The Black Market
The black market, known as the bolsa (the exchange), resolves the failings of the state- controlled economy. Most Cubans rely on the underground economy—los bisneros—doing business illegally; on theft or fortuitous employment; or, for the exceedingly fortunate, a wealthy relative or a lover abroad. Cubans have always survived by resolviendo—the Cuban art of barter, the cut corner, or theft. The black market touches all walks of life. Even otherwise loyal revolutionaries are forced to break the law to survive. (In October 2005, after disclosing that half the gasoline in the country was being stolen, Castro fired gas station attendants en masse and replaced them with thousands of university students and young Communist Party supporters.)
A few years ago a peso income had some value. Today it is virtually worthless. Life has become organized around a mad scramble for foreign currency and pesos convertibles. The lucky ones have access to family cash, known as fula, sent from Miami. Cubans joke about getting by on fé, which is Spanish for faith, but today it’s an acronym for familia extranjera—family abroad. Cuban economists reckon that about 60 percent of the population now has some form of access to pesos convertibles. The rest must rely on their wits. The majority of Cubans have to simply buscar la forma, find a way.
Every morning people prepare to cobble together some kind of normalcy out of whatever the situation allows. Cubans are masters at making the best of a bad situation. Resolver (to resolve) is one most commonly used verbs on the island. The very elderly with no access to foreign currency, however, fare extremely badly, and thousands are malnourished, existing in abject poverty at a level barely above sobrevivencia (mere survival).
True, a large percent of the people now own cellular phones and other contemporary accoutrements. Everything else is a hand-me-down—mummified American cars, taped-together Russian refrigerators, and 45-pound Chinese bicycles. The staple of transport in cities is the horse-drawn cart. The staple for inter-city travel is the open-topped truck, often without any seats.
There’s always la yuma—the United States (from the 1957 film 3:10 to Yuma starring Glenn Ford and Van Heflin)—beckoning just 90 miles away (in 1996, when the U.S. Interests Section held a lottery to issue 20,000 visas, it received 541,500 applications by the cut-off date). Cubans lucky enough to receive visas to emigrate to the United States are bilked by the Cuban government (to the tune of almost US$1,000). Meanwhile, the families’ possessions are seized by the government; a state inspector takes an inventory, and if anything is missing on the day of departure the carta blanca is revoked and with it any chance of leaving.
© Christopher P. Baker from Moon Cuba, 5th Edition