually, it was chicken–was being delivered and being sold, plus the eggs were available too. Every citizen has been assigned seven eggs a month, the salesman explained to me in rather wooden language. “Seven?! Since when?! I have five! Don’t you lie to her because she is a foreigner, or else you’ve been cheating me all that time,” exploded a customer, his cigar bobbing angrily in his mouth. There was potential here for a major fight, so I tried to calm things down (I may be a provocateur but only up to a point) and walked out of the store with the five-eggs-plus-cigar man.
Reinaldo was his name. He thought I was Argentinian, because of my accent, and wanted to speak about Diego Maradona, but since I know nothing about the guy I shifted the conversation back to Cuba. Seven eggs seemed just to him but five was unjust; he also complained about the soap supply. In his booklet it says clearly that he should get one piece of bath soap and one piece of washing soap, whereas they had been intermittent for the last year. And matches! That was a nightmare. Indeed it was: The other store we walked to had a whole distribution schedule for matchboxes. For instance, a family of seven gets three small boxes and one big box; a family of nine gets just two big boxes; and 11 people get three big plus two small. All this was theoretical since there have been no matchbox deliveries for some time. So before buying you some embargo-violating item, I bought a Che lighter for Reinaldo. I’ll get you one too.