“Even Communist Cuba has got with the programme that we need to cut the budget deficit and actually get spending under control. We’ve got comrade Castro on the same page as the the rest of us. We’ve just got to get the Labour Party and the trade unions on to that planet at the same time.” – David Cameron at Prime Minister’s Questions, September 15th
This week the state-run Cuban trade union confederation announced government plans to lay off 1 million public sector employees, some 20% of the working population. Half of the cuts will be over the next six months alone, in what marks a stunning retreat for the Communist Party and a sharp attack on working-class living standards. President Raúl Castro has targeted workers’ “dependency” on the public sector: by which he means, the same bureaucratic and management apparatus which closely monitors many aspects of everyday life in the country.
In this article Eduardo Semtei, a former Venezuelan government bureaucrat, describes his impressions of ordinary Cuban citizens’ lives. Although The Commune does not share Semtei’s politics – for instance, he harshly criticises the Venezuelan government for subsidising Cuba – his comments do offer an insight into existing social relations and the warped model of “socialism” on the island.
I was in Cuba for two weeks late last year. I did not stay in a hotel but rather the so-called “Authorised Lodgings”, where the prices are between 20 and 60 dollars a day: these are four to six times cheaper than the hotels, and there is freedom to welcome visitors and generally less vigilance by the state’s security services.
I had the opportunity to speak freely with a number of Cubans, discussing any subject on friendly terms with the exception of domestic politics and Fidel Castro. No-one talks about the Cuban leader, neither approvingly nor disapprovingly: they are accustomed to his perennial presidency, feeling a mix of resignation and, above all, fear.
Among young people there is total apathy and hopelessness, disillusioned with a system which dates from the time of their grandparents, and which offers them nothing. They feel that there is no future, limited possibilities for entertainment and increased repression under Raúl Castro.
It is no surprise that Cuba has the lowest fertility rate on the continent – 1.59 births per woman – as young people do not want to get tied down if that will prevent them being able to leave. “To each his own” is the motto of those who have no interest in politics, who only want their own “financial betterment”.Cubans seek all sorts of means to leave the country, and last year Ecuador was the destination of choice. A visa costs 3,000 dollars on the black market yet thousands left.
I could not find a single bookshop in Havana with up-to-date titles. The revolutionary promise and dream of a country wholly free of illiteracy comes to nothing when there is nothing to read and nowhere to buy books. The choice is no better few public libraries which exist.In all shops, business and petrol stations there are astonishing quantities of alcoholic drinks on sale, particularly Havana Club rum and the beers Bucanero and Cristal.
In the working-class districts like Centro Habana, Marianao and El Cerro there are as many, or more, gated-off houses as in Venezuela. There is much petty crime: the thieving of clothes, sheets, saucepans and other such items, the “reprobates” increasing in number as the crisis bites.
Satellite TV is prohibited, a crime which can be punished with heavy fines or even a prison sentence. Although there is not generalised poverty, areas of Havana like San Miguel del Padrón and Guanabacoa present distressing scenes. Places like Coco Solon and La Corbata en La Lisa are nothing to envy compared to Venezuela’s own slums, and since they are not tourist areas the police hardly go there. Roads in disrepair, broken sewers, doors without paint, insufficient light, and crime. Old people mill around the streets without anywhere to go; dozens of the mentally ill wander aimlessly; there is an abundance of drunks drinking “chispa de tren” [made from industrial alcohol toxic for humans, named after the sparks from trains’ wheels] and Planchao [cheap rum]. If La Lisa looks like a slum in Venezuela or Brazil, well, the people in the towns and cities outside the capital are even more abandoned, given the lack of transport. The “araña” – a cart with two car tyres pulled by a horse – is an everyday sight.
In Havana there is a place called the Modern Buildings Zone, referring to works undertaken by the Batista government [a pro-American, right-wing dictatorship] more than 50 years ago. There are few new buildings, mostly Spanish hotels and poor-quality housing complexes.
Cubans’ answer is to “do things on the side”, meaning bribes and the black market: selling clothes, making sweets, selling tobacco, fixing machinery, cleaning houses, renting out apartments without authorisation, etc. The sale of tobacco with official branding is widespread: without doubt there must be at least ten times more cigars sold on the streets than in the state-run stores. Everyone tries to “sort things out”: people sell on the food from schools and the teachers sell good grades; doctors ask for presents; the police discreetly request bribes from anyone selling goods, whether in food transport, restaurants or the markets. Everyone has to “sort things out”. The irregularity of the food supply necessary for an everyday diet is astonishing. It would not be rash to say that half of the population engages in one activity or another against the state in order to sustain themselves. Cubans adore Yankee series like CSI Las Vegas and talent shows, which are transmitted by state TV: I imagine that given the US economic embargo, these programmes must be shown without the permission of their creators. On the black market you can get CDs with the latest cinema releases, soaps and TV programmes from Miami.
There are small private workshops which repair electrical goods as well as cars. A friend who lives in Cuba went to one and they told him to come back later more discreetly, since they have many customers and this was irregular and suspicious activity which could be considered an incipient capitalism.
There are numerous historic sights to visit in Havana, as well as the Caribbean beaches. There are intense blues, spectacular greenery, white sand. They are maintained attentively and there is total safety. Given that the best beaches are far from the capital many Cubans cannot visit them at will, since there is no mass public transport, only transport for foreign tourists.
“Old” or “colonial” Havana is slowly being rebuild by the architect Eusebio Leal, with European and Venezuelan help. As well as oil and support with commercial infrastructure (lighting, food, machinery etc.) and sporting ties, Venezuela sends 10 million dollars in medical aid to Cuba every day, meaning 3.5 billion dollars a year.
The doctors who work in Cuba are recent graduates without any specialism. The best are sent abroad as a means of obtaining foreign currency. A Cuban doctor costs Venezuela 1300 dollars a month, 300 for the doctor and 1000 for the Castro government. So the cost of a doctor from Cuba amounts to [40% more than] the best paid Venezuelan doctor.
There are numerous avenues for “sex tourism” tolerated and supervised by the state security services, such as the Salón Rojo at the Hotel Capri, the Jhonny nightclub and El Delirio Habanero, where there is an abundance of “jineteras” [literally, ‘jockeys’, meaning a female sex worker], particularly “Palestinians”[a slang term for Cubans from outside Havana]. In one night they can earn what five top doctors would get in a month.
Late at night 23rd Street and the Malecón esplanade are full of so-called “penguins”, satisfying the demands of gay tourism, as well as the first transexuals, tolerated thanks to Mariela Castro. There are also “jineteros” [male sex workers] for European women. Fidel Castro has been attributed with a quote saying that Havana has the most cultured whores in the world.
If a Cuban woman is found in an amorous situation with a foreign man and cannot demonstrate any stable link with him, they can give her a “caution” which is registered in the databases of the Policia Nacional Revolucionaria. Three “cautions” means an automatic prison sentence of between one and four years. This has created a lucrative trade for the police, who charge them for not filing the “caution”. If a Cuban man is found in a similar situation the police are less harsh.
Each person’s ID card displays the owner’s address and the names of their parents. If any authorised official asks for it and the person is not registered as domiciled in Havana, they will be immediately deported to their own province. Any such irregular or suspicious behaviour will be reported to the HQ of the Policia Nacional Revolucionaria. The majority of the police in Havana are themselves from the poorest remote regions of eastern Cuba. They are called “Palestinians” by the irritated population of Havana, since they are seen as invadors, only concerned with their own “financial betterment”.
The police have a strong presence in the streets, and on days when there are signs of trouble they bring out the militia to patrol the streets. According to Venezuelan generals who have been to the island, there have already been dry runs of troop movements and arrests of dissidents in expectation of the day when the death of “El Caballo” [the knight, i.e. Fidel Castro] is announced. The surveillance system of 360-degree CCTV cameras is enormous. Every block of every avenue and tourist street in Havana has a camera, although Venezuelan technicians whose opinion I consulted are sure than only some of them actually work given the use of resources in surveillance, recording and maintaining archives.
There are pickpockets, swindlers, pimps and criminals of this type who feed off tourism. Killing a cow out of hunger earns punishment worse than that for murdering a neighbour. There is total respect for traffic signals and generalised use of intelligent traffic lights, donated from abroad. In whose interests, though? The motorised police tightly control the little traffic that there is, and anything that moves.
You can buy a kilo of beef for 12 dollars, more or less half the monthly wage of a professional like an economist or engineer. A retired colonel receives a monthly wage of 750 pesos; an economist with a postgraduate degree achieved in Argentina told me he earned 600 pesos. An American dollar is worth twenty pesos, so the income of the colonel and the economist would be 37 and 30 dollars a month respectively. A medium-quality pair of jeans costs 30 dollars. An average pair of tennis shoes cost 100.
So the most desired and fought-over job, which for certain most people can get into only thanks to nepotism and personal favours, is to be a chauffeur for tourists, an employee of one of the hotels.It is obvious that no Cuban could buy the aforementioned goods with their salary, except military leaders and members of the state security services, the Communist Party “cadres”, the managers of state enterprises with their unmistakable stripped shirts with two pens in the pocket, Cubans with family abroad, those who own tolerated small businesses, the cultural elite, people in the sex industry and those with cliquish connections.
There are still ration books, offering more or less the following per month per person: 700g of chicken, 3 kg of rice, 250g of oil, 250g of pasta, 2.7kg of white or brown sugar, 500g of soap to clean clothes, no beef except for those on special diets, 10 eggs and perhaps 250g of ham some months. There is also 500g of salt per person every three months, but the rations do not include dairy products of any kind; eggs and vegetables can be bought in a few farmers’ markets, the so-called “Agros”, but not mayonnaise or tomato source, which can only be bought in stores trading in the CUC [the peso convertible for foreign exchange, the island’s second official currency]. Stores do not provide plastic bags and it is a mission to find one since it is illegal to sell them; if you ever go to Cuba bring 100 or so nylon bags with you, they will be eternally grateful for it.
You will try in vain to buy razors for shaving, creams or mouthwash. There are no bakeries or wholesale food markets, none of the abundance of goods we are accustomed to in Venezuela. They say that in 2008, when Venezuelan oil hit 150 dollars a barrel, Cuba experienced a certain relief. Unlike here in Venezuela there is no abundance of photos and posters of Fidel Castro, but slogans and quotes from Fidel, Ché, Marx and Lenin are by the thousands.
An hour of internet access in the hotels which offer it costs an arm and a leg, and you’re not paying for the speed. 10 dollars an hour and Google takes 5 minutes to open. Cubans have to fill out a security form to use the computer, and foreigners have to present a passport: what you type will be read by the state security services.
Official production figures are devastating. In 1925 Cuba produced 5.16 million tonnes of sugar, whereas the prediction for 2010 is a figure slightly above 1 million tonnes, the worst for 105 years. Cuba has gone from exporter to importer of this staple. There could be no greater retreat: if this is the case for sugar the reader can easily imagine what is happening elsewhere in agriculture, not to mention industrial production. It produces almost nothing. Cuba imports 80% of its food, and agricultural production fell 16% compared to last year, Raúl Castro’s so-called bid to increase production in the countryside a failure. Nickel exports have begun to increase this year, but not enough to cover the immense budget deficit and the lack of foreign currency.
Let us speak the truth which every Cuban tells us: Cuba lives off Hugo Chávez, tourism and money sent home by Cubans abroad. The whole economy is dollarised. They use a convertible second currency, the CUC, supposedly standing for Currency Unit Cuba, although no-one knows what it really means. It is popularly called the “Chavito”, attributing its implementation to the assistance of our own Commander-President. The CUC is worth roughly 1.25 American dollars. In the past there were stores for tourists and diplomats Cubans could not go to; now they can go to the stores if they have foreign currency, but the local peso is not accepted. Some 500,000 Cuban families can get foreign currency from relatives abroad, meaning that 3 million people [out of a population of 11 million] receive dollars or euros, the new privileged class.
There are no official figures regarding unemployment since the classical communist programme is based on full employment. There are 5 million workers, 4.5 million of whom are state employees. The CIA estimates that just over 500,000 work for the Ministry of the Interior: they are essentially working as informers. Cubans are typically very wary even of their own neighbours. The rest of the population do not work.
Recently Raúl Castro declared that Cuba would make 1 million public sector employees redundant. The government will start by laying-off those who receive help from relatives abroad.
Public transport is deficient. Buses are rare, as are “almendrones” [1950s American cars used as taxis]. In the centre of Havana and El Casco Histórico there is an abundance of cycle-powered taxis. There are few taxis which take the local peso, although they often ask for “botella” (cola) instead. Transport between provinces is even worse.
The water and electricity supply is chaotic. More than 75% of roads are in a state of disrepair. The streets in the centre of Havana and El Vedado are now being paved, after decades of waiting. More than half of water pumped does not reach its destination because of leaks and burst pipes. No aqueducts have been constructed in the last 50 years, and important maintenance work has been neglected. Very few people have computers, and the number of mobile phones is the lowest in the Americas, even compared to Haiti. 95% of train tracks are in a poor state, as are more than half the carriages. Venezuela has advanced 200 million dollars of credit to pay the Chinese to begin repair work.
There are few national papers, except Granma and Juventude Rebelde, both of which are relics. Fidel receives more praise than his brother, to the extent that the photos of him are always larger. The “Reflections of Comrade Fidel” are read out three times a day on radio and TV. All the TV and radio stations are in a permanent state of ideological onslaught, an incessant, continuous, harrassing bombardment of propaganda.
The quantity of official visits from other countries – particularly from Africa and the Caribbean – is striking, and practically every day Granma covers the visit of some envoy, minister or delegation. All of them come in search of medical help, pharmaceutical products and sporting ties. The cars in which the big wigs get around – a fleet of Mercedes Benz and another of BMWs – were bought by Cuba by selling on oil it was given by Venezuela.
The homes of those who have fled Cuba are given to poor families or those who played a role in the revolution. Since there are no property deeds almost no-one bothers to repair the crumbling buildings. However, many who live in big houses in Quinta Avenida, Vedado, Playa nd Siboney rake in an income of 2,000 dollars a month or more by renting them to tourists. These houses have large fridges, huge plasma TVs and Internet connection: they are the new bourgeoisie.
All cars, motorbikes and housing are supplied by the state, but Cubans arrange to buy and sell them, exploiting the so called “exchange” in property registration whereby Cubans can change home for reason of marriage, divorce, etc. Although there is no exchange of cash, goods can be swapped, as certain of Chávez’s bills to the National Assembly hope to institutionalise: here we call it barter but in Cuba where it has functioned for fifty years they call it “exchange”. Many of the original old cars are sold to foreign collectors and dealers, and they only await the physical demise of the Castros in order to expand their operations. Much as it might seem hard to believe there is a special security service from which you can hire guards, vehicles, surveillance cameras etc., the Servicio Privado de Seguridad.