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).
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.
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.
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.
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)