I enjoy reading the Havana Times which arrives daily in my email. There are always a few articles of interest, sometimes a picture of someone I know. This week there were several loosely related articles all of which are disturbing. Although there are new buses and many of the rules have been relaxed re: Cubans owning property such as real estate and automobiles, much remains the same. To buy a used Hyundai requires more than $100,000 US! And, the vast amount of habitable property is attainable only by the very well placed and/or wealthy.
Cubans have a very good, sometimes perverse, sense of humor. Thirteen years ago when I first went there one of the local jokes was that when they awaken in the morning Cubans only face three problems. That is, “Breakfast, lunch, and dinner.” Unfortunately the food situation is not much better. There are still some rations available with one’s ration book, but it is hardly more than a week’s worth of food per month. After that the average Cuban is on their own. They barter, steal, and spend what they earn to try to feed their families. Those who are fortunate enough to work in the tourist industry get by, those who don’t depend on the kindness and support of their neighbors. Each neighborhood has a bodega which has the daily and weekly offerings. In the mornings there are often long lines as people queue up to get something before it has run out. According to the HT the ration book is still long on promise and short on reality. A weeks list of the food available with ration book can be seen at the Havana Times this past week.
There are markets in various places, produce stands, and other stores which sell foods items but some of these are beyond the reach of the average citizen. The most famous of the markets is Cuatro Caminos Market near Cerro.
There is always a lot of activity, people are cheerful and the food items all look quite good. I have tried to visit there each time I have visited Havana and I have seen it change much over the years. It has always been state owned and run, never at a break even or better level, but people can get inexpensive food. There is no question but that there has been major improvement over the past dozen years. In spite of this, it still loses money. This week an article in the HT detailed the current rumor that it is being sold to the Chinese. This will move beyond rumor soon no doubt. No doubt it will go upscale relative to the Cuban need and become a more exclusive retail food outlet unattainable by many of the people.
So The Chinese now own the public transportation system and the intercity buses both tourist and otherwise; the largest food market; and most of the retail shops on Obispo Street. (One of our students tried to find a Cuban made guitar in music shops there and all instruments were made in China.)
This is a significant business opportunity less than one hundred miles from our coast line. Silliness, pettiness, and worn out distrust all prevent the US from taking advantage of this. Jesse Helms is dead and gone, Dan Burton is retiring. We should now repeal the Helms Burton Act and renew economic and social ties with our neighbor-Cuba.