If you’re a kid or an unemployed twenty-something living in Havana, to you the corner of 23rd and G Street is the “esquina caliente,” or the hot corner. It’s populated by skaters using second hand boards brought over by Canadians, drug dealers selling tiny bags of marijuana tied up with floss, kids, young and old, looking to befriend tourists and foreign students. The corner is a meeting spot, an important site for creative expression, and yet, the corner is a microcosm of Cuba — a nation from which its citizens can’t escape.

As a foreign student at the University of Havana, I elected to take a class on the political economy of socialism. My Cuban friend said he’d teach me everything I’d need to know about Cuba’s political economy — it’s “nada mas, y nada menos que tremenda mierda.” Nothing more and nothing less than tremendous shit. Those born after the Cuban Revolution ended in 1959 didn’t choose for their livelihoods to be dictated by the transition towards perfect socialism, a false concept. Or that the word transition, a word the Cubans are governed by, is merely a justification for forcing their contribution to an economy that leaves only the tourists they’re swindling happy. They’re trapped in an experiment they never wished to be a part of, one drawn up in the philosopher Karl Marx’s mind.

The Cubans feast on the funds that trickle in from foreign pockets as a result of persistent economic instability and social immobility. Through the tourist and sex tourist industries, Cuba’s economy makes a significant portion of its revenue, not including the money that’s absorbed by the Cuban sharks. The men and women alike who prey on the naiveté of dopey foreigners are called sharks or “tiburones.” Living there for a significant amount of time, I learned to mine through the clumps of salsa dancing tiburones, though I’d been assured that there weren’t many diamonds in the rough. However, with little time, it became obvious that being overly skeptical leads to dull results, and within a matter of days I found my own tiburón, as so many foreign students do in their efforts for cultural immersion.

Alberto, el diablo of Cuba, as he was proclaimed, was my Cuban boyfriend and way in to Cuban society. “El Diablo” was written on the top of his left forearm in thick, inky, black letters, re-affirming his nickname for the general public. He walked with a lack of urgency, and sported the same t-shirt almost every day — black with a picture of white skeleton bones. In exchange for a deepened cultural experience, it was expected that I’d pay for his food, drinks and sometimes even household items he and his family couldn’t afford. He’d beg me to lend him money for something “urgent,” the only time urgency meant anything to him, and would return the next day with no money and a brand new material possession, in one instance, a gold watch. In return for my coin, I was plunged into the depths of society — taken to underground art events that protested against the Castros, late night discussions with counter-revolutionaries over Cuban tobacco.

As time rolled on our feelings further developed, despite my inner reserve, into much deeper sense of caring. Paradoxically, the amount we mutually exploited each other deepened as well. We became entangled within a power dynamic I never could have imagined being a part of, one that left me with constant pangs of that American, white guilt. If I felt uncomfortable providing him with more money, he’d tell me the story of his father’s abandonment when he fled to the U.S. All of his grievances were worthy of complaints. He was minimally educated, practically imprisoned on this island of desperation and regardless of my nominal financial help continued to be stuck in a system that cared little about his individual needs. But did that warrant his manipulation of me? And at the end of the semester, when he ran off with my phone and no goodbye, were his theft and deception justifiable?

It’s an incredibly difficult question to answer, whether or not someone’s situation can justify morally corrupt actions. But what I believe to be important in answering this is whether or not I as a privileged American can impose judgment on a poor and oppressed Cuban. The imposition of judgment is dangerous, as people from different backgrounds and opportunities tend to impose their judgment on those who have committed crimes, both petty and serious. Maybe it’s a system that causes someone to defy your morally acceptable chart. Or maybe it’s something else less obvious: a destructive family situation, mental illness, etc. Regardless, while Alberto continues to linger on the esquina caliente waiting for new foreigners and their phones, I’ll try hard not to blame him.

Abby Taskier can be reached at ataskier@umich.edu.

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