The Cuban myth has lived on for decades now, malcontent inhabitants of countries swept over by capitalism often glorify and idolize the Cuban social system without ever taking a clinical look at the workings of this isolated society, it is perhaps this isolation that keeps people from seeing how Cubans really live.
Throughout my travels in Cuba I talked to many people in order to learn about their lives and their living conditions and more often than not, when they tried to explain about their reality in socialist Cuba the phrase “No es facil” – “It ain’t easy” came up.
During the visit of Pope Francis to Cuba in September 2015 the rout the Pope’s motorcade would transit through was given a facelift. Building facades were painted and crumbling terraces removed, dumpster-divers and beggars were also removed from the streets. It doesn’t take a perceptive observer to see the inherent difficulty in the lives of most Cubans, the only foreign visitors isolated from it are pontiffs, high dignitaries and tourists encapsulated in the circuit designed by the government and foreign hotel corporations to better accommodate and milk the tourist. You don’t need to walk too long through Havana to have a beggar or a hustler attempt to scrape a few CUCs of you with their routine jive, and one need not look far to see that the number of elders asking for change, selling newspapers on the street, collecting empty cans or rummaging through garbage bins in search of something of value, is surprising for a country that supposedly looks out for its population.
Food rationing, a measure typical of times of strife and war was started in the early sixties to provide equal opportunities of nourishment to the population and although it proved crucial in the early years of the embargo and during the 90’s a time otherwise known as the special period, when after the fall of the Soviet Union Cuba was left without its supporting power and Cubans endured food shortages and service cuts for years. Cuba imports more than eighty percent of the food consumed by the population. The amount and variety of food stuffs given by the government has gradually decreased during the last ten years and current low rations cause some to fear its complete disappearance leaving around twenty percent of the population in abject poverty. Many Cubans say that the monthly allocation of goods supplied to them at subsidized prices does not last them more than one or two weeks, after which they must turn to the hard-currency stores at unregulated prices or to the black market. The difficult living conditions already drive many into hustling newly arrived tourists out of a few CUCs from the price of a box of cigars or a bottle of rum, or in the worst cases to mendicancy.
Unemployment in the Island is low but the government over staffs manual labor posts that receive miserable wages and university graduates are very poorly paid causing many professionals to moonlight in the tourist industry or freelance as taxi drivers with inherited American relics. Mass Tourism was introduced in the nineties to combat the scarcities of the post USSR period and with it came the seeds of capitalism and its idiosyncrasies. With the advent of tourism during the nineties the egalitarianism espoused by the revolution started to dwindle, Those having contact with the lucrative tourist industry suddenly found themselves with a substantially higher income than, professional, industrial and agricultural workers. This also sowed the seeds of disenchantment with the regime among younger generations. On witnessing the struggle to make ends meet of parents who have dedicated many years of their lives to educating themselves new generations are deterred from study and self-improvement. This youth is fast acquiring the same vices and indifference of youth in developed capitalist countries. With a dwindling professional class and no new blood injected in the ranks any country is bound to failure.
There is a glittering side to Cuban socialism but underneath the veneer things aren’t so brilliant. Education in the Island including university level is free, literacy rate in Cuba is ninety nine point eight percent, and classroom size is twelve children per teacher, the down side is that these schools are poorly equipped and less and less youth have a real interest in continuing their education after school. From the beginning, the revolutionary government set health care as a priority. Today, Cuba has seventy thousand qualified doctors, the whole of Africa has fifty thousand. Medical care is free in Cuba but on the other hand, medical facilities are deteriorating, there is an accentuated lack of medicine, patients need to supplement the struggling physicians' pay with gifts exchanged at times for special treatment. Many say that they are treated by foreign medical students and the wait for specialty care is long. Another important source of income for the Cuban government, some say more substantial than tourism, is the rental of doctors to developing countries, there are ten thousand Cuban doctors in Brazil alone. The long standing embargo is surely to blame for many of the islands ills and deterioration but many blame it on poor administration as well. Fidel himself admitted to Gabriel Garcia Marquez that one of his biggest mistakes was to not have allowed foreign investment into the island
Cuba is slowly opening to the world, the recommencing of diplomatic relations with the United States announced in December 2014 is the clearest sign, and capitalism is creeping in fast. The government has allowed on the 1st of July 2015 for unrestricted yet limited internet access, which most Cubans utilize by paying steep fees and with devices sent by relatives abroad. The government has allowed certain small private businesses like paladars (restaurants) and casas particulares that lodge travellers but these are heavily taxed and most depend on foreign investments. Foreign investment is still forbidden by the government so foreign investors sponsor Cuban owned businesses in the hopes of gaining a strong foot hold in the Island once the socialist government has fallen, an event most say is inevitable with the reintroduction of capitalism.
The more notorious and troubling signs of capitalism can already be seen in the Island. In Havana there is a clear class division with privileged Cuban families living in the posh neighborhoods of Vedado and Miramar while in Havana Centro and the surrounding area a lot of times, four generations of a family share twenty square meters of living space. No one really knows where the families that have climbed the ladder get their income from, many speculate it is money sent from relatives living abroad, others point to the fact that a mafia will arise anywhere controlled by the same government for over fifty years. In any case a culture of institutionalized embezzlement has spread through all spheres of government and government controlled businesses, it has become a form of bonus pay for underpaid employees who filch from factories to complement their pay with the silent consent of their superiors. In any case the classless society Cuba was once praised and admired for is long gone, and the gap between the rich and the poor widens fast. It seems that the quasi surreal social tranquility breathed in the Island is only made possible by harsh jail sentences, a complete absence of fire weapons, and an omnipresent informant network tainted by jealousy and hate. Despite these barriers, with each advance of capitalism the island draws closer to the troublesome reality of the rest of the Latin American Continent.
© Daniel Botelho