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PostNotes and Reflections on a Trip to Cuba (José Ignacio Soler, Venezuela, 01/20/14 7:35 am)
Notes and Reflections on a Trip to Cuba
[JE note: José Ignacio Soler sent me this lengthy report some two weeks ago. The English translation is mine. The original Spanish version can be accessed at the WAISworld Publications link; click here .]
In December 2013, my family, some friends, and I spent nine days in Havana, Cuba, with the goal of getting to know the capital city and some parts of the interior. We sought to see things first hand: the character of the people, as well as the tangible realities of daily life. We tried to go there with an open mind, without prejudices, and the things we learned were from our conversations with ordinary people and our own observations. We were also greatly curious to observe the results of a process that might be taking place, albeit through other means, in Venezuela.
Due to the scarcity of information and concrete, official facts, the observations, comments and opinions garnered through personal conversations are difficult to verify. Even so, it is useful to compile them because they can express aspects of reality, whether true or simply perceived, by both ourselves and the average people with whom we interacted.
The strongest impression we got from our first hours in Havana was the feeling of being trapped in the past; the airport, the hotel, the colonial and early 20th-century architecture, the antique cars, the monuments, the ruins, the revolutionary billboards, the general ambience--these things took us back forty or fifty years, as if time had stood still. Architecturally and in terms of its urban layout, Havana must have been one of the most beautiful cities I've visited, and many vestiges of this former beauty and prosperity are preserved.
We quickly perceived the cordiality, kindness, friendliness and sense of humor of the Cuban people, although at times this cordiality might be confused with a "self-interest" of pleasing the visitor in the hope of a gratuity. Due to this aspect of their character, it was relatively easy to start up a conversation with people, and to learn about their intimate details, their ways of focusing on reality and adversity with optimism. Because it later became evident that all Cubans face challenges for daily survival.
We came to appreciate that the people we spoke to had a high level of culture and civility. Their eloquence, education, general knowledge, social behavior and politeness are presumably all products of their cultural traditions and possibly of their level of public education.
Another distinctive trait we immediately observed is the people's creativity and ingenuity, which invariably become heightened when resources are scarce. We saw homemade spare parts and components, crudely manufactured to repair and maintain vehicles, as well as very old equipment still in daily operation. It's incredible to see cars and motorcycles from fifty or sixty years ago still running around, and equally old machinery still in use, no matter how precariously.
During our entire trip we felt and experienced a sense of safety; day or night we never felt threatened by anyone or anything. This might be in part because of the abundant presence and vigilance of the police, and we were told that the punishments for petty crimes are severe. This also perhaps shows that the average Cuban has reached a notable level of respect and civic behavior.
In the city we saw old houses, buildings, and other constructions that still exude great beauty, although sadly many of them, perhaps the majority, are neglected, poorly maintained or in ruins. Some of these are inhabited by (or squatted in) by less fortunate families, and the buildings that preserve their beauty and splendor are assigned to government officials, expatriates, diplomats, or privileged families that have "preserved the right" to live there. On the other hand, in rural areas the houses and buildings seem to be less neglected, and though modest, they appear to be in good condition.
We were told that in Cuba, everything belongs to the State, and until just a few years ago, the right to private property did not exist. Now it has become legal to sell houses, cars, and household items such as furniture and appliances. Until just recently if you had the privilege of traveling or leaving the island, you lost all your property. Nowadays even private investment, guaranteed by law, is allowed.
Average Cubans enjoy important basic rights and privileges that the Revolution has given them--free health care, free and compulsory education, the prohibition of child labor, universal literacy, abundant leisure and sporting activities, music, theater, dance, arts, cinema, etc.
However, without going into details about the quality of health care or education, we learned that even though everyone has access to physicians and medicine, the attention to their needs is generally slow and of poor quality. Some people asked why Cuban doctors don't offer the same level of attention in their own country as they do when working abroad.
The Revolution has created many schools and universities, and even though everyone has the right to obtain a university degree and there are professionals in many fields, presumably of a high level of education, Cubans who seek a university degree are few; they prefer to pursue more productive activities. Many university graduates eventually must work in other fields, such as the tourist industry, as taxi drivers, or in the clandestine economy or black market, in order to survive and maintain a minimum level of subsistence.
We could observe certain aspects of the quality of life that weren't so positive. As some people told us, public rights and privileges have all been achieved at a great social cost, to the detriment of other fundamental rights. Freedom of expression, of the press, and access to information are limited. Government controls are in abundance, as well as repression, state bureaucracy, inefficient state industries, scarcity of many products, insufficient urban housing, high cost of living, inefficient and deteriorating public services, and a lack of decent salaries--all of which inevitably lead to illicit activities for survival, the black market, the shadow economy, and a general decay in the quality of life.
During our visits to those urban sectors less visited by tourists, Havana seemed to be an overpopulated city, apparently with migrations from rural areas in the provinces. This migration has exacerbated the insufficiency and deterioration of public services and housing, due to the crowding in poorly maintained or crumbling buildings, garbage, filth and debris. However, in the few rural areas we visited, Pinar del Río, Viñales, and Matanzas, houses were humble but well tended and maintained, and the streets were clean.
Regarding access to information and freedom of expression, we could ascertain some important things. Just about everyone who spoke with us about "sensitive" issues--their daily lives, their concerns, problems, salaries, political topics, criticism of the government or of the underground economy--did so with prudence, reserve and some fear. Some confessed that they had never talked about such things with foreigners. Although these attitudes make it difficult to evaluate their opinions of the regime, in general, the majority of the people we spoke with were quite clear in their disagreement with or rejection of the state, especially because of the inadequate salaries, low quality of life, the underground economy and corruption. However, we also spoke with people, especially the young, who expressed their support and agreement with the regime. This could be a clear sign of their indoctrination.
In Havana there are only three or four newspapers, dailies or weeklies, which we had the chance to read. The most popular is Granma. All of these papers belong to the state and follow a similar editorial line. Even though it was possible to read critical articles, about specific problems in the execution of social or economic programs, it was difficult to find any criticism of state politics or any political leader.
In our city-wide search through commercial, public and private bookstores, to learn about the types of literature available, we found very few such establishments. All of them had books and pamphlets about Fidel, El Che, or other leaders, or about the Revolutionary period. In just one bookstore we found second-hand books, with old editions of narrative literature. We couldn't go into the public libraries, but we suppose that they might contain more objective publications on a wider assortment of topics.
Along both urban and rural streets, on posters, walls, monuments, and billboards of all sorts, we observed revolutionary political quotes, instructions, and slogans in abundance. This effort at ideological indoctrination suggested to us an intense political propaganda directed at the people, which during all these years of revolution has certainly yielded results, especially among the younger generations. People from earlier generations, in contrast, expressed their fatigue and frustration with the regime's unfulfilled promises, citing the words of Fidel Castro: "Revolution is the significance of the historical moment; it is to change everything that must be changed; it is complete equality and freedom," and wondering how much well-being and freedom they must sacrifice, and for how long, to go from a historical moment of the Revolution to a moment of evolution, development, and prosperity, with complete freedom.
Our attention was drawn markedly to how every branch of the media would frequently stress, with insistence, how the obligatory "discipline" or "revolutionary etiquette" is a social value of great importance. It's logical for any society to promote the duty of obeying norms, laws, and regulations in social, political, and economic life, but in this case the emphasis is also on party discipline for the only political party, the Communist party.
In other conversations about politics and economics, it was confirmed to us that in Cuba there is only one political party, the Communist party, and yet there is a system of "democratic" elections to choose officials and political leadership. Candidates for city, region, or state representatives, as well as for the legislature and executive branch, are selected at the neighborhood level, in recognition of their effort or social "merit," and even though the candidates do not have to belong to the Party and have the right to decline a nomination, to do so is not looked upon kindly. Elected candidates designate, in turn, municipal representatives, who designate the regional representatives, and so on, up to the highest political and public offices. And as we learned, none of these highest positions are occupied by someone who is not a Party member.
It was common for TV, or the state-controlled newspapers, to blame the US embargo for Cuba's economic difficulties and its poor macroeconomic performance. Some people commented that this excuse is no longer convincing to them, because despite the US embargo, Cuba has investment and commercial relations with many countries, such as Canada, China, Venezuela, and Mexico, and these nations can supply the necessary investment.
The State is the owner of all means of production, industries, land, businesses, and hotels, and even though there has been a tentative opening up to private economic activity, the State continues to be the largest employer. Full employment is not guaranteed, although the official unemployment rate is just 2%. The salaries are possibly the lowest in Latin America. The salary range is between U$10 and US$12 per month for state and service employees, $35 for doctors, and $50 to $60 for police and the military, who receive the largest salaries.
We were able to determine that the minimum, subsistence-level income for a family of 3 or 4 people is between $100 to $150 per month. However, the State provides each family with a foodstuffs basket at a low price, barely enough to last for ten days. The rest of a family's expenses--food, rent, electricity, water, transportation, shoes and clothing, gasoline--must be paid with income from other sources. Most of these sources are "illegal" but supposedly tolerated. Everyone must search for other means of subsistence through underground economic activities, the black market, or as one person remarked, "stealing from the State."
As an example to illustrate this dramatic situation, prostitution is illegal and severely punished, but in any public place in Havana, one finds "señoritas" offering their company. Ordinary people also seek ways to offer unauthorized services, food, merchandise, spare parts, and medicine, on the black market in exchange for hard currency.
We were told that persons in administrative positions or with supply responsibilities would pilfer items to resell them on the black market. We observed this phenomenon first-hand, when we tried to purchase a certain medication at a pharmacy. It was offered to us through a third party, to sell it at a higher price. Also we heard a high government official on TV condemn a distribution network for agricultural equipment, in which a great number of irregularities and missing items had been noted. The media, as well as police and bureaucratic control and indoctrination, attempt to reduce these illegal acts, but with poor results, possibly because the needs of the people are greater than the fear of repression and punishment.
To manage the income from tourism and foreign investment, Cuba has two parallel currencies, the National Peso, used exclusively by Cubans, and the CUC or Convertible Peso, used by foreigners and tourists. The CUC can be bought and sold for hard currency in hotels and money exchanges. The people use the National Peso to pay for basic foodstuffs and services, taxes, and fees. The CUC is exclusively for foreigners, but in practice it must be used for nearly all common commercial transactions, even for Cubans, as businesses that offer consumer goods list their prices in that currency. Thus the people have to find ways to acquire CUCs.
The cost of living is high. Havana is an expensive city that charges international prices for services of an inferior quality. We remained perplexed how people in general can survive, both the poor and the middle class. Despite the Revolution proclaiming equality and criticizing class differences, it became evident in both the city and the countryside that there were poor people with very little buying power, people in the middle class, and certainly other classes of directors, politicians, bureaucrats and high-level administrators who have privileges and a much higher buying power. We wondered if after 55 years of revolution, class difference and the injustice it causes has disappeared or not, and from what we observed we concluded that everyone is equal in Cuba, but some are more equal than others. One person told us that government officials in high positions do not need higher salaries because they have all sorts of privileges, such as good housing, food, cars, travel, and a general quality of life better than that of the rest of the citizenry.
The official exchange rate comes with a 13% surcharge; which means for every US dollar you receive 0.87 CUC. On the black market you get 1 CUC per US dollar. For each euro the official exchange rate is 1.31 CUC. The CUC is equivalent to 25 Cuban (National) pesos. Tourist services, taxis, drivers, waiters, tour guides, etc., have the best access to this source of income, and for this obvious reason we saw highly educated professionals, people with professional and technical training, looking for work in these sectors.
We wondered what social value there is for a country offering free education to have trained professionals abandoning their careers because they have no opportunity for future development or adequate salaries. Cases in point are physicians and medical researchers, who in Cuba receive a minimum salary of U$35 per month, together with reading teachers and athletic coaches, who have the opportunity to leave the country, thus becoming one of the State's principal sources of income: the export of medical and athletic services. We were told that 40,000 Cuban doctors have been "exported" to Venezuela, and 5000 to Brazil, and that this export of services and medicine, followed by tourism, are the principal sources of income for the nation.
We also reflected on what sense it makes for the Cuban population, which the regime proclaims to be universally literate, if the people have limited access to information, as well as limited freedoms of press and expression, a scarcity of bookstores, little access to books and literature and few resources to acquire them, and limited access to the Internet or social media. Knowing how to read and write is of minimal value if you have no opportunity to give a critical aspect to this ability, one that goes beyond formal schooling and official indoctrination.
Regarding the Cuban economy, we asked many people of different levels if they know specific figures about inflation, GDP, interest rates, per capita income, national debt, taxation, etc. Perhaps because it is not made officially available, or perhaps due to lack of interest, no one was familiar with this information. Nevertheless, the webpage of the National Office of Statistics and Information contains some macroeconomic figures, and although they are not completely up to date, nobody was aware of the existence of this information. It seems normal for any country that ordinary people wouldn't know or understand these figures, although in a cultured and educated society, people could be better informed on these topics of crucial interest.
We were able to read President Raúl Castro's speeches in the newspapers, as well as those of several government Ministers, from the closing session of the Second Ordinary Session of the National Assembly. These speeches brought up economic and social topics without providing precise figures. For example, it was said that the GDP increased by 2.7% in 2013, less than the projected 3.6%, without giving the total number. On the other hand, it was mentioned that the 2013 balance of trade reached a surplus of U$1.256 billion, but this was the only specific number provided. I never cease to be amazed by the references in these speeches to the "economic shock therapy" that Europe and the US have adopted in response to the present crisis, which are bringing misery to the people, all the while ignoring the misery, scarcity and lack of consumer goods facing the Cuban people.
Several sources commented that foreign investment is now allowed in Cuba. They report abundant investments in mining, petroleum, tourism, and other industries. The capital is coming from many countries, including Spain, Canada, Italy, England, and France. All the investments are 49% foreign capital, and 51% Cuban. With this ample flow of investment from many countries, we wondered about the logic of the official argument that the American embargo is hurting the Cuban economy, and whether this is not simply part of the demagogic and propagandistic official discourse.
Finally, we felt obliged to reflect on the similarities between the Cuban revolutionary process and its present situation, and the development of the so-called Venezuelan Revolutionary Process, and we reached the conclusion that they are very similar in many aspects. It would take more time to evaluate the similarities to reach a more precise comparison, but the coincidences and similarities are evident to anyone who looks at them without prejudices. However, there is an obvious difference: Venezuela's petroleum resources allow it to sustain and lessen the inefficiencies, scarcities, corruption, low productivity, the mistakes and economic weaknesses of the system and its social deficiencies. In Cuba, which lacks these resources, the problems are more difficult to hide.
JE comments: An excellent and detailed analysis of today's Cuba. I hope all WAISers will take the time to read José Ignacio Soler's report. I am struck by how just about all Nacho's observations (just substitute Raúl for Fidel) could have applied to my single visit to Cuba in 1998. Hard to believe, but that was 16 years ago.
(William Ratliff, USA
01/21/14 3:32 AM)
My, I wish I could have been among José Ignacio Soler's lucky friends who visited Cuba in December. (See José Ignacio's post of 20 January.) What a trip! His report on it is one of the most inclusive and perceptive accounts I have seen in years on the island and conditions there. He did not remark in detail on Raul's current and much-debated "updating of the economic model," however, thus a couple commentaries last year on that topic by moi.
I too visited Cuba for two weeks in 2013, at mid-year, my sixth trip to the island since 1983 (when I interviewed Fidel), with the primary purpose of gauging the impact of the "updating." I have attached links to an article I wrote just before my trip (Cuba's Tortured Transition: http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=3541 ) and one from after the trip (The Debilitating Legacy of Fidel: A Report From Havana: http://www.independent.org/newsroom/article.asp?id=4796 ).
JE is quite right that many things are very much as they were years ago, but some are in some degree of flux, the unanswerable question being how much? On my latest trip I constantly encountered a pre-Castro popular song--in Cuba and in the States--the title of which pretty much sums up Cuba's immediate and medium-term prospects: "Quizás, Quizás, Quizás" -- Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
JE comments: Always a joy to hear from our esteemed President Emeritus, William Ratliff. Best wishes for 2014, Bill! Cuba has been a focus of WAIS attention since our infancy. In the last few weeks I've been going through some old issues of the World Affairs Report, the hard-copy ancestor of our Forum, and Prof. Hilton published many comments on Cuban affairs. Plus ça change: the "Quo vadis, Cuba?" question was just as relevant (and unanswerable) in 1971 as it is in 2014. I'll be re-publishing some of Prof. H's comments in the coming weeks.