“Can I have your bones?” the old woman asked my eight-year-old daughter, pointing to the gnawed remains of the chicken leg that had been her lunch. Seeing that my daughter was perplexed, the old woman displayed a box of chicken bones that she had collected from other customers at the lunch counter of the department store, a respectable establishment frequented by locals in Old Havana’s main shopping street. My daughter provided the bones after the lunch counter staff gave its consent – the old woman was evidently a regular at the lunch counter, and this was how she earned her supper.
Welcome to Cuba, 44 years into the Revolution that was to industrialize the economy, eradicate hunger and eliminate the gap between rich and poor in this island nation, previously the most prosperous in the Caribbean. Today, the once-muscular Cuban economy is in tatters and its much lauded social safety net a cruel joke. The poor, in reality, are bled to support the lifestyles of the government elite, which lives in luxury – the driveways of the Havana honchos sport Mercedes – while its populace goes hungry.
Some Cubans outside government – increasingly those who obtain patronage positions in the tourist industry, where they receive tips and other payments in U.S. dollars – manage comfortable, if meagre, existences. With dollars, they can shop in the many “dollar” shops, where they can obtain some of the consumer goods, medicines and dairy products that most Cubans, prior to the Revolution, could readily obtain.
The great majority of Cubans, however, are left to fend for themselves in a pitiless system. Most must “do business” to survive, as Cubans put it, because most cannot subsist on the typical wages – the equivalent of about 50 cents a day – that the government sets for them. The old woman at the lunch counter begged for food; other Cubans beg for old clothes or for medicine, or sell peanuts on street corners. Young men sell cigars and other goods in the burgeoning black market; young women sell their bodies in the burgeoning sex trade.
Without dollars, life is grim. People line up at dimly lit government distribution centres, ration books in hand – libretas, the government calls them – for their monthly allocation. The books, which were established in 1962 to “guarantee the equitable distribution of food without privileges for a few,” entitle Cubans to 2.5 kilograms of rice, 1 kilogram of fish, 1/2 kilogram of beans, 14 eggs and sundry other basics at subsidized prices. Through the libreta, each Cuban also gets one bread roll a day. Every two months, a Cuban is entitled to one bar of hand soap and one bar of laundry soap. Fresh fruits and vegetables come infrequently; meat might come once or twice a year. Until the mid-1990s, children under seven were entitled to fresh milk, but fresh milk, like butter, cheese and other dairy products, is now off the shelves. Before the revolution, two litres of fresh milk cost 15 U.S. cents, well within the means of the poor.
Cuba, a country with a coffee culture, produces fine beans in its Oriente province, but not for average Cubans. The good stuff is sold to tourists and exported to earn dollars, or reserved for the Cuban elite, while the government imports cheaper beans, grinds them, mixes them with ground chickpeas, and doles out 28 grams per month – less than one ounce – to Cuban citizens. The government also exports high quality Cuban rice for dollars while importing a low-grade rice from Vietnam for its citizens. It exports 90% of its fresh fruits, directing much of the rest to tourists and others who can pay in dollars.
Nowhere in the world does the Almighty Buck more separate the haves from the have-nots. The Cuban government has adopted the U.S. dollar as an official currency that co-exists along with the peso and cleverly keeps the poor in their place. The multinationals operating in the country – Cuba now courts them to earn dollars – are forbidden to pay their Cuban workers directly in dollars. Instead, they must turn over the workers’ wages to a government agency which pockets most of the money and gives the workers a pittance in pesos. Cuba’s communists have perfected the Double Currency Standard, and the double standard: One currency for the rich, another for the poor, and the rich determine the means of exchange.
Cuba’s poor are also squeezed in the other necessities of life. Even in central Havana, people commonly carry water by bucket from standpipes in the street to their homes, and then lift the buckets by rope to the higher floors, because their buildings’ broken water pipes go unrepaired. Those lucky enough to have working water pipes can get water at the tap – but only at certain times. In one dense urban neighbourhood that I visited, the water flowed from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m., during which time families scrambled to fill pots and pans inside their homes for drinking water, and former oil drums outside their homes for washing. About the time that the water came on, the electricity went off – it, too, is rationed by daily blackouts.
In buildings where one or two families might have once lived, today live many. The inner courtyards of Cuba’s residences have become miniature shanty towns, cinder block housing units or other improvisations piled on top of one another. The units – often two small rooms totalling 200 square feet – can house an extended family of seven, 10 or even 12. The rooms are often windowless or near-windowless, the ceilings low and oppressive. Among these buildings packed with people lie many identical buildings, but appropriated for government use. In the space that might house 50 or 100 people will sit one government functionary, bored and idle at a desk, the premises otherwise near-empty.
“For the first time in the history of our country, both the state and the government left aside the rich side and joined the poor side,” Fidel Castro proclaimed after assuming power in 1959. Forty-four years after the Revolution, the poor side are talking of another revolution, in which the government will do much, much more for its people by doing much, much less.
First published in the National Post.