“Communism sucks!”, so said the well-heeled and well-travelled English NHS Consultant as we discussed the state of Cuba during my recent trip there. “Capitalism sucks too though,” I retorted, on reflection, rather too defensively. “I know where I’d rather live…” he said. The truth is poverty sucks wherever you live. As members of a party of eighteen cyclists on a recent cycling tour of Cuba, we had many chances to observe the Cuban hinterland at a leisurely pace. We also had the advantage of the perceptive and remarkably honest reflections of Angel our highly competent and personable young tour guide about life in the island republic – his homeland. Some poverty is relative and relatively speaking, Cubans appear poor.
It is hard to deny with average monthly wages between 500-1000 Cuban pesos (roughly £700-1,400) for all workers including professionals. Cubans pay all their utility and household bills in pesos but have to convert their pesos into Cuba Convertible Currency to buy anything else. There is food rationing, state ownership of absolutely everything including land, big business and cattle, and a shortage of oil, cars and consumer goods.
“We were the Soviet Union’s pretty boys, we just sat there and they fed us with oil and all that we needed.”
During the severe depression of the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed and the flow of oil and roubles stopped, Cuba’s dependent economy, lacking its own industrial base, almost caved in. Oil pumps were turned down to a trickle and people were hungry. To Angel, “We were the Soviet Union’s pretty boys, we just sat there and they fed us with oil and all that we needed.” It has been a hard road for ordinary Cubans since the hardships of the 1990s.
Farm workers in Matanzas
Horses and bicycles again became the mainstay of working life and transport in the countryside. The government monopoly on land ownership inhibits the growth of a vibrant agricultural sector. Rural buses are converted trucks, doctors moonlight as taxi drivers to earn extra cash; far too much rural land lies fallow, no real industrial base, restrictions on the freedoms of ordinary Cubans leave something to be desired, white goods cost many month’s wages, there’s no credit and yet…and yet…
Che Guevara Mausoleum, Santa Clara
While Cuba may look a bit of a shambles, appearances are deceptive. The Revolution takes care of its own and its achievements in the face of many attempts at sabotage by its large and powerful neighbour cannot be denied.
Hermanos Ameijeiras Hospital, Havana
Cuba’s health service however is world class and its education system free for everyone from nursery age through to university. High levels of literacy are clear from the plethora of bookshops and libraries in all cities and most small towns. Radio and TV are free, cinemas charge pennies to view recently released US and European movies. Adult education in later life is also free with television channels, local colleges and universities providing distance learning programmes and evening classes. Unemployment is very low as most folk are employed by the government. When a baby is born in Cuba its parents are entitled to one year’s maternity/paternity leave and pay with guaranteed childcare when they return to work.
“No one starves in Cuba.”
Angel didn’t gloss the flaws, neither did he talk up the Revolution’s achievements unduly. He was clearly both frustrated and proud of his country just like most people are of theirs.
He claimed that “No one starves in Cuba.” Indeed with universal food rationing, the government ensures everyone has their most basic needs met: to each citizen a ration book provides a heavily subsidised ration of rice, eggs, meat, oil, bread, coffee, butter, milk and…would you believe…sugar.
Cuban Ration Book
Fruit and vegetables are not rationed and are available in local farmers markets. I doubt if we could say with Angel’s confidence that no one starves in Scotland or the UK and that anyone can access a university education on ability alone. The government is slowly offering people opportunities for private enterprise: farmers can take long leases on farms; ‘palades’ offer local people the chance to open little restaurants in their homes. ‘Casas particulares’ provide bed and breakfast in family homes. These welcome alternatives to the vast government-run Soviet era hotel complexes like Rancho Luna (built in the 1980s) with their attendant bureaucracies and overblown décor will open a window on ordinary Cuban life and offer a more relaxed welcome to travellers.
Rancho Luna Hotel, Cienfuegos
Soon, as relations with the Yanqui improve, Havana harbour will be transformed into an enormous berth for US cruise ships. The senoritas and senors of Old Havana in their colourful traditional costumes posing for tourists cameras for one peso, the cigar and moquito sellers and the ubiquitous jazz and salsa musicians will delight droves of the curious from across the water.
Musicians in Old Town, Trinidad
The Yanquis may well love the carefully preserved old Chevvies but how they will take to vast billboards of Che Guevara exorting Cubans to keep the revolution alive is anyone’s guess.
Angel is nervous. “We need to change the bad in Cuba but we also need to keep the good.” I wish them well in their next revolution.
“We need to change the bad in Cuba but we also need to keep the good.”