“Bienvenidos a Yuma!”
“Can I give you a haircut?”, the recently arrived Cuban barber responded to my welcome, eyes amazed at my unexpected Cuban-inflected Spanish, and especially to the Yuma reference. It’s a bit of post-Revolutionary slang — derived from the 1957 Glenn Ford movie, 3:10 to Yuma — that refers to any free country outside the island (long, convoluted story).
Three recent editions of the Arizona Republic, the state’s largest newspaper, had headlined the idea that new Cuban asylum seekers are choosing to settle in Arizona instead of Florida. Some had already opened businesses at one modest stripmall in Glendale, financed by the Phoenix Valley’s already existing Cuban diaspora. I decided to drop by, check the scene out, and welcome them. At the Yerbería Ochún, a store specializing in Cuban religious paraphernalia next door to the barber shop, I bought a statuette set of the seven African Powers — Orula, Obatala, Ochún, Yemaya, Ogún, Chango and Elegua — revered in Cuban Santeria.
Sugar, the national industry, suffers without young, able workers to harvest and process the cane.
Arizona, though not accessible by homemade rafts, has gained prominence as an asylum destination because it is one of the first places Cuban refugees arrive at via the new escape route facilitated by Nicaragua. With conditions in Cuba becoming desperate beyond measure (inflation in January 2023 hit 44.5%, foreign reserves and liquidity were at less than zero, and Venezuela’s lifeline was fraying) the Communist regime negotiated an escape valve with the Ortega regime. Nicaragua now offers visa-free travel to that country for Cubans, providing a land route to the United States.
It’s the young who leave. The Endowment for Cuban American Studies reports that Cuba is now demographically one of the oldest populations in Latin America, with 21.6% (or 2.4 million) of the population older than 60 years of age. Sugar, the national industry, suffers without young, able workers to harvest and process the cane. Out of 23 centrales, or sugar processing plants, only seven are effectively operating. Last year’s harvest, at 473,000 tons, was the worst in Cuban history. In an admission of reality, 2023’s production is only forecast to reach 455,198 tons.
But that’s not the only plague bedeviling the countryside. Cuba’s cattle industry, concentrated in its central provinces, is an anomaly. Traditionally, Cubans ate lots of beef in dishes such as ropa vieja, bistec en cazuela, picadillo and many others. Now the beef is reserved for the nomenklatura, tourists, or export and is strictly out of reach to the general population, even as cattle die from central planning mismanagement. In 2022, in the province of Villa Clara alone, 22,541 beeves died of malnutrition, according to the official Agencia Cubana de Noticias, in contrast to only 2,077 beef deaths in 2021 from lack of feed.
Along with the death of cattle, horses — a cowboy’s requisite — are also disappearing. Between 2017 and 2021, 19,119 horses were euthanized or simply disappeared. In 2022 alone, more than 5,000 vanished.
On a separate note, the July 11, 2021, demonstrations, the participants of which numbered about 100,000, continue to be a Tiananmen-type touchstone in Cuba’s civil society resistance. According to EFE, a Spanish news agency, the US, the European Union, various Latin American embassies and the Vatican are negotiating the release of the 710 arrestees from that protest. Ever helpful, Nicaragua accepted 200, doubtless to release them northward.
Luis Cino Alvarez, an independent journalist writing in the Boletín Informativo of the CANF, has explored the relationship between the many civil society organizations fighting for official recognition by the Cuban government, including the mass of July 11 demonstrators, and the recently empowered self-employed. In spite of their being natural allies, it’s a delicate minuet. Any sort of outright resistance, official complaints, or organization into syndicates to defend their rights would only imperil their businesses. Some go so far as to put up Revolutionary posters of Fidel and Raul Castro on the walls of their businesses, positive messages to unwelcome bureaucrats but total turnoffs to clientele.
The entrepreneurs don’t engender much sympathy among the civil society groups. At the worst, the population — after 63 years of socialist brainwashing — perceives them as heartless capitalists intent on accumulating wealth.
On the other hand, the civil society organizations have their hands full advocating for imprisoned demonstrators, families left homeless by urban renewal, illegal squatters, the sick and the old whose social security has been illegally terminated, and every other abused citizen. The entrepreneurs don’t engender much sympathy among the civil society groups. At the worst, the population — after 63 years of socialist brainwashing — perceives them as heartless capitalists intent on accumulating wealth by taking advantage of shortages by price gouging, a situation the government exploits to keep the two groups at loggerheads, blaming entrepreneurs for the shortages and the inflation and for not taking any responsibility for Cuba’s economic woes. Amazingly, some of the cuentapropistas, as the self-employed are known, are retired military or employees of MININT, the Ministry of the Interior, whose licenses to operate were obtained by greasing the skids. The propaganda has been so effective that much of the populace perceives a conflict of values between the small business owners as selfish petit bourgeois selling overpriced bits of hard-to-come-by comestibles and trivia, and the civil society groups as selfless idealists intent on bettering society. In truth, if the two groups were to join in “solidarity they would contribute to the strengthening of civil society and set ablaze an eventual transition to democracy,” as Cino Alvarez puts it.
It’s an old story. Entrenched fear, mistrust, and hypocrisy permeating every corner of society are the products of the authoritarian state. They do what they are intended to do — prevent a transition to democracy and, even more, to a market-based economy.
Meanwhile, the Cuban influx to Arizona in a way recapitulates my own family’s settlement in Arizona. We came up overland from Mexico, stayed in AZ for a while, went to Miami, but then back to AZ. Cubans’ desire for freedom has not changed.