I recently was part of a humanitarian group originating in Key West that visited Santiago de Cuba and Havana. We brought medical supplies and some writing materials to two clinics run by The Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent de Paul. We did have some free time over the 8 days and were able to experience the people, the nightlife and the culture. The participants in the arts, science, education and other fields are true professionals, having been selected in a classic communist manner at an early age to pursue a path. Although I must say the music and dancing on the street were amazing as well. And the old cars are ever present.
We also heard a variety of lectures on history, art, religion, restoration, and “la vida cotidiana.” Most of the lecturers as well as our quite knowledgeable guide, a former history teacher, were born after the 1959 revolution. They have an interesting historical view extending back to 1492, which doesn’t necessarily correspond to the history we in the United States were taught, read about or actually experienced.
While 8 days in a country combined with some reading does not make one an expert I do have some observations. Let’s start with some facts and maybe a few anecdotal factoids:
Cuba, an island nation, 90 miles south of Key West, is about the size of Pennsylvania, 44,000 square miles. The population is about 11.2 million with Havana, the capital and largest city at 2.2 million. The primary sources of revenue would appear to be tourism, sugar, mineral exports and remittances from Cuban-Americans to family members. About 70%, –a declining percentage–of the work force is employed by the State. The State also provides free medical care, a monthly food allowance (good for about two weeks of the month we were told), and free education. What did happen after the 1959 revolution were the creation of schools throughout the country and the development of a universal health care system. The literacy rate is stated at 99.8%. However, we did run into several members of that 0.2%. The country has the highest ratio of doctors to population in the world, although there is a real shortage of medical supplies and equipment. We were often asked on the street if we had any medicines or soap(!). We were also told that the Universal Health Care primarily applies to the military and the police with long waits and limited supplies for others. Not sure Michael Moore got the full story.
There is a dual currency system. Those employed by the state are paid in Cuban pesos (CUPs). It is not totally clear what the differences in compensation are within this part of the economy, but we were told that doctors are paid about 300 Cuban pesos bi-weekly. In the last 5 or 6 years certain Cubans have been able to start their own businesses, typically on the street or in their homes. Some of these are a part of the Cuban economy, but most are in some fashion related to what is called the CUC (“kook”) economy. A CUC is a unit of currency convertible into a similar unit of the US Dollar, although a 10% tax and a small fee apply. This makes a US Dollar worth about .87 CUC. If one is exchanging any other currency for CUCs there is no tax. The exchange rate between the CUP and the CUC is 24:1. As several Cubans told us, the closer one is to the CUC economy the better off one is, in spite of as much as a 50% tax on reported CUC revenues. Those receiving remittances from relatives in the States or elsewhere are even better off. The Financial Times recently reported that such remittances totaled $2 Billion last year. That is not surprising. According to the US Census there are 1.8 million individuals identified as of Cuban origin living in the US of which 1.2 million are in Florida. The current US administration is allowing unlimited travel by Cuban-Americans to visit relatives and unlimited remittances of funds. This compares to one trip per year and $1200 under the previous administration. Some of the current Republican candidates made noises about returning to the previous policies, but that did not go over too well with the community. We had different types of Cuban-Americans on our flight: some couples who go at least once a month to visit relatives bringing gifts and money; some individuals doing the same but with some specific business ideas in mind; a man who was making his first trip in 43 years to visit his dying godfather. On the Cuban side there are changes as well. There is now some house trading allowed. Cubans can own their own homes (not the land), many of which were given to them after 1959 or were built by the Russians during their 30 years of support. Available funds can be used to build or improve a home or be used as a part of the swap from a smaller home to a bigger one. Funds can also be used to start or improve a business. This participation in the CUC economy can make an enormous difference whether it is remittances or income. Let’s take the small example of our guide. Our trip was 8 days with about 20 people as a part of the group. The recommended “tip” was about 2 ½ CUCs per day per person. A guide could walk away with about 400 CUCs for the 8 days and repeat that experience many times during the year. That compares to the doctor getting 7800 CUPs a year or only 325 CUCs at the 24:1 exchange rate. The buying power difference is huge over the course of a year. It is hard to see how this can last. Beyond the tips for the guides, all payments for food, lodging, souvenirs, artwork, etc., were in CUCs and the prices weren’t cheap. My biggest overpayment was for a 3 CUP bill with Che featured on the front. That cost me a CUC.
It is no wonder many of the doctors are happy to be lent out to other countries where there may be some income possibilities. Supposedly, there are 30,000 Cuban doctors in Venezuela now as part of an exchange for oil. Cuba imports about 100,000 barrels per day of high-sulfur oil from Venezuela. This supplements the 56,000 barrels per day produced domestically. This primarily goes to provide not-very-clean power for factories and the utilities. This is tragic in a way. Cuba has reasonably high sun–DNI (Direct Normal Irradiance), as do most Caribbean islands, which makes solar power a real alternative. We saw a few solar panels out in the countryside, but no real significant use of solar for heating or electricity. Solar may not happen. There could be significant offshore oil and gas, maybe as much as 4.6 Billion barrels and 9.8 Trillion cubic feet respectively, according to the USGS. Apparently, Brazil and Spain are working with Cuba to explore these possibilities.
Wikipedia, provides a concise description of the country, its history, and its structure. I recommend it for those who are interested in learning more. While in Cuba, what was fascinating to me was the view of history held by those of the generations since the 1959 revolution. The view of history is not necessarily wrong, but like most histories, it extends from a very specific point of view. That view is very much one of the US having an interest in controlling Cuba, extending from George Washington to the present. This view comes complete with quotes and the text of various laws and amendments over the years up to the present–the Platt Amendment seems to come up in most conversations. As the one older historian we heard from said, “It is easy to find in actions and words, proof that the US is not interested in Cuba being an independent country and is doing what it can to ultimately control it. This is reinforced daily. If we have too much rain or no rain the view is the US clearly must have done something to make that happen.”
I wanted to get some sense away from the dialogue of how pervasive this is. I bought three books (in Spanish) which I have been attempting to read: 1) Cuba y su Historia 2) Cuba-USA, Diez Tiempos de una Relación and 3) Obama y el Imperio. This last book purports to be a series of writings by Fidel Castro covering the period from May, 2008, to June, 2010. These writings all reinforce what was coming from the mouths of almost all of those we encountered during the trip as expressed by the older historian we met. There is a general view that what happened in 1959 was the culmination of a Revolución (with a capital R) that began in 1868, with the true heroes being Cespedes, (not the ball-player who just signed with the A’s) and Marti. It took this long to establish true Independence because of the interference of the US–not much credit to Teddy Roosevelt or Generals Wood and Pershing at the turn of the last century.
All are hopeful that things are changing. It is not clear how quickly those changes will occur in the economy, the political structure and the daily lives of the people. As with many countries this year, there are changes in leadership occurring. The first signs in Cuba are not encouraging. The Council of Ministers (31 individuals) has changed with the elimination of some of the more liberal members. Raúl Castro’s recent speeches have been somewhat hard-line. His primary speech in the Assembly focused on the US, corruption (with references to the US) and a reiteration of the importance of the Communist Party (about 800,000 members). He may be catering to the “old white men” (a phrase from the historian about the leadership) in the Congress or he may be pulling back from some of the reforms. There has been an apparent tightening of security with some retentions and restrictions on gatherings. Something is happening. It may simply be a precaution during this period of transition. It may be a policy shift. It may be some concern about the Pope’s visit in March.
Granted, Cuba is just another Caribbean island. And what happens there is unlikely to change the course of the world. It does have a long history with the US, though, and it is close. The people, individually, are terrific. Some real talent exists, and maybe things can get better for them. It is worth taking a “humanitarian” trip to see for oneself. Be sure and bring soap.