It’s fair to say that my Cuba campaign is thus far lacking the knockout blow of a decent donation or sponsorship. Nevertheless, we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. The news from Cuba remains grim. Every day, I am sent links to Cubans’ Facebook pages where they post pictures of enormous queues at ordinary shops and supermarkets whose shelves are mainly empty. One the other day showed a couple of hundred people in Punta Brava, western Havana, spending the whole day queuing because there was a rumour that a shop had a consignment of soap. A serious fight broke out and the police had to break up what was threatening to become a civil disturbance. To buy soap.
I’ll say that again. To. Buy. Soap.
My friend Ceci last week spent the day queuing in Bauta to no avail, returning home exhausted. Cubans are stoic in their suffering; when I expressed sadness for what they are being obliged to endure yet again, she replied that she and her mother were lucky, they had eggs from her brother’s farm, and tomatoes as well.
Stoicism and a natural disposition to fun typifies Cubans. This screengrab shows me sending a picture of a pair of Covid-mandated masks arranged to look like a bra that I pretended I had bought Ceci as a present. If you don’t speak Spanish, what she is saying is:
“My love, what a pretty bra! But it is very large for my breasts.”
Then a minute later, the penny drops and she says, “Ha ha ha, they are nose-and-mouth masks!”
It is for this innocence and sense of fun, never taking offence, that I love my Cuban friends…
Meanwhile, there is a rash of tiendas dólares that have opened all over the island. These are crammed with all kinds of products so far beyond the reach of ordinary people they might as well be images from the Hubble Space Telescope being beamed back to Earth. The shelves groan under the weight of meat (meat! Imagine!), “luxury” fruit juices, soap AND detergent! But there is a catch. Despite having the useless moneda nacional (pesos) and a hard currency, the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC, that was designed to allow tourists to spend money without letting locals getting their hands on it, the State now seems to accept that this economic experiment has been a failure. They have allowed these stores to open and trade only in US dollars.
Very few Cubans (and none that I know) have access to US dollars. Some months ago, I arranged an AIS card, which allows me to send US dollars to my friend Raúl. I have just transferred the small amount I raised through this JustGiving campaign to his card to split with other family members to buy essential products.
Yesterday, I tried to create a new AIS card for a friend who lives in Santa Cruz del Norte, Miriam, who is really struggling. The transfer service, sendvalu.com, told me that the State bank FINCIMEX was no longer accepting new applications for such cards due to the high demand, presumably from friends and family overseas trying to give them the opportunity to patronise these well-stocked dollar stores.
My friend Yusnaidy told me that she was passing one of these shops the other day in her neighbourhood. She stood in front of the window looking at the abundance of goods on display and began to cry through humiliation and shame that she could not buy even the basics for her children. I got around the problem of the AIS cards by transferring money to a mutual friend to pass to her. She wrote to me to say she was crying with happiness and that she had told her son, 12, that within a few days she would be able to buy milk for him, and he could have cereal. He was overjoyed and told her, “I love Tío Eugenio so much, he is the best tío in the world.” It’s shaming and humbling and appalling that people should be reduced to living with this lack of dignity.
My friend Raúl used to drive a ’57 Chevrolet, ferrying tourists around the capital. When the US cruise ships used to stop in Havana, he would regularly make 50cuc for a two-hour tour of the city, skilfully avoiding the poverty-stricken neighbourhoods that exist within a ball’s throw of the Capitolio, the State building that is often said to be based upon the Capitol Building in Washington DC. On a good day, he might make 150cuc.
Then Trump spitefully reintroduced El Bloqueo, based upon the hateful Helms-Burton Act of 1996, surprisingly in some ways brought in by Bill Clinton, that had been relaxed under Barack Obama. The ships were banned from docking in the Creek in Havana (or anywhere in Cuba, for that matter), tourism dwindled and the island was dealt the death blow by the Coronavirus pandemic.
From having a well-paid job, Raúl overnight had nothing. He had rented the car so had to give it back. He is a grafter, though, and set about spending days on a relative’s farm picking tomatoes under the blazing Cuban sun. After two days grafting in the fields with his 12-year-old son, he put his crop into a huge cauldron over a fire, stirring the mix for a further two days with a wooden stick to produce a puree. He diligently poured these into small containers and finally, on Day Five, he arose early to set off for market to sell the fruit of his labour (no pun intended). He made 4cuc for this, a far cry from his former life where he could earn 150cuc a day, meaning 50cuc in his own pocket, the rest split between rent and re-investing in car maintenance and, of course, petrol. But such are things now in the New Normal. When people have nothing, what are they supposed to use to pay for such things? In any case, markets are now banned with people having to stay indoors.
A word about jiniteros, jiniteras and estafas. Anyone who spends any time outside of an all-inclusive resort in Cuba will learn about jinteras and estafas (tricksters and scams). These often take the form of estafas de amor (love scams). For instance, a woman will be entranced and captivated by you, and will embark upon a holiday-long sexual relationship with you (or young men in the case of often lonely, older women.) They will write to you everyday professing their undying love for you. Soon will come entreaties for money – clothes for their children (they are always divorced), food, school supplies. It usually turns out they are, in fact, happily married and acting with the consent and encouragement of their spouse. The lucky ones will realise soon that it is a scam; the unfortunate will spend sometimes years being bled dry before they are cast aside when they have no more to give. This is a whole article in itself, but that’s as quick a summary as I can give here.
But one can almost understand that some people are driven to this through poverty. What, then, do we say when the estafa is one that is carried out by the State? For more than a year I have been recharging friends’ mobiles there. I always wait until the State telecoms company, Cubacel, via an Irish broker trading as Ding, announces a promotion, a double or even triple recharge. So if I pay £20, they promise that my friends will receive £60 in recharge, together with a bundle of SMS extra allowance and international calls.
Last week, after a year, finally a friend told me that they only receive the £20 in data. I contacted Ding to complain. To say they were less than helpful would be an understatement; they seemed completely uninterested. I persevered; they finally sent me a statement from Cubacel purporting to show that the bonuses had been passed on.
The itemised amounts refer to Soldo Principal and Soldo Bono. So the principal amount is £20. The bonus amount shows £40 (triple recharge). But here is the scam. The screengrabs explain in Spanish. In a nutshell, Cubacel will only allow the recipient to buy data with the principal recharge. The ‘bonus’ recharge can only be used to buy national calls.
So who is the biggest jinitero here? And what is the greatest estafa?
I reached out to the press office for Ding — my emails went unanswered. Customer service for Ding claimed that Cubacel had proven that they were passing on these bonuses, which clearly they are not in the manner they are marketed and sold. Subsequent emails to them explaining this went unanswered.
While sendvalu simply quoted the line, “Dear Customer, We regret to inform you that the payer in Cuba (Fincimex) has notified that no new AIS cards are being issued until further notice.” A subsequent query as to why FINCIMEX had prohibited new cards being issued, and what was the reason for it received this response: “Hello. The issue is only temporary. The new AIS cards will not be created in Cuba until further notice, Best regards”.
Meanwhile, people stay at home, or when allowed to leave their homes, seem to queue all day at empty shops yet go hungry while the world ignores what appears to be growing into a humanitarian crisis.
If you have been touched by this piece and would like to help, please consider donating to my crowdfunding campaign. I have spent many thousands of my own money helping the Cuban people but I am just a journalist, not an investment banker, with funds running out. If you can spare the cost of a cappuccino, a claret or a carpaccio of beef in a restaurant, your money will go a lot further in Cuba! I will use my network to send dollars to those who already obtained AIS cards before the State pulled up the drawbridge. And please share with your friends to publicise the plight of these wonderful people…