“Try to enjoy my country but not to understand it”. – Abel, our Cuban guide
There are many oddities about Cuba since el Triunfo de la Revolución, the triumph of the 1959 Cuban revolution as Cubans like to call it. However, perhaps the most peculiar is the sheer lack of necessities and goods, and the ability of the average Cuban to afford them. Nothing can prepare a foreigner for the stark reality and contrast of the tourist life compared with Cuban life while visiting Cuba. It was during my first morning in Cuba that I experienced a shockingly wide realization that el Triunfo de la Revolución was quite frankly all a farce.
I rose early as always to grab a leisurely breakfast in the hotel dining room. I normally am not a big eater for breakfast however I do like my coffee in the morning and our breakfast was included with the price of the room. I had heard that Cuba was not a gastronomical place and to expect the bare minimum during our week’s stay on the island. Not expecting much, I entered the hotel dining area and looked around with utter surprise. There was tray after tray of food. Anything and everything your heart could ever desire. Pancakes, french toast, eggs, meats, cheese, yogurt, smoothies, fruits, smoked salmon, pastries and even a omelette bar. I was stunned by the sheer quantity of food, much of it left uneaten on promptly cleared plates off table-clothed tables. Being in Cuba, our beautiful four-star hotel had a four-star quality spread to make anyone feel just the least bit guilty.
It wasn’t until I left the beautiful hotel Melia Cohiba in Vedado, a tree-lined middle-class neighborhood of Havana, and walked across the street into the grocery store that I realized something was not right. The floors were stripped of tiles and showing dirt, the lights were dim, the walls were grungy and most of all, almost all the shelves were less than half-way stocked with goods. In fact, there were columns and rows of shelves that were simply bare with absolutely nothing.
An enormous guilt crept through me, thinking about what a sharp contrast the grocery store was compared to the layers and layers of food just across the street in our hotel. I grabbed a large bottle of water for my hotel room, paying the 6 CUCs, realizing that the cost of the water was a week’s worth of salary for the average Cuban. My heart sank. This is Cuba.
Although the Cuban government loves to tell visiting tourists how Communism provides for the people and gives them everything they need- without forgetting to include the fact that Cuba has free health care, free housing and free education all in one beat – stepping foot inside a Cuban grocery store or any kind of store for that matter shows you how far removed from reality this belief is.
El Triunfo de la Revolución is a really a farce and one of Castro’s ironic misconceptions.
After the Cuban Revolution, the government did try to earnestly equalize Cuban society by nationalizing all private enterprises, providing universal health care and education and installing socialist policies to create a more equal society. There were initially some good things that happened. Infant mortality rates dropped. Cuba raised literary to almost 100% in one year flat. Racism decreased. Society became more equitable after most of the rich Cubans left. Education was free.
Yet as a whole Cuba did not fare well under Communism. The economy was underdeveloped and highly dependent upon its Communist trading partners. Meanwhile US-Cuban relations deteriorated, and Castro lined himself up more with the Soviet Union, a risky strategy. The Soviet Union in return for Castro’s alliance, highly subsidized the Cuban economy, creating a huge dependence on the Soviet Union and its allies for Cuba’s economic wellbeing.
The fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 had a nearly catastrophic impact on the Cuban economy. Cuba lost approximately 80% of its imports, 80% of its exports and its Gross Domestic Product dropped by 34 percent during a period which became known in Cuba as the “Special Period“, a time of severe shortages of food, basic necessities, electricity, medicine, and petroleum. Finding enough food to eat was a daily struggle and our Cuban guide Abel said that the average Cuban lost 20 pounds during this difficult time.
Fast forward twenty years and although Cuba has survived the Special Period, things still are not as easy or triumphant as they were promised to be since “el Triunfo de la Revolución. Bare shelves, overpriced goods, low supplies and long queues are the daily life for Cubans shopping for their basic supplies.
Although the Cuban government subsidizes its 11 million people with a monthly ration card known as “la libreta” for basic necessities like rice, beans and cooking oil, most Cubans argue that it is not enough. If Cubans want to add fruits, vegetables and meat to their diet they have to get it on their own which not only is expensive but unaffordable to many.
Further complicating the issue is the fact that Cuba has two currencies, the Cuban Peso for the Cuban people, and the Cuban Convertible Peso or the “CUC” (pronounced “cuke”) that is the higher valued tourist currency. One Cuban Peso equals approximately 24 CUCs, and almost anything of value is sold in CUCs, a currency that most Cubans cannot get unless they work in the tourist industry and receive tips (Cubans are paid in Convertible Pesos). This makes moonlighting a common profession of highly educated Cubans. Doctors, Engineers and other PhD’s will work two jobs, one in their profession where they earn the standard $25 a month, and the other job in the tourist industry such as a taxi driver where they receive CUCs equating to $25 a day. This is a huge problem for the Cuban people and the economy as a whole. The government says it is trying to get rid of the Cuban peso and have one currency but that remains to be seen.
One of the activities we did on our “people to people” trip in Cuba was to visit both a state-run store and a farmer’s market. At the farmer’s market, we each divided into four teams of four people and were given 2 CUCs (two day’s of salary for the average Cuban). The goal was to see how much we could buy at the farmer’s market for 2 CUCs. It was an exercise that was meant to open our eyes and it did.
Here is what we were able to buy for two day’s worth of salary. The contents of this bag:
Following are some pictures from the farmer’s market. Abel said that these markets are relatively new as it used to be illegal to have any kind of private farmer’s market. All food came from the state-run stores and if you wanted any vegetables or fruit, you had to buy it illegally through the black market or at a farm.
Thankfully the farmer’s market takes the Cuban peso unlike the other stores. Most other stores in Cuba use CUCs as their currency making it expensive and sometimes impossible for Cubans to buy simple things like toilet paper, deodorant and non essential items.
Overall I was impressed with the range of products at the market. However, the prices were high given that only a small bag of items costs two days worth of salary. Abel said a lot of these foods have not been available for many years until the markets opened. Diets were very bland and lacking color.
The market even had a meat which is a real luxury in Cuba except of course for tourists and the few wealthy Cubans. After the revolution, the cattle industry faded so beef is a rarity in Cuba. Chicken is more prevalent but it is expensive.
After our stop in the farmer’s market, Abel brought us next door to the state run store. We walked in and the first thing I thought was how utterly depressing it was. It was dark, dirty, grimy and bare. A sharp contrast from my beautiful grocery store at home or even the colorful farmer’s market next door.
Hunting down groceries in poorly stocked state run markets is a daily challenge of patience, time and queues. Although the Cuban government subsidizes its 11 million people to eat, the amount of food and quality is simply not enough.
Cubans receive ration books known as “la libreta” that secure staples like rice, beans and oil at low prices but it is the bare minimum. Abel told us that a household of two people receive 2 CUCs/month on their ration card – the same amount of money we used at the farmer’s market. Although the prices at the state-run store are extremely cheap (for example, rice is about $0.05/pound), it is still not enough to survive.
La libreta is issued to all Cuban households by the government and has check-off columns for Cubans to manually track what items from this state-subsidized basic foods program that every citizen is entitled to each month. Hand-checked. If family has children under age 8, they can get milk too.
As we were leaving the store, Abel told us that the government is thinking of getting rid of la libreta. Like many things in Cuba, it simply is a relic of the past and is not working. Only time will tell if it happens and whether or not it is an improvement.
After touring the market, I couldn’t look at our tourist meals the same. Fish, lobster, fruit and vegetables, meats, deserts, and anything else we could possibly stuff into our stomachs was constantly at our side. I thought about our meals and realized that most Cubans have ever seen a spread of food like this or even had it for themselves. It made me feel quite sad. It also explained why there were never any Cubans at the restaurants.
On my last day in Havana as I was packing my bag, I took out the few odds and ends that I had bought back in the States before I left to leave for my hosts. Deodarant, toilet paper, aspirin and pens. I piled it up on the desk and left a note for the maids. Just as I was leaving I saw the room attendant come in and I tried to tell her what I was doing. Tears welled in her eyes. Feeling utterly guilty that this simple yet so important gift could mean so much, I grabbed my hairdryer and gave it to her as well. A tear fell down her check. She hugged me and thanked me profusely.
That is the one thing I will never forget about Cuba or about Communism. The gratitude and warmness of the Cuban people and the darn right awfulness of using a system that truly doesn’t work.