A Tale of Two Cubas

by Dan Miller.
Streetview of buildings in Havana, Cuba

Havana, May 2017 (photo by Dan Miller.)

This past May I had the pleasure of leading a group of 14 Calvin alumni plus my wife on a ten day tour of Cuba as part of the Calvin Academy for Lifelong Learning program. It was a rich experience for me. As the Latin Americanist in Calvin’s History Department for 32 years I had taught lessons on Cuban history to numerous undergraduates, but I had never had the opportunity to visit the island myself. So when the CALL director asked if I would lead a tour group to Cuba, I agreed without hesitation.

Although I have read a lot about Cuba over the years, watched a number of films, interviewed a number of Cubans, and even done research on the Cuban Christian Reformed Church, I was unsure of exactly what I would encounter there. As normally happens when vicarious experience is supplemented with direct contact, my views of Cuba and Cubans was made more complicated by our visit to the island. Here are my main impressions:

Cuba’s economy is visibly two-tiered. We operated in the tourist economy which directly employs approximately 10% of the Cuban people but doubtlessly influences many more. It has its own currency—the Convertible Cuban peso or CUC—which is roughly equivalent to a US dollar. Actually it is worth more because to buy CUCs one must pay a 3% exchange fee and an additional 10% charge in retaliation for the US embargo so $100 US earns only 87 CUCs.

Brightly colored classic cards in a row.

Classic cars in Havana, Cuba (photo by Dan Miller.)

Purchases in the souvenir stores, meals in private restaurants (paladares), tips to hotel staff, and rides in classic American cars were all paid in CUCs. Working in the tourist sector brings access to CUCs (or dollars, or Euros) which enables many Cubans to earn incomes of several hundred dollars per month or even more. The value of such employment is suggested by the fact that a well-maintained classic car (which is a big money maker) sells for $30,000 to $50,000 in Havana. Even hotel maids, however, earn tips that amount to several times the income of non-tourist workers.

By contrast, workers in the non-tourist economy such as teachers, medical personnel, agricultural workers, office workers, etc., are paid in ordinary Cuban pesos worth about 4 cents. Such workers receive salaries of 1000 to 2000 Cuban pesos per month which is equivalent to 40 to 80 CUCs (or US dollars). Clearly that is not a survivable wage. Nevertheless, we saw little evidence of the destitution such as is widely visible in other nearby Caribbean and Latin American countries.

Market stall showing piles of fruit.

Popular market in Cuba. (Photo by Dan Miller.)

Cubans supplement their salaries with purchases of basic goods at government dispensaries (we visited one in Trinidad) using a ration card (libreta) that allows them about ten day’s worth of basic staples (rice, beans, potatoes, eggs, sugar, two pieces of chicken) at very low prices. They also purchase food and other items at private markets where prices are higher. (We saw one such market in Havana and it seemed to be well supplied with fresh produce at what seemed like modest prices, albeit still high for ordinary Cubans.) We also heard about “Cuban mathematics” from a farmer who gives 90% of his crop to the state and keeps 20% (sic) for himself. We also learned that workers at government-run stores supplemented their stock with goods purchased on the black market and pocketed the profits from the unofficial sales. Even so, there is a growing gap between those who earn government salaries and those who work in the tourist-dominated private sector.

A well-maintained building beside another that has collapsed.

Havana buildings (Photo by Dan Miller.)

That gap is most visible in the architecture of Havana. The bus ride to our hotel on the west side of Havana revealed crumbling multistory buildings alternating with newly minted high rise hotels. Our own hotel was clean, modern, and staffed by friendly, professional people. A walk around the historic downtown the next morning revealed many beautifully restored colonial buildings. Later in the trip, my wife and I took a long walk off the tourist route and discovered buildings that were very poorly maintained but which were nevertheless fully occupied and others which had actually collapsed from neglect.

The explanation appeared to be that only in the last five years were Cubans granted full ownership rights to their dwellings. Prior to that they paid almost nothing in rent but had no incentive to do more than the most basic repairs and even that was difficult since their incomes were paltry and construction materials were in short supply. Now however the government is allowing people to own their properties and even convert them into private restaurants (paladares) and such. You can see the result in fresh paint and landscaping and architectural renovations going on in all of the parts of the island that we visited.

A plate showing a hearty meal of rice, vegetables, and shrimp.

One of our meals in Cuba (photo by Dan Miller.)

The food offered to us was invariably delicious. Lots of fresh fruit, well-prepared side dishes, lovely desserts, and meat—fish, shell fish, chicken, beef, pork—at every meal. It was all very delicious and came in large portions. The only cause for regret was the knowledge that our fare represented the “first fruits” of the Cuban economy; ordinary Cubans eat meat at most two or three times a month, and eating in a restaurant is a treat that most cannot even imagine.

Transportation is another place where “two Cubas” are visible. We rode in a very modern, very comfortable (air conditioned), Chinese-built bus. (The US embargo prohibits US car makers from selling vehicles in Cuba so other nations have filled the vacuum.) In the city we saw many well used public buses, some fairly new, some quite old (and spewing diesel fumes). Along the lightly-traveled highways we passed lots of old cars (not the shiny well preserved Havana taxis) and quite a few horse-drawn carts. There were also a fair number of hitchhikers which, along with the relatively light traffic in both city and country, reflects the fact that few Cubans own their own car.

We did not get a chance to visit any schools or hospitals but from much reading and personal interviews I understand that they are staffed by well-trained professionals but short on material resources. We did visit a lovely adult day care center run by the Christian Reformed Church in Jaguey Grande. For a nominal sum (the Dutch organization that provides half of their funding insists as a condition that the other half be borne by the Cuban Church and by those who use the service) the building provides two meals and some programming for elderly retirees who would otherwise have to subsist on a pension that is even lower than the meager official salary that they received when they were working.

Speaking of the church, we visited several Catholic churches which appeared to be very active in promoting the spiritual and personal development of their congregations as indicated by advertisements for lecture series on marriage, family, and other topics. We also spent a couple of hours having lunch with members of the Cuban Christian Reformed Church and touring a house church with the President of the denomination. The meal they prepared for us was wonderful and more than ample. (We left a donation to cover the costs.) The house church was quite literally that: a home with a covered patio on one side that provided a worship space for sixty or seventy attendees. The President who lives in the home and pastors the church that meets there is hoping to raise close to $50,000 to transform the space into a full-fledged sanctuary, a proposition that will require much funding from abroad since such sums are beyond the capacity of his congregation or the denomination. Little was said about the role of government in regulating religious activities, but most of its impact seemed to be indirect: the meager economic status of Cubans generally explains why churches are so heavily dependent on foreign sources of income.

Young girl with a bicycle cart full of onions for sale.

Cuban street seller (photo by Dan Miller.)

So we come back to the notion of the two-tiered economy and the divided society that is quickly taking shape because of it. Our Cuban tour guide described how the 10% of the population that works in the tourist economy receives an “income” that is not only far above the “salaries” paid to workers in state-run enterprises, incredibly it is also not taxed since Cuba’s socialist government has never needed an income tax prior to the rise of the private, for-profit sector. The predictable result has been a growing economic gap that is eroding the egalitarian-communitarian spirit that was supposed to be a hallmark of “the new Cuban man” and which, under the influence of Fidel Castro’s incessant preaching, was accepted by most of the population as something to aspire to, if not exactly something to live by. What seems to be taking its place is not a revolt against the state-run system (we saw no no anti-government graffiti or other evidence of popular restiveness) but rather the spread of individual ambition as evident in the proliferation of paladares, inns, and other small scale capitalist enterprises that enable individuals and families to capture tourist dollars in order to improve their personal well-being. The government is obviously trying to grow the economy and move people off the government payroll by allowing small scale capitalism to grow, even as it tries to preserve Cuba’s well-staffed but under-resourced health care and education systems. Most Cubans probably hope that they can continue to receive those free public services, but more and more are hoping that someone else will do those badly paid government jobs while they push their way into the for-profit, tourist economy where the real money is.

Professor Daniel Miller has been a member of the Calvin History Department since 1983. He regularly teaches a survey of Latin American history and has taken students there on several January Interim trips. His research interests include the history of Protestantism in Latin America and U.S.-Mexican relations.

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