Cuba Culture

Tourist trade gives some Cubans chance to earn American greenbacks

Posted January 18, 2004 by publisher in Cuba Culture.

BY RON MENCHACHA | Charleston Post and Courier Staff

A statue of Christ overlooks Havana harbor from the small hilltop town of Casablanca. El Cristo de Casablanca was carved from Italian marble in 1958 by a Cuban sculptor.

A smattering of tourists have made the steep trek to the statue’s base for breathtaking views of Havana’s northern shore.

Two musicians serenade visitors with Guantanamara, a popular Cuban song. They come here almost every day to scratch out a living from what tourists toss into their hat.
The average government worker in Cuba is paid in pesos, but because Fidel Castro legalized the American dollar in 1993, Cuba has two economies.

Tourism-related businesses offer the best opportunities for Cubans seeking the highly prized dollar.

On a sunny weekend day, the hilltop musicians might split $25.

“When the weather is rainy, one or two dollars,” guitarist Leovanis Samuel says.

In the shadow of the Christ statue, Samuel strums his guitar. His partner, Julian Brisan, plays maracas fashioned from old plastic ketchup bottles, sticks, tape and a handful of pebbles.

They call themselves Crystal, also the name of a popular Cuban beer.

It’s hard to believe what they’re doing is illegal, but they don’t have the required government license to perform. If caught, they risk a $200 ticket, more money than they could raise in a month.

But for a payment of a few American dollars, they say the police who patrol the area usually don’t hassle them.

They’ll take their chances, they say, because they can make more money without a license. Licensed musicians have to share their earnings with the socialist government.

Still, such threats don’t dissuade or discourage Samuel or dampen his outlook on life. He sings a melodious tune about an honest woman who lives in the countryside. “Something happens in my life, I sit down and write,” he says.

Later, in central Havana, a licensed musician is showing off the fruits of his labor.

His new shiny red motor scooter, decidedly Italian-looking, is drawing a crowd. In the middle of the street, surrounded by dilapidated buildings, it stands out like a shiny gold coin on the sidewalk.

His band is popular enough to travel and perform outside Cuba. The government condones it because it’s good marketing for Cuba’s tourism industry.

Watching the drawing power of the scooter from a distance, Cuban Mandy Fernandez observes that, “Everybody is impressed.”

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