Burning questions

Q: Is it still legal for Americans to travel to Cuba?

Honestly, the scare tactics channeled from Miami through the White House and meant to frighten Americans away aren’t working all that well.  There are more Americans here now than ever – the Cubans keep track and statistics show twice as many right now as this same time last year.  Curiously, they’re open and defiant about their travel in a way I’ve never quite seen before.  A friend of mine who recently happened to stop by the Kempinski downtown (the 5 star hotel that is one of many on Trump’s blacklist) found the lobby packed with Americans, laughing and joking about who might tattle on them.

I’ve always said that what happens in Cuba stays in Cuba.  There’s no way the Treasury Department can know what you’ve done here unless you tell them.  I understand that different people have different comfort levels with that concept, which is why when I make travel arrangements here for family and friends, and friends of friends, etc., I do it in a way that’s totally compliant with the regulations, without making them feel like prisoners.

As far as the regulations go, there have been threats to limit the non-family travel, but no revised regulations to match.  Will they appear?  Who knows?  And really, who cares?  Because I’ve always found, over the twenty years I’ve been coming here, that where there’s a will, there’s a way.  It’s just interesting to see that so much of the current US policy toward Cuba is based on huffing and puffing and threatening to blow the house down – fear certainly has its uses but as a concrete enforceable tactic it’s rather limited.

Q: What’s this about food shortages and rationing?  Are you ok?

A: Yes, we’re ok.  Yes, there are shortages.  But this is not news.  There have been shortages ever since I came to live here seven years ago.  It has always been a scavenger hunt to find anything, often involving a stop at several or many different stores. There are reasons for this. We can discuss them some other time. I believe I have written here before about the year we had no butter (admittedly a luxury item) anywhere, for nine months. You quickly learn that if it’s not here today, it might be tomorrow, and if not tomorrow then next week.  Or next month.  Or next year.  Or maybe you can actually live without it.  You learn to go with the flow and eventually you even begin to separate your wants from your needs, which is a useful exercise for anyone.

What is new is the panic buying, stoked by fears of a severe downturn in the already poor economy, with media reports pouring fuel on the fire.  The real situation is a little more complex. 

Neither food nor petroleum imports turn on a dime.  No-one knows for sure if there is less petroleum coming in than before, because the Cuban government views information like this as strategic and doesn’t share it with anyone. Sometimes it doesn’t even share non-strategic information.  I once needed a relatively unimportant figure from the 2002 census that is supposed to be online, but the link to the 2002 census doesn’t work, and no-one could be bothered to fix it.  Getting a copy of the census at the library is a machiavellian exercise that is not exactly the library’s fault, and not worth detailing either.  A visit to the statistics office is met with a demand for credentials, and an ID card is not seen by those guarding the door as sufficiently important, regardless of the fact that one is only seeking public information.  

Also there’s the enormously complicated matter of how oil is actually bought, sold, traded and transported.  Even if it were true that oil deliveries have dropped (which no-one knows), arrangements for substitute deliveries often involve triangulating the trade in a way that would make your eyes glaze over if I tried to explain it.  My point is that anyone who reads the tea leaves and says there’s less oil coming in, therefore less food, is grasping at straws, I don’t care who they are.  

Nevertheless there are measurable things.  The problem is that no-one bothers to measure them.  The Ministry of Domestic Trade says that basics like oil, eggs and rice are at the same or even increased levels as ever, but the hoarding is throwing everything off kilter.  A journalist visiting different stores with a grocery list could easily compare and confirm year on year numbers with store managers, but the Cuban journalists are evidently unmotivated to do so and the foreign journalists are too busy shouting the sky is falling and tweeting alarming pictures of mobbed grocery stores, which proves only that there are scarcities but makes no meaningful contribution to answering the question of why.

So yes, for now, action is being taken like limiting the number of packages of certain high demand products that a single consumer can buy at any one time, but it does not quite rise to the level of rationing.  We do have that. But it’s something different. Unless U.S. journalists also call Black Friday shopping limits rationing, then ok.  Just remember, language is political and context matters.