The Neufeld-Kaiser World Tour travel blog

crumbling house in Habana with a restored place next door

Buses called 'camello' (2 humps!) which hold hundreds of people

Many Cubanos told us "no es facil." We were stymied by the double economy, and the more we learned, the less we understood. Put plainly, most Cubans don't earn enough to live. Over and over people told us salaries range from about 8 to 20 dollars a month. a big mango or avocado costs just about a dollar, soap costs 1.50, and shirts can cost 5-10 dollars. woa.

Between the 1959 revolution and the collapse of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, Cuba grew increasingly dependent on Soviet aid and subsidies. In 1990, the Cuban government began a program to diversify the Cuban economy and wean them of this dependence, but the USSR imploded before the process was finished. Cuba was left stranded and, to boost the economy, the government opted to invest millions into supporting the tourist industry. Before then, Cuba was open to tourists, but there weren't many (if any) hotels or guides or multi-lingual museum signs, etc. In 1993, foreign currency was legalized and Cubanos were allowed to have bank accounts in foreign currency.

So since the 90s there's been 2 money systems - pesos cubanos and pesos convertibles (aka CUC or dollars) which are exchanged for foreign currencies. (Prior to this, the only currency was pesos cubanos.) US dollars were allowed to circulate for a while too, but not as of last November. The dollars or CUC are intended to be the currency of the tourist world. And if all goods and services had two prices - one in pesos cubanos for Cubanos and one in CUC for extranjeros - it would have made more sense. But the problem these days is that much of what Cubans need for daily life - toothpaste and a million other things - is now available only in CUC. So the person who earns 8 dollars a month has to spend 1.50 on toothpaste? how is it possible?

We spent the whole month asking ourselves - and plenty of Cubans who we got to know - how do people get by then? People are not starving and there is not destitution. Sure, there were run-down and crumbling houses, moreso in the countryside, but we never saw the level of poverty we saw in rural Guatemala. (Perhaps we just never went to those places.) But how can people feed their families when salaries even for professionals just aren't enough? It seems that everyone has to finagle something. There's no romance in the 50s Chevies you see on postcards - that's just people making do, keeping their cars barely running, not some kind of countrywide hobby car fetish. One of the men we met in Habana is a mechanic whose specialty is refitting old American cars with Russian parts, to keep them running. Habana is a beautiful old city that's crumbling and that's hard to see. It's reminiscent of St. Petersburg. The massive restoration projects are heartening, but lots of work remains.

The upside is housing is often free, or nearly so, and education and healthcare (though not medicine because of shortages) are free. And the gov't provides a ration book for bread, rice, beans, fish, beef, soap, and a few other necessities.

From what we could tell people get by - and get clothes for themselves and their kids and all the myriad things families need - by finagling and inventing. solutions we saw:

1. shared housing -- people live with grandpa, couples still live with his or her parents, etc. Nearly everyone we met, including all the casa owners we stayed with, lives with one or more family members. Four generations were housed in our last casa in Cienfuegos. This allows families to pool their incomes and share expenses. Also, as long as a member of a family is living in a house, it stays in that family and provides free housing.

2. the ration book -- called the libreta

3. money from family in the states -- lots of people have a family member in the US, many of whom send a bit of money back to help out. or toys or clothes. though this is harder with the recent toughening of antiCuba laws.

4. tourist dollars -- if a mechanic who earns 8 or 9 dollars a month can offer an unofficial taxi ride to tourists for 3 dollars, what a boon. Or work in a hotel where tips are in dollars rather than pesos cubanos - even if the tips are each small. Or otherwise get access to tourist dollars. There are downsides to this. One, the pressure pushes some people to hustle a bit, chasing the dollars. Two, the class system is re-emerging, with people in tourist areas who are lucky enough to have inherited a nice house where they can rent a room to travelers, or who work in hotels or have a souveneir stand, forming the richer class. Not that those people are undeserving. But that's no meritocracy. A couple we stayed with for a few nights in La Boca, outside of Trinidad, were trained as a teacher and a nurse. But they can earn more renting the spare room in his family's summer house, so they've quit their jobs to be casa owners fulltime. And the gov't appears to be constantly tinkering, trying to benefit from the infusion of money without paying too high a cost. When casas were first allowed in 1993 or 1994, they were free to the owners. Now, casa owners pay a steep tax every month, whether or not their rooms are filled. The number of casas has reportedly declined quite a bit in the last few years.

5. siphon a little -- if you're a trucker, you can siphon off a little fuel and resell it for a little extra. if you work in a cigar factory you can tuck a few in your pocket to sell on the street. a couple different people told us this sort of thing is common - to stretch what people have a little.

6. skip a meal -- esp. young people in Habana apparently are willing to forego lunch and spend that money on a drink at a club or a cut-down-to-there dress. Again, multiple people told us this. Without judging people's prioritizating, I'll just say that sounds hard.

It's hard in Cuba for regular folks. Everyone told us that. Things now seem to be a little better economically overall than they were immediately after the collapse of the USSR - a time in Cuba called the periodo especial. But it's clearly hard, and it's been hard for a long time. It was good to see that there is none of the grinding poverty we saw so much of in Guatemala. There is a safety net. But nearly everyone has it tough. No es facil.

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