Many people only think of white sand beaches, rum and cigars, beautiful old cars and even more beautiful girls when they think of Cuba. And – of course – all this is not wrong. It also will be pretty much the only impression you get if you come to the island for a 2 week all-inclusive stay at one of Vedado’s fancy beach resorts.Not that I don’t have tried and loved that kind of Cuban experience (still don’t like cigars though…) but I am extremely grateful to also be able to see the other side of the coin.
The decision to come to Cuba for two months and not just for a week or two, my language skills, my fantastic flatmates who are both artists, the fact that I have relatively little money at my disposal and mostly important my academic work and the resulting contacts to cuban intellectuals and artists have opened me the eyes to realities and points of views that little other strangers would ever get. Oh, and also my academic visa opens me many doors, of course.
To really understand Cuba is impossible for a stranger I guess, but to get a glimpse at everyday’s realities and to understand how this regimen is slowly running against a wall is definitely one of my life’s most interesting experiences until now.
Let me give you some examples.
As I told you in my first blog post from La Habana my flatmates Maygred and Legna are a guitar player and a writer.
Now it happens that Legna just very recently won 3 of Cuba’s most respected prices for contemporary literature and poetry. The price moneys from all three prices adds up to a shameful €1500 -which of course here in Cuba is a fortune. Now Legna has told me that she’s thinking about playing a plane ticket to Spain for her and Maygred because Maygred is lucky enough to be member in an artists associations that can apply for international travelling. They also are in a comfortable position to help their artists with visa and bureaucracies’ costs. Turns out that Cubans indeed are allowed to travel internationally but – and I didn’t know that – a single application for a travelling permit costs around 350 Euros! Plus travelling expenses, plus VISA expenses, of course. Also, any Cuban wanting to travel abroad needs an invitation from family in this very country. Without this invitation card no application has any change of being approved and only produces horrendous costs.
The explanation of this example is obviously the fear of the regimen that those once allowed to set foot on european soil will never come back to Cuba. So shortly, apart from some lucky artists only the very rich cubans can afford to travel and those usually have no intention of desertion because they live comfortably in cuba.
This perverted system has it’s reason. As a matter of fact I’ve learned that some 10 percent of Cubans that go to Europe never come back to their home country. And that’s not even counting those who flee the country by illegal means (such as highjacking yachts or buying their way into one of those lanchas which ship them to florida).
But why is it that Cubans would rather take the risk of dying on a lancha then to stay in their country? Well, there certainly are many factors and i’m no specialist on politics or economics but let me give you my impressions:
In the first place, as I had already explained in my first blog post from La Habana, literally NO cuban is able to live from the money he is actually earning. A camarero, a waiter, makes around 300 Pesos Cubanos a month. A taxi driver maybe 350. A doctor would make around 500. 500 Pesos Cubanos correspond to the equivalent of about 20 Euros. Now, one might argue that prices will be correspondingly cheaper and therefore one could possibly survive with 20 Euros. But no: Prices are not cheaper, the only things you can find relatively “cheap” are the most basic alimentary products, such as rice, beans, sugar, salt, rum and cigarettes. (Yes, rum and cigarettes are incredibly cheap! 🙂 Even a pumpkin costs around 20 Pesos (80€-Cents) and therefore the tenth of a month’s earning. Shampoo, Soap, Toilet Paper, Dishwashing Liquid, all that stuff is out of reach of any normal cuban’s economic power.
This not only leads to you wiping your ass with old newspapers but also to the fact that literally every cuban needs to invent something for himself to be able to survive. This way it’s no rarity in Havanna to find highly qualified doctors who have to work as taxi drivers before getting into hospital and doing high precision surgeries. Or university professors who, after having given lessons on Freud’s psychoanalisis find themselves foreced to work in construction to make a couple of dollars. But, of course, those famous cuban inventions mostly mean screwing someone. Tourists end up paying 25 times the prices a cuban would pay by being charged in CUC and not Pesos Cubanos. Taxi drivers just collect the earned money into their pocket and not the company’s account, Products in shops hardly ever ever have price tags on them, prices are being made up upon the fact how well you speak spanish.
Also, enormous amounts of goods in any sector are stolen right from the production line and never even reach the counter. Those products then find their way to the impressively huge black market, evading of course taxes etc. etc.
All this leads to little income on behalf of the state which again lead to cuts on the social net, social services, reparations of buildings and streets and, of course, very very low incomes. A vicious circle which has only been getting worse ever since the Soviet Empire collapsed.
Also, like in all socialist countries, there is no real stimulus to work hard or to give a good service to the customer. Whether you sell 500 or only 50 breads a day, whether you are friendly to the customers or not does not make any difference to you because at the end of the month you will be getting always the same shitty cheque. People don’t see any sense in their job and therefore do only the most necessary. Forget about friendly service in restaurants, a helping hand in ministries and especially safety or hygiene at working places.
Secondly: Big Brother is watching you! Just like in the former German Democratic Republic, Socialists have managed to spin a fine web of espionage that runs through every blood vessel of cuban society. Not only that you can never really know who you can openly talk to and whom not but also there are very elaborate and discrete methodologies of simply “breaking people out” when they become uncomfortable to the system.
I have heard of people who, at their company’s elections of the representative to the working force, stood up against the preferred candidate and lost their job. I’ve learned to know writers and musicians who published things that were too critical in the eye’s of the communist party and were therefore censored for the rest of their live. An other impressive example I’ve been told just this thursday by an elderly cuban lady at the german embassy. Talking about problems in Cuba and the socialist system she told me a story of her son, a surgeon at one of Havana’s biggest hospitals. One day, when at the hospital the nurse with the key to the medical stock was nowhere to be found, he found himself forced to kick in the stock’s door in order to save a patient’s live. He was then therefore put to trial by the hospital’s direction, told off for his “unprofessional behavior” and was cut five month’s wages…
Surely those are not the most horrific examples but just some cases that I learned to know personally. I don’t really know what to believe of other horrible stories but you can make yourself an image by just googling “amnesty international cuba”. Prepare to be shocked.
The originally educating, freedom bringing, anti-disrimination and liberating movement of the revolution who brought end to one of Middle America’s most horrible regimes at the time has been lost it’s swing. Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, the island is nothing more then a mere shadow of itself and has started isolating and suffocating itself, economically, socially and politically.
Well, and now? I think that Cuba has been suffocating itself so hard and long that it might be too weak to change anything. The political response to problems always has been more restrictions- hardly ever academical research or a simple look behind the curtains of social reality.
Since Raul has taken over power from his older brother Fidel there has been lots of hope and little action in his “modern socialism” policies.
Cuban enterprises can be owned by up to 49 percent with non-cuban investors. Since a month or so Cubans can oficially buy cars. And soon buy or rent flats. I don’t know where any cuban could take the money from to do so but it might be a good first step. It’s hard to say whether things will really change but what can people do but hope?