Cuba—Where Is It Heading?

Havana, Cuba (Photo: archives)

When Cuba doesn’t occupy the headlines in the news, its presence hovers somewhere, like a chipped tooth that can’t be fully ignored.

In November, I traveled with the Authors’ Guild for one week filled with three to five lectures and presentations each day. The talks were by authors, publishers, musicians, visual artists and university professors of literature, women’s studies, urban planning and political science. We stayed in Havana for five out of the seven nights, and traveled the three-and a half-hour drive to Trinidad, a small town, where we stayed at people’s homes. (As a form of enterprise, many add a room or two in their homes, complete with private bathrooms.)

In the first presentation, a professor of political science was clearly on the side of the government. While he acknowledged many of the country’s problems, he attributed them to the US embargo and not to the government’s failure over decades to help its people and economy thrive. In fact, while he acknowledged that they must search for a new model, capitalism wasn’t an option because it created a “social injustice.”

In the coming days, it became clear that the greatest social injustice lies at the feet of Cuba’s dual currency. After the revolution of 1959-1960—a process that lasted close to three years, Cuba aligned itself with the Soviet Union and its economy. It built an economy that was based on the Russian ruble, but even more upon bartering of goods with the Soviet Union. In the barter system, the ever-changing non-monetary values had nothing to do with a sound fiscal policy. Unfortunately, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Cuban economy found itself floundering and gasping for air. Suddenly, the only steady source of income came from remittances—money sent by expats living in Florida to their families in Cuba. Until today, remittances are by far the greatest source of the Cuban economy.

However, since the remittances are in dollars, the CUC—the Cuban conversion of a dollar—is worth 27 times the value of the “national peso,” called CUP. Thus, a dual currency system was established, existing side by side. Cubans get paid by CUP, thus making 27 times less than those receiving remittances or are employed in the tourist industry where they are paid in CUCs. Tourists can only use CUCs, while Cuban state workers receive their wages in national pesos, and are only permitted to use it to purchase basic necessities—except that it is insufficient and allows no small treats. (An ice-cream cone costing $2.50 is out of reach for someone earning $50 a month.)

If there was ever a glaring example of social injustice, where university professors starve while hotel bellmen thrive, this is it. In fact, as a result of this huge gap in income, scientists, physicians, academicians and trained professionals have left their professions in droves to become tour guides, hotel clerks, and concierges. Our tour guide, Christopher, had studied nuclear physics when he switched his major to languages so he could work with tourists. Our group of twenty-five tipped him at least $50 per person for the week, totaling an estimated $1,250 in a country where a government employee earns $50 a month. (Our bus driver received half of this sum, which is still huge.) Time and again we heard how a bartender makes in one evening what a university professor or a doctor makes in one month.

Housing: One of the first steps of the revolution was to nationalize all private properties, starting with apartment houses and private mansions. Whoever lived in an apartment in 1959 became its owner. Servants, gardeners, and chauffeurs became instant owners of the mansions where they had served the masters. However, the government retained the ownership of each building as well as the land. As a result, while an apartment dweller owns his apartment, he does not own a share in the common areas—the surface of the building, corridors, stairwells, or garbage area. Maintaining these areas has been the government's responsibility. Needless to say, with an impoverished economy, the buildings fell into complete and utter neglect. The idea of giving mansions to the former service staff also failed to take into account that these people lacked the means to maintain such structures.

The urban decay of Havana is heart breaking. The many buildings that still carry signs of past glory are decaying—not just peeling plaster and dark mold spreading, but missing windows, broken terraces and gaping rooms after their front walls have crumbled. In places, one sees a feeble attempt of tenants to salvage their place by constructing crude propping up of floors. But these pathetic attempts often fail. On average, three buildings collapse each day—one thousand a year. That number will escalate as more buildings are giving in to the passage of time. On each street, one can see buildings that look like photos of a bombed-city.

The brain drain of young professionals and educated people seeking economic opportunities abroad has resulted in a population whose 30% are over the age of 60. That number is expected to grow to 40% in the coming decade. From a housing point-of-view, it means that older people are unable to climb stairs to high floors in buildings that never had elevators, nor do they have the resources to find suitable housing when their buildings give in to the elements. The isolation of the aging is yet another social injustice that is sure to increase.

Education: In the midst of this misery, free education is still a priority for the Cuban government, and it covers not only K to 12th grade, but goes all the way through graduate degrees for whoever wishes to do so. Cuba boasts 51 universities—a large number for a population of 11.5 million habitants. In addition, the education system favors specialized training in the arts, and children as young as five years old that show promise are directed to schools of music, dance and circus arts. Visual arts are taught throughout the school years because the country has a great appreciation for art. At age eighteen, those who wish may attend dedicated art academies. Furthermore, students who show interest in music, dance, writing, and art, but not enough to attend the specialized schools, are offered all these after-school classes at no charge.

As a result of the high level of education, Cuba’s second largest industry is the “exporting of brain,” that is academicians and scientists who travel to other South and Central American countries to work or teach. Unlike the expats who’ve left for the USA and Europe never to return, these professionals come back home to Cuba after earning some decent income. Many repeat such assignments abroad every few years.

Cuba’s third industry is pharmaceutical, medical research, and biotechnology. The country prides itself on developing and manufacturing a range of specific medications. (It was left unclear to us how their testing was done and what standards were applied, especially since, with the thawing of the commercial and economic embargo toward the end of the Obama’s Administration, talks of US drug companies medical testing in Cuba became relevant.)

Agriculture, which could have been a strong industry in this fertile land, is unfortunately sorely neglected. The offering of vegetables and fruit during our stay, even at good restaurants, was relatively sparse. No cauliflower, cucumbers, carrots, asparagus or broccoli. String beans were canned. A visit to several food stores showed no basic staples such as peanuts or even dried fruit. Mango, pineapple, and guava were e available—but no apples, pears or grapes, and even bananas were in short supply. Driving through the center of the country from Havana to Trinidad we saw sugar cane fields, but no corn or wheat. There is no cattle herding, and therefore meat is imported. In Trinidad, located half-an hour from the sea, no fish was available in any restaurant during our two-day stay, (but curiously, lobster tails were offered instead.) Rice, beans, and potatoes seem to be the major food staple.

When I asked our guide about this shortage of fresh produce, he explained that “people don’t want to work in agriculture.” I couldn’t help but think of Israel, whose land is far less fertile, but where inventiveness and advanced technology has not only managed to grow every conceivable fruit and vegetable at an affordable price to consumers, but has accomplished it while employing only 1% of its population in agriculture.

Due to the economic struggle of all Cubans, they must resort to other creative means of survival. They call it “La Lucha,” a word that translates to “struggle.” Each person must find a way for his or her “Lucha” in the form of side entrepreneurial service or manufacturing. Perhaps more than being deprived of political freedom, Cubans lose their dignity due to the ongoing economic hardship that forces them to desert their natural tendencies and interests (e.g., science,) to instead haul tourists’ suitcases.

Interestingly, in spite of shortages and poverty, the crime rate is very low. Havana is safe at all hours of the day and night, as are tourists’ possessions. The Cuban people are pleasant and seem at ease both among themselves and with foreigners. Some of my fellow passengers attributed it to the power of Cuban music, but it seemed to me that music could only serve as a veneer, not a panacea for a lifetime of frustration, deprivation, and indignity.

USA policy: In my research for one of my novels, China Doll, I learned that our government employs either one of two approaches toward unfriendly nations: Engagement and Containment. Engagement maintains that exchanging knowledge, culture and business practices demonstrates how capitalism works while instilling Western values when it comes to human rights. (e.g., in China, factory supervisors use beating as a disciplinary tool that is, of course, forbidden in US-owned factories there.) Containment maintains that a country such as China which calls itself “The Sleeping Dragon” is dangerous and its ambitions for expansions should be carefully watched. (Cutting corners, the unscrupulous China has been buying R&D from the West, and what it can’t buy it steals.) China has been controlling the nations of the Pacific Rim to the point that these countries must adhere to China’s interests when making their decisions.

This view of US policy has helped me understand the decades-long Containment policy we’ve held, broken in 2015 with Obama’s visit to Cuba and his declaration that we were neighbors. Unfortunately, this start of a policy of Engagement also supports the current government, one that oppresses its people, controls the press, and stifles criticism even if it comes in the form of art it so reveres. With the upcoming elections in early 2018, rather than maintaining a feeling of “kumbaya,” which only strengthens the current one-party, autocratic government, and makes it more acceptable to its people, the US clamps down on such support.

This is where I found the USA new guidelines on travel to Cuba telling: The commercial ban on Cuba is translated into restrictions on commerce with the Cuban government. In fact, our administration encourages working with individual Cubans who are entrepreneurs, as it wishes to strengthen and support people. Therefore, journalistic activity, professional research, educational and religious activities, public performances, clinics, workshops, athletic competitions, humanitarian projects and endeavorss of private foundations are permitted. All family members wishing to visit their relatives in Cuba are allowed to do so.

There are a few candidates for the position of President. If in the past the single most crucial credential was that the candidate had been part of the 1959 revolution, these people are too old or gone. Yet, it is unclear what the new wave of candidates’ offers, nor do they make their respective visions for the future of Cuba public. Such campaigning is not called for in this system. Instead, each candidate is listed with his main points of past achievements, but none offers a platform of his plans for the future of Cuba. Even if all of them are members of the single ruling party, it is conceivable that they may hold different opinions and dreams. There’s talk about a shoe-in of the current vice-president. Only the future will reveal whether he will have the courage to move toward an open-market economy and democracy. The Cuban people are certainly ready.

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New-York-based Talia Carner is the author of award-winning psychological suspense novels, dealing with social issues: Hotel Moscow, Jerusalem Maiden, China Doll and Puppet Child. Please visit