Scenes from a late summer Havana wedding

Walter Lippmann walterlx at
Fri Sep 13 20:46:08 MDT 2002

(While I tend to "accentuate the positive" with Cuba,
there's no question but that the island has more than
its share of contradictions and ironies. Some of these
are well-described in this essay by Saul Landau.)

By Saul Landau

On the wedding morning, I accompanied the groom on an
unsuccessful quest for ice, going from one Havana dollar
store to another. I thought Gabriel Garcia Marquez might
have been wrong in his first line in One Hundred Years of
Solitude. In post Soviet Cuba, ice has not yet been
invented. Or, if invented, ice eludes the open market.

We called several friends, who offered us their meager
freezer stash, but hardly enough cumulatively to stretch for
100 people. Finally, a friend of a friend of the groom knew
a babalao (Santeria priest) who knew a man who worked in an
ice factory who in turn agreed to sell us the needed amount
for about five times the going price. We made the
transaction. Hey, how often does a guy get married!

"Cubans understand privatization," the groom explained as we
continued our shopping preparations for the wedding party.
"Unfortunately, we have to rely on it when the state can't
meet the needs of the people."

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union more than a decade
ago, the Cuban government has had to cut back on its cradle
to grave social security guarantees. The state is
understandably broke - look at Argentina -- and the once
all-encompassing ration book now supplies only a small
percentage of what most Cubans need for daily sustenance and
minimum comfort.

"So," explained a political science professor at the
pre-wedding party, "we have the phenomenon of illegal
privatization, a variation on the concept in capitalist
countries. In Mexico , for example, the government sells
public property cheaply to a private company, usually
connected with key ruling clique members, and then watches
in silence as the corporate executives of the company loot
its bank account, cut back on service and let the property
run down. When the company no longer finds profit in the
property, the state either buys it back with a large profit
going to the company or subsidizes the property it had sold
supposedly for the purpose of creating efficiency and making
the country more attractive for foreign investment. Or take
your President who wants to turn social security into an
enterprise where his rich friends can make 15% off poor
peoples' pensions for investing it. It's simply private
theft of public property and that's what capital is
interested in."

Unlike Mexico , Cuba has proved less than attractive to
major multi national capital despite its highly educated and
skilled work force. Tourism, mining and some agriculture -
but no maquilas, factories where foreign capital wants to
control the work force and dispose of the industrial waste
on the cheap. Because Cuba does not allow capital to treat
labor and environment as bottom line factors, its foreign
investment level has remained low - given its highly
skilled, educated and healthy work force. And, the Cuban
government has not encouraged the brazen market mania that
has grabbed much of the rest of the third world.

Instead, Havana , a city of some two million residents
dramatizes the ironies of life under socialism in the age of
corporate globalization. "We produce little and consume
much, although not as much as we would like to consume.
We're a city of parasites," a writer friend informs me. "But
not our fault. It's the way the system has evolved. We're
stuck in a time warp. I'm not referring to the old American
cars on the street or the ancient American refrigerators
that somehow still function in the houses. I mean we're
still waiting for . I don't know what we're waiting for. No
one will save us. The Spanish screwed us for centuries and
the Americans for sixty years. We always complained about
the Soviet Union although in all honesty they gave us so
much and I can't think of what we gave them. Maybe we
provided them with a good reputation for socialism, which
they were sorely lacking. Really, for thirty years we took
their oil, weapons, food, education, technicians and gave
them some sugar and cigars. I guess we like to complain. We'
re babies, taken care of by our mothers, then by our mother
the state and of course the greatest mother of them all,

The Cuban government allows one wedding cake per marriage,
but for booze we stop at the dollar store in front of the
five-star Spanish-owned Melia Cohiba hotel -- a joint
venture with the Cuban government. A government checker
compares our receipt to the items in our plastic shopping
bags on the way out.  I don't see the ubiquitous hustlers
outside trying to buy cash register receipts. Last March, at
the same store a man offered me a dollar for a receipt for
some ham, cheese, beer and cooking oil. Presumably, he
worked for one of the paladares, private restaurants, and
used the receipt to show the tax collector that he had spent
the money for supplies, thereby owing the state less taxes.
Ah, the pitfalls of moving ever so slowly toward cockroach

A hot, lazy August Saturday brings people out to the
Malecon, the avenue protected by a seawall from the
Caribbean . Kids and adults fish, neck, catch the breeze and
occasionally hustle a sightseeing tourist or one jogging in
the heavy humidity. Some sit on the seawall and gaze
northward, as if Florida , just 90 miles away might somehow
materialize if one dreamed about it long enough. Some men in
their early twenties take a break from playing dominoes and
tell me about what a paradise Miami is, how their buddies
who made it to the U.S. shore on rafts or through smugglers'
speedboats wrote them about how wonderful life is under

I say nothing about how hard people work in the United
States or - unlike Cuba -- how easy it is to get fired or
laid off. I don't compare the relative safety of Havana
streets with those of some U.S. cities. The United States
has consumerism, glitter, possibilities for material
success, adventure. It is also dangerous for those who risk.

Out of four youth, only one of the young Cubans has a job.
None look the slightest bit undernourished or poorly
clothed. Two have cars. How they acquire the goods, I don't
ask. They, like many Havaneros, have a hustle going. Maybe
they rent out a room or apartment without a license, or sell
cigars to eager tourists who purchase a $300 plus box of
stolen Cohiba Esplendidos for $50. Or maybe they're not the
genuine article even though they come in the right box and
have the stamp and label. Like the ice man, some cigar
workers or supervisors pilfer the peoples' product and sell
it for their personal profit. Some people grow animals for
sale, plants, build stills, bake cookies and cakes or rent
parts to car owners so they can pass auto inspection.

Unofficial privatization has become a defining institution
in contemporary Cuba . It is theft of public property sold
back to the public at high prices. Just like in the
capitalist world where it is legal. In Cuba , when the
government gets wise to a privatization scheme, it taxes
it - like room or apartment rentals, or converts houses into
mini night clubs -- rather than putting it out of business.

"No es facil," people say, but with the "Ministry of the
Street" as some call the schemes to make extra money, life
would be truly difficult. Buying stolen goods - or selling
them - has become part of daily life.

How else can Havaneros maintain a consumption style that
contradicts their productive proclivities? "Everyone does
it, everyone knows everyone does it and no one talks about
it," said a sociologist friend. "We became accustomed to
certain life styles, which included not working too hard,
and after the Soviet Union collapsed we adjusted through
individual hustles, not through a planned or coordinated
process. The State maintained its political control by
keeping control of the main forces of the economy and did
not allow an independent civil society to develop. Fidel
never wanted a consumer society to develop here. I agree
with him that the third world can't afford it."

But on wedding days, people spend money. Families dressed in
their finest waited outside the Wedding Palace .  Brides in
white gowns and veils and grooms in natty summer suits
arrived in ostentatious displays of automobile horn tooting.
The couples climbed the two flights, erasing as they
ascended the thousands of fingerprints of couples and
families who clutched the old marble banisters. Members of
the entourage gazed upward at the spiraling staircase of
what had been an old Spanish-style mansion.

The young couple, bride on the arm of her father, groom
clutched by his mother choking back tears, then trod the
ratty red carpet that had peaked some twenty years ago while
a middle aged man with a three day growth who could barely
suppress a yawn placed a tape of Mozart's Wedding March into
a boom box. A civil servant read the obligations of marriage
contract as the groom's mother dropped ounces of tears on
the already much rained-on carpet: sharing love, respect and
household and child care duties. They signed. I wondered how
many of the young men even listened to the terms of the
contract. I also wondered how many of the young women
expected the young men to fulfill their part.

Our wedding party completed a busy Saturday. As the
newlyweds entered the shiny rented car a middle aged drunk
ran his tattered auto into their bumper. One of the bride's
uncles reached into the car and pulled the keys. The
offender could not escape. The bride's brother threatened to
punch the man who could barely respond. The brother's girl
friend pried him away screaming at him that this was no time
for violence. Two surly cops came and the driver navigated
his way toward the cop car in a drunken weave. The parents
handed the car keys to the cops, saying they didn't want to
press charges, but did want to make sure that the drunk
would not drive his car in that condition. I wondered if a
sticky scene like that would have been so easily solved in
the U.S.A. .

An hour later, as the sun began to set, the wedding party
began. The DJ put the tapes in the boom box, the men and
women hired to wait on the tables brought food and drinks.
Dancing couples filled the floor of the rented hall on the
shore of the Caribbean in the Miramar neighborhood. I went
outside to prevent my eardrums from collapsing. Other older
(over fifty) people joined me. We congratulated each other
on the wedding, on how the groom would get his degree in
computer science and the bride, already a degree holder,
would develop her own hacking abilities. We talked as if
Cuba had a clear future. "Who knows what will happen here,"
the poet said. "We have never known and we never will. We
are now more like the rest of the third world, with better
health and education of course and with a clear
understanding of our rights."

What if the U.S. lifts the embargo? I ask.

"Yes," he sighs. "McDonald's in Havana ? Obviously, many
things will change, but how? We don't know. But in what
other country in this world can people look ahead with
security? Our insecurity is nothing compared to the majority
in Mexico . Insecurity abounds in these insecure times --

The next day, after a very non-stressful passage through
Cuban security - just as thorough as any U.S. airport - I
boarded the American Eagle charter to Miami . Flying over
Cuba , I looked down at the fertile island. Cuba in 2002 is
like an airplane in a holding pattern, I think, slowly
running out of fuel, with no clear place to land. If it does
crash Cubans will truly join the third world, in all of its
misery. For the time being a happy young man and woman begin
married life. They still have that special quality of
innocence about them that Cuba has uniquely produced.


Saul Landau teaches at Cal Poly Pomona's College of Letters,
Arts and Social Sciences. He is also a fellow at the
Institute for Policy Studies. His latest film, MAQUILA, A
TALE OF TWO MEXICOS , is distributed by The Cinema Guild in
New York City .

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