A Journey in Cuba

This is the third in a five-part series about the Cuban trade embargo. As mentioned last week, President Bush’s enforcement of the Cuban embargo plans to starve the population into upheaval by restricting their trade, depressing their economy and causing Communist subsistence living to become unbearable. Indeed, at the moment, a stark dichotomy exists between the opulent tourists and the impoverished Cubans, a division which evokes some resentment in the Cuban populace. To fully understand whether or not such an upheaval is truly feasible, we should examine the day-to-day life in Cuba and thus the effect of the embargo on the average Cuban. Finding Work I spoke with Heidi Sánchez, a native Cuban who majored in art at the University of Havana, where she also studied the translation of Latin and Ancient Greek, on the side. Amazingly, she taught herself to speak English and French fluently without taking classes in either. But, her intellect that had bloomed so brightly now languishes, because her financial situation forces her into mundane work in the tourist industry. She recalls, “After the fall of the Soviet Union, times were very rough. The Cuban economy collapsed, because the U.S.S.R. no longer provided sugar subsidies. There was not enough food, and everyone started losing weight. Our family had to rent out a room illegally in our house just to make ends meet. But, the economy began to recover, once tourism became the major industry.” Most Cubans that I met displayed a prominent habit of grimacing at the mere mention of the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union. On average, tour guides’ government-dictated salary ranges between about 150 to 500 Cuban pesos each month, equivalent to between six dollars and twenty dollars in American currency, only enough to buy a few goods considered “luxuries,” such as cooking oil; the government provides staples such as rice and beans free of charge. But, some tips that tourism workers receive exceed their monthly salaries by exponential factors. Moreover, customers sometimes treat Cubans within the tourist industry to lunch and dinner at Cuba’s fanciest, most delectable restaurants, restaurants that practically no Cuban can afford. Consequently, the tourism industry is populated by former lawyers, doctors, and accountants because they can make more money from foreign tourists than their comrades. I wonder if Cuban mothers tell their children, “Work hard in school, go to law school, and one day you might drive a taxi cab.” Despite the Communist government, capitalist negotiation attracts people like light does mosquitoes. On the subject of pests, I visited a flea market in Havana, where merchants, hoping to profit off tourists, shrewdly haggle using phrases that would make Alan Greenspan proud, such as “I will give you my best price,” and “I can’t go any lower.” One merchant even bagged an item for me and acted as if he were convinced that the transaction was complete, simply because I showed the mildest interest in the item. Ms. Sanchez also remarked, “Everyone has to struggle to get by here. Everyone has at least two jobs, even in the tourism industry. For instance, I edit manuscripts on the side. Even with two jobs, people often engage in theft and corruption. For instance, at cigar factories, many workers will steal a few real cigars, roll some imitation cigars, and try to sell the counterfeits to tourists on the black market. Sometimes workers even steal money from cash registers, because, even at the grocery store, all the items are priced in U.S. dollars. No one really wants the peso.” Living Conditions Catering to their every whim, five star hotels pamper most tourists. Hotel guests enjoy free breakfast buffets, cable TV with HBO, comfortable beds, freshly washed towels, and breathtaking ocean views. Cubans, in the starkest, most hapless contrast, struggle for housing and cannot buy and sell houses, as they are forced to remain in the same government-selected houses from year to year. Frequently, an entire extended family, the elderly, adults, and children, cram into a house built for three. During my stay, I had the fortune to be able to visit one of these middle class households. The house, like so many parts of Cuba, appeared to be stuck in the 1950’s, before the revolution. The bottom floor of the house held a tiny kitchen with wiring exposed every which way, a small living room with a worn-out couch, and a rickety table. The living room lacked a television, an odd contrast to the decrepit farm house I visited, which was fashioned out of palm trees, but still had a television. An old rug and some modest tile covered the floor. Two bedrooms lay upstairs, one an actual bedroom, the other a hallway at the top of the stairs, reborn into a bedroom. Needing desperately to be washed, some mud-caked sheets adorned the beds. The converted bedroom overlooked a cramped yard and patio, which featured a facade of rotting paint. Overall, the house appeared neither unlivable nor glamorous, but simply adequate. Schooling I also visited a one-room preschool, which seemed to be in the state of constant recess. Also in need of additional paint, it was reminiscent of a tiny U.S. schoolhouse from the 1950’s with cracked black chalk boards, rows of decades-old desks, and platitudes on posters, like, “Do your best.” Attendants watched children with unabashed boredom, while the children enjoyed the playground. As I observed, on the rare occasions of class, young pupils seemed to learn to recognize colors, to count, to tie their shoes, and to love Castro. Transportation Travel in Cuba is not for the light of heart. With occasionally unlined, always uneven roads that bear frequent potholes, travel is less of everyday gruel and much more adventure. Cuban drivers would be able to handle crazy Boston traffic without any problem – there may not be any mineral mining in Cuba, but there’s plenty of lead. Only about ten percent of the people have access to cars, which, of course, were almost all built in the 1950’s. Passengers crowd so tightly into buses that exhalation could prove quite dangerous. Overall, transportation is sadly backward. At the moment, although Cuban people live in penury, they are not more impoverished than many third-world democratic nations such as the Bahamas; they have not reached a point of complete destitution from which we can expect an imminent rebellion, although another more long-lasting recession like that of 1991 might provide the necessary hunger and unrest. But, gradual conditioning of the people to love the government, as evidenced by the pro-Castro lessons in preschools, diminishes the chance of such a possibility. The quotidian Cuban existence in 2004, 45 years after their revolution, is tranquil and bearable, even if it becomes mere subsistence when compared to living in Andover, Massachusetts. I still believe further examination is required for a cogent conclusion about the embargo, but I can say during my stay I could observe no signs whatsoever of imminent rebellion.