Havana Hustle: Cuba's New Socialist Man Learns to Wheel and Deal

By Cave, Damien | Reason, August 2003 | Go to article overview

Havana Hustle: Cuba's New Socialist Man Learns to Wheel and Deal


Cave, Damien, Reason


I MET PABLO IN December at a rooftop bar offering cheap cocktails, lives salsa, and an expansive view of Havana Harbor. Pablo--his name and the names of other Cubans in this story have been changed to protect them from punishment--was 28 years old, a budding capitalist with a strong code of ethics. He laid fiery scorn on the city's jinteteros, male "jockeys" who hustle tourists for tips and commissions. He mocked their aggressive approach--"Hey, you need cigars? Una chica?"--and insisted they were ruining Cuba. Sure, Pablo himself found restaurants for tourists when they asked, and at our request he led two friends and me to a dark, lusty nightclub (appropriately named Las Vegas), where he earned $15 off our $56 tab. But for the most part, Pablo supported his sick mother and younger sister through more legitimate means. Instead of pushing overpriced restaurants, tobacco, women, or drugs, he sold his own paintings, Crayola-bright Cubascapes that tourists bought for $20 or more.

Pablo reveled in the fact that he taught himself to paint, then learned English to increase sales. "I'm different," he told me. "I always earn money without hurting anyone."

Five months later, on a sweaty spring night, Pablo repeats this claim. And with me, he's always lived up to it, going so far as to return commissions culled from our shared meals and drinks. But a lot has changed since December, and it's not at all clear that Pablo and others like him will manage to hold onto their scruples. Cuba today is wracked with silent fear. In the wake of a massive spring crackdown on independent thought and action--Castro has tossed nearly 80 dissidents in jail, executed three boat hijackers, shuttered home-based businesses, and closed at least one popular discotheque--few feel secure. Jineteros nowwhisper or quickly demand dollars. Educated Cubans hide American books at the first sign of a visitor. Black marketeers sweat the sales they need to survive. It's as if Havana were the setting of a metropolitan hide and seek, with all the citizens holding their breath to keep from being found by Fidel.

Amid such suffocation, nearly everyone must consider an immediate shift in course--especially in Cuba, where an estimated half of all retail transactions take place in the black market. But to understand how today's oppressive atmosphere fits into not just Cuba's present but its past and future, there is perhaps no better place to look than the world of jineterismo Because they work in the streets under the nose of the regime, jineteros have become Cuba's ultimate evolvers, hurricane-quick adapters who bob and weave whenever political muscle appears. Mostly in their teens and 205, they offer a vital glimpse into both what people are being forced to do today and what they'll likely pursue tomorrow.

Neither insight is encouraging. In more ways than one, Castro is turning would-be capitalists into criminals. At this point, not even Pablo is the man he used to be.

Black and Gray Markets

Pablo's relationship to jineterismo, Fidel, and capitalism includes fits and starts, triumphs, trials, and plenty of errors. But in each case, Castro made the first move.

The pattern started in At the time, Pablo was 18 and Cuba was dying. Without the Soviet Union's oil and its $4 billion in annual aid, the island could barely function. Blackouts darkened the Cuban night. Malnutrition returned to the countryside, and inflation skyrocketed. Cuba was doomed, Andres Oppenheimer declared in his 1993 book, Castro's Final Hour; it would soon disintegrate into chaos.

But stories of Castro's demise have always been greatly exaggerated. Suddenly, he let loose the reins. Self-employment in dozens of formerly black market occupations became legal. Such activity has been a part of Cuba's economy since Spanish rule, when officials earned low salaries and were expected to pad their incomes through corruption. Because the post-Soviet black market had swelled to politically threatening proportions, Castro decided to co-opt it. …

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