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Life of a Cuban money changer, hard but steady work

By Indira R. Ruiz

Special to A.M. Cuba

It is nearly 8 a.m. One of Havana's most ancient streets right in the heart of the city has been up for several hours now. Palatino Street in the Cerro neighborhood hosts probably the greatest bus station with hundreds of daily arrivals and departures. These routes cover mainly the entire city on endless loops and are by default Cuban people's primary means of transportation.

Photo by Indira R. Ruiz
Money changers like Juan González work long hours to supplement social security.

This morning over 50 persons gather lurking for the right bus. As I walk toward the end of the line for my bus, I run into an untypical character. He doesn't look like one of those workers, teachers or students who will be left some blocks from their workplaces and schools somewhere in the city's economical center of Vedado or Centro Habana. His relaxed appearance strikes the eye, but even more odd is the fact that he does not climb up at any bus. He just lingers around people who are waiting, talking softly and eventually handing out something to them.

"Pesetas pá la guagua," I get to hear as he passes by so I can't resist talking to him. This man is an independent money changer, a made-up job, so he is a brave doer of a simple method of taking advantage from a social need.

Buses (guaguas) have a flat rate of 40 cents (Cuban pesos) or two 20 cent coins called pesetas. That rate is actually less than one American nickel. Trouble comes when most of the passengers can't get to change their Cuban pesos into smaller coins, so instead of 40 cents, many have to pay one full peso (5 pesetas), losing 60 cents (3 pesetas) with each ride. Despite the low rate, paying one peso for each ride within a month represents a considerable bite of a not so plentiful basic monthly salary.

Juan González is the name of the eye-catching character who wanders at the bus stop of Palatino Street. His job is to make change so passengers don't overpay. Every peso gets broken into 5 pesetas. Out of that Juan hands out only 4 pesetas to the passengers, keeping for him a humble profit of 20 cents per peso changed at his amble bank.

When asked how many hours a day he devotes to this occupation, he frankly hesitates: "Well, it all depends on how well I am feeling. I am old, so sometimes I can only stand up for one hour or two. And, of course, I go to the bank, stay in line there for a long time. So altogether it would be six hours a day."

Before having this self-employment job he worked in education, sports and construction for over 44 years. This retired man in his sixties holds no license for this activity. And yet the government has not issued a permit for it despite it is clearly a necessary service to take into account. But Juan claims to need the money as many others retired who earn their living as peso exchangers all over the city. You can actually find them at almost all crowded bus stops of Havana, like the areas of Virgen del Camino, Parque de la Fraternidad or Calle G. This job is turning even more popular among retired people who need to increase their Social Security income of around $15 per month. Almost 2 percent of the Cuban population is, like Juan, over 60 years, meaning they no longer belong to the active working population. But some of them still have to work as peso exchangers, or can be found selling on the bare street several products like secondhand books, newspapers, cigars, tobacco, toasted peanuts or candy.

Out of the 5.1 million Cuban inhabitants who are able to work, around 2.5 percent (128,000) are unemployed. Getting a government job would mean earning around $25 per month. This salary is of course less attractive than working for almost any private owned business, and that is a truth many Cubans know already.

Juan looks tired, even though it is only a quarter past eight in the morning. He slowly goes back to trade since a group of bus riders await for his services. He opens his bag and kindly hands them coins. Bus riders are now successful at saving their money, and so is he at staying alive and in business one more day.

— Jan. 18, 2017

Obama stops special treatment for Cuban migrants

By the A.M. Cuba staff

U.S. President Barack Obama Thursday terminated his country’s preferential immigration program for Cubans.

The president said in a statement that the “so-called wet-foot/dry foot policy, which was put in place more than fifty years ago and was designed for a different era,” no longer was in force.

In the past, Cubans who arrived at U.S. borders by land or managed to touch U.S. soil from a boat were allowed to stay.

The U.S. President also announced the end of the  Cuban Medical Professional Parole that allowed medical professionals stationed anywhere in the world by the Cuban government to enter the United States.

Cuban officials are believed to support the Obama decisions because they have been unhappy with a population drain.

“Effective immediately, Cuban nationals who attempt to enter the United States illegally and do not qualify for humanitarian relief will be subject to removal, consistent with U.S. law and enforcement priorities,” Obama said in the statement.

“By taking this step, we are treating Cuban migrants the same way we treat migrants from other countries. The Cuban government has agreed to accept the return of Cuban nationals who have been ordered removed, just as it has been accepting the return of migrants interdicted at sea.”

Obama's decision could be overturned by president-elect Donald Trump, but that seems unlikely given Trump's aversion to illegal immigration and his campaign promise to build a wall between Mexico and the U.S.

— Jan. 12, 2017

The holidays are over but the recipe lives on
Memories of congrí, rice and beans cooked as one

By Indira R. Ruiz

Special to A.M. Cuba

This year, like all years, families gathered around the dinner table to hail the end of one year and the beginning of another. Cubans save their money, meat, rum and goodies for Dec. 31, awaited anxiously for a whole year. On this date we allow ourselves to "toss the house through the window" as my granny would say. Indeed, as far as I can remember, even in the years of the harshest scarcity we would always celebrate.

Granny used lots of onions in this 500-year-old recipe.

The holiday photos say it all. There is a big dinner table at the center of the pictures, smiling members of the family that gather up around the outrageously big pan of congrí, and of course my grandmother who is famous for her jasmine perfume and her cooking.

According to Nitza Vallapol's bestselling book of Cuban recipes, Cocina al Minuto, "congrí" holds not only a pure Creole savor, but a hint of history as well. The late Cuban cuisine guru stated that this recipe, as many others that enjoy the grace of accidents, was originally made with rice and beans cooked together in a rush. The origins of the name "congrí" are still imprecise. But according to Cuban historian D. Fernando Ortiz, in Haiti red beans and called "congo" while white rice is "riz," just like in French. So congrí is nothing but rice and red beans.

Here is my granny's famous congrí recipe:

1/2 pound of red beans
1 pound of rice
2 ounces of bacon
1 bell pepper
Garlic, cumin, oregano, onion ...

Beans should be soaked the night before. Cook them in the soaking water until they are tender. Make sure the bean seed is whole and not too broken or opened. Put rice to cook with the beans in only three cups of the cooking water. Add salt and all spices lightly fried along with the bacon and smashed garlic/sliced pepper. Save only the sliced onion. Cover with a lid and stew until the rice opens. Once it is ready add the sliced onion -- granny would always add a lot -- and stir so onions get steamed.

Since this is a 500-year-old recipe Cubans share with countries like Haiti, Puerto Rico, Dominican Repubic, Bahamas and even with Spain, countless variations can be found, mostly due to different sorts of beans used, from white beans to chickpeas. In Cuba if cooked with black beans and pork lardy meat instead of bacon, it's called "moros y cristianos" (Moors and Christians). Either way it is always a gift when found at the dinner table, a great dish that reminds us of our plural origins, as it becomes the real star at many Cuban houses.

                                                                                                                                — Jan. 4, 2017


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