“El ultimo?” Sara Silvero Lopez shouts as she approaches the stretching column of people outside the Spanish Embassy in Havana. The phrase—meaning “Who’s last?”—is a common greeting in banks, stores, and government offices, where years of socialist politics have fostered a culture of bureaucracy and a generation accustomed to daily waits for basic services. As per informal rules, Silvero would normally find the last person in line and respond to the next “El ultimo?” inquirer.
Today though, this line stretches down the block. Silvero realizes that the standard “ultimo” manner will leave her on the pavement for hours, wondering whether she will ever be able to apply for Spanish citizenship. Laughing, the 65-year old explains that a peanut vendor put her in touch with the people who manage the line at the embassy—local residents who use the nicknames like “El Jimaguas” (“The Twins”) and “El Moro” (“The Moor”) and monopolize the waiting game, ready to reduce the time for a price.
Aware of the disdain for delays, an unofficial system has risen to offer waiters a way out. As early as 11 p.m. the night before, residents start claiming spots outside the gate. At 6 a.m., when patrons start to arrive, the spots are auctioned off. The closer to the front, the more valuable the spot, with CUC 10 (a local currency, roughly pegged to USD) for prime placement and up to CUC 20 for emergencies—roughly two-thirds of a doctor’s official monthly salary. A privileged spot permits quick access to the embassy’s gates.
Officially, the state prohibits this kind of negotiation. But Cubans are known for peering into the cracks in order to leverage any way to supplement official incomes (most professionals are supported by side jobs or remittances from abroad). And the government turns an increasingly blind eye to unlicensed street economics.
Behind the seemingly simple task of buying and selling turns, an “organizer” runs a complex system. In the embassy line, surrogates like El Jimaguas must register their names on a list run by the organizer, who checks attendance at three set times each day.
Placements in the line are made known to nearby street vendors, such as Silvero’s contact, the peanut salesman. For a cut, hawkers put those with business at the embassy in touch with those whose spots corresponds with their needs and means: more CUC, less wait.
Similar systems pepper the nation, adapting to the local lines and popular demand and varying with each location. Lines for tickets of inter-province buses, baseball tickets at the beloved Parque Central, newspaper resellers who buy out daily papers to boost the price and public interest, and several more waiting games play out wherever a line gets unruly.
Silvero manages to drop her wait time and file her paperwork. Like all Cubans, she hates the country’s endless lines, but others are ready to price-point that pain and fill the gaps.