Cuba: A new working culture?

Cubans are friendly, helpful, and welcoming. Until you enter a public service building such as a bank or a state-run store, or restaurant. Why is that? An exerpt from my fieldnotes.

In the middle of the city center, just next to the Capitol and in front of ‘El Parque Central’, I find Hotel Inglaterra, one of the most luxurious hotels in town, next to Hotel Parque Central, Hotel Nacional, and Capri, and Havana Libre. In this hotel they have Wi-Fi, and whereas tourists use their smartphones while nipping their cappuccino on the terrace of the hotel, Cubans stand outside against the wall, the Wi-Fi reaches just far enough for them, too. I also use it for that.

Hotel Inglaterra

In contrast with the beauty and luxury of the hotel, and the relatively high prices, the service is horrible (yes, that are my own terms). There is only one waiter for the whole terrace, sometimes two; one for each side. But no one comes to ask you if you want to order anything, you have to call them yourself, and that costs some time and patience. If you have ordered, it can easily take half an hour before you get a drink. If you ordered food, you could wait for an hour, and then in between I have asked a few times how long it takes. When you finally get your food, you find out the drinks are lacking, and after asking that again, it takes another 15 minutes.

When you order, the waiter just looks at you, not even with a smile. After ordering, he just walks away. Also no words are used to bring you the food, he looks around while doing it. If something is not there, and that is even the case in luxury restaurants and hotels, you hear a short ‘no hay’ and nothing further.

In each state-run company or office, Fidel is present.

I was told before that the service in state-run hotels or restaurants is really low, and that could be explained by the fact that for generations, Cubans are not used to work harder, try to be nice to customers, because they did not get paid any more for doing that. They also do not get fired for not doing it. That is why I heard, before I got here, that the service is mostly better in paladares (private run restaurants) or cafeterias. However, also in those places I found the people not nice, and they did not work efficiently either.

But this does not only count for restaurants. Also in stores, no matter state-run, run by cooperatives, or cuentapropistas, people are short, do not make effort to help you further if something is not there (no hay!), refuse to explain why something is as it is, and cannot tell you when something will be available (no sé). People do not really smile either, unfortunately.

I can imagine that if you do not have any incentive to work efficiently or to be friendly to people (which, I find, is an incentive of life itself rather than a money incentive, but not for all people, obviously), it is difficult to just change that, even if now money IS involved and you DO get higher profit by trying harder. So the money-explanation is not accurate. It may be an incorporated, cultural, and social thing, that is thus not easily explained, nor changed.

The presence of the ideals of the revolution in public spaces.

This thought was enforced when this week  I talked to a professor of FLACSO (Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences) who investigated micro-entrepreneurs himself, and who also runs a cafeteria on the side, together with his parents. Leonardo told me that exactly because Cubans are not used to work harder, because they earn the same money anyway, they do not have any motivation for being nice to customers. But even if they do have this money motive, it is a habit that is so much incorporated that it became a cultural aspect that is hard to change at once, by just adding the money incentive to their work. He said it probably takes a whole generation to change this attitude.

It may be interesting for me to research this phenomenon more closely. I could link it to philosopher Foucault’s concept of governmentality: a certain system that is introduced by a powerful institute (in this case the Cuban socialist state), makes that people start to act and think in a certain way. A term that fits well in this concept is embodyment. It is, however, a bit different than the classical form of governmentality; they are taught and raised to think in line with socialism, which makes them believe in the system even in an unconscious way. But this lacks the acknowledgement that Cubans have agency and presumes that they are only ‘brainwashed’ by this system. So nuance is necessary here.In my thesis I will keep reflecting on this and cultural difference. Because: what does this tell me about my own assumptions and their influence on my fieldwork?