Cuba, that workers’ paradise where trade unions—at least free ones—are illegal. Isn’t it ironic that communist dictators appropriated May Day for their own? Hardly a month passes without my hearing of someone just going to or returning from a holiday in Cuba.
“Wonderful weather,” “very safe,” “good value,” “great cigars,” “too bad the Americans are ruining the place with their trade embargo” are some of the reports I hear.
All very true I’m sure, but what visitors often fail to report is the repression, economic decay and failing health care system, which is in evidence, providing one cares to look.
Of course, this is all the fault of shortages caused by the U.S. trade embargo… or is it? Canada and the European Union still trade with Cuba. Certainly they could supply the food, medicines and machinery Cuba needs. So why should there be shortages? Which are the essential commodities over which the United States holds a monopoly? I can’t think of many. Some Computer technology, perhaps? Coca-Cola? Hardly, Cubans get theirs from Mexico. Or perhaps it is Camel cigarettes?
The cause of the collapse of the Cuban economy can be traced right back to the Castros and their glorious Revolución. Fear, intimidation, lack of political choice, political persecution (10 to 20 years in jail for political crimes), suppression of free speech and expropriation of private property have prompted a staggering number of managers and professionals to flee the island. Add this to Fidel Castro’s inept Central Economic and Social Plans and you have the major cause of Cuba’s difficulties. The first such plan in 1962 was ruinous—as Castro himself would later admit—and food rationing began the same year. Take, for example, the rice crop: Cuba produces less rice than they it did before the revolution, and its rice fields are half as productive as those in neighbouring Dominican Republic.
Retailing in Cuba has all but disappeared—at least for the ordinary Cuban. On a walk through a middle-to-upper-class neighborhood in Havana, Bruce Ramsey of The Seattle Times reported:
“… a most meager selection of packaged food, grain, bread, meat, produce and fish, all in separate shops. The only fruits were papayas and pineapples. The grain place was dispensing cheap Vietnamese rice, labeled, ‘Not more than 20 percent broken grains.’ A pescaderia had pieces of fish turning gray.”
Cuba has two currencies: the Cuban Peso (CUP)—the currency used by Cubans in Cuba—and Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC), which is the “tourist dollar”—a U.S. Dollar replacement. The value of the CUC is pegged to the U.S. Dollar. This is the money foreigners use.
Many everyday items must be purchased at “dollar stores” and cost about the same as they do in North America. For example, a can of Mexican Coca-Cola costs $2.50, a gallon of gasoline costs more than $5.00. Most Cubans, however, earn only about $15 a month and those over 65 years of age receive a government pension of $4 to $8 month along with food coupons. It is hard to understand how ordinary Cubans can survive on so little.
Contradicting such a dismal view seems the mission of many Canadian visitors who like to remind us that most Cubans own their homes, education is free and food, utilities, medical care and medicine are subsidized.
In fact, Cubans do not “own” their homes, the Communist government owns all property. They do, however, have exclusive use, though the government can seize their property at any time.
Education is free—for those who are accepted. The line-ups for entrance to the Universidad de La Habana are long, with most applicants turned away. Membership in the Communist Party also affects a student’s chances of being admitted to any of Cuba’s universities, and students need a letter from the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) vouching for their “political and moral background.”
Although food is subsidized, the monthly subsidy is not enough for a full month and Cubans must purchase other food like meat, fruit and vegetables at the local “agro.” Also, household items we Canadians take for granted like cooking oil, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, clothes or shoes are not subsidized, but must be purchased at the dollar stores at North American prices.
Medical care in Cuba is subsidized, but there is a chronic shortage of drugs throughout the system. If they actually had to use it, no Canadian would stand for the drug-free medical care Cubans routinely receive and accept and Canadian visitors so highly praise.
Dental care, while inexpensive, can be painful as there is no freezing unless you have the tooth pulled. And freezing costs about the same as in North America causing most Cubans to choose extraction over expensive dental procedures.
So great is the disparity between wages and the “real” cost of living in Cuba that most residents resort to theft or the black market. Without the black market, Cubans could not survive. For example, most Cubans can’t afford gasoline at five dollars a gallon, so they buy it for $1.80 to $2.00 from people who drive government vehicles and steal gasoline, little by little, every day. Everybody knows what’s going on and everyone, even the government, looks the other way.
You can buy anything if you look in the right place. “Getting by” and “making do” are a way of life for millions of ordinary Cubans earning an average of $15 a month. For them, solving the problems of everyday life is a matter of survival.
Yes, the realities of Cuba are quite different from those conveyed by many Canadians who visit the island.
I don’t like communist dictatorships, so maybe I have a jaundiced view—just don’t get ill when you’re on holiday in Cuba.
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© 2009 Russell G. Campbell
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