We went to Cuba for a week just before Christmas and I came home with more questions than answers. Most of what I’m writing here today was told to me by local Cubans because, after only one week on the island, I can’t pretend to really understand the situation or what life is like for the average Cuban.
I’ve always heard that the embargo’s been tough on the Cuban people, but people I met on the trip told me that now they have the double and triple whammies of the collapse of the Soviet Union (and the virtual elimination their assistance toCuba) and economic problems in Venezuela, one of their key trading partners.
But the people we met are making do with a smile. “We have the wonderful weather,” one of them told us. “And music and dancing.”
The country is beautiful country, and the people are very friendly, making do the best they can. I came home with a new appreciation of all we take for granted.
We’d heard unemployment was high, but online sources peg it at 3.5% – Much lower than Canada, the US and the UK’s 7.2%. Sounds good, but as is often the case in Cuba, all is not as it seems.
One young man who worked at the resort told us he made $500 per month, but it goes directly to the government and they reimburse him with $40 per month.
That’s for 8 hours a day, 6 days a week. He felt lucky to have the job, though, because he said unemployment was so high. Not what I see in those outside reports, but where do they get their figures?
We soon started tipping for absolutely everything. A one CUC peso tip, equivalent to one US dollar, is really nothing to us but 1/10th of his weekly wage, and he was highly paid compared to many. He said, quite openly, that
to make ends meet, almost everyone has a black market business going.
I don’t know how many people offered to sell us cigars that the company “gave” to a member of their family who worked there. We visited the home of one of our guide’s family members in what looked like a middle class neighborhood in a medium sized town. They had 4 tiny rooms for at least 4 people, acceptable by our standards and I think well off by Cuban standards. Their tiny back yard was full of chickens in cages – no doubt a source of extra income.
The stores are woefully under stocked. Much of the meat, all beef, and most vegetables are not available to the local people, only to the tourists.
There is not much a visitor can do about that, but we can help out with consumer products. I had always heard that you should take things, almost any “thing”, to leave with the people you meet, but it didn’t really sink in until we saw how few “things” there were in the stores. Or, I should say “the store”, because in many towns there is really only one government run store.
One of our guides happily showed us his watch and cell phone and shoes and said they were
all gifts, hand-me-downs from tourists. We became increasingly generous with tips to everyone we came in contact with because I hadn’t brought an gifts to give away. I often thought of the drawer of old cell phones and glasses I could easily have brought. Anything, even shampoo, is valuable. One young man said he used it to barter for an eye examination.
Apparently the wonderful free health care system is not as wonderful as we have been led to believe.
Long waits and shortages – or complete lack of availability of medicines – is common. I asked about the food vouchers I had heard were given to every person. Not really any more, I was told. One thirty-something young man said he remembered when he was a boy there was milk for children for breakfast, but not anymore.He said it was particularly difficult for old people without family. They receive one very poor meal a day at a public facility that he said was very unhygienic.
No one has internet in their homes.
For us, the week turned out to be a break from computers and internet. They system at the resort was so difficult and frustrating to use that we soon gave up completely. The country has only had WiFi for a few months. In town squares, you see people clustered around cell phones and I soon recognized these as WiFi zones.
In many ways the people are well educated – Cuba is known for its universal education system – but except for the lucky few, it ends with high school. It was hard to really understand how the system there works in such a short visit, because there are large gaps in what the people know about the outside world and possibly even what they know about how their own country is run. That might all change with the coming of the internet.
Comparing our two systems, social and political, is like comparing apples and something that is not fruit at all.
Someone gave me this mind boggling explanation of how one person can sell a house to another, something which for some reason, I was told, is illegal, unless you do it like this – Couple A owns a house. Man B wants to buy it. Woman A divorces Man A, on paper, and keeps the house. Then she marries Man B. Then she divorces Man B and remarries Man A, leaving the house with Man B. The same process is followed if you want to sell a car.
The trip has left me with a lot to think about. About freedom of information and, obviously, about our consumer system, both the good and the bad.
Cuba is a beautiful country though with a rich history, friendly people and contagious music.
They are struggling to provide visitors with the best they can offer, but a lack of supplies means any hotel is at least one less star than it advertises. But don’t hesitate to go. Our visits are so important to their economy, to the people and their ability to feed their families.
If you’ve visited Cuba, I’d love to hear your memories.