Monday, March 9, 2009

Operation

Painting: Carousel, by Guillermo Malberti, exhibited at the gallery at 23 & 12 last month.

I reach the stop, the P4 is on its worst schedule (that is, random), the line of people waiting is enormous and I see a full bus coming that’s letting out people on the corner so it will arrive at the stop less full. I don’t manage to climb on board. I wait another hour for the next one, but it’s so full that it bypasses the stop. I decide to take a taxi for 10 pesos, I’m pissed, but there’s no other choice. I walk one kilometer to the Playa depot so I can stand on the corner where they go by. Surprise: they are all parked with “situation” faces, a few women dressed in gray write on voucher books and some policemen observe the scene. There is an operation going on; there will be no fast way out of here today.

Patience, minutes go by, I wonder how long it will be until the end of the taxi drivers’ torment. A long while later one of them starts to leave and I see him walking towards the car, I discretely approach him and say: “23 and 12?” He answers me aloud “yes” and we go.

I ask him about the operation, and if it went well, and he tells me yes, no problems, but they have fined him. Paradox?

- Why did you get fined?
- Because I have no license.
- And how is it that you were able to take me just like that, with no problem, in their presence?
- I paid them off.
- Why don’t you have a license?
- It’s only now that they started to issue them, but it takes time and I have been a taxi driver for many years now. Almost nobody here has a license, you slip them a buck and they leave you alone.

I’d been wrong, the operation was not to torment the taxi drivers, it was to officially extort the drivers, at the depot where it’s more convenient because they all have to go through there. The trip to Vedado was a lot of fun, we signaled each taxi we passed to let them know that there was an operation at the depot, some of them even yelled their opinions with respect to that and asked questions.

I suppose that most people who took taxis that day could not get to the depot, and I suppose that the cops and the women in gray made quite large sums of money.

One day, all those who have private businesses may be able to relate the macabre tales of blackmail and extortion to which they are subjected every day, and we can all know, with the exact amounts, the level of corruption that reigns in this bastion of socialism: the eating establishments that had to close because a guy arrived and took the documents without explanation; the cops, taking money from the owners; the ones in olive green uniforms sticking out their hands to get the monthly pay from the renters. But not only that: all the files that tell about the atrocities they have committed and that one day we will be able to read.

Although sometimes I remember the sad story about Milan Kundera and denunciation and lose a little Faith in the supposed moment of truth. How can we rely on those records that one day will be uncovered if they were written by the very people who today live by blackmail, lies and repression?

1 comment:

Canadian Traveller said...

My experience in travelling in Cuba (staying mostly in casa particulaires) is that the rip-offs work both ways. While perfectly understandable, ordinary Cubans frequently rip-off the Castro government.

If you travel to any major Cuban city, and look like a foreigner, you get steady stream of offers to stay in illegal casa particulaires from cab drivers and just ordinary Cubans on the street. Instead of paying a steep tax to the Cuban government, these illegal operators pocket 100% of the money they receive from tourists. Obviously this allows them to undercut the legal operators when it comes to what they charge for their accommodation.

Even by the standards of Latin America, the informal economy has got to be mega huge. Cuba is a place where it's next to impossible for a tourist (at least those who venture outside Old Havana and the tourist resorts) to know who's part of the legal economy and who's not.