The Reality of Cuba
By Patricia Cotti
President Obama authorized legal educational travel to Cuba in 2011. US citizens are now allowed to travel to Cuba under the US government’s People to People Cultural Exchange Program. Air from the United States to Cuba is now developing.
This is not a typical Caribbean Vacation. Restrictions on visitors are strictly observed. Activities such as going to the beach, fishing and other leisure activities are still not sanctioned and, therefore, are not part of the experience. It is, definitely, a trip for an experienced traveler who desires an immersion into Cuban life by interactions with the people going about their daily life.
The people are friendly. Music is everywhere. The people appeared clean and well dressed in appropriate stylish designs. Everyone has a home since homelessness is illegal. They are well educated since education is free. However, job opportunities are scarce. Medical care is also free. However, it is largely in the form of basic medical care provided by local small clinics. Basic medicine is available from small, sparsely stocked pharmacies.
The majority of the people work for government wages. They earn the equivalent of $20/month in Cuban pesos. Each family receives a ration book every month. This allows every member of the family to purchase a given amount of basic items (beans, bread, pasta, rice, oil, eggs, flour) each month at very low prices. The caveat is that the items on this short list are not always available in the stores. Life is a daily challenge.
Pork, chicken and fish were available to the tourists and a treat for the Cubans. Considering that the country is surrounded by the sea, you would expect delicious fish at every meal. It was suggested to us that any one with a boat has taken it to Miami. In fact, we saw few boats in our travels. Rice and beans is the staple of the Cuban diet.
There is a dual currency system established in the 1990’s. As Russian influence declined, foreign currency flooded Cuba. In an attempt to counter act this problem, the government created an alternate currency called the CUC (Cuban Convertible Currency). Foreign currency is converted into CUCs at very steep conversion rates. Shops accept either pesos or CUCs but not both. Shops stocked with food supplies and merchandise like flat screen TV’s, washer/dryers only accept CUCs. Consequently, Cubans want jobs with access to CUCs i.e. tourist industry jobs, taxi drivers…Access to the CUC provides the availability of the items needed to supplement their meager rations. There is an underground economy. So often, we heard stories about the medical doctor who drove a taxi.
Housing was varied. In the countryside, a typical house was small, made of cinder blocks and had a pounded dirt floor. It was sparsely furnished, had indoor plumbing, a basic kitchen and pen with a pig in the back yard. In Havana, there were 1950 era Russian built apartment blocks. However, remnants of beautiful Spanish architecture were visible. It was, however, in great disrepair. It required a creative imagination to see the beauty that must have been! Nothing was repaired since the Revolution of 1959. Affluent Cubans who fled the island left mansions behind. Unfortunately, on average 3 buildings collapse each day. To buy paint for the outside of a building it would cost about 45% of one month’s salary. So, occupants preserve the quarters that they own and inhabit but neglect the outer building which is of indeterminate ownership. The good news is that there is some restoration of the main squares and important historic buildings in Old Havana. The bad news is that the process is slow and very costly and the number of buildings in disrepair qre innumerable.
Tourist accommodations are better than one might expect. I particularly enjoyed the Hotel Nacional of Havana. It is the iconic hotel from 1930 located on the malecon (waterfront) in the middle class Vedado neighborhood. It was the hotel of choice for all the rich and famous that frequented Cuba in its heyday-the early 1950’s. It maintained the faded elegance of a bygone era.
Most of the time one felt that time stands still. When you step onto the street, there are 1950 era vintage Chevy and Fords ingeniously kept running as taxis. Local people get around by hitchhiking, crowded, unreliable buses, trucks converted into buses or pedicabs. In the countryside, there were horse drawn carts.
There is a drive to remove individuals from the government payroll. Private enterprise is now sanctioned and encouraged. Small private restaurants with better quality food are very common and increasing. One wonders where that food comes from. Private bed and breakfast enterprises were present especially in the countryside. Property can now be bought and sold. Things are slowly evolving.
Cuban Americans provide strong economic support for their families on the island. They provide access to the CUC economy and everything from clothing to flat screen TVs. Tourism provides hard currency vital to the economy. The infrastructure is in a state of collapse. It will take an enormous infusion of money and much time to repair the damage of the past 50 years.
It was an amazing learning experience. The Cubans adopted the Russian model. Since the fall of the USSR in the 1990’s, Cuba was forced to reevaluate this model. Change is in the air.
The visitor must carefully process everything that is seen and heard and try to determine the Cuban reality. In fact, I am still reflecting on my experience and have many unanswered questions. Go and see it for yourself but go now. The Cuban reality is evolving.