Cuba is one of the last undeveloped areas in the Western Hemisphere. This is why I love Cuba, it feels like the wild wild west of yore, where anything is possible and yet nothing gets done.
There are two Cuba’s, the one for the well connected, and the one for the rest of the population. I live with the rest of the population, and I bring you their voices and points of view.
Seventy five percent of Cuba’s labor force is employed by the government. The average salary of these people is around $25 dollars a month. Reality is, it takes about $100 a month to live in Cuba, so that is where the wild west comes in.
The balance of what is made by a regular Cuban citizen is on the black market. I have struggled with this word as it has such negative connotations, and yet that is the reality of life in Cuba.
The black market in Cuba is like any all over the world, it is fueled by goods that happen to “fall off of the truck”.
Another way to make money is the hustle. This can be from the Jineteros to the motorcycle turned impromptu taxi.
This is why, to get things done in Cuba it is the old who you know, not what you know. You don’t walk into the store and purchase supplies, you get on the phone and call everyone you know until you find someone that might know someone that has a cousin. You can also just walk around town. Many times anyone that has what you are looking for will be right next to the same kind of merchandiser. In other words, PVC pipe can all be found on the same block in your town, they have different parts, different prices and maybe one is a friend of your brothers or not. These are not stores as you know them, these are hand crafted metal sheds that come and go with the wind.
You are a tad better off if you are the cook of the house, as often the vendor will walk down the street with the goods you need. This has become much more open lately, in the old days there would be a knock on the door and the wares would be in a brown hemp sack, now you can hear vendors yelling their wares like an ice cream truck jingle announces the truck is on the block. In my town the bread guy incessantly blows a whistle, charming, but his route goes by my house at 6:00 in the morning.
Others make money by hustling their services. You will find people who own motorcycles driving around town with two helmets, the second for the passenger that surreptitiously slides on the back for a few pesos and a ride across town. In the more prominent tourist towns, for a $1 you can have your picture taken with a classically dressed Cuban and their cigars or listen to Cuban music from the street band with a hat on the ground for appreciative coins. If there is a way to make a buck, a Cuban is doing it.
Next are those making the hustle with the tourists. These would be the Jinetero (male) or Jinetera (women). The profession and now the connotation has changed over the years. Originally these were prostitutes, the word Jinetera means jockey in English, draw your own conclusions. Now many of these people work with tourists. They may still be in the older trade, but they also can be someone that helps you find a hotel or casa paticular for a fee.
The US State Department defines them as street “jockeys,” who specialize in swindling tourists. Most jineteros speak English and go out of their way to appear friendly, by offering to serve as tour guides or to facilitate the purchase of cheap cigars, for example. However many are in fact professional criminals who will not hesitate to use violence in their efforts to acquire tourists’ money and other valuables.
To a point I must disagree. Sure, there are street hustlers all over the world out to relieve you of your valuables, but that does not mean they all are. In Cuba jineteros can be aggressive and brazen, but they are street hustlers, they are no different in Cuba than anywhere else in the world. Fun to talk to, good for information if you are upfront about what you are going to pay, and a good resource as long as you keep your wallet close to your vest and keep them on point.
Most tourists do not see these sides of Cuba, tourism is big business in Cuba so tourists are pampered and catered to, follow us to see the real Cuba. We will be watching and writing about the massive changes this island country is going through as it moves into the 21st century and how that will effect the average Cuban citizen.