Saturday, July 8, 2017

10 Reasons to Avoid Cuba (Part 2)

[Continued from HERE (Part 1).] 

5.  Cuba Still Rations Basics, and Prices Make No Sense

By the end of my month in Cuba, I was dreaming of entering a Whole Foods or Target and filling up a shopping cart. This is what Cuba's "supermarkets" sell: 

Your eyes do not deceive you.  You are indeed looking at large cans of tomato paste. Of all the items the store chose to advertise, this is what they felt was their best selection. (Maybe they wanted something large to fill up the window? It's not like they have competition.) I bought two toothbrushes for 50 cents each. I wanted shampoo, but they didn't have shampoo.

If you visit Cuban neighborhoods outside Old Havana, you'll see many people walking with trays of fresh eggs every day. You'll eventually realize Cubans get their food through rationing cards, just like the British did during WWII. As you might expect, a thriving black market exists, driven by remittances and products sent from abroad. My neighbor might live three to a room with a kitchen the size of a small closet, but her two sons own a used Xbox, probably smuggled into the country after bribing a guard.

Cuba claims to be opening up, but it's hamstrung by U.S. sanctions and its own poverty. Any ship that docks in a Cuban port cannot dock in an American port for at least 6 months. As a result, the main countries with trade agreements and enough products to sell solely in Latin and South America are China and Spain. Almost all of Cuba's new cars--which, due to limited supply, cost almost as much as a small apartment in Havana, or about 22,000 USD--are Geelys made in China. (Most of the old cars are Ladas, which are Russian-made and still running after 20+ years.) Everything that consistently works in Cuba is made in China, from buses to fridges to trash pickup trucks. A cynic would say China uses Cubans as guinea pigs to make sure their products work before shipping them to more developed countries, but I didn't see any evidence of inferior quality. 

Cuba is known for having old American cars, but such cars are popular because Cubans don't have sufficient disposable income to justify having any auto dealerships. Once you realize this, the old cars start to look sad. 
Old because Cubans can't afford new cars

They're also a convenient way for Cubans to make money from excitable tourists. A taxi ride in an old American car costs about 5 USD a person, whereas Cubans accustomed to the old cars see them as just another option in the taxi business and pay about 40 to 50 cents a ride. I rode in a few old cars and enjoyed the large and comfy seats, but otherwise, they're nothing special. Just more propaganda from a country that doesn't have much to offer and has to rely on gimmicks to attract tourists (and foreign currency). 

Just for fun, here's an actual Cuban cop car--try not to laugh: 
I did see one encouraging sign. Cuba recently opened several "supermarket" locations called Jabon y Agua (literally, "Soap and Water"). These stores offer more consumer choices, but their prices make no sense and are unaffordable for the typical Cuban, so it's possible they're another way for Cuba to gouge foreign exchange students or visitors. On the other hand, maybe the stores are a way to compete with the black market. I saw someone offering to sell a Gillette Fusion razor blade to a restaurant owner for 20 USD, twice the price in the U.S.  He didn't have any blade refills, and I'm not sure if the seller even understood his own product. 
Cubans cannot afford 9 USD for shaving cream so who's buying?
Why is it over 2x the EU and USA price? 
To summarize, Cuba isn't nostalgic by choice--things are old because of economic failure and poverty. My landlord summarized the situation perfectly: 

6. Cuban Culture Gets Stranger the Longer You Live in Cuba

Cuba was the only country in Latin and South America where I saw a police officer catcall a woman. It's the only LatAm country I've visited where the men look prettier than the women and where construction workers commonly have perfectly coiffed hair and six-packs. 

A Cuban man, whether rich or poor, looks like he's spent hours in front of the mirror before leaving the house. Perhaps young Cuban men think they're required to look like Colombian pop star Maluma (like Justin Bieber, but talented) in public. In a place where few people read for pleasure (newspapers are official government propaganda, and why bother reading if all the money is in tourism-related industries?), and televisions show mostly anti-Western propaganda (imported from Venezuela) or music videos, you can see why looks matter. Brains won't get you the girl when everyone makes the same government salary. 
I always play basketball when I travel, not just because I like the game, but because it's a simple way to figure out a country's culture. For example, how often and when do people foul? How hard do they play defense? Are they more interested in showmanship than fundamentals? When there is a dispute, how is it resolved? Do they even let strangers play?

In Cuba, basketball is a theater-like performance. I've never seen so much preening and flamboyance. Games that should have lasted 10 minutes took 30 minutes. When a foul is disputed, no one "shoots for it" and gets back to playing. They take turns demonstrating how upset they are and then argue their case before all the sitting players, who function as an informal jury. Both players will storm off in opposite directions, gesticulating wildly, and then return to the center and loudly proclaim their innocence or the other player's malevolence. This happens every single time a foul is called, whether offensive or defensive. (If Cuba doesn't already have a national mascot, I propose a hybrid of a peacock and an angry chihuahua.)

It gets better. If a particularly lucky shot goes in, the shooter might do a dance that would put former NFL player Ickey Woods to shame. One player, after humping the air and moving forward for 10 seconds, progressed to actually humping his defender, who had to push him away. The shooter continued humping, this time in a stationary pose.

Basketball fundamentals are non-existent because Cubans can't go on YouTube to learn anything, which makes Charles Barkley's 1992 Olympic elbow even more flagrant. When I started doing high pick-and-rolls with two other American tourists on my team, the Cubans didn't know how to switch. One skilled Cuban player, after being subjected to the same play two times, spent a minute dramatically expressing his frustration at his teammates before passing the ball to the offense (yes, even when there was no foul, a Cuban player found a way to lengthen the game).

I started to understand when the government gives you a guaranteed job (at low pay) and controls your food supply, there's no place where people can feel heard--except the basketball court or other public places. If your work ethic or words won't get you a promotion, you're not going to suggest doing anything differently--you'll just want to finish your job with minimal effort and go home. In a sense, the basketball court in Cuba, at least for the working class, is one of the only places where results matter. Perhaps that's why they're so adamant about spending as much time on it as possible.

Even in the straightforward world of sports, it's hard not to feel Cuba is a tragedy. I met a wrestler distinguished enough to award medals at the local youth wrestling tournament, and he showed me pictures with famous Cuban wrestlers Mijaín López and Ismael Borrero. He also proudly showed me a video of his 11 years-old son in a tournament. I'm a former wrestler lucky to have had two state champion coaches in high school, but my training started and stopped in high school. (By the way, everyone seems eager to praise teachers, but my high school coaches--the Vierra brothers, Mr. Gilmore, Mr. Cunningham, and my track and field coaches were most responsible for any maturity I might have today, whereas I despise almost all of my high school teachers and wish them fiery deaths.)

With this young wrestler, I was taken aback by the many simple changes that would quickly improve his skill level. The son and I grappled for a few minutes, and I showed him how to make improvements, but I couldn't shake the feeling I was showing him things he should have learned in his first three months of training. Increasing my discomfort was the fact that Cuba is formidable in boxing and wrestling globally, so the lack of internet access wouldn't impact institutional knowledge. Yet, somehow, this eager young man's talents were not being developed adequately.

I realized the father was athletic when I saw him at a street food and coffee stall. His forearms were twice my size, and I'm no slouch at 230 pounds. I decided to challenge him to an arm wrestling match to break the ice, and he agreed. Much to my surprise, I won. After seeing more and more Cuban men larger and more chiseled than me, I realized they weren't strong. Even the ones who lifted weights didn't seem strong, and I couldn't figure it out until I saw two random Cubans in a mall.  I didn't think they were Cuban because they wore completely new brand-name clothing and were obviously fit. I walked up to them and asked if they were Cuban, and they said they were. That's when I realized the problem. Poverty destroys everything. 

Most of the Cuban men I saw didn't have access to protein except for eggs. Even if they exercised 3 times as much as me, they wouldn't be able to compete effectively on their diet of rice, beans, and the occasional chicken leg (not to mention the copious amounts of sugar most Cubans ingest). I had become so used to seeing poor Cubans, I literally couldn't believe it when I finally met a few strong and affluent ones. That's Cuba. A place where poverty seeps into every aspect of people's lives, rendering everything hollow, even in places where one's efforts should produce strength.

[To be continued...

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