National Geographic : 2012 Nov
• e expression on his face made it clear that Che Guevara was not a topic he wished to continue exploring. "I don't get it," he said. the boat's departure date was set, depending on what the men could learn about tide and weather predictions, for the days just a er the pope's visit ended. When I was away from Havana, in the island's interior, text messages from his number showed up every so o en on my temporary Cuban phone: "hi my friend am going soon on vacation." I was doing a lot of walking, or strapping on imsy passenger helmets and climbing (impru- dently) onto the backs of unlicensed motorcycle taxis. To my outsider's eye, the New Changing Cuba looked both real and raggedy, as though an enormous ea market had been busted up and scattered the length of the country. Young men sat in stairwells, o ering to repair cell phones or re ll cigarette lighters. Families lined their front porches with display tables of used kitchen merchandise or thermoses of co ee and chipped plates of wrapped ham-and-cheese sandwiches. Here were small corner businesses that used to be run by the state but now, experimentally, were not: barbershops and snack bars, for ex- ample, in which management was being trans- ferred to the employees. Here was a former high school math teacher, a so -spoken 42-year-old who had learned to speak Russian uently back in the comfortable days of life support from the U.S.S.R. Now he was selling baby clothes for CUCs from one corner of a rented street-front foyer in the central city of Camagüey. "My wife does the sewing," the former math teacher said. "She used to be a teacher too." And here, in the middle of one residential block back in Havana, was a chic new restaurant called Le Chansonnier. No signage marked the entrance; Le Chansonnier is a paladar, a pri- vately run restaurant inside a home, and people with money---correction, people with CUCs--- know where it is. Paladares have been legal for years in Cuba but used to be strictly contained, under the pretense that they were all tiny family operations siphoning no business from state Multistory malls, with cafés and video game halls and clothing stores, all functioning exclu- sively in CUCs. The cell phones Cubans depend upon--- pre-Raúl they were prohibited; now they're everywhere---are sold, both the device and the per-minute fees, in CUCs. Even a Bucanero Fuerte, one of the good Cuban beers, is likely to be sold in CUCs. e Bucanero price of one CUC, not an unreasonable sum in many coun- tries for a bottle of beer, constitutes a full day's medical pay for Dr. M. You see the problem with the toy truck. is is why for four days a week, when he's supposed to be recuperating from his 24-hour emergency shi s, Dr. M drives a cab. Technically, he drives his own car, the aged Russian beater he inherited from his father. But he picks up tourists in it, because tourists pay in CUCs. Over one high-season month Dr. M's cabbie days earn him the CUC equivalent of 15 times his salary as a physician. In Cuba there's nothing remarkable about this. e taxi eet, like the rest of the tourist industry, is replete with splendidly educated Cubans no longer practicing their professions because their years of study to be of service to the nation---in en- gineering, medicine, psychology---produced salaries in "the money that's worthless," as a kindly Cuban bank teller once remarked to me. e phenomenon is referred to as the "inverted pyramid." Every Cuban who repeated that term to me did so in a tone of despair, as in: is, you see, is why the ambitious young keep leaving. Dr. M and I studied the object Che was holding in his giant st above us, determined that it was a hand grenade, and went into the museum. Che Guevara was an Argentine medi- cal school graduate when he met Fidel Castro, and as we walked past the glass-encased dis- plays of the Che medical journals and the Che lab coat, I glanced over at Dr. M. In the 15 years since Che's ashes were delivered to Santa Clara, Dr. M told me, this was the rst time he had visited the museum. But he was silent and impassive, and when we came out, all he said was, "I don't get this about us now---how a taxi driver can make so much more than a doctor."