"Dolor que no te mata no dura para siempre"
"A pain that doesn't kill you doesn't last for ever…"
It is with this humorous saying that ordinary Cubans brush off the incredible difficulties they face daily to survive. They display a strong optimism in any circumstances. Their material situation has greatly improved after ‘el Periodo especial’. The Special Period started in 1991 when Russia didn't have any further strategic interest in keeping a presence in Cuba after the collapse of the communist bloc. It ended in 2004.
The Special Period meant famine for Cubans. Suddenly the flow of Russian money dried up. Electricity was only supplied a few hours a day, food was rationed or non existent – Cubans would unmount their doors and chip the timber to cook it and eat it, they would burn books to heat a pot of milk.
Since 2004 the economic situation has been steadily improving thanks to trade with Venezuela.
Cubans are used to scarcity. They queue for everything. Buying credit for a sim card can take three hours but at least mobile phones are now available. Until recently you couldn't find electric appliances in the stores. The store shelves were simply empty. If you needed a fridge, you would buy it on the black market and it would have most likely fallen off a truck.
Until recently there were no private enterprises in Cuba, with all economic activity being run by government. Aside privately run "paladares” which cater for only a few tables, all restaurants are government-run. All hotels are also state run except for the "casa particulares" that can only rent out two rooms.
The productivity in state run companies is poor. Salaries are low; a specialist doctor will make the equivalent of US$25 a month. As no one can live on such income, Cubans supplement it either by stealing from the state enterprises that employ them and reselling on the black market, or by developing private activity. It may be legal, such as opening a paladar or a casa particular (bed and breakfast) or illegal, such as working as a tourist guide, engaging in prostitution (jineteros y jioneteras are abundant) or operating taxis.
Cubans have developed a real genius to extract (“sacar”) goods from state companies and to resell them. Typically shopping is done after dark from street vendors who perform normal jobs for government during the day. Bread is bought from street bakers who extracted their product from the official bakery to sell it privately. Ham, cheese, fish, lobster, appliances… Everything is available in the streets.
Many do not want to work in their trade as an engineer for example. They can make much more driving a private illegal cab.
One can be upgraded to first class for $20 when registering luggage at the airport. Just ask if there is a "special offer" that day. That's how things work in 2012 in Cuba.
Life for Cuban is not So Simple…
Life for Cubans is complicated and this mightn’t be obvious to those who do not speak their language. Cubans cannot live in a different town than their town of origin without a legal job supplied (by the government). They would be deemed illegal immigrants and fined. Cubans cannot talk or interact with foreigners – police and cameras are ever present in tourist areas. A police record makes getting a passport even more difficult if not impossible.
The internet and the media are state monopolies. Internet access is a financial impossibility for most, with hot spots being rare. Clandestinely however, all is possible. A Cuban in a government position may sell his unused internet allocation.
With regard to media, Granma, the party newspaper is the only one national news source availabe along with three government tv channels. Private enterprises are strictly limited so that the only advertising seen is Government ideological propaganda.
Click on the picture to acces the page "Cuban Street Propaganda"
This slogan especially makes Cuban people laugh loud: the Cuban government is introducing private entreprise and plans to shift 25% of the country's workforce – yes 25% – from government employment to private employment.
Nudity and Sex Trade
Everywhere there are tourists you will be approached by jineteros and jineteras, young males and females who trade their company and sex for money. They are more call girls and call boys than straight prostitutes.
Although the cuban people are the most promiscuous I ever seen, nudity is not tolerated and a naked female body, even an artistic photography, will be considered pornography. Click on the picture below to access the page Nudes in Calle Habana.
This description of Cuban might seem a bit dark but Cuba has some amazing achievements to show and among them an excellent and free health system – the infant mortality is much lower than the US one and many US citizen come illegally to Cuba to get treatments they cannot afford at home – the US government embargo forbids US citizens to travel to Cuba. Penalty is jail and up to US$100.000 fine.
There is virtually no anaphebetism in Cuba – the education system is also free. Cuba has most likely the best educated population in Latin America. Doctors and engineers abound. They are even exported to Venezuela for oil or to African countries to help organize the health system in third world countries.
The streets are safe, even at night. Cubans are highly conscious of these privileges.
And did I mention music and dance? Salsa, Son, Casino, Raeggeton, dance and music is everywhere, day and night.
Cuban is changing fast. The Fied's Castro ideal of creating a "New Man" will die with him. The system is broke.
Raul Castro's (brother of Fidel Castro) ideal outcome for Cuba would be a peaceful transition from a wrecked and inefficient socialist economy to a liberal one based on the Chinese model of socially and politically controlled society where people are left free to prosper economically.
"Reasonnable Love is not Love", claims this wall The girl walking is a transsexual. Gays and trans are no longer persecuted in Cuba, one of the many improvements brought in by Raul Castro.
For 50 years Cuban were not allowed to buy or sell cars or houses. When the "Revolution Triumphed" whoever drove a car kept it and all rental properties were confiscated from the owners and given to the people who were renting them.
Generous ideas but these moves had two unwanted consequences: Cuba became the biggest living car museum in the world and the houses suffered 50 years of neglect as the new owners could not afford to maintain them. Click on the image below to access the gallery.
La Havana is littered with run down palaces. The Spanish colonial architecture, the art nouveau contributions of the 20s and the modern Vedado developed in the mid 40's & 50's form an amazing urban ensemble unique in the world.
Click on the image to access the gallery.
Bici Taxis are Part of the Cuban Daily Life
They drive you around day and night for a few pesos, share they rhum with you when the night is cold and get regularly racketed in the early hours by the cops without ever losing their smile.
And the guy who fixes them in Calle Habana..
Jacques Maudy is a Spanish native speaker.