The Real Cuba

I visited a resort in a rural area of Cuba in April. The tourist experience was deluxe, but there were glimpses of the real Cuba.

En route to the resort in a modern bus (manufactured in China), we passed a few horses-and-carts, and a few of the famed 1950s cars you see in photos of Cuba. They easily coexist on the nearly empty highways.

Why is this? 1959-60 marked the end of American goods in Cuba. When Castro seized power in 1959, the US cut its trade relations with Cuba and pressured other nations to follow. Cuba then exported its sugar to Russia and received Russian oil – along with Russian military support. International consumer goods became unaffordable and rare (especially with no US dollars to buy them). To this day, new cars in Cuba are astronomically expensive, car parts are hard to get, and owners keep their cars running by whatever means possible.

As we drove along, we saw groups of people on the roadside who appeared to be waiting for buses. Only there are no buses – most of the country has no public transit. So, everyone spends their days scrounging rides. On the way to our resort, a tour guide told us people need a permit to “hitchhike” and they typically spend 3 hours a day waiting for someone to give them a lift to and from their destinations. There are licensed horses-and-carts and taxis for hire, but because of the rates, people try to get a lower-priced “black market” ride. I have heard that government vehicles (including troop carriers) are required to stop for citizens whenever they have space.

Lives are lived locally. When the government needs workers for a new resort, hospital, etc., it relocates workers to that area and provides housing for them. Otherwise, people do resource-based work (such as farming and fishing) or work in the public sector – health, education, government services, military. Or they manufacture rum, beer and cigars.

The controlled economy has loosened up a bit. The usual model for farming is communal farms in which 5 or 6 families give half their output to the government and keep half for their own use or sale. Now farmers can work a small piece of land (about 25 hectares) individually, but they’re subject to a tax of about 75%. Home owners can run a licensed casa particular (guest house) – now Airbnb too – or set up shop as a car mechanic.

What you don’t hear about Cuba is that many people have no work. With so few exports and so little cash, there just isn’t much money flow. People are incredibly resourceful in cobbling together bits of work into a subsistence income – from things like repairing appliances, taking in sewing, cutting hair, or selling used goods. Tourism and tips create the biggest cash infusion, but the tourist season is weather-dependent (October to April).

Price of black beans in Cuba (where I live they are 2.90 CDN or 2.15 USD)

Except in the tourism industry, Cubans typically earn $30-$40 USD per month unless they get funds from relatives living outside the country. They receive rations of basic foods like rice, beans, cooking oil, a few eggs, and milk for children. Because farming is small-scale and mostly manual, the country can’t produce enough food to support the population. There is no money for farm equipment, gas and diesel, and fertilizer.We knew things were bad, but it really hit home when Rom and I did a walking tour of Holguin and popped into a grocery store. The shelves had a limited selection of canned goods and dry goods, mostly imported from Spain. Locals were lined up for small portions of meat from the butcher counter. In the photo above, a kilo of dry black beans is 3.80 USD or 95 Cuban pesos. Big bucks on a monthly income of 750-1000 Cuban pesos. Our tour guide told us, “The number one thing Cubans think about is: what am I going to eat today?”

I saw a cashier go for lunch in Holguin; she had a paper plate of white rice with sauce on it and a couple of slices of fried plantain.

Kids get lunch at school or daycare. They walk to school; we saw kids everywhere in their school uniforms with sneakers. Everyone learns English now. The literacy rate in Cuba is nearly 100% and education is paid up to the post-graduate level. But I got the impression a lot of people don’t stay in school because their job prospects are poor, they’re funneled into training for areas in which there’s a worker shortage, or they do their compulsory military service.

Cuba famously has loads of doctors. I think they excel in preventative care and office visits. There is a critical shortage of medicines and hospital supplies. I later learned tourists can take in 10 kg of medicines and supplies as “humanitarian aid” and they welcome basic OTC medications like fever and pain relievers, anti-nausea tablets and first aid ointments.

Doctors who stay in the country earn the same as other occupations like teaching and accounting. Cuba allows doctors to work internationally and send money home.

People can own land now and build their own homes. There is little access to building materials. We were told it can take 30 years to assemble and pay for a basic shelter. There were nice, neat, modest homes. There were homes made of corrugated metal and repurposed wood. In cities, there were some nice stucco buildings. The government-supplied housing included depressing Soviet-style apartment blocks, and a lot of the housing stock was crumbling and mouldy. Rom and I had seen pictures of colourful Spanish colonial homes in Havana and we thought that was the norm.

With the political turmoil in Venezuela, Cuba lost its latest trade partner and steady source of oil, creating more deprivations everywhere. Electricity is available to government entities and the tourism industry, and restricted to everyone else. A local person was pleased to tell us over 95% of the island had electricity now, but there are frequent outages. Same with household water supply.

Wifi access card for the Internet monopoly

Internet service is much more readily available. Our resort boasted of “free wifi in the lobby area.” We had to sign up for Internet cards that gave us an hour of access. The office gave out the cards sparingly – we assumed the site had a data cap. The wifi signal was just OK; we saw fellow travelers loudly complain when their Skype and Facetime calls in the lobby were dropped. (I felt bad for the staff). My brother said the last time he visited, 3 years ago, Internet was only available on hardwired PCs in the office.

We saw a few people with smartphones. We were in a rural area so this could be more common in Havana.

I got the sense that everyone was up to date on world news and entertainment. In particular, hiphop and current Latin dance/pop music were everywhere. We saw a Cuban band play a bit of the Game of Thrones theme song to warm up! I hear the latest news, shows and music are smuggled in on flash drives and hard drives.

Of course, Cuba has a thriving arts and culture scene, with music, dance, theatre and visual arts.

Children’s books at the public library 😦

For me, the photo above says it all. This is in the children’s section of the public library for a city of 300,000. I desperately want to return with a suitcase full of books.

I think the stereotype of Cuba is a proud people who have stood up to American imperialism and created a socialist utopia. What I saw is that the people are really suffering. Tourists are encouraged to keep to their enclaves, away from the citizens – who until recently, were banned from tourist beaches and resorts. I saw some locals being shooed away from a resort near ours – they were told the tourists don’t want to mix with them. All the worse if that is true.

One of our party is biracial and everywhere we went, staff asked if she was Cuban, what her ancestry was, who her people were, what she was doing with “us,” and where she was living now (assuming she was an ex-pat). It was not done in a friendly, inquisitive manner. There seemed to be a feeling that she was mixing with folks “above her station.” It was so upsetting!

Sadly, Cubans are probably better off, on average, than people in the DR, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua, and other nearby countries who have no social programs.

However, Cuba continues to have a repressive regime and there is no freedom of expression or assembly.

I do hope to go back and have a more authentic off-resort experience. Maybe it is just my first-world voice talking, but it would be great to be able to speak (in Spanish, of course) with Cuban citizens, to learn first-hand about daily life and to be able to speak accurately about their situation(s) when I come back home – much more so than I am doing in this blog post, after just one pampered week at a Cuban resort.

I welcome corrections and further info from Cubans and frequent travelers who know the country much better than I do.

Read More:

Daily Life in Cuba (January 24, 2018)

Cuba Launches Widespread Rationing (May 10, 2019)

Why Cuba’s Artists are Protesting (Dec. 5, 2018)

Cuba’s Gay Rights Activists Take to the Streets (May 12, 2019)

Human Rights Watch 2019

 

18 comments

  1. Fiona

    I am shocked reading this! Cuba is a bit beyond our periphery here: I don’t know anyone who has visited there (unless Sarah pops up to say she has!) It is really hard to imagine living on earnings of $30-$40 per month, plus all the restrictions on independence. People in Australia are more likely to visit South East Asian countries that are on lower incomes, such as Bali in Indonesia. Even there though, when we visited last year, average income is about $300 Australian per month.

    That last article you linked to: what a great website. I went down the tunnel of looking up all kinds of countries. Gives a very concise overview of key issues in so many places. I was feeling a bit abashed about my complaints about politics in Australia, compared to such a systemic lack of freedom and economic constraints in Cuba. But then I looked up Australia on that site, and it is clear why many of us have serious concerns about our country, in spite of being so economically well off.

    Such a thought-provoking blog post! Thank you!

    • Of course Sarah has been to Cuba!

      The Caribbean islands are so dramatically different from each other – very wealthy island nations like the Barbados and desperately poor countries like Haiti. There is a widespread belief that Cubans have a good quality of life, and that their brand of Communism is not so bad, which is what I was trying to address.

      I think Canada and Australia come out about the same on Human Rights Watch!

    • I have a friend who visited Cuba last year. I will have to ask her more about it. She didn’t do resorts. I know she loved it.

  2. It looks so nice there!!

  3. Hi I enjoy your posts very much for their considered thoughtfulness. I felt you might like to read the latest post from ‘Arun with a View’ about Cuba and the financial collapse of Venezuela. You will find some interesting information about Cuban Doctors working abroad. Best wishes

    Christine (Burns)

    Sent from my iPad

    >

    • Thanks for being a reader, Christine! I see your name over on Bloglovin. I really appreciate the link.
      It links to another article about Cuban doctors: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-48214513
      I assumed they must pay over 75% tax and have no freedom in their host countries – I was right about that. Their working conditions are much worse than I could have imagined.

  4. Thanks for sharing this! It’s unimaginable to me how people live in these conditions, but I guess if it’s all you know and what choice do they have? We recently returned from a week in Cozumel, Mexico and I’m still having trouble processing the divide between tourist life and that of many (most?) residents. While it sounds like they’re better off than the poor in Cuba, there are definite hardships. One Mexican traveler at our resort said that resort workers like bartenders earn about $120/month US (before tips). That’s working 6 days per week. And yet the vast majority of staff were so friendly and kind to us, and very hard-working. It just makes me wonder if tourism helps or hurts there overall, and what more can be done.

    It also seems like there’s more than enough on our planet for everyone to have the necessities and some comforts. It saddens me that some lives are so difficult.

    I’d definitely like to learn Spanish and go back to Cozumel if not elsewhere in Mexico and learn more.

    • I really struggled with the impact of tourism, too. The government deliberately built up the industry because it brings in other currencies they can use to buy international goods (including food and fuel). But it also provides employment, better working conditions than many other jobs, and the staff are allowed to keep their tips – making them the best-paid people in Cuba. There were staff living quarters at our resort where some of the staff lived; of course I couldn’t get a close look. Most of the staff worked 7-10 days in a row then got a couple of days off to go home.

  5. Great post. There’s a lot to ponder. Cubans may be poor and struggle to earn income and buy food but as you say, other countries are worse off. If the US hadn’t imposed trade sanctions, and sanctions against those who were willing to trade with Cuba, I wonder how the country and its people would be? Sanctions didn’t seem to work in converting the people to free falling capitalism. And while there were very wealthy people before the revolution, as you’d know there was massive corruption and low literacy rates.

    I’d want to return too with a suitcase of medications. And books. You should do it.

    • Yes, conditions were ripe for a revolution when the Castros appeared – they followed two previous dictatorships – and Cuba’s pre-revolutionary wealth had been built on sugar plantations and slavery. I wonder if Cuba will go the way of China, with its recent excesses and inequalities – the best and worst of capitalism. I am going to look into Canada-Cuba friendship societies and find out what they recommend in terms of donating goods.

  6. ang0660

    Thank you for such in depth info which was really thought provoking. Sadly though there are so many people living a subsistence life in this world – yet things never change despite all the fundraising, charity work etc. that goes on continuously. Trouble is – if all the world problems got sorted; what would happen to all the associated jobs and charities? They are so intertwined that they could not be allowed to fail so the poverty would therefore always have to remain. A very sad thought.

    • That is a depressing thought, Angie! I wonder how many charities (with paid staff) are willing to say in public, “I would love to be out of a job!” When I donate to charities, I do check to see how much of their income goes to salaries and fundraising. All the more reason to work with grassroots groups.

      • ang0660

        Oh yes I agree that it is very depressing- maybe I am getting too cynical these days? No I am sure none of the staff working for the charities want to lose their jobs. Who would? However when we look at things in a certain context such as telethons then you can see that the charity/fundraising idea needs an overhaul. In the UK we have annually BBC Children in Need which has people doing all sorts of amazing things to raise money. Last year they raised £50million- fantastic and yet if every single UK person just gave £1 they could raise £66 million as easy as that. So what if everyone gave £5 – that is 10pence per week per person- think of all the good that could do for so many charities. Sorry but just saying.
        Time for world rethinks on giving – sharing-donating are really needed.

      • That is why I am a socialist. Just raise taxes by a small percentage and these problems are solved!

  7. Margie from Toronto

    I worked with two women who ended up marrying Cubans. While their husbands are now in Canada (and both marriages are legit, happy and long lasting) they both maintain homes in Cuba. Each trip back means that they take all kinds of household goods, clothing and medical supplies.

    A friend and one of my sisters (and her family) are regular visitors to specific resorts and have come to know many of the staff. They always fill up their cases with items requested (OTC medicines, baby clothes & jeans are always on the list). My sister always travels with large bottles of shampoo, gels, soaps etc. and then leaves them for the maid and that is always considered to be a great tip and gets around any restrictions. She also saves clothing that kids have outgrown or that she may not want anymore and leaves them as well.

    I think this stark difference in lifestyle is one of the reasons that I’ve never travelled to countries like Mexico or Cuba – having to stay on a resort and being shielded from so much poverty would make me feel so guilty. But – I know the other side of the argument is that life would be so much more difficult without the tourists so it’s a tough one.
    A really interesting series – thank you

    • Thanks, Margie. I have never travelled to a developing country before so this is all new to me. I never liked the thought of being in an exclusive enclave. I hope I can use it as a jumping-off point to learn more and to help. We had heard that school supplies are welcome so we left a lot for the maids (who worked in teams). When we toured the nearest city, there were 3 or 4 local people who tried to sell us things and one who asked for money, but it wasn’t overwhelming like I have heard about on some of the other islands. There’s such a fine line between being inspired to help, and feeling it is all hopeless.

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