This article is from the July 1997 The Mexico File newsletter.
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Life in Cuba Today

by Curtis W. Long

Curtis W. Long of San Diego has worked as a translator for business and education for many years. We include his article on Cuba because, unknown to many people, it is possible to travel to Cuba from Mexico...and this is an adventure that some Mexicophiles may wish to consider. Even though life for the ordinary Cuban, as described in this article, is one of substantial deprivation by U.S. standards, the traveler to Cuba is pampered. The following is a distillation of empirical observations and conversations he had with ordinary Cubans residing in the Havana area during a recent U.S. government-approved trip he took to Cuba.

The general appearance of Havana is that of an abandoned city where for many years no attempt has been made at upkeep. Old Havana strongly resembles Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, and probably mirrors that city’s condition prior to its restoration.

The United States and other countries imposed an economic embargo on Cuba in 1962. It was largely ineffective until the demise of the Soviet Union, when considerable Soviet economic support was discontinued. After other countries abandoned the boycott, the United States doggedly has maintained its solitary vigil (through obvious internal political coercion). Cuba was stymied by the embargo until a few years ago when Castro did a brilliant end-run around United States policy by establishing a dollar-based tourist industry. This, in effect, set up a two-tiered economy in Cuba: one predicated upon the dollar and the other on the relatively worthless peso. Such a dual economic system has brought about an even harsher oppression of the Cuban people. As a matter of fact, the embargo provides Castro with a convenient scapegoat upon which he heaps blame for the shortcomings of his regime. This is attested to by the prolific banners seen throughout the city which express this viewpoint in no uncertain terms.

Cuba is paying considerable attention to its burgeoning tourist business. New luxury hotels have sprung up and old ones have been refurbished. Tourists are attracted from all over the world (with the exception of the United States) and this has resulted in a tremendous boon to Cuba’s treasury. All foreign currency must be converted into dollars or a dollar scrip, and that is the currency of the realm for the pampered visitor.

Ordinary Cubans are excluded from this privileged world. They must make do with their pitiful salary in pesos, which in dollar equivalency ranges from $9 to $14 monthly! This includes doctors, lawyers and other professionals. Those meager wages must cover most living expenses. Everyone is issued a ration card for food, clothing and other necessities. Ironically, even if they have the ration credits and pesos to pay for needed goods, peso-based stores are threadbare most of the time. Milk is so scarce that it is denied to everyone beyond the age of seven.

Until recently, it was illegal for Cubans to possess dollars or to be present in dollar-based establishments. Now, even if they do have dollars, their presence in those establishments is very closely scrutinized and controlled.

Cuban citizens must have in their possession, wherever they go, an identity booklet containing all of their personal history. They may be stopped by members of any of several vigilance agencies— uniformed or not—and questioned anywhere, at anytime, about anything. Wrong answers could result in arrest or the withdrawal of a job or other "privilege." The government controls most of one’s existence.

Individual transportation for those fortunate enough to have "merited" this (generally interpreted as loyalty to the regime) is via bicycle. Public transportation is provided in the form of bus-sized motor vehicles that one can only describe as resembling cattle cars. Travel off the island is just a dream for most people. It can be accomplished only with a considerable outlay of dollars and the written invitation of a foreigner.

Daily living is complicated by a paucity of oil to generate electricity. Apartment buildings in the Havana area must go without electrical service an average of three days a week—every week— scheduled or not!

However, even in a country which purports to foster egalitarianism, there are some who are more "equal" than others. For example, in the upscale Miramar section of Havana the mansions which were formerly owned by many of the current residents of southern Florida are occupied by the ruling elite of the Communist Party. Others, slightly less equal, receive the plum positions provided within the tourist industry and their salaries are paid in dollars. All persons in these positions must receive official sanction, and if one is not a party member or loyal to the government such positions are out of the question. As a matter of fact, if there is any hint of disloyalty, one forfeits the privilege of "meriting" anything. In addition to granting the privilege of working, the government exacts a portion of all dollar-based salaries, including tips. Even Cubans employed in foreign countries are not exempt from this obligatory kickback.

Since professionals are paid the same as everyone else, they must seek additional sources of income to bring them needed dollars. There is such a lack of books, and even chalk, in the classrooms, teachers lose interest and spend their time looking for ways to generate income within dollar-based occupations. Here are a few vignettes, based upon my personal experiences in Cuba, which illustrate this point:

  • A young doctor, upon being offered a drink, meekly requests a sandwich instead.
  • A lawyer hires himself and his car out for personal chauffeuring.
  • A young, black female doctor in a miserable and darkened public clinic (light bulbs are routinely filched) writes out a prescription on a torn-off portion of a lined sheet of notebook paper.
  • At La Maison, Havana’s luxurious house of fashion, the restroom attendant, in order to protect a small piece of hotel soap and handtowels in the form of thin paper napkins, keeps them with her just outside the entrance to the two lavatories.
  • Cuban residents line up for hours outside dollar-based stores, with only a specified number allowed to enter at a given time. On the other hand, if a tourist approaches the entrance, he/she is immediately and courteously admitted.

It is true that the United States did not create the situation in Cuba; however, with its insistence upon sustaining an anachronistic economic blockade—for the purpose of bringing down the Castro regime or at least forcing him to liberalize his policies—the United States is contributing to the misery of the Cuban people instead of ameliorating their lives. Castro and his cronies are immune to this futile effort to unseat them or sway them to the ways of the U.S. government. One recalls a mantra from the Vietnam conflict: we had to destroy the village in order to save it.

If the United States can deal with the fiercesome fangs of the Chinese tiger and the clutching claws of the Russian bear (Cuba’s erstwhile, powerful mentors), why, then, can it not deal with their bearded, now docile, former apprentice? After all, he currently poses a danger to no one...except his own people!