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"Notes from the Field": 
   Journal Entry # 2: 
Re-Entering Havana:  The Globalization of Despair  
 

RE-ENTERING HAVANA:  THE GLOBALIZATION OF DESPAIR

(June, 1998):

This is my third visit to Cuba, and my first semi-official one.  I am attending a conference on sustainable development, sponsored and organized by the American Friends Service Committee.  This visit was in marked contrast to the first.

From No-Star to 5-Star
My first shock was my room at the Havana Libre hotel.  I had been in this hotel three years ago, in a Soviet-style room (“Soviet style” may be an oxymoron).  Soviet decor did not envision anyone over six feet tall ever sleeping in their beds, or that a person might actually want to turn over in bed.  Nothing ever matched in the rooms, and everything looked like it came from your grandmother’s yard sale.

The newly remodeled Havana Libre is close to a five star hotel.  The bathroom was larger than my entire room at the old hotel!  And, I’ve got a view of the ocean!

My second shock was how much the quality of life in Cuba had deteriorated from my last visit, two years ago.  At that time, I reported that Havana was the safest city in the Western hemisphere, and joked that there were some positive aspects to having a police state.

Apparently, not even a police state can keep up with global corporatism, and the cultural changes it brings.  In an economy driven by US dollars, if you have access to dollars, you can live a pretty good life.  But, without dollars, even physical survival is a question.

As we all know too well, you get access to dollars by buying, selling or stealing.  Since most things that one can buy or sell on the green or gray markets are restricted by the government, a black market in goods and services has sprung up, led by prostitution and drugs.

Two years ago, it was simply impossible to obtain drugs in Havana.  Today, crack cocaine is obtainable, a sad commentary on the swift deterioration of the quality of life.  The worst of all worlds:  they have both the police state and the crime.

THE SYSTEM AND THE “OUTLAW” POPULATION:
I’m not sure what to call this economic system.  How about  “com-pitalism”?  Again, the worst of both worlds: the inspired greed and fear of lack of capitalism, along with totalitarian control and the unending bloatedness of State communism.

Food and other basic commodities are rationed.  Of course, the rations are so small, they cannot sustain life.  Plenty of food is available in the “dollars only” markets, but you have to have access to US dollars.  If you are not a waiter in a hotel, or have relatives who will finance you from the US, your prospects are pretty bleak.  Prostitution, black market cigars and other below the table activities abound.  By lumping moral and immoral activities together, the System forces people to make decisions they simply should not have to make.  (For example:  the guys hanging around the hotels like flies on a warm pile of dog doo doo will sell me black market cigars, which is illegal.  They will also sell me crack cocaine, which is also illegal.  If they are going to break the law, why not sell the cocaine, for which there is a much higher return on investment?)

The black underclass community of America knows this dilemma really well.  To make money, my mother had “rent parties” at the end of the month, where she would serve plates of “home cooked meals” (literally) for $5.00 a plate.  The “rent party” in the government housing projects were illegal.  So was selling liquor by the shot.  It was very tempting for her to add to her illegal profits by having a “rent bar”; the penalties were the same and she could make a lot more money.

There is a moral difference between selling food, selling alcohol and selling drugs.  By making all of these activities illegal, the State (US or Cuban) abdicates its moral responsibility and criminalizes its own population.  The “crime” is not in being bad but in being poor.

Peace,

Sharif
 
 
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