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Cuba's underground economy on Guardalavaca Beach.

'Hss! Cigars! Want Cigars?' I turned around to see a grinning young man close at my heels. He continued, 'Cheap! Box $20 only!' By the time he was walking at my side, we had reached the end of the Guardalavaca Beach on Cuba's northern coast. Getting over my surprise, I blurted out, 'No fumo! No smoke!' He smiled, 'Want ron (rum)? Want coral negro (black coral)? No mucho dinero (not much money)!' I was getting a little peeved, 'No!' But he was not deterred. Gesturing a female form with his hands, he went on, 'You want chica? Muy, muy bonita (You want a girl? Very, very beautiful)!' His storehouse of goods seemed never ending.

'What did you . . . ?' I had not completed my question before, in a flash, he vanished into the edging shrubs. I looked back to see a policeman running toward the bush where the man had disappeared.

This scene is daily enacted, again and again, wherever foreigners are found on Cuba's beaches. The tourists flooding into the Island in ever-increasing numbers and the shortages of almost everything throughout the country have created a wide-spread black market, prostitution, begging, crime, corruption - all virtually unknown before the downfall of Cuba's communist friends in Eastern Europe.

The shortages have given birth to a class of men and women who live by their wits. At the end of the beaches and in the back alleys of the large cities, they sell almost anything a visitor may be seeking. With the American dollars they illegally earn, the goodies in the US dollar-priced shops, for which most Cubans yearn, are theirs.

However, black market vendors are only one side of the coin. The goods in these shops are ever-increasingly being purchased by other Cubans who in one way or another get hold of American dollars. Around $400 million is sent from the USA to relatives in Cuba and there are some quarter million newly affluent Cubans who earn dollars mostly working in the tourist industry. In 1995, tourism brought in about $1.5 billion - the top earner of foreign exchange in the country.

Another quarter million Cubans are licensed officially to operate new businesses. During the summer of 1995, the government made it legal for small privately owned restaurants, known as paladares, to do business in US dollars. In addition, somewhere around another quarter million are doing business illegally.

In the meantime, the government has not forgotten its share of the dollars flowing into the country. An income tax has been imposed on those earning the much sought after American dollar. With industrial workers making only the equivalent of $5 US per month, most people will do almost anything to get hold of that precious currency in order to buy the goods found only in US dollar shops.

During one of our daily walks on the fine white sands of Guardalavaca Beach, my friend Bob complained about the shortages and sparsely stocked shops. 'I can't believe it! With such a lush countryside, why don't we find people selling fruits and vegetables?' He went on, 'It's legal now to earn dollars. Why don't the farmers or these "bird dogs" (people who will get anybody anything for a price) who daily harass us, sell the produce of the land instead of illegal goods?'

My friend had a point. With the mighty US dollar being so powerful, why did not the 'bird dogs' follow a less risky trade and, at the same time, perhaps, make more money?

Apparently, many of the ordinary Cubans do not have the capital while others do not have the know-how to open new businesses. Six years after the demise of the Soviet Union, the country is still trying to find a path of walking a thin line between capitalism and a reformed communism.

I was thinking of the new openness in Cuban economic life which, as yet, was not producing outstanding results, when I felt the presence of a 'bird dog'. 'Cigars usted? Monte Cristo, Havana - any kind you want! Very cheap!' I raised my voice in annoyance, 'No! Go away!' This morning, he had been the third person offering us cigars.

Cuban cigars like the Monte Cristo, which sell for $75 a box in tourist shops, can be bought from the 'bird dogs' for around $10. Guides tell the tourists that these are fakes and their seals are stolen from cigar factories. However, this does not seem to deter visitors. The underground cigar commerce must be one of the most thriving industries in Cuba.

Passing a number of topless women, who daily seemed to reserve a part of the sands for themselves - topless bathing in Cuba is not permitted but not banned - we came to the end of the beach. Two very attractive young girls were sitting by the water's edge, a few feet from the bush. 'Quiere una chica? (Do you want a girl)' One of them had a broad smile. Surprised at one so young offering herself, Bob asked, 'Usted? You're just a baby!' A broad smile broke across her face, 'No soy una baby! Soy una mujer muy sexual (I'm not a baby, I'm a very sexual woman)!'

These two girls represent the sad fate of many of today's Cuban women. On the whole, educated, loving life and with pleasant personalities, they sell themselves to older men from other countries in order to earn the revered American dollar which, for them, opens a world of luxury.

Prostitution, or as it could be better called semi-prostitution, is another of Cuba's underground industries thriving around every tourist resort. At one time it became so annoying to some tourists that the government totally banned visitors from bringing Cuban women to their hotel - even if they rented separate rooms for them. Only those engaged to be married are now allowed.

However, this only pushed the ladies into the outer limits of the resorts. A woman can make in one or two days as much as she would earn in a year working in a factory. With such a vast spread of earning power, it is almost impossible to eradicate the prostitution industry. The ones who have benefited most by the new law are the 'bird dogs' and pimps who are making a killing.

Nevertheless, putting the underground industries aside, Cuba has much to offer the escalating number of tourists travelling to that beleaguered Island. The country is very clean - even isolated villages are refuse free, water is drinkable everywhere and the towns are much safer than those in North America. Unlike many other Latin American and Caribbean countries, the naturally pleasant Cubans are well educated - the universities have 45 branches throughout the country.

Due to an excellent medical system - there is one doctor for every 200 inhabitants, the highest in the world - even the poorest in society are healthy. Cuba is 23rd of the world nations in infant mortality and life expectancy is 75.6 years - one of the highest in the developing countries.

These attributes, the country's sparkling white sands, best of modem conveniences and reasonable prices are luring the tourists. Out of the 600,000 tourists who travelled to Cuba in 1995, 140,000 were, like me, Canadians. These are expected to rise to 200,000 in 1996 and a similar percentage rise is projected from other countries - that is if incidents like the latest shooting of the two US planes off Cuba's coast and new American sanctions do not frighten the visitors. Prices for package tours from Canada, Latin America and Europe are much more reasonable than to any other Caribbean destination. To the majority of these visitors, the 'bird dogs' at the end of the beaches and the harshness of the Cuban daily life are virtually unknown.

One cloudy day, with some friends, I decided to leave the sunny beaches for a trip through the countryside. With Chafic, Guy and Edie, all Canadian vacationers, I rented a taxi for a trip to Banes - a typical Cuban town. We wanted to get a glimpse into the daily life of the ordinary Cubans, living on the far fringes of the tourist industry. All of us wanted to see and feel the joys and sorrows of the average Cubans - not the elite who lived in the benevolent shadows of foreign visitors.

Jose, our driver, was in a good mood. The tips he would get in US dollars would be equivalent to a month's salary for a factory worker. Spouting the obvious and, of course, what he thought tourists would like to hear, he commented, 'You know! We have a hard life in Cuba. Except for us who work in the tourist industry, most of the people barely make enough money to live. You will see in Banes the poverty of our country towns.'

Working as a driver for Cubanacan, a government tourist company, Jose had a pleasant personality and was fairly proficient in English. We felt that with him guiding us by foot through the heart of Banes, our day would be fruitful and fulfilling.

'I have never seen such a lush and beautiful country,' Chafic, who had never been to Cuba, remarked as we made our way between some of Cuba's 70 million royal palms and other greenery. On both sides, the trees were intertwined with continuous sugar cane and banana fields. From every hill top, there was seemingly a more eye-catching view of the lush valley below than the one before.

Not only this region, but the whole of Cuba was once covered with forest and the government is trying to protect what remains of this natural foliage. When Castro took power, only 8 per cent of the country was covered with natural forests. Through education, encouragement of eco-tourism and government protection, this has now risen to 12.5 per cent and the area is expected to be expanded in the coming years.

'It's truly a rich looking countryside. I wonder why there are so few fruits on sale?' Edie, who hailed from Owen Sound, Ontario, like all of us, was thinking of why the bounty of the countryside could not be translated into overflowing markets of fruits and vegetables. No doubt, bureaucracy and the primitive transportation system to which the country had been reduced after the collapse of the Soviet Union were to blame.

This was evident as we drove along. The long line-ups of people waiting for transportation, witnessed by visitors a few years back, were gone. Now the pastoral scene consisted of the local inhabitants walking by the side of the road, endless bicycles, and numerous ox-carts, competing with the scarce autos and trucks. It was as if the ox-power of the nineteenth century had been reincarnated.

We stopped by a group of farm buildings, almost hidden from view by the luxuriant vegetation. I was fascinated by the oxen ploughing in the fields, the ox-carts passing by and the unpainted thatched-roof farm buildings with glassless windows, open to the breezes. Not a speck of garbage marred the landscape. Without exception, the houses we entered were all spotless inside and their yards were tidy and clean.

Entering Banes, we could see that the houses, as in all Cuban urban centres, were badly in need of paint. The streets were spotless. Not a piece of paper or even a leaf was to be seen. As we drove around, it was strange to see the avenues full of bicycles, but bare of motor vehicles.

Jose parked his taxi in front of the Museum of Indian Civilization on General Marrero Bayamo - the main street in town. Before locking the doors, he unscrewed the radio antenna and placed it in the taxi. To me, it belied the fact that Cuba is supposedly a crime-free land.

Surveying the scene, I could not see a motor vehicle along the half-mile long avenue. Jose, seeing women and children gathering around us, advised, 'Don't stand around! People here are poor and they'll be asking you for money. Come! Let's tour the museum!'

The museum, the most complete home of Indian relics in Cuba, is located in the area of the country which has been inhabited by man for at least 8000 years. During our tour of the four-room museum, we found the guide was a very knowledgeable archaeologist. He went through the history of Cuba's aboriginals as he described the artifacts.

As we walked down the avenue from the museum, I developed a feeling of depression. The shabbiness of the unpainted buildings and the few poor quality goods on display in the stores did not inspire one to browse. To tourists, familiar with the markets of North America and western Europe, overflowing with goods, the shops in Banes, except for one priced in US dollars, appeared very bare and stocked with poor products.

Our group, led by Jose, was like a new cinema coming to town. We were always surrounded by the young and hordes of street vendors. They swarmed around Chafic like flies. He continually talked to these pests who operate in the shadows of the law. A good number said they spent much of their time on Guardalavaca Beach working in the tourist generated thriving black market.

'Where are you from? Are you from the US?' I turned around to see an older man talking to us in perfect English. 'Where did you learn English?' I asked the poor-looking toothless man, dressed in crumbled clothing.

'I lived in Connecticut from 1945 to 1950, then returned to work in the Cuban nickel mines. I still speak good English don't I?' He went on, 'See this shirt! I bought it when I was in the US.' He pointed to his soiled shirt which strangely buttoned on the side.

Apparently, this over 50 year old shirt is a token of the happy days he spent in the US. Like the vast majority of Cubans, he had a soft part in his heart for America - the unreachable utopia to many of his compatriots.

Yet, the US blockade of the country is causing much suffering. Inspite of the fact that Cuba is coming out of its worst economic crisis in history, the shelf remains bare. The children of Banes, some with their mothers, swarming around us asking for money or anything else we had to spare are the reality of today's Cuba.

Nevertheless, there is hope for a better future. The economy plummeted 50 per cent after the collapse of communism in eastern Europe and most outside observers expected the Cuban system to disintegrate. However, today, the peso has come down on the black market from 130 to 25 to the US dollar and, in 1995, the gross national product increased by 2.5 per cent and is expected to rise to 5 per cent in 1996.

Foreign money is gradually flowing into the country. $3 billion has been invested during the past few years - principally from Spain, Mexico and Canada. All have invested heavily in the tourist industry, but Canada is also involved, to some extent, in the mining and oil sector.

Perhaps, after Castro's visit to China last year, Cuba will follow the successful Chinese model of opening up economically to capitalism while keeping state control in place. Should that happen, without doubt, the 'bird dogs' will be put out of business. No more will tourists hear men pass by and in a whisper ask, 'Cigars! Cheap!' or 'Want chica muy bonita?'

It is hoped that when America one day lifts its blockade of the Island, as it surely will, the ordinary Cubans will enjoy the good life and like the old man in Banes, will remember only the good in the USA.
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Title Annotation:black market thrives with tourism industry
Author:Salloum, Habeeb
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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