What do taxis, cigars, horse drawn carriages and Buena Vista Social Club have in common?
Well, they’re firstly all seemingly integral parts of a tourist’s experience of Cuba. And second, they’re yours – for a price.
Understanding the great Havana hustle
Havana is the first port of call for the vast majority of tourists visiting Cuba. In fact, many of Cuba’s tourists only have the chaos of Havana to constitute their ‘authentic Cuban experience’ before they’re whisked away to one of the all-inclusive resorts of Varadero.
For the Cubans living in the capital, these tourists are a goldmine. Foreigners who don’t know the particular nuances of a new culture are invariably a lot easier to take advantage of – and that’s where the jineteros come in.
The term ‘jinetero’ is slang for ‘sex worker,’ but in Cuba it’s used as a general term for street sellers – those people who stand on street corners and attempt to sell things to you. From cigars and Havana rum to accommodation and transport, absolutely anything goes. Including dressing the part and cashing in on the ensuing photo opportunities.
The culture of jineteros is widespread in Cuba – they appear in any place where tourists exist. But I found them to be the worst, the most prominent, and the most insistent, in Havana.
“Hola lady, you like cigar? You want taxi? You need casa?”
My Swedish friends and I stumbled through the narrow streets of Habana Vieja, clustered together in the strip of shade that fell across one pavement. A broad shouldered man approached us, his arm laid casually, possessively, around his female companion’s neck.
“Hola chicos! Where are you from? Come to see music with us! Buena Vista Social Club, only today!”
We shook our heads quickly, politely, and carried on walking. Memories of the same conversation in numerous different guises flitted through my head.
Earlier that morning, we’d taken a breather in a small plaza, sitting on stone steps to dutifully reapply suncream and gulp lukewarm water. Within seconds a man had crouched at our feet, holding a photocopied pamphlet in his hand.
All in one breath, he explained in excitable Spanish that a real member of Buena Vista Social Club – arguably Cuba’s most famous musical export to the international world – was performing with his fellow musicians that very evening. In a bar just around the corner! And we could get in for free because it was a one off festival event!
Cuban musicians. Definitely not from Buena Vista Social Club.
Unfortunately, the likelihood of actually seeing any members of the real Buena Vista Social Club play is quite small, seeing as there are multiple jineteros all over the city proclaiming different concerts in countless Havana bars…
When the guy eventually disappeared, he was replaced almost immediately by an old man. A strand of spit hung limply from his mouth, caught in his beard; he gestured to a bag of newspapers on his shoulder, and touched the smeared ink mutely.
My smile and immediate response of, “gracias, pero no lo quiero” didn’t make an impact. He was already sorting through the bundle, fingers landing on an English language version and pulling it out triumphantly. Paper laid across my sweating knees; the smiling images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro emblazoned all over the souvenir.
Behind him, I caught sight of a young Cuban man smoking a cigar, watching us and smiling knowingly – twisting a finger at the side of his head in a clear “he’s crazy!” sign. Which I understood as soon as the old man slapped my knee rather forcefully. Clearly refusing to buy something a second time isn’t a good idea.
“This man was in the revolution!” The young guy said as he approached us. “He was like Che!”
Newspaper snatched from my lap, the muted ‘Che-like’ man was moving on to different potential customers. Time for the young guy full of praises for revolutionaries, who waved a laminated sheet in our faces. Horse drawn carriage rides, anyone?
Even as we stood to leave, I saw an eager guitarist making a beeline straight for us. Four different hustlers, all in the space of five minutes…
How to be a Havana jinetero
In the streets of Havana, it’s easy to play the Havana hustle game. If you’re running out of money or things to keep you occupied, try saying the words ‘cigar,’ ‘car,’ ‘casa,’ or ‘Buena Vista,’ and count how many men surround you at any given time.
They’ll either have light patter prepared to start with, or they’ll just launch straight into the hard sell. Because you must want new sunglasses, even though you have some on your head? How about a box of Romeo y Julieta cigars, absolutely guaranteed to be the real thing and not a set of cheap cigars rolled in fake brand paper? If not, you have to come to this guy’s sister’s friend’s casa, it’s the best one in Havana – or at least take a ride in his car??
The jineteros never really feel malicious or predatory but they are persistent, and it can make Havana a pretty exhausting place.
Even off the streets, the same thing happens; like walking through a museum at the height of the afternoon’s heat, when you smile at an elderly museum guide who sits in the corner of the room. She immediately stands, rifles through the wicker basket beside her and triumphantly pulls out a handmade doll with puffy skirts, “Viva Cuba!” emblazoned across the material.
My Swedish friends hung out with university students for a few hours, chatting about how they felt living in Cuba. The Swedes were amazed when, at the end of the conversation, the group of teens mentioned that it’s really expensive to buy academic textbooks and they have to club together, like six people for one book – could the Swedes help them out with some cash?
So why is hustling quite so common in Havana?
The difficulty lies in the reasoning behind the jinetero culture. The Cuban government’s tight laws and restrictions regarding employment mean Cuban citizens try a lot of unorthodox methods to earn money. And because Cuba uses two currencies in parallel, a local Cubano getting paid in tourist-designated CUCs (a currency directly equal to the US dollar) is way more preferable than receiving a wage in the much less valuable moneda nacional.
It’s also probably too tempting not to try it on with tourists, particularly in Havana. I watched people willingly sitting down on small wooden stools to get their hair braided in Calle Obispo; discussing prices for old coins and badges sporting Che’s face and the Communist flag; and taking photos of the exotically dressed women in Plaza las Armas who nonchalantly smoke fat cigars and spread their palms for a payment afterward.
Cubans are well known for embracing opportunity, too; like when I fumbled for my camera to capture the three large, wet fish hanging by their mouths from metal hooks against a brick wall, and a woman walked swiftly into my line of vision proclaiming that they only cost a peso each.
Sensing a potential sale before the tourist has even conceived of the idea.
The walking wallets of Havana
On my last day in Cuba I walked through the crowds on Calle Obispo, enjoying the early evening sun and soaking up images from the street. A busker with two homemade puppets, a group of little girls dancing beside them. A sleepy dog stretched out on the stones, with an ID tag, complete with photo, tied around his neck.
A man had started to speak to me, but I’d ignored it. In Calle Obispo, a central point of Havana’s tourism, it’s virtually guaranteed that any conversation pleasantries are angling for a payout. But he wouldn’t drop it.
“Hey, why don’t you want to talk to me? You don’t talk to Cubans? Why do you come here if you ignore us?”
So I slowed my pace, and smiled tightly, squinting at his face in the light.
We chatted about the usual first topics – our names, where I was from, what our jobs were – but within minutes came the exact question I was expecting.
“So you want some cigars?”
Now, I usually try to see the best in people when I travel. But when someone calls me rude for avoiding a conversation, and then uses my guilty engagement with him as a segue to sell me things?!
The sad thing is, this guy’s behaviour makes total sense in the context of how I perceived a great deal of Cuba. Even if he was happy to indulge in some pleasantries first, he ultimately saw me as a walking wallet – and it’s really sad that there’s no opportunity to talk to a Cuban without expecting them to want your money. Despite Cubanos being wonderfully talkative with such a lot to say, I nonetheless had the constant impression that most Cubans don’t have any interest in talking to tourists or learning about them. We mean nothing except the money we carry.
Now I’m just left with the question of whether those pleasantries with a cigar-selling stranger were purely because he wanted to lull me into a false sense of friendship to make a sale, or because he was genuinely interested in talking to a foreigner.
I’d seriously like to think it was the latter.