Ray-Bans, iPhones and Nikes: Some Cubans are getting a taste for luxuries
By SALLY H. JACOBS | Special To The Washington Post | Published: July 5, 2016
MIAMI — It's a hot Saturday morning and the crowd is churning at Nooo! Que Barato!, the sprawling discount store where many Cuban Americans buy cheap goods for their relatives back home. But lately, shoppers at the store, whose name roughly translates to Wow! That's Cheap!, are exhibiting more discerning tastes.
Yes, the six-packs of bras for $5.99 are still popular. And the men's "descarado" muscle shirts — "just $5.99!!" — are still hot. But as the long-sealed door between Cuba and the United States cracks open, Cubans are clamoring not just for clothes or medicine but for the iPhone 6 and Ray-Bans and Nikes. Most of all, they want money put on their cellphone plans so they can surf the Internet and look at ever more extravagant things to pursue through their relatives in the States.
"Minutes, minutes, minutes — that's what every Cuban wants," said clerk Yoacnee Pereda, 31, watching the crowd at the Cubacel counter. "After 50 years living in the darkness, the light has snapped on. For them, it's like paradise."
Cubans have long turned to their relatives abroad for support in the face of chronic shortages plaguing the isolated island nation. The amount of remittances to Cuba is estimated at more than $2.5 billion annually, much of it coming from the more than 1 million Cubans living in greater Miami. Now, as more American visitors arrive bearing the latest technological accouterments, and increased Internet access reveals a realm of material goods previously unimaginable, some Cubans are developing a taste for luxuries.
Also high on the wish list are cellphones. But not just any phone. It should be an iPhone 6. And reserve the next phone that Apple produces. Computers and tablets are in demand. And about those packets of budget bras: Couldn't they send Victoria's Secret, please? As for men, they'd like some little blue pills.
"Viagra — that's what they want," said Luis Nieves, 66, who left Cuba in 1999. "Some guys from my town called and said, 'Hey, can you get us some of that?' I told them I don't use it. And if I don't use it, I don't send it."
Cubans in Miami say that for years they've gladly provided the relatives they left behind with necessities such as food and bedding. Now that their phones ring with requests for designer clothing and acrylic nails, some don't even pick up. Or they come up with a reason they can't talk.
"I pick up, but I say, "I am going into a tunnel! I can't hear you, I can't heeeeaaaar you," said Eloisa Canova, whose sisters live in Cuba. "I just got fed up."
Most Cubans continue to lack some necessities, despite the reestablishment of relations with the United States, the growth of small businesses and the greater influx of money. Shelves in many stores are nearly empty. The average monthly salary, for those lucky enough to have a job, is less than $25.
At the same time, the easing of Internet access has opened a window to the larger world that many on the island are hungrier for than food. It's not just the fancy goods that they want, as some see it, but also the connection to modern life that such things represent.
"A lot of Cubans today may not have food to eat, but they've got $5 in minutes on their cellphones," said Elizabeth Hernandez, 45, who takes a variety of items, including lacy push-up bras and faux diamond tiaras, to her relatives in Cuba. "It's all about being connected to the world, and the illusion of looking good and having luxuries. If you have that kind of stuff, then you're not so isolated and stuck on an island anymore."
The Obama administration has made it easier for Cubans to get such stuff in several ways. Gone are the limits on cash remittances that can be sent to islanders from family members and non-relatives. A new broad category, "Support for the Cuban People," allows gifts of cooking equipment, building materials and telecommunications gear. The eventual start of ferry service and the resumption of U.S. mail delivery to the island are expected to open new channels for the shipment of such goods.
Since the normalization of relations between Cuba and the United States was announced at the end of 2014, connectivity on the island has improved somewhat. Last year, the government increased the number of WiFi hotspots to 65 and has promised an additional 58 this year, according to Freedom House, a nonprofit organization devoted to human rights and democracy. Cellphone use among Cuba's 11 million citizens has also risen steadily from 2.5 million subscriptions in 2014 to 3.4 million subscriptions in 2015, according to the International Telecommunication Union, an agency of the United Nations.
Cuba remains one of the least-connected countries in the Western Hemisphere; estimates suggest that fewer than 10 percent of its citizens have internet access. In downtown Havana, the lucky few are clustered in hotspots on sidewalks and in public parks late into the night, texting and scrolling websites.
Alfonso Martin, a professor of Spanish grammar and literature living in West Palm Beach, Florida, says that when his two 20-something cousins in Havana asked him for iPhones in 2013, he sent them each iPhone 4s for Christmas. Less than two years later they asked him to send them a pair of the newly released iPhone 6s. Martin was annoyed.
"I asked if the other phones were broken and they said, 'No, we just want to be with the times,' " Martin said. "I refused, and they got upset, of course. I try to put myself in their position because the iPhone is the thing that people have in the rest of the world. They are just tired of being deprived of what everyone else has. But the truth is that at the time I didn't even know there was an iPhone 6."
Sandra Cordero, a teacher who left Cuba in 1980, did not mind when her relatives used to ask for $25 for milk. But when they asked her to put $25 in minutes on their phone, she went through the roof.
"I said, 'Are you kidding me? I am going to send you $25 of my hard-earned salary so you can talk to whom about what, random chitchat? I don't think so,' " she said.
In the end, Cordero found that it was cheaper to buy the minutes than to call Cuba on her own phone. That opened up the request line: nail polish, name-brand shoes and flat irons for hair. "To be honest, I don't like it at all," said Cordero, whose husband is a truck driver. "A few years ago they would never have asked for such things. The real problem is they are ignorant and secluded and they think money grows on trees over here."
Rosalia Alvarez, a Miami doctor, says one of her co-workers was told by family members "not to get shoes from Payless or Kmart. They only wanted shoes from Macy's. They're getting much more discriminating."
This growing appetite for the good stuff could make it difficult for the Castro brothers to preserve the Communist mantra of equality — and the restrictions of the current regime.
"Cubans want to emulate their neighbors next door, not the Canadians or the Germans," said John S. Kavulich, president of the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council and a longtime Cuba observer. "All of this is creating a middle class that is precisely what the revolution was designed to eliminate and which provides a tremendous political challenge for the Cuban government."
Others suggest the greater flow of goods will not hasten the fall of the regime but preserve it, by mollifying Cubans with consumer goods while allowing human rights violations to continue unchallenged.
Daniela Rovira, a 26-year-old travel agent in Miami whose mother lives in Havana, is not among those who worry. The influx of luxe can only be good for Cubans, she said, "because they have nothing. Why shouldn't they have the clothes and shoes that other people have?"
Which may include the hottest designer labels soon enough.
One recent morning at the Versailles restaurant, a popular gathering spot for Cuban exiles, several men were poring over a news report of Chanel's recent fashion show in the heart of Havana and speculating about its impact.
"Cubans have never seen anything like those clothes," declared Andy Castro, who left Cuba in 1961. "Now, every single woman in Cuba is going to want a Chanel outfit."
Reporting for this story was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.