- Good times in Almendrones
- The first years of the Revolution
- Cuba and the Soviet Union – a fatal love
- Special Period in times of Peace
- The Dual Currency – savior and doom for Cuba
- Trapped on the island
- Caribbean Food – yet another disappointment
- So much more to be told
Last time I wrote I tried to give you a history of Cuba and insights into some of the more positive aspects of Cuban society. Today I will deal with post-59 history, some aspects of Cuban culture and the other side of the coin, that is to say the unique, crazy nature the state has taken shape of.
Good times in Almendrones
As I have already alluded to in the last news, one of the best experiences here in Havana has been driving around in almendrones, or collectivos, so the old pre-59 American cars. Thousands of them cover the major roads of the city, and although they are not allowed to take foreigners on board, most of them do not really care. From outside, most of them seem to be quite in shape, but as soon as you step inside you realize that it is just an iron shell, with a loud engine and nothing inside but 2 benches and a massive sound system playing reggeaton constantly.
Yesterday, I had two funny experiences. I had just gotten into an almendron in Centro Havana, when this Cuban rasta next to me said in Spanish that he knows me from somewhere. I ignored it, as it might be some sort of scam. Then everyone kept talking, as always, and at some point they asked me something. My Havana slang is not that developed yet, and when the rasta realized that I didn’t understand he repeated the question in spotless British English. I then asked him where learned it, turns out he has lived 19 years in Camden Road, around 200m from where I lived. He is a musician and played in all the rasta places in Camden. You can imagine how excited he was and we spend another 20 minutes just talking about Camden. The world is small, and maybe he did actually recognize me…
Then the second experience, I stopped an almendron and before I got in these two Germans got out. I sit down and apparently the driver hadn’t really looked at my shirt (FC Bayern jersey). He just started bitching about the Germans, and how they know the distances and the prices of cab rides in Havana, etc. Then after half a minute, he looked back and when he saw who was sitting on the back bench of his almendron, he started swearing again…
The first years of the Revolution
When Castro got to power in 1959, he took over the government of a country characterized by strong class divides, a 40% illiteracy rate, an economic structure serving US interests and a small, extremely wealthy Cuban elite (1.5% of landholders held 46% of arable land. 150 000 families worked land that did not belong to them, 200 000 families didn’t have any land at all). Castro himself came from the upper middle class, however, the 3 years in the Sierra Maestra, fighting alongside peasants and intellectuals alike, created a strong sense of social justice that shaped all the first policies of the Revolution.
Between 1959 and 1963 all companies were nationalized, which meant mostly US companies. They were compensated the amount they had declared in the previous 1958 tax declaration (you can imagine how much lower than its real value that must have been, but smart way to do it). Every Cuban could apply to get a small patch of land for self-subsistence farming and bigger plots where worked in a cooperative manner.
In 1961, 250 000 students and volunteers were sent into every area of Cuba to fight illiteracy. This was accompanied by setting up a free and widely accessible school system. The result is that from 1962 onwards, Cuba has one of the lowest illiteracy rates in the world.
In 1962 rationing cards (libretas) were introduced, assuring a certain amount of basic, highly subsidized foodstuffs for every Cuban.
The health sector was opened to the public and the ratio of doctors changed from 1 every 1500 citizens (and mostly in the city) to 1 to 200, spread all over the country.
Cuba and the Soviet Union – a fatal love
A Marxist idea, mostly pushed forward by ministry of the economy and of agriculture Ernesto “Che” Guevara, was the diversification and industrialization of a country, which had relied so much on the export of just very few products, especially sugar. However, the wave of nationalization led to the US cancelling their trade agreements and imposing the notorious embargo. Cuba relied on the US for everything, such as food, petrol, machines, spare parts, medicines, etc. And it accounted for 80% of its exports. So from one day to the other this was all gone.
That´s when the USSR stepped in. They offered to buy up all the sugar at very preferential prices and to send all the resources Cuba needed. Without this, Cuba would not have survived the first years of the Revolution. However, it did mean focusing even more on a sugar monoculture, an obligation that prevented Cuba from developing anything else but its intellectual capital and which hit Cuba very hard later on.
An economic exchange led to a military and academic exchange, and many people you talk to here, obviously older ones, have been to Moscow to study or have Russian names. Cuba also tried to implement something like the Soviet 5 year plans and by the time the USSR was about to crumble, Cuba was entirely dependent on the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (CMEA), which accounted for more than 80% of Cuba´s entire trade.
Special Period in times of Peace
Most Cubans don’t really want to talk about the Periodo Especial, the Special Period. These have been the years of greatest hardship in Cuba. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba lost all its trading partners while the US tightened its trade embargo and extended it to third countries.
By 1992, GDP had shrunk 35% and foreign imports had fallen by 73%. From one day to the other, Cuba had to buy everything in hard currency from the world market, just that it lacked both hard currencies and countries to trade with.
What followed was an attempt to save the socialist ideals and policies achieved in the thirty pervious years while necessarily having to open up the economy. This transition period is still in place today, although from 1996 onwards Cuba´s GDP started growing again. Some of the most wide-ranging measures were: legalizing the dollar, allowing some form of free entrepreneurship (although only fully since 2009), forcing the military to become the country´s biggest producer of agricultural products, heavily expanding the tourist sector and allowing certain joint ventures with foreign companies.
I talked to some Cubans about this period. They said that your libreta stayed the same, but whenever you would go to the market, you would only get rice, beans and sugar. For years. This led to a massive health problem and still shapes the mentality of the people today. The only reason that I can see why no serious larger scale revolts occurred was the mass participation the government used to form the policies of restructuring. So in 1992, 80 000 local assemblies where set up, within which 3 million Cubans all over the country discussed how to deal with the situation. This was then compiled, analyzed, presented to the people via mass media and based on this the Rectification Program implemented. I have never heard of anything quite like this before.
The Dual Currency – savior and doom for Cuba
This leads me to one of the most peculiar things that every foreigner and Cuban is confronted with. The dollar was legalized in 1993, however, the government did not see any of these dollars, as they were mostly spend on the flourishing black market. In 2004 in was then made illegal again, and the Convertible Peso (called CUC) introduced.
The idea behind it is fairly simple: Every person coming from abroad has to change hard currency into CUC, which he can then use to pay for basically anything related to tourism (hotels, restaurants, bars, transport, internet, souvenirs, etc.). With this hard currency, the government can import necessary resources and keep on subsidizing its “socialist” system for Cubans.
Cubans are only paid in Moneda Nacional (MN) which they can use to pay for all the basics.
Sounds quite nice, should work well, it doesn’t… This has led to two major problems: If you are not happy leading your life eating the most basic food, washing yourself with poor quality soap, never trying butter, never calling anyone or using the internet, then yeah, you can live by paying just with MN. As soon as you want anything that exceeds the most basic things, you will need CUCs to pay for it and buy it in so called “Dollar Shops” or the black market.
Now this brings me to problem number two. Every wage is paid in MN, the average wage being 250-400MN a month. This is the equivalent of 10-16CUC (one CUC is one Dollar). Prices for anything payable in CUC are the same as you would expect in Europe. So think of a beer for instance – 1 CUC (wage of two days). A television – 150 CUC (a year´s wage). A passport – 100 CUC, etc…
Now this would be quite bad by itself, what makes it worse, however, is that around 70-80% of the Cuban population has some sort of access to hard currency or CUC. Being worth so much more than MN, people give up their jobs as a doctor, lawyer or engineer to become a taxi driver or a prostitute, where they can make hundredfold what they could with a state job. Everyone tries to be part of this sector of the economy. Moreover, around a third of all hard currency in Cuba is composed by remittances from Cubans abroad. This leaves a minority of the people here, ironically those most committed to the Revolution, who are left out from the system.
This leads, to what Ramon, my 26 year old, state doctor, friend of mine described as an inverse professional pyramid: jobs where you have to study years and years are paid worse and the most simple, or illegal ones are paid hundreds of times more. This leads to a level of social unfairness that I lack words to describe. Ramon earns around 10 CUC a month, his dream is to study abroad, at UCL actually. For this, amongst others, he needs to do the IELTS test, which I have done as well. It costs 200 CUC… and his family does not have access to any hard currency…
Trapped on the island
This brings me to my biggest criticism of Cuba today. Cuba is far from being the totalitarian dictatorship that the US and some interests groups outside of Cuba want us to believe. As you can tell from what I have written so far, I have great respect and sympathy for what has been achieved here. However, after people in a country reach a certain set of life quality (which doesn’t usually happen for the majority in any country in the developing world), they also want to see more than what they know, to learn more than what is offered to them, to buy things that do not exist where they live.
This is the case in Cuba. Especially after 1990, Cubans have been confronted constantly with foreigners. The government tried very hard to reduce the interaction between foreigners and Cubans to a minimum (Cubans were not allowed into hotels until recently, the press is heavily manipulated and travelling restrictions apply). In recent years, however, Cubans have started to have access to the internet, Wikipedia, Google, etc. (not widespread, but through some friends or some academic, I would say that most people here can occasionally access it). They are starting to get TVs and manage to watch CNN. They learn languages and talk to foreigners who tell them what the world outside looks like, they get books and magazines from abroad. This creates a wish, a very strong wish, to leave, not necessarily for good, but at least to see what´s out there.
Theoretically, it is possible for every Cuban to leave, also something most people do not know. However, the costs are just too high and some basic financial requirements have to be met before being granted to leave.
I think that this desire is what is most likely to induce change in Cuba today, not the trade embargo, not sanctions, and not the fact that there is a one party state. Cubans are quite happy, they have a high standard of living, censorship and surveillance does exist, but is nowhere close to Stasi or, as we found out more recently, American levels. When I asked Ramon what he would change if he had the chance to, he answered:
- Single currency
Caribbean Food – yet another disappointment
So let´s finish this news mail with something slightly easier to digest, well in my case actually quite difficult to cope with – Cuban food. I didn’t expect anything great, as I have been <a title=”Nes from Panama” href=”http://takeyourbackpackandgo.com/panama” target=”_blank”>backpacking to the Caribbean </a>last year and I know what to expect: rice and beans. Full stop.
People here eat rice and beans all day, every day. It is only complemented by various piles of greasy meat. As a snack, so for lunch, they eat plain bread with pieces of greasy meat or pizzas for which I would be able to find many descriptions but “pizza”.
Now you could argue that this is a negative result of the Revolution, claiming that the libreta led to a narrow choice of food and therefore a simplistic cuisine. I doubt it. There are some exceptions in the Caribbean, unfortunately I haven’t been to those countries and I would love to investigate why they do cook differently, but here and in the other countries I have been, the word “spices” and “vegetables” have been erased from the dictionary.
Instead, carbohydrates, carbohydrates, meat, meat, carbohydrates. Literally, Hilda, my host, cooks reasonably well. Every night for a week I had to leave half of the food, as it was simply too much. She would give me an entire plate, full of aroz moro (rice and beans), then a bowl full of yucca plus a huge platter of greasy meat. And occasionally a plate of “salad” (sliced tomatoes and some cabbage without any dressing or oil). I told her every night for a week, to give me exactly half of what she would give her husband. Finally, she understood, although they seem very irritated by it, and I am getting the right amount of food every night.
It´s just such a pity. Cuba is so fertile. You can grow ANYTHING, and that 5-6 times a year, all year round. But they don’t. This, combined with the fact that they eat loads, has led to a major problem which I also encountered in Central America: obesity, serious obesity. Up to my age, they seem to handle it reasonably well, actually the combination of a lot of sport and a lot of meat/rice and beans means that most young people here have amazing bodies. And then, by the age of 35-40 when they stop exercising – BAM, fat, obese people everywhere.
It is just such a pity and for me, a food lover, it hurts me deep inside to see how much culinary potential is wasted… oh well, I cannot wait to be back…
So much more to be told
Long mail again, there is so much to tell. We have the most important events of Cuba history kind of covered. Next time I want to talk a bit about the several waves of emigrants and most of all about the Cuban Research Forum, which I attended on the 2nd and 3rd of July and which was simply amazing. I also attended a hiphop concert which introduced me to a very interesting Cuban subculture.
Moreover, I will try to find some sort of judgment for this country, as I am usually very opinionated. However, I fear that with Cuba this might actually not be possible, quisas, vamos a ver.
Hasta luego e que lo passan bien!