A Subjective Tourist’s View of Life in Cuba

While we were in Cuba on our last trip in 2012, we heard a lot about the rationing of food and supplies. We still remember sitting in a classroom with a teacher explaining the educational system to us and her comments about having a severe headache. As aspirin was difficult to buy in Cuba due to shortages, she mentioned that her head was pounding. In a flash, many of us reached into our purses and gladly gave her all of the aspirin that we had.

Ration Stores

On this trip, we wanted to see more of the stores in which people could buy food and supplies. Our first stop was one of the country’s many ration stores.

Rations stores are typically small bodegas that sell rice, sugar, beans, coffee, baby food, milk pasta and even matches at highly subsidized prices. The catch is that such items are extremely limited and are strictly rationed, with specific amounts of each allocated on the basis of the number of people in a family and on the age and even health of the individuals. Some goods, such as milk, are so limited as to be available only for children of less than seven year of age and individuals with certain ailments for which milk is necessary. (Those not able to qualify for milk, can buy yogurt.) Our guide showed us the board that indicated how much each individual could purchase and the daily price of the item. We also got to see the ration cards that people used to purchase such goods. A fascinating overview of systems of which we had little understanding.

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We also went into several stores that sold household items. Some of the prices were are par with our pricing (but remember, to us $2 for soap isn’t a lot of money. To someone making $30 a month, $2 is a lot). Some items seemed very expensive, such as a floor fan that was $100. While this store had some basics, it still had very limited supply and variety. We also visited a grocery store. It certainly didn’t have the variety that we are used to seeing. But we were surprised to see the amount of soda that was displayed.

Money

Cuba has an interesting dual currency systems where citizens are paid in and use Cuban pesos while visitors use “CUCs” (pronounced cook), a currency that is loosely pegged to the U.S. dollar. Although the CUC is currently worth about 25 times that of a peso, the currencies are continually revalued. This can create a dilemma for citizens. Should they put their savings in pesos or CUCs?  What effect will a devaluation have on their futures? And will the government really make good on its promise to eliminate the two-currency system (probably in favor of the peso)? If so, when and in what form will this change take? Who will be harmed and how can one best protect themselves and their families?

On the other hand, many people don’t really have to worry about protecting their savings. Many low-to-mid-level service workers, for example, earn the equivalent of about 25-35 CUCs per month—about enough to survive on heavily subsidized, rationed food. Professionals, such as doctors and senior business managers, meanwhile, earn about 90 to 120. The biggest winners in this economy (in addition to high-level government executives) are those who work in the travel industry. In addition to better compensation than doctors, they receive tips from foreigners. A good guide may earn as much in a single day as a doctor does in a month.

Healthcare and Education

Even so, the Cuban economic system clearly has some advantages. These include free (and generally quite good) health care, free education for all through secondary school, and through university for those who pass the entrance exam. Expectant mothers get full pay for the month before the anticipated delivery date and either one of the two new parents gets an entire year of paid leave. The government subsidizes retirement at roughly 50 percent of ending salary (depending on the number of years of service) at age 70-75 for men and 60-65 for women.

On the other hand, since almost everybody (other than the relative handful of independent business owners farmers, small shop and paladar (private restaurant) owners, private taxis and those who rent houses or rooms–including the growing number of people who rent via AirB&B) work for the government. And as is the case with a number of civil service workers in any country, they have little incentive for going the extra mile for customers. Such behavior and associated buck passing can make life everyday life quit challenging.

Lines, Lines Everywhere

And then there are the lines, which seemed to be for everything from getting gas to the most basic of banking transactions. You need a wifi card, stand in line for 30 minutes. Need to use the bank? 15-20 people ahead of you. And since the service people have no incentive to do anything quickly, the lines move very slowly.

Be Happy

Even so, few people seem to complain, at least publicly, or especially vehemently. First the country is filled with propagandistic signs and advertisements that praise the revolution and honor Fidel and the sacrifices of Che and dozens of other martyrs. And clearly, nobody wants to risk engendering the enmity of the authorities. But the deeper reasons are more complex. First, many adults, at least those over about 30 years old, remember the terrible economic period of the 1990s, when a collapsing Soviet Union could no longer afford to subsidize the Cuban economy. Even more importantly, however, is a deep sense of patriotism that prompts people to accept their lots. Besides, it’s not as if your neighbors or your friends are in much better positions. None of the deep, persistent inequalities that lead to envy.

Most Cubans, in fact, appear to be quite happy, something that is evident from the way they interact with each other, the enjoyment of everyday pleasures and in some cases, spontaneous celebrations. A mood that is communicated through the music one hears throughout not just the tourist quarters, but through the neighborhoods—all of which appear to be totally safe and in which everyone will go out of their way to help even strangers. True, some of those that volunteer to help tourists may be trying to sell you something (a meal in their “mother’s” restaurant or especially a fake Cohiba cigar–or are just looking for a tip. Most, however, appear not to have ulterior motives. They just want to help.

And then there are other types of daily frustrations that most people from wealthier countries endure—such as traffic jams. There is no such thing here. Highways are virtually empty of cars as people can’t afford them. Even large cities have limited traffic. Unless, of course, you consider the challenges of passing all the horsecarts, bicycles and pedicabs that are fixtures everywhere except in the center of large cities.

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But even this is beginning to change—especially in Havana and on the Malycon just outside Old Havana where the cruise ships dock. A single ship, carrying thousands of passengers creates its own traffic jams. Dozens and dozens of huge tourist buses lined up in every available space. And those spots that are too small for buses are occupied by cabs; a growing fleet of generic yellow, checkered cabs and especially, the ever-popular, beautifully restored classic 1940/50-era American cars in which every visitor must ride at least once.

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