Ted Henken was visiting the Cuban beach resort of Varadero, looking for a place to stay. He asked a waiter if for accommodation suggestions. During the waiter’s smoke break, he took Henken to five bed and breakfasts within 15 minutes.
Henken picked one and checked in. The owner then told Henken his room would be ready, but he would have to come back at 9:00 p.m.
“I came a little bit before 9:00 because I was curious and they actually, out of my bedroom, they were running a restaurant. And then I got there at 9:00, the restaurant closed and then I had my bedroom,” Henken told KGOU’s World Views.
In his book Entrepreneurial Cuba: The Changing Policy Landscape, Henken explores the Cuban government’s economic policies toward the private sector. Despite regulations that were largely restrictive toward private enterprise, Cubans use creativity to find ways to make a buck. The book highlights what Henken describes as “the thousand and one workarounds” that Cubans use to run businesses.
“The fascinating thing that drew drew me to it as an ethnographer was to see all of these mom and pops, all of these families, inventing businesses with very little capital, with very little resources, with an idea and a way to get a piece of the pie,” Henken said.
Henken describes Cubans as “sophisticated” in the way they process information. He theorizes the political system they live under forces Cubans to discern what information is true and what is propaganda.
“Cubans, they have a pessimistic mentality and therefore they are sophisticated at reading and seeing levels and shades of meaning and truth and manipulation,” Henken said.
Henken, who teaches in Baruch College at the City University of New York, says even though Cuba has been cut off from the United States for nearly 60 years, Cubans are “ultramodern” because they have to work within the limits of the government’s economic system.
“Cubans, they would try to put an ace up their sleeve,” Henken said. “They would try to fix the system, work the system. They were always looking for an angle.”
That mindset has helped Cubans eak out a living through what Henken calls “micro-enterprises” that are generally tolerated by the government.
“There's so many applications of it. You could say that Cubans used that kind of mentality to keep a ‘57 Chevy running in 2017,” Henken said. “And so that same philosophy they apply to getting the internet without the internet, or running a business in a country that looks down upon or even makes illegal private enterprise.”
Cuba was left behind during the digital revolution, but within the last 5 years or so, Cubans have been trying to catch up. However, internet access in Cuba is typically slow, censored and expensive.
Creative Cubans have come up with a solution: El paquete, or “the packet.”
“There are people, various secret ways, to get access to the internet and download massive amounts of data on a weekly basis,” Henken said. “Almost a terabyte of information they'll download onto a hard drive, and that will include everything from Game of Thrones and House of Cards to video clips from Univision, whether it's news to music videos, to apps for your cell phone, to newspaper and magazine articles.”
Cubans can ask somebody to come to their home to download el paquete to their laptops. In addition to content from the web, el paquete also has independently produced magazines and newspapers. These news sources cannot be published because the Cuban government monopolizes the official media, but they are now slipped into el paquete and circulated across the country.
“This is the alternate media that has, in many ways, eroded and swamps the dominant media and it rides in the back of a flash drive,” Henken said. “And if you want to get it, you just let the right person know and they'll show up at your house, knock on your door, and and install onto your computer.”
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Suzette Grillot: Ted Henken, welcome to World Views.
Ted Henken: It's fabulous to be with you.
Grillot: So Ted you're an expert, a scholar, of Cuba. And we're all fascinated with Cuba these days, and many of us have not been able to travel there. You've been there many times. I studied it for a long time. Tell us first though how you developed an interest in Cuba how you ended up going to Cuba and spending so much time there.
Henken: Well this goes back to the 90s when I was working as a social worker actually in Mobile, Alabama. I before I went to graduate school and after I finished college I I've always been interested in the world in other cultures and travel. And one of the ways that I kind of harness that was to work with immigrants in the United States. And so I had a job at Catholic Social Services in Mobile, Alabama and I was resettling, I was hired actually because I spoke Spanish, I was resettling Cuban refugees who were coming in from Guantanamo Bay Naval Base. This was the same year where I had worked with the Head Start program as a social worker with undocumented Mexican migrant laborers who were coming to Alabama to harvest potatoes.
Henken: And so it was just a fascinating experience to be exposed to these two different Latin American and Caribbean cultures, Spanish speaking, but who had very different let's say origins, cultures, and who when they arrived United States got completely different treatment. The Cubans were welcomed as refugees from communism and given really a helping hand. And the Mexicans were hiding in the shadows, but doing but doing a good work of harvesting the crops for you know for Alabamians and for people across the country who would buy those crops. And so when I worked with the Cubans, they would tell me stories about life in Cuba and I was intrigued. And so I decided that when I went to graduate school and I started to graduate school in 1997 at Tulane University that I would kind of try to go deeper and try to go to Cuba to find out about the place that they were telling me. And so that was my initiation into Cuba and its diaspora and its uniqueness.
Grillot: So when you mention that the immigrants, the differences between these communities, I mean clearly their treatment and the fact that one was out in the open and one was in the shadows as you mentioned and that they were welcomed differently or one welcomed, and one not welcomed. Were there any other differences between these two communities? I mean they obviously have a different historical trajectory. But culturally and other in other aspects what how would you distinguish these communities, Cubans and Mexicans.
Well I mean the big difference as you mentioned is their legal treatment and which is interesting because that ended in January. The last thing that Obama did of Cuba was to end the wet-foot-dry foot policy that gave Cuban special treatment. I used to tell people that when when most immigrants came to the United States undocumented they ran from la migra. The Cubans ran toward la migra, right, because they would get to register and get legalized right. Culturally they're very different. I find that, and I was working with Mexicans who were from rural Indigenous communities, so they were a particular kind of Mexican that weren't representative of all Mexicans by any means. But I I found that they brought with them this Millennial indigenous culture which was much more religious, much more let's say fatalistic in the sense that you know life deals you a hand and you have to play it. Whereas the Cubans they would try to you know put an ace up their sleeve. They would try to fix the system, work the system they were always looking for an angle. Cubans in my experience are even though they've been cut off from the United States for 50 years, 60 years, they are ultramodern they're they're they're they believe in angles and figuring out a way if there's no way they don't take what's dealt with them they figure out how to get around or get over or get under or get through.
Henken: Also Cubans are sophisticated because, this is my theory anyway, that because of the kind of political system that they live under, they're taught one truth that maybe 30 percent of the country believes, and then everyone else realizes that there's multiple levels that things operate on. And so they develop a sophistication about how they use coded language what's true, what's propaganda. You know a lot of Americans, in my experience, have the opposite problem whereas we believe everything we hear, or we used to anyway. And so we're easily tricked because we kind of have a bright side mentality. Whereas the Cubans they have a pessimistic mentality and therefore they are sophisticated at reading you know and seeing levels and shades of meaning and truth and manipulation.
Grillot: A very interesting description of Cuban culture. Of course I haven't been to Cuba, but I'm I'm curious of your your characterization of them as kind of being able to figure out a way through something, around something, into something, that they are very entrepreneurial. The name of your recent book is "Entrepreneurial Cuba." Is this what you're referring to? Can you tell us a little bit about the book?
Henken: Yeah I mean there's so many applications of it. You could you could say that Cubans used to use that kind of mentality to keep a 57 Chevy running in 2017. Right. And so that same philosophy they apply to getting the Internet without the internet or running a business in a country that looks down upon or even makes illegal private enterprise. And so in one sense it's a study of the economic policies of the government toward the private sector throughout the revolution. And it's essentially gone up and down, you could say swung back and forth between giving it space and trying to asphyxiate it depending on various factors mostly, you know, what was Fidel's mood and what was the general state of the economy when they were cut when they were cracked down in the private sector that would let's say be a win in terms of ideology and in terms of equality but then productivity and efficiency would suffer and the economy would suffer. And so then you know five or six years later when things got tough they would then allow it to grow again because it would provide goods and services that the state couldn't efficiently or productively. So that's you know that's the the government side. The fascinating thing that drew drew me to it as an ethnographer was to see all of these mom and pops, all of these families, inventing businesses with very little capital, with very little resources, with an idea and a way to get a piece of the pie.
Henken: Remember, during the 90s Cuba started opening up to international tourism so there were there were foreigners with hard currency in their pockets walking around. The government had mostly monopolized that through their state run hotels or resorts but Cubans were like, well, I'll set up bed and breakfast in my own home. I'll turn my living room into a restaurant. I will use the car that I got from being a vanguard worker in the 80s as a taxi.
Henken: And so I remember one time I went to the very kind of famous beach resort of Varadero, which is kind of Cuba's Cancún. And I was looking for a place to stay. I showed up without a place to stay, and I asked a waiter in the restaurant that I was eating I said Hey I'm trying to find a place to stay. And during his smoke break he took me to five bed and breakfasts within 15 minutes that were in walking distance. I settled on one and I checked in and they said, well, you can stay here to night but don't come before 9:00 o'clock. I'm like well why is that? They say, don't worry about it. But you have a place to stay. So I came a little bit before 9:00 because I was curious and they actually out of my bedroom they were running a restaurant. And then I got there 9:00 the restaurant closed and then I had my bedroom.
Henken: So so the "Entrepreneurial Cuba" was kind of highlighting all of the thousand and one workarounds that Cubans have figured out both when it was illegal, when it was tolerated, and when now it's being encouraged, this kind of micro-enterprise sector. It's really not a true private sector. I would call it a micro enterprise sector. And these are some of the most interesting and common uses of it: Private restaurants what are called paladares in Cuba, bed and breakfasts - and now that there is Air so there's Air B and B, they had B and B before there was Air for 20 years, but now they're connected to Air B and B - and private taxis. So that's kind of one of the illustrations in my book where I highlight these kind of innovations.
Grillot: Well I mean I was going to ask or say you know it sounds like Cuba has been doing Air B and B and Uber or Lyft, you know, long before we have. But this isn't necessarily the picture that many of us have of Cuba. You mentioned the 1957 Chevy for example. You know the old cars, the kind of, you know, older architecture of the just different way of life that's kind of stuck 50, 60 years behind us. But it sounds like it's they've they've really managed to to move forward and be more modern than perhaps we think. And particularly in connections how about the Internet and things like that. I mean, how are they able to, to, you know, connect socially on the World Wide Web.
Henken: The worldwide digital revolution left Cuba behind and Cubans on the island in the last 15 or so years but especially in the last five years have been trying to catch up. And this is kind of promoted ironically by Cubans, Cuba's very good educational system, but people then graduate and don't have options for work that are you know that will pay well and are often cut off because of the lack of access to the Internet. So Cubans have come up with a thousand and one ways to get to get what's on the internet without actually getting access to the Internet. So one of the things that they have developed probably the most interesting and fascinating thing is called el paquete - The packet. And this used to be weekly now it's a daily thing but basically in Cuba the Internet is is really reinvented on a flash drive. And so there are people various secret ways to get access to the Internet and download massive amounts of data on a weekly basis. Almost a terabyte of information they'll download onto a hard drive, and that will include everything from Game of Thrones and House of Cards to video clips from you know Univision whether it's news to music videos to apps for your cell phone to newspaper and magazine articles. And now there's even Cubans in Cuba who have independently developed magazines and newspapers that they don't publish because it's illegal to publish them in hardcopy. But then they they put them into the packet and they circulate informally - but massively - throughout the country. It used to be a kind of a minor phenomenon. Now it's a mass media phenomenon because again the Cuban government monopolizes the official media, and there's only you know three or four television stations. So this is the alternate media that has in many ways eroded and swamps the dominant media and it rides in the back of a flash drive. And if you want to get get it you just certainly you let the right person know and they'll show up at your house knock on your door and and install onto your computer, right, your shows or your subscription. Or you can go to certain places that are officially known as cell phone repair shops but you go in there and then they'll they'll upgrade your flash drive to this week's shows. Right and it's a nominal you know couple of dollars a week fee and you get all the shows and sometimes they'll see shows at a lower price and quicker than we will see them here because they are that plugged in and they want the cutting edge things today and not next week or next month or next year.
Grillot: So that's really incredible. OK. Well I have to end with this obviously under the Obama administration we saw a good number a good amount of change come to the relationship between the United States and Cuba but now under the new Trump administration there's some question about where we're headed. Can you just tell us here in conclusion where you think this relationship is going.
Henken: It is true that under the last administration, the last two years of the last administration, we had a major shift and U.S.-Cuban relations, a thawing, normalization, or a process toward normalization, diplomatic recognition setting up embassies in each country, and massive levels of travel from the U.S. to Cuba that have ramped up. U.S. airlines are now involved. Interestingly the Monday following Fidel Castro's death was the first commercial airline flight to Havana from the United States. And like 60 years. So all of this was happening. You have then that the election of Donald Trump and you have the death of Fidel Castro happen you know in the same month of November of 2016. What does that mean? Well, Cubans are nervous because although a lot of the obstacles in their lives haven't essentially changed there has certainly been a significant breath of fresh air, more money in the pockets of these entrepreneurs, more ability to travel, more access to information. And some of this has happened because of Cuban government decisions some of it has kind of been forced on the Cuban government and some of it has been facilitated by the Obama shift or pivot. But I like to call it. And so the question is which Donald Trump will make the policy toward Cuba. Will it be the businessman who will be convinced by you know conservative free market Republicans to say hey this is actually one of America's values is trade, free market engagement through those values and that can only help Cuban entrepreneurs. Yes it's also going to help the Cuban government. But that is in many ways are calling card throughout the world is our business engagement. And that will also be a positive thing for you know the farm states that want to export to Cuba, the port states that want to open up ports and have relationships to tourism from Florida. But there's also another Donald Trump and another part of the Republican Party and even some Democrats who want to, in my opinion justifiably but very kind of ironically and contradictorily, prioritize or keep hostage human rights to this economic opening, while at the same time we have deep economic relationships with countries that have as bad or worse human rights records like China, Saudi Arabia, Egypt. And so this has to do partly with the Cuban-American community and the fact that Cuba is not a real cost because it's not a real benefit given its size and the fact that we don't already enjoy it. But there's an argument being made by, let's say, more free market libertarian Republicans saying no this is a new market. And also we can affect change in Cuba over the long term through engagement much better than we have been able to effect change through isolation and impoverishment.
Grillot: All right Ted thank you so much for being here today and sharing these fascinating stories about this very interesting country not too far away. Thank you.
Henken: My pleasure.
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