Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Cuba, Now: The Two-Tier Society of Standing in Line

Cuba, Now: The Two-Tier Society of Standing in Line
Where: Cuba
February 15, 2011 at 10:56 AM

With President Obama working to lessen Cuba Travel restrictions, the
focus on future trips to the country is growing wildly. A Jaunted
special secret correspondent just returned from a period in Cuba, and
she'll be sharing her impressions of the country, the people and their
hopes all this week.

As a patriotic English girl I thought—hah!—I knew how to queue. I'd
never been to Cuba before.

Masters of the art of standing in line, Cuban people have cultivated
both infinite patience and a set of queuing rules more complex than the
small print on a bureaucrat's brain. It's partly practice. Socialism is
supposed to create equality, but Cuba has two currencies and two sets of
people: those who earn in Cuban pesos, or moneda nacional, and those
with access to Convertible pesos, which in 2004 replaced the US dollar.
Meager salaries—around $15-20 a month for most jobs, including
doctors—are supplemented by ration books. And rationing means queuing.

Standing in line is also a social occasion, a chance to gossip with
girlfriends or flirt with the local Don Juan. Take the line outside
Coppelia, Cuba's state-run, heavily subsidized ice cream parlor (Castro
follows the 'Let them eat ice cream' philosophy). Those brandishing
Convertible pesos are shunted to a forlorn and empty tourist stand,
while Cubans with their moneda nacional wait two hours or more for a
seat at the formica ice cream bar and a plastic plate dolloped with a
small mountain of fast-melting vanilla and a drizzle of chocolate lava
spouting from the top.

A guard—one of many preventing the parlor from a Bastille-style
storming—looked surprised when I asked why people waited that long. "You
tourists are so impatient," he said, with a condescending smile. "You
want everything right away. We're used to standing in line." He paused.
"Anyway, we have nothing else to do."

Can the Cuban peso and the queuing culture survive a prospective
commercial revolution following the fall of the US embargo? I doubt it.
And to be honest, if having two currencies means two economies, two sets
of restaurants, bars and shops, two classes of people, the haves and the
have-nots...and if it means standing in line rather than working or
learning or loving...then I sincerely hope it doesn't.


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