The biggest problem for families in Cuba these days is the financial difficulties caused by the United States blockade. It has not been removed even though diplomatic relations were established following former President Obama’s visit to Cuba. This is due to, among other things, the fact that there are laws that have to be repealed by the US Congress. So far, the changes have been blocked by the Republicans. The Helms Burton Act, which makes it very difficult for other countries to trade with Cuba, is still in place.
On June 15, 2017, President Donald Trump gave a speech in Florida, especially directed to the extreme right-wing Cuban exiles in the city of “Little Havana” in Miami. He said that the money from tourists travelling in Cuba goes directly to Cuba’s military and because of that he will not open up US tourism to Cuba. Consequently there must still be travel restrictions and trade with Cuba is still prohibited. The US Embassy in Havana and the Cuban Embassy in Washington D.C., however, should not close, and the direct flights between The United States and Cuba will continue. Trump demanded internationally monitored elections, several parties, a free press, release of all political prisoners, and the extradition of Assata Shakur (Joanne Chesimard), who has political asylum in Cuba. The speech was symbolic (and warmly welcomed) thanks to the Cuban exiles who supported him during the election. The trade and travel restrictions are out of his hands based on laws that would have to be abolished by the US Congress. More and More Republicans believe that 50 years are enough and that the blockade does not work as intended: to have regime change in Cuba. The speech was a repetition of demands Trump knew would never be accepted by the Cuban government. Let’s see what happens.
In Cuba, life continues with shortages of everything. For example, toilet paper is missing, and when it comes onto the shelves again, there is no soap powder; when that returns, there’s a lack of tooth paste, and so on. It is also difficult to get spare parts for cars, for example, and for many other imported goods.
In 1992, the double currency was introduced, so they have both the national pesos and the special tourist currency, convertible pesos called C.U.C. The value of the C.U.C. is between one dollar and one Euro. Recently it is been close to the dollar. You need 24 national pesos for one C.U.C. , and the Cubans can calculate the exchange between the two in their heads. We cannot do that, and it is a mystery how Cubans can live for 400-800 national pesos a month, equivalent to 20-40 dollars. Indeed, they have their “libretta”, a sort of ration book, but is does not cover their entire food needs. It is still difficult to afford all the necessary food.
About 3 years ago, the government announced that the C.U.C. would cease to exist; leaving only the national peso, but that has not happened yet and has probably proven to be harder than expected. The dual currency causes more and more inequality between those who have access to the C.U.C. and those who have only their salary in national pesos. They are free to exchange them to C.U.C. but is makes no difference. Slowly society has become more affluent, but money is unevenly distributed and prices rise making it worse for those who are being paid in national pesos.
The reforms introduced five to six years ago have meant changes in Cubans´ everyday lives. Now Cubans can become self-employed; there are more than 100 professions in which they can work legitimately by paying taxes. Before, all were state employees. Now an increasing number are working independently, for example selling agricultural products. Many have opened small shops or cafes. It is also possible to open a restaurant or start a cooperative where several people share a company. There is good money in transportation; many are driving taxis, both for tourists or shared taxis for Cubans. Good money can also be made by renting rooms and apartments to tourists, the so-called “casas particulars”.
Cubans can now sell and buy their houses, which was a necessary reform because an increasing number of houses literally collapsed in the streets because of lack of maintenance. The residents could not afford to maintain them, nor could they buy paint and other building materials. Fortunately, they now can. For example, if you can get your cousin in Miami to invest in a house, you can renovate it and sell it for double the previous price and share the profits. Foreigners cannot buy the houses but Cubans can with foreign capital or if they have other access to C.U.C. More and more houses are being built and renovated, especially in the more upscale neighborhoods. It is absolutely about time, as many of the houses have not been maintained for 50 years.
Some other changes have been introduced since August 2017: no more private lease permits (the so-called “casas particulares”) will be issued, and permission to create family restaurants, small cafes and gift shops has been stalled. The tax system for self-employed does not work well enough, and they need to make some changes.
Daily life presents challenges. Although all households in Cuba have a pressure cooker and a rice cooker, cooking is a slow affair. Rice must be cleaned, garlic must be peeled, beans must be boiled and a sofrito (oil with garlic, onions and peppers) must be made. Many poor Cubans eat only one, main meal a day, an almuerzo (lunch) in the middle of the afternoon – of course depending on their work schedule and whether they get food at work. There are many problems with water and electricity, at least in Havana. For a period of time there were many and long-lasting power outages, now there are short-circuit interruptions. The water supply in Havana is the source of difficulty and irritation. In some neighborhoods, the water supply is closed daily in the middle of the day, in other places, there is water only every other day. When there is no water, you get it from a tank on the roof and it needs to be opened and closed. Sometimes the water does not come at night as expected. Last time I was in Havana, it was missing for 3 days.
When you see a clinic or hospital, you are not impressed because the equipment is a bit old-fashioned, certainly not new and modern, but the doctors are incredibly skilled and you will be carefully examined. It is not about just prescribing any medicine. It can be difficult to get hold of because of shortcomings in that area. On the other hand, the medical service is probably the best in the world. In every city and every Havana neighborhood, there are outpatient clinics with several doctors, and it is open 24 hours a day. You can also call a family doctor. I experienced an example three to four years ago, when I was visiting a father who had his nine month old daughter with him. When I arrived and touched her arms, she seemed hot. I told the father I thought she had a fever. “She has a fever?” he asked, and, frightened he immediately went to the phone and called the family doctor. A young, female doctor arrived ten minutes later and took the child in her arms. She took her temperature and examined her and then walked around in the living room with her in her arms, singing to her. When the child had fallen into a half-sleep, she gave her a pill without waking her. A few minutes later the father took the child, and the doctor left the house. What a service!
The health service also provides free dental visits. In the district of Playa in Havana, in addition to a general dentist in the outpatient clinic, there is a 24-hour emergency clinic. Last time I was in Cuba, one of my Cuban friends got a toothache one a Saturday evening, I went with him to the clinic at ten o’clock at night. There was a watchman looking at television and a dentist who immediately treated my friend for a problem in his molar. A few days later he came for follow-up care.
Did I mention there is free education in Cuba, from first class to phd-level at the university? Other courses are not very expensive, for instance cooking courses or taking a drivers lice nse.
Surprisingly, there has been a shortage of food in Cuba, and not only in that special period for the first ten years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. At that time Cuba lost half of its gross national income with the loss of financial support from the Soviet Union. It has seemingly been difficult to restructure agriculture from monoculture, such as sugar cane and tobacco, to cultivating different crops that can feed the population. Cuba has a tropical climate where everything grows all year round, root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, malanga and yucca. You can also grow rice if you have irrigation. In addition, you can grow various tropical fruits, avocados, bananas, coconuts, pineapple, guayava, papaya, mamay, citrus fruits and many more. They are rich in vitamins and contain many other important nutriments.
In some areas they have eco-gardens, small community gardens where they grow vegetables without any pesticides or additives. Most of the people who work there are volunteers, and they sell the products to people in the community,
It is difficult to transport the goods. There has been a shortage of gasoline and the shortage has returned now, because Venezuela is no longer sending so much oil. The Cubans in Havana complain that they cannot afford to buy vegetables, and prices are too high both in the state sales and in the private markets. Prices of groceries like garlic, onions and small peppers have risen. The daily problems continue.
As the 86-year old grandmother said, “Cuba is a nice country, if only we had a little more money.”
Kit Aastrup is Member of Danish-Cuban Association.