Doing the Cuban Hustle

There are lots of ways to define “hustle.” Giving your all during an athletic contest. Working as a prostitute. Pressuring someone into buying something. The definition I like best comes from Urban Dictionary and sums up my recent experience in Cuba: “Hustle” means working hard toward creating an income.

Though private enterprise is making some inroads in Cuba, especially since the death of Fidel Castro, it is an impoverished nation. The median family income is the equivalent of about 500 dollars per year. Even taking into consideration that healthcare and education are free and that the government provides marginal subsidized living expenses, most Cubans struggle to make ends meet. Many of those who need extra income do what poor people the world over do. They hustle. Some of their methods are entertaining, some are frustrating and some are downright heartbreaking. I leave it to you to judge which categories these hustles fall into:

  • Selling souvenirs, from brown baseballs to jewelry to maracas and everything in between. Most fascinating are caps and t-shirts bearing Che Guevara’s picture, but that’s a subject for a column all its own.
  • Working as street musicians.
  • Drawing a quick caricature and then hounding the subject into buying it, even when it’s horribly unflattering. Yep, I paid for one and then ripped it up and threw it in the trash as soon as the “artist” was out of sight.
  • Posing as a statue. This is one of the most amazing talents I’ve ever witnessed. Talk about patience! I can’t help but wonder how many statues I walked by without realizing they were real, live people.
  • Driving a cab, be it a bicycle with a back seat, a horse-drawn wagon or a vintage automobile. To the young man with the red Thunderbird and the Bruno Mars hairdo (“Hey, pretty lady, need a ride?”) I said yes.
  • Ironing clothes in the middle of the street, though I’m not convinced this is a lucrative enterprise. I didn’t see a single tourist take off his shirt or britches and hand them to the laundress.
  • Selling kisses to any man who looks like he might enjoy them. (In the case of the American pictured here, those kisses cost him five dollars, which likely would have been more if he hadn’t turned and skedaddled.)

And then there are the beggars and the sleazy moneychangers and the street merchants who sell fake rum and cigars. But, alas, I’ve run out of room to write about them.

(February 25, 2018)