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Cuba: Going to the Dogs?

Cuba: Going to the Dogs?

In my forthcoming article for NY Magazine, I write a bit about Havana’s newly-moneyed. Whether it comes from remittances, self-employed work, or working over tourists is irrelevant. What piques my interest (and hopefully retains yours, dear readers), is how wealth – relative as it may be – manifests itself here, how it changes behavior and tweaks norms heretofore adhered to.

Faithful followers of Here is Havana will remember my thinly-veiled diatribe against Cuban marca mania – if I’m not mistaken, I actually called my compatriots ‘logo whores.’ I repeat: not all Cubans, everywhere, but there does seem to be an inordinate amount of importance placed on logos and bling here. I understand why Cubans are attracted to shiny, pretty things, but at the same time I’m biased: one of my abiding principles holds that nothing you can buy builds character (except maybe psychotherapy). The whole status symbol compulsion and keeping up the Joneses – is it inherently bad? I don’t know, but I do know I’m hard pressed to find anything good about it.

These days status symbols are displayed with as much pride as cadres display their photo with Fidel (see note 1). Gold teeth and braces, anything Mac (even if it’s just the iconic white apple sticker), cell phones (working or not), and pure-bred dogs. It stands to reason that Cubans are drawn to perros de raza since they’re a walking (shitting and barking) status symbol.

Now, those of you of my personal acquaintance know I’m not a pet person. A tortoise, perhaps, or a crafty cat that can paw open the door and hunt down a bird when it’s hungry, I’m down with. But a dog? They’re dependent, they shed, they smell, fleas like them, and often they age poorly – farting as they lumber about on rickety bones and bump into furniture with their cataracts. Plus, they hamper travel. Sorry to Sam, Sadie, Paka, Bob, and all the other great dogs I’ve known, but when it comes to canines, I subscribe to my Dad’s axiom: ‘living with animals went out with Jesus.’

But let’s put this dog question into context: I’m sure the average Cuban doesn’t give much thought to any of this. A dog here – whether in the city or campo – means added security. Dogs keep vermin of all types at bay and sound the alarm. In Havana, I’m sure you’ve noticed, folks are very concerned about the safety of their stuff and enclose entire houses – balconies, doors, windows, all – in rejas (iron bars and gates). Even taillights on motorcycles have their rejitas; check it out next time you’re in town.

So a dog is an added source of protection. I get it. But it’s also another mouth to feed and represents all manner of unanticipated expenses like when they get parasites (and they all do) or when the heat wreaks havoc on their fur (hairless perritas chinas excepted of course). They also need to be walked, adding another task to already overworked Cuban women, who, if my observations are accurate, do most of the dog care. In practical terms therefore, I’m not convinced that the benefits outweigh the costs of keeping a dog here. But what I simply can’t get my mind around is Havana’s new status symbol: Siberian Huskies.

They are all the rage: from the grimy streets of inner Habana Vieja to the bourgeoisie boulevard of 5ta Avenida, you’ll see people trying to walk, train, and tame these über Alpha dogs. And what about the heat? Have you been here in August? Just being in your own skin is a sauna – imagine if you had a pelt adapted for permafrost. It disturbs me inordinately, so I’ve started asking around…

According to my dog trainer friend Yamel, these dogs make challenging pets under the best circumstances. They’re a bitch to train because they’re bred for dominance and it’s difficult to establish supremacy. Even Yamel – who works his magic with rowdy shepherds, disobedient Dalmatians and other maladjusted dogs – says he’d never have one for this reason.
My neighbor is case in point with her trio of Huskies. They pull their leashes taut, dragging her behind, paying her no never mind. Recently, I’ve seen her working with a trainer (another expense) in the park nearby. I’m sure she watches Cesar Milan – prime time TV fodder here – religiously. Then there’s the heat. Yamel tells me they adjust, but I’m dubious: I know of at least one retriever who died of heat exhaustion here.

I was completely taken aback on a recent visit to my dear friend Carmita to see she had acquired a Husky pup. This is an unlikely pet for an unfortunate household. She’s an 84-year old pensioner living with her college-age grandson. They get a little economic help from Miami and other points north and are church-going, so have some support, once in a while, from the congregation. But Iker – named for the Real Madrid goalkeeper – is no black market Husky; he’s the real deal. Offspring of Massimo Zar de la India and Bella Bon (I’m not making this up!), Iker was purchased at one of the periodical dog shows here (see note 2) for the exorbitant price of $200. Despite my prejudices, I put a good spin on it to Carmita.

“That’s great! Now you have company while Maykel’s in class.”
She makes that smacking, sucking sound which in Cuban means ‘bullshit.’
“He’s a pain in the ass and makes a mess of everything.”
Gotta love Carmita.

We don’t mention how much his food and care must cost. Why bother?

To be fair, the vet school here has services available in both pesos cubanos (24 to the dollar) and CUCs (one to the dollar), so are technically accessible cost-wise. The CUC section of the school is sparkling, there’s no line to wait in, and medicines are available. Meanwhile, the peso cubano section swelters with people and pets waiting their turn and the pharmacy may or may not have what your dog needs that day.

But the differences don’t end there: In the waiting room of the CUC services, snappy, pretty posters extol the benefits of pure breeds; above all, the posters underscore the beauty of these dogs. Shuffle over to the peso cubano waiting room and the script is different. Here, the posters are yellow and curling and don’t celebrate poodles, spaniels, and Afghans, but instead list the virtues of mutts, pointing up their strength, resilience, and force of character.

Pure breed or mutt? Pesos convertibles or pesos cubanos? Welcome to today’s Havana: suelta sin vacunar (on the loose, without her shots).

Notes
1. Every visit with The Comandante is documented by a state photographer. A few days after the meeting, a 6×8 matte photograph of you and Fidel arrives at your door.
2. While not Westminster, dog shows are serious business here, with breeders showing their stuff and buyers perusing their pups like johns trolling for ‘company.’ When purchased, Iker’s name was Kritop D’Spiritu Libre

September 2011

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