CUBAN CHARM
by Teresa Dovalpage

A popular joke in Cuba goes this way. A kid is asked, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” “A foreigner!” he quickly replies.

My American friends don’t get it, and I don’t blame them. Who wants to be an alien? To be hounded by the INS, to be a stranger in society?

In Cuba, however, it makes sense. For a long time, the only people allowed to carry dollars in Cuba were foreigners. They did their shopping in stores called “diplotiendas” or “diplomercados” which, despite their names, also serviced a large number of natives. The law stipulated that an ordinary Cuban couldn’t enter a diplo-store alone. A Cuban had to be accompanied by a foreigner, who had to show a valid passport before entering the store. This situation created a flourishing black market where foreigners made profits by charging Cubans with dollars fifteen percent of whatever they were to spend at the diplo-stores.

One might ask, “Why would Cubans buy at diplo-stores instead of at stores where they are lawfully admitted?” Why, indeed? Simply put, the stores accepting Cuban pesos have carried no merchandise for quite some time. After the collapse of world communism, Soviet radios, Czech preserves, Bulgarian condoms and East German razors emigrated from Cuban shops at a dangerous speed. Cubans discarded their ration cards because nothing remained to be purchased. Store windows became empty holes that were stained with fly-droppings.

In 1993 the Cuban regime legalized the dollar, allowing its citizens to use the currency without risk of jail; but Cubans have continued to be second-class citizens in their own country. Expatriate Cubans who have come back as tourists are treated royally, while Cuba-dwelling Cubans are barred from staying in certain hotels, no matter how many dollars they might have to pay for the privilege. Nor can Cubans visit tourist centers in their own country, like Cayo Coco, unless they’re accompanied by visitors from abroad. And Cubans need an exit visa to leave the country, even for a few days. Exit visas, called white cards, can take months or years to obtain. Airline charges and passport fees have to be paid in dollars, while Cubans receive their salaries in pesos. It isn’t so surprising that Cuban kids aspire to be foreigners.

Let’s imagine a sixteen-year-old Cuban youngster. He is rather thin, due to the food shortages and the perennial bicycling he must do to get around. He has dropped out of high school to avoid attending “school-in-the fields” camps, away from family and home, where he would eat poorly—worse than in Havana—while toiling in the fields for several hours each day. Instead he works as a bicycle mechanic or, if he is really lucky, at an illegal private business. Perhaps he wanders around hotel lobbies in hopes of enrolling tourists to stay at “a Cuban family house where you have all the comforts you want, breakfast and lunch included, for twenty dollars a day.”

At the Capri Hotel, our youngster spots a potential customer. The tourist is well-fed, perhaps overfed. He sports a real or fake Rolex, a Hawaiian shirt and a state-of-the-art Japanese camera. Maybe he’s got a gigantic gold chain around his neck. The tourist shows off in the hotel lobby with a native beauty hanging from his arm. And the Havana-born youngster eyes him with a mix of envy and admiration, telling himself: “I wish I were a foreigner, too.”

Let’s say this youngster achieves his dream. He wins the visa lottery, or crosses the Caribbean in a homemade raft, or hooks up with a lonely Spanish or Swedish woman who falls for his Cuban charm. He gets his exit visa, his passport and plane ticket. Out of Cuba he goes. Once in the Big Outdoors, he quickly finds out that other cultures don’t put foreigners on the high pedestal they get in Cuba. He realizes that most “natives” regard foreigners with sympathy at best, or with fear and contempt at worst. He sees that he and others like him are considered exotic breeds or dangerous animals. He experiences all the symptoms of the “otherness” virus.

Our youngster desperately longs to become part of his new culture; to be a native, to blend with the crowd. He starts to speak a new language; perhaps he changes his name. His lengthy struggle culminates when he acquires a new citizenship.

Some years after leaving Cuba, he returns to his native land. He is now well-fed, perhaps overfed. He sports a real or fake Rolex, a Hawaiian shirt and a state-of-the-art Japanese camera. To reinforce his status as a prosperous ex-Cuban, he wears a gigantic gold chain around his neck. He shows off in the hotel lobby with a native beauty on his arm. And in the shadows a Havana-born youngster, with a mix of envy and admiration, is whispering to himself: “I wish I were a foreigner, too.”


Other stories...
     "Cuba on the Hudson" by Paquito DíRivera
     "The Shiny Red Lunchbox" by Mariela Ferretti




Teresa Dovalpage —née Teresa de la Caridad Doval— is the author of two novels: Posesas de La Habana (Pureplay Press) and A Girl Like Che Guevara (Soho Press).

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