An American In Cuba: The Necessity of Invention


"Every Cuban is a criminal," my taxi driver told me as we maneuvered through the decaying streets of Havana. Passing by crumbling colonial-era buildings awash in soft pastel colors, the soft-spoken 41-year-old man turned the wheel of his 1948 Ford coupe with weathered hands covered in scars and fresh stitches. “Those who only work a legal job don't eat."

From the outside Cuba looks like a picturesque post card, but things look very different when you look just a little closer.

Although I am of Cuban descent I must admit I had no real idea of what was going on in the nation that sits just 90 miles below Florida. What I learned from my week traveling through the narrow, history-packed island is that Cuba is place of contrasts: beauty and destruction, celebration and sadness, poverty and generosity, each curiously coexisting throughout the country and all its inhabitants.

I felt many emotions while in my mother's homeland, mostly utter disbelief at how upbeat and resourceful the people are in the face of such a difficult economy and living conditions. The Cuban will tell you of his Sisyphean efforts to constantly work, slowly pushing himself up the hill of financial independence, just to roll back down and start over should he have the gall to desire a better home or even a new toilet.

A mix of national pride and frustration with their inability to move up in social class seems to exist in every Cuban I spoke with. Cubans love their country, they just want to be paid fairly for the work they do.

In Cuba, entrepreneurship takes on an entirely new meaning. What I mean to say is that Cubans have some serious hustle—to a point I've never before seen—and “illegal" side-gigs are really the only way to get by. For context: only jobs that are approved of and taxed by the government are considered legal. To wit, taxi drivers are also house remodelers, teachers are restaurateurs, grocers are mechanics, farmers are tour guides. I met a doctor who sold empanadas on the side. I met a nurse who told me it made more fiscal sense for her to do nails than work at the government-run hospital, so she stopped going.

Many Cubans feel their country does not support its own people. Not only is the "Cuban" currency worth less than a tourist's, but Cubans are also not allowed on the grounds of many hotels.

Even my hard-working taxi driver, who still lives in the very house he was born in, isn't just a driver. He's also a painter, a construction worker, an HVAC engineer, and an expert car detailer. When I asked this man how on earth he learned so many trades, he responded simply; “When you don't have money to fix your car, you play with the wires until something works," he said. “Eventually you figure it out."

People in Cuba are creative (think: "if I can't afford it, I'll just make it"), communal and deeply complex. They have understandably frustrated feelings about their country, tourists and especially about ex-Cubans who they say forget where they came from (often severing ties and refusing to visit) after just a few months on American soil. Like us, Cubans share dreams for better futures. But unlike us, becoming wealthy, or even just financially comfortable, through hard work alone is nearly impossible. In fact, a common Cuban concern is that despite breaking their backs they will never be able to rise out of their economic status, or give their children a better life.

To understand Cuba's complicated economic climate and the DIY-life culture that has emerged as a result, you must first understand that there are two accepted currencies in the country. The Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC, is the money that can buy you just about everything most people are used to, from a snack to a car to a home. One CUC is roughly $1 Euro or Canadian dollar, or 90 cents US. This conversion may make sense for tourists, but it doesn't for Cubans, who are paid via an entirely different, much weaker tender—the Cuban Peso (25 of which will get a Cuban just one CUC). Pesos are used for some groceries and food items sold locally, and not much else.

Cubans with legal jobs told me that they earn approximately $500 Cuban Pesos a month, which is about $20 American dollars, or $18 CUC. Meanwhile, the prices of consumer goods in Cuba are on par with most modern countries, which means a full day's work will get you approximately half a can of Ciego Montenegro soda, that is if it's in stock (I heard a lot of “no hay" or “there is none" when looking for particular foods or products).

Thus, the side hustling.

From a Cuban's perspective, the prices of things in Cuba are simply staggering. My driver reported that his engine-less Roosevelt-era car—rusty, musty and barely whole—cost more than $14,000 US dollars. For those who were curious, his hands were defaced while getting his automotive antique working order, which of course he did successfully. Most Cuban homes, although dilapidated and without plumbing will go for between $10,000 and $100,000 US.

How on earth can a Cuban on $20 a month ever hope to make these big-scale purchases? My brain hurt contemplating how a Cuban can ever do anything other than simply live life as it is.

It must be said that both cars and homes in Cuba are expertly finagled. Chevys older than my grandparents feature hand-installed amenities like DVD players and brand new air conditioners. Like magicians, Cubans figure out ways to hardwire cable television into mold-eaten homes, take hot showers without plumbing, and eat deliciously with nearly empty refrigerators. Everywhere you look there is proof of Cuban invention and ingenuity, worth a pretty penny in any other land yet nothing in their own.

As a result of this climate of competency, Cubans rarely stress. They truly believe everything will be OK no matter what ("tranquila" or "be calm" was a phrase this anxiety-addled New Yorker heard multiple times throughout her trip) and have the unique ability to be fully present in the moment (no internet connectivity helped in this regard), laughing with friends and family. In addition, because of how long it takes to make money, Cubans possess inhuman amounts of patience.

Lines are everywhere in Cuba. Due to the lack of computerized systems and Internet availability, everything is done via pen and paper. Whether you are trying to buy groceries, make a reservation or get on a bus, prepare to wait. Also, bring toilet paper.

In fact, one such woman I met told me she has been saving for decades just to buy a room in a building to open a restaurant. Her business plan involves feeding Cubans delicious, healthy and affordable meals, and giving away food each day to the homeless and elderly. Getting her hands on the $5,000 she needs to make this happen, however, has proved to be nearly impossible even though she works five days a week, eight hour days just like any American who can eventually see her dream through. Most Cubans who do start a business do so only with help from non-Cuban family members, a luxury not everyone has access to.

Unlike the opinion some might have of Latin people, this woman does not want a hand out and she does not want to sit home. She simply wants to get a small amount of capital to turn something old and abandoned into something warm and inviting, a slight of hand at which all Cubans are expert. In short, she wants to be an entrepreneur, which she already is, at least in mindset.

Regardless of the many emotions expressed to me by Cubans during my trip, the most common was optimism. It's been a complicated 60 years in Cuba since its glorified revolution, yet everyone seems focused on the future rather than rehashing the difficulties of the past. Are they bitter? Not so much. Are they ready to work? Yes. Are they ready to become self-made? They've already done it. They just want more.

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Do 2020 Presidential Candidates Still Have Rules to Play By?

Not too many years ago, my advice to political candidates would have been pretty simple: "Don't do or say anything stupid." But the last few elections have rendered that advice outdated.

When Barack Obama referred to his grandmother as a "typical white woman" during the 2008 campaign, for example, many people thought it would cost him the election -- and once upon a time, it probably would have. But his supporters were focused on the values and positions he professed, and they weren't going to let one unwise comment distract them. Candidate Obama didn't even get much pushback for saying, "We're five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America." That statement should have given even his most ardent supporters pause, but it didn't. It was in line with everything Obama had previously said, and it was what his supporters wanted to hear.

2016: What rules?

Fast forward to 2016, and Donald Trump didn't just ignore traditional norms, he almost seemed to relish violating them. Who would have ever dreamed we'd elect a man who talked openly about grabbing women by the **** and who was constantly blasting out crazy-sounding Tweets? But Trump did get elected. Why? Some people believe it was because Americans finally felt like they had permission to show their bigotry. Others think Obama had pushed things so far to the left that right-wing voters were more interested in dragging public policy back toward the middle than in what Trump was Tweeting.

Another theory is that Trump's lewd, crude, and socially unacceptable behavior was deliberately designed to make Democrats feel comfortable campaigning on policies that were far further to the left than they ever would have attempted before. Why? Because they were sure America would never elect someone who acted like Trump. If that theory is right, and Democrats took the bait, Trump's "digital policies" served him well.

And although Trump's brash style drew the most handlines, he wasn't the only one who seemed to have forgotten the, "Don't do or say anything stupid," rule. Hillary Clinton also made news when she made a "basket of deplorables" comment at a private fundraiser, but it leaked out, and it dogged her for the rest of the election cycle.

And that's where we need to start our discussion. Now that all the old rules about candidate behavior have been blown away, do presidential candidates even need digital policies?

Yes, they do. More than ever, in my opinion. Let me tell you why.

Digital policies for 2020 and beyond

While the 2016 election tossed traditional rules about political campaigns to the trash heap, that doesn't mean you can do anything you want. Even if it's just for the sake of consistency, candidates need digital policies for their own campaigns, regardless of what anybody else is doing. Here are some important things to consider.

Align your digital policies with your campaign strategy

Aside from all the accompanying bells and whistles, why do you want to be president? What ideological beliefs are driving you? If you were to become president, what would you want your legacy to be? Once you've answered those questions honestly, you can develop your campaign strategy. Only then can you develop digital policies that are in alignment with the overall purpose -- the "Why?" -- of your campaign:

  • If part of your campaign strategy, for example, is to position yourself as someone who's above the fray of the nastiness of modern politics, then one of your digital policies should be that your campaign will never post or share anything that attacks another candidate on a personal level. Attacks will be targeted only at the policy level.
  • While it's not something I would recommend, if your campaign strategy is to depict the other side as "deplorables," then one of your digital policies should be to post and share every post, meme, image, etc. that supports your claim.
  • If a central piece of your platform is that detaining would-be refugees at the border is inhumane, then your digital policies should state that you will never say, post, or share anything that contradicts that belief, even if Trump plans to relocate some of them to your own city. Complaining that such a move would put too big a strain on local resources -- even if true -- would be making an argument for the other side. Don't do it.
  • Don't be too quick to share posts or Tweets from supporters. If it's a text post, read all of it to make sure there's not something in there that would reflect negatively on you. And examine images closely to make sure there's not a small detail that someone may notice.
  • Decide what your campaign's voice and tone will be. When you send out emails asking for donations, will you address the recipient as "friend" and stress the urgency of donating so you can continue to fight for them? Or will you personalize each email and use a more low-key, collaborative approach?

Those are just a few examples. The takeaway is that your online behavior should always support your campaign strategy. While you could probably get away with posting or sharing something that seems mean or "unpresidential," posting something that contradicts who you say you are could be deadly to your campaign. Trust me on this -- if there are inconsistencies, Twitter will find them and broadcast them to the world. And you'll have to waste valuable time, resources, and public trust to explain those inconsistencies away.

Remember that the most common-sense digital policies still apply

The 2016 election didn't abolish all of the rules. Some still apply and should definitely be included in your digital policies:

  1. Claim every domain you can think of that a supporter might type into a search engine. Jeb Bush not claiming www.jebbush.com (the official campaign domain was www.jeb2016.com) was a rookie mistake, and he deserved to have his supporters redirected to Trump's site.
  2. Choose your campaign's Twitter handle wisely. It should be obvious, not clever or cutesy. In addition, consider creating accounts with possible variations of the Twitter handle you chose so that no one else can use them.
  3. Give the same care to selecting hashtags. When considering a hashtag, conduct a search to understand its current use -- it might not be what you think! When making up new hashtags, try to avoid anything that could be hijacked for a different purpose -- one that might end up embarrassing you.
  4. Make sure that anyone authorized to Tweet, post, etc., on your behalf has a copy of your digital policies and understands the reasons behind them. (People are more likely to follow a rule if they understand why it's important.)
  5. Decide what you'll do if you make an online faux pas that starts a firestorm. What's your emergency plan?
  6. Consider sending an email to supporters who sign up on your website, thanking them for their support and suggesting ways (based on digital policies) they can help your messaging efforts. If you let them know how they can best help you, most should be happy to comply. It's a small ask that could prevent you from having to publicly disavow an ardent supporter.
  7. Make sure you're compliant with all applicable regulations: campaign finance, accessibility, privacy, etc. Adopt a double opt-in policy, so that users who sign up for your newsletter or email list through your website have to confirm by clicking on a link in an email. (And make sure your email template provides an easy way for people to unsubscribe.)
  8. Few people thought 2016 would end the way it did. And there's no way to predict quite yet what forces will shape the 2020 election. Careful tracking of your messaging (likes, shares, comments, etc.) will tell you if you're on track or if public opinion has shifted yet again. If so, your messaging needs to shift with it. Ideally, one person should be responsible for monitoring reaction to the campaign's messaging and for raising a red flag if reactions aren't what was expected.

Thankfully, the world hasn't completely lost its marbles

Whatever the outcome of the election may be, candidates now face a situation where long-standing rules of behavior no longer apply. You now have to make your own rules -- your own digital policies. You can't make assumptions about what the voting public will or won't accept. You can't assume that "They'll never vote for someone who acts like that"; neither can you assume, "Oh, I can get away with that, too." So do it right from the beginning. Because in this election, I predict that sound digital policies combined with authenticity will be your best friend.