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Cuba Seeks a Return of the Old Glamour

HAVANA, Jul 23 2012 (IPS) - While Europe reels from a crisis that is annihilating small businesses, shaking up large ones, and catapulting huge numbers of people into poverty, Cuba, which for the last twenty years has made a specialty out of living in crisis, seems to be on the verge of putting itself back together and even reclaiming part of the faded glamour that was once its hallmark.

This is not to say that things on this island have improved greatly in recent years with respect to the reality of half a century of socialism. Neither the efforts to “update” ­the term the government uses­ its economic model, nor the changes in thinking announced by President Raul Castro have been substantial or profound enough to generate any real discussion of a truly different economic or political reality.

On the political front, the lack of any real evolution can be seen in many contexts, from public statements that the political establishment in Cuba will never change to the persistence of the habitual state secrecy regarding information, which has been criticised by the current president.

For example, in Cuba today little is said (or written) about the recent outbreak of cholera in the east of the country. For those of us that remember, it is clear that Cubans were far better informed about the cholera epidemic in Haiti after the 2009 earthquake than about what is happening here.

Even less is heard from the authorities about the promised reform of the migration laws that would ease the absurd system now in place of severe prohibitions and onerous requirements for permission to leave or enter Cuba, which are binding on Cubans both on and off the island.

However, it is clear that on the economic front at the most elemental level there have been contractions and changes that are visible even in daily life.

One revealing case is the existence of a much remarked upon list of the top thirteen restaurants in Havana, compiled, it would seem, by a British food critic connected to GuidePal.

These private restaurants, some of which opened in the 1990s, others in response to the recent relaxation of restrictions on private enterprise, are said to offer a wide range of high-quality international cuisines (curry and sushi included) in settings that range from exotic to modernist to home-style to traditional Cuban, all at prices that are more than reasonable for Americans, British, and even crisis-stricken continental Europeans.

With entrees costing around 10 dollars, a diner can enjoy a captivating Havana evening with wine or beer and a meal prepared by the finest chefs of the city and served by a young staff, all for a total of about 25 dollars ­or the average monthly salary of a Cuban.

But to show that things have not changed that much, very close by these refined and successful private restaurants you can still find a state-run operation where, to be competitive, prices are far more reasonable – let’s say 3.50 dollars (a seventh of the monthly salary) for a plate of run-of-the-mill Chinese food. Here, in good socialist style, there is no desert and not even coffee, because “the machine is out of order”.

The disparity between the fancy private restaurants listed by the British journalist and those still run by the state, with its traditional hobbling inefficiency, is the distance between the two realities that intersect at the street level of the Cuban economy.

The disparity between either of the restaurant options ­private or public­ and the official salaries of Cubans is dizzying and gives an all-too-clear idea of the economic possibilities and exigencies of the majority of the country’s people, who can barely make ends meet, as the government itself has recognised.

And thus while there may be a return of the old glamour in certain parts of Havana ­where, despite the crisis, a small, lucky, and enterprising sliver of the population is prospering and awaiting changes in the law to rush to Cancun on vacation­ on another corner of the island a pensionless octogenarian farmer has to work all day just to survive, carrying water to a town without it.

This man must sleep alongside the horse that helps him with his labours because if it were stolen, he would lose his only mode of survival. For this farmer, interviewed for a documentary by Cuban television, having a meal at one of the hot spots on the food critic’s list is about as likely as having a picnic on the moon ­once travel restrictions are lifted, of course. (END/COPYRIGHT IPS)

* Leonardo Padura is a Cuban writer and journalist whose novels have been translated into more than fifteen languages. His most recent work is The Man Who Loved Dogs, featuring Leon Trotsky and his assassin, Ramon Mercader, as central characters.

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