By Van Andruss —
My partner Eleanor and I visited the Emerald Isle for the fourth time this past winter. I would like to offer bits of what we learned there while enjoying a change of scene.
Even before we flew into Havana, we heard the news about Obama’s intention to “normalize” relations between the US and Cuba. Embassies will open in both countries. At least one “conversation” had been held with US officials in Washington, DC, with more to come. The last three of five Cuban patriots had been returned after spending years in a US prison on charges of spying. This act alone was greatly celebrated in Cuba. Fidel himself hobbled out of retirement to give the “Cuban Five” a hug. Some optimists predict that the embargo will be lifted.
So, that was the big news upon our arrival. Otherwise the daily life of the great majority of Cubans continues as per usual—which isn’t to say that changes in government policy are not already occurring under Raul. The trend is distinctly towards liberalization. While until recently almost every enterprise in Cuba was owned by the government, there is currently a definite move towards granting permits to private businesses. Restaurants are opening daily. Someone told us there are 2,000 new ones in Havana. Hundreds of those famous vintage cars from the 50s are converting into privately-owned taxis. Havana is full of them and they’re always busy.
Another significant change is that people are allowed to sell their houses. Incidentally, they’re not cheap. A house up to Canadian standards will cost over $100,000. Since there’s money in the trade, houses are being built at an accelerated rate. As for building materials, they have always been the property of government and only now are they being sold in stores, but they are difficult to come by and lots of items are not available at all, like nails.
My son-in-law, who is Cuban, tells me the government has granted these changes due to heavy pressure from below. Although the Cuban state remains a dictatorship, all-controlling, the revolution of 1959 is long past, and several generations have intervened. Young people are interested in joining the world at large. Many have “virtually” joined anyway through the use of iPods, the ubiquitous cellphone, and by following international fashions. Still, along a highway, tired political slogans are likely to appear, for example, “Sociolismo o Muerte!” (Socialism or Death!). You wonder, in reality, how many youths resonate with that suggestion. Enthusiasms fade along with everything else in history.
At the tourist site of Varadero, hot water taps work and toilets flush properly. Outside this haven, First World conditions are rare. The vast majority of Cubans are poor. Only government officials have riches, and maybe athletes and entertainers. Middling benefits can be expected for anyone directly serving tourists. Ordinary government jobs fall short of a living wage. Even doctors only earn around forty dollars American per month. This explains why corruption is the rule in Cuba. Everyone needs a scam to get by, to make up the difference. No wonder visitors have a hard time figuring out “how things work.”
If the majority of Cubans don’t earn a living wage, on the other hand they don’t live by credit. They don’t accumulate big debts. They pay no mortgages, no taxes, no whopping charges for education, and no hospital bills. Phone, water, and electricity are cheap. You might pay a dollar a month for electricity if you don’t have air-conditioning. A certain amount of food is handed out free with a ration book that comes out once a month. You drop by the store (bodega) to pick up given staples: rice, beans, a bit of chicken, soy burgers (with maybe a little blood in them), sugar, salt, bread (one small bun per day), even cigarettes (low grade), coffee (chicory), and odds and ends like soap, toothpaste, and condoms. There’s milk powder for children up to nine, allowances for people with health problems like diabetes, and special rations for the elderly. The downside is that items are frequently unavailable.
Foreign visitors travelling outside the standardized comforts of Varadero will tell you they want to see the real Cuba before Fidel dies, before the gates open up to the wider world of commerce and industry, forces likely to erode valued cultural differences. How is Cuba to change, loosen the grip of government control, make a little money for its people, yet remain itself? How is it going to handle Chinese investment or an influx of cheap commodities without being overwhelmed? Change it must, for its survival, but to what end and by what strategy? Such is the dilemma facing Cuba.
Meanwhile, the daily life of this feisty stronghold of socialism remains much the same. It is true that the opening to massive foreign influences is widening. There will be consequences. But for now, to be themselves and keep up their spirits, the Cuban people will continue to rely on their music, their arts, family ties, and the beauty of a tropical island.
Van Andruss is editor of the magazine Lived Experience. He enjoys the bioregional life and community in historic Moha outside of Lillooet, B.C