A country where no one is starving but few are rich, where pickpockets are countless but violent crime rates are low, a country where the rum is cheaper than the Coke you mix it with. Welcome to problematic, fantastic Cuba.
“Viva Fidel & Raul!” – Long live Fidel and Raul!
The signs and the graffiti do not decrease in the countryside, quite the contrary. On paper, or on homemade wooden signs, everyone loves the dictator brothers. The most common conversation that occurs with Cubans, however, is about what degrading and limited lives they live. Cuba is a socialist dictatorship; Cubans themselves have no power.
I talk to Jorge, a retired policeman who lives in the center of Havana. He praises Fidel, says he takes such good care of former policemen. But the next second he becomes serious and sighs deeply. “I cannot afford anything,” he says, and gestures with his hands. “I make rice wine or apple wine myself, always eating rice and beans.” In a corner of the kitchen two chicks chirp. They will supply eggs before giving their lives to a feast.
The food comes in brown sacks from the store on the corner and is free but sadly uninspiring. Each month, every person has the right to two and a half kilos of rice, ten eggs, beans, salt, sugar, oil, soap, toilet paper, and strong and weak cigars. A package of pasta costs a convertible, about a dollar fifty. The minimum wage for a month is fourteen convertibles.
Cuba’s dual currency system puts an absurd mark on society. Depending on whether you have pesos nacionales, the domestic Cuban currency, or pesos convertibles, the currency created for tourism, you shop in different places. One meal can cost the equivalent of twenty cents, or twenty dollars. A convertible peso is worth twenty-five nacionales, and this means that Cubans usually pay one twenty-fifth of what you do. Before you take words like “injustice” in your mouth, think again of their salary: fourteen packets of pasta per month.
The dual currency creates endless scam possibilities for Cubans who want to earn some extra money. Although most Cubans are honest, in their eyes we are all super-wealthy. What does a peso here or a peso there matter? To charge tourists and Cubans the same is to only be able to eat rice and beans.
Many trained doctors work as waiters, then they get tips in convertibles and thereby gain the ability to afford things they never could have had otherwise. A pack of pasta, for example, or a hairclip for their daughter. Medical care is free, as is education. The sworn enemy and not-so-good-neighbor, the United States, doesn’t exactly advertise the fact that Cubans have higher literacy rates and a similar life expectancy to the Americans.
Havana must have been an incredibly beautiful city one time. Having spent the past several months in Central America, where the capitals often are the ugliest and dodgiest part of the country, adds an extra dimension to the impression. I instinctively move my valuables to my jeans pocket and hold my bag tightly. Then I remember that this is how it looks here. Almost all of Havana is a slum, but not dangerous. No one will mug me here, even though several hands will probably reach for my wallet. Fourteen packets of pasta. Many of us would do the same, even if harsh penalties await those who get caught.
The other side
The government does its best to try to keep visitors separated from real Cuban life. For foreigners there are designated buses, taxis, restaurants, hotels. And it is not easy to penetrate the government’s version of Cuba. It takes sweat and determination, especially if you are on a tight budget.
But if you do get to see that other side you will understand what a struggle it is to answer the question “How was Cuba?” Cuba is magical, sad, mad, exciting, terrible, alluring, tiring. And without a doubt, wonderful.
Like the white beach of Playa AncÃ³n where hotels do not have title to the beach. Where you can pitch a tent and eat crackers for dinner, wake up to pink shimmer and ocean sounds.
Like the colourful kindness of Trinidad. Donkeys on the streets and earthy icy sugarcane drinks for six cents each.
Like the warm embrace of Baracoa, where you can sit down and sing with an old man playing guitar. You buy tomatoes from an old man’s bicycle basket and sit on the Malecon, thinking that you have never seen such blue sea before.
Like Vinales, with the strange green rocks and the friendly dogs. With a post office where they would rather file their nails than help clients, and a bar where you eat ham sandwiches almost for free.
Cuba is something you never forget. Cuba is forever.