Winds of Change
April 22, 2004
We're now visiting Cuba for the fourth time in 20 years. Our first two visits were fun-in-the-sun holiday packages; like many winter weary Canadians, we were attracted to Cuba by its fortunate latitude and inexpensive prices. Those trips were back in the '80's before we owned "Little Gidding". We travelled by air, stayed in all-inclusive resorts, got sunburned, and didn't meet too many Cubans. Except for numerous billboards picturing the likes of Che Guevara and Jose Marti and proclaiming stirring thoughts such as "Patria O Muerte" (your country or death) and "Heroica Siempre" (always heroic), we could have been vacationing just about anywhere in the Caribbean. The locals were mostly poor and the tourists were mostly rich (in relative terms). At that time, gringos spent American currency to buy cigars, rum, and souvenirs in special "dollar" stores that were off limits to Cubans. There was a black market for US greenbacks; in the streets of Havana, all kinds of shady characters would sidle up to you wanting to swap dollars for pesos. Despite the promise of a great exchange rate, there seemed to be little point in buying a pile of pesos since there wasn't much you could do with them.
In the spring of 2000, we visited Cuba for the first time by boat. It was an entirely different experience. Not only were we seeing the Cuba that exists outside of the tourists resorts, but Cuba itself had changed. Economically, the country was continuing to suffer from the withdrawal of foreign revenues due to a tightening of the US trade embargo and the collapse of the Soviet Union (the loss of cheap Soviet oil was particularly crippling). The place seemed literally to be falling apart: majestic colonial buildings were crumbling, public docks were collapsing, and motor vehicles everywhere sat idle for lack of fuel. Socially, however, the lives of many Cubans were being transformed because new regulations allowed them legitimate access to dollars. While workers in tourist settings were pocketing tips, Cubans in their homes were making a few bucks renting rooms and selling meals to foreigners. The government was making these concessions to free enterprise reluctantly, heavily taxing self-employed workers (which meant a lot of the budding entrepreneurs were operating "unofficially"). The currency traders on the street were out of business; tourists and locals alike could exchange dollars and pesos in banks at an official rate (then, 20 pesos to the dollar; now, 26). The dollar stores were open to all; alongside the boxes of Monte Cristos and bottles of Havana Club for tourists were televisions and washing machines for the masses (or at least, those who could afford them).
Our first Cuban cruise was along the island's south coast. A couple of weeks ago we arrived in Puerto de Vita at the eastern end of the north coast with the intention of gunkholing west towards Havana. In four years the country has continued to change. One example of progress is the very fact that you're reading this account. We're writing it while anchored off an uninhabited cay and will send it when we go online at the next major centre; it might end up being a few days late before it's posted because the weather at the moment isn't co-operating with our cruising itinerary. However, just being able to connect to the Internet here in Cuba is nothing short of amazing. Cyber cafes were unheard of when we last visited Cuba. Even making a simple international phone call was a torturous process often ending in failure. Now the major tourist hotels have computer rooms where foreigners like us can surf the net for five bucks an hour, albeit at a painfully slow connection rate, and some Cubans even have cell phones (like everyone else on the planet).
Last week we left our boat at the marina at Puerto de Vita and travelled inland with our Montreal friends Bob and Viviane Fleury off the ketch "Varuna 1" (we don't often go to the dock, but we figured our cruising budget could handle the charge of $20 a night, electricity and water included). Our destination was Santiago de Cuba on the south coast, Cuba's second largest city and a major centre for the arts. Along the way we stopped in Holguin, a provincial capital surrounded by rolling farmland.
The fuel scarcity and the polarized peso/dollar economy affected our choice of transportation during the three day journey. To get around locally, most Cubans walk, bike, or take bicycle cabs and horse drawn buggies -- nothing that burns expensive gasoline or diesel. For intercity travel, they cram into stripped down buses, trains, and converted trucks. Tourists are expected to take automobile taxis, air-conditioned executive buses, and airplanes. The crowded local bus travelling the 40 km from Puerto de Vita to Holguin cost us each three pesos, the equivalent of 12 cents US. From the bus station on the outskirts of Holguin, we took a horse buggy into town. According to the posted list of tariffs, locals would have been charged three PESOS; we gringos paid a total of three DOLLARS. The next day, for $11 US each, we rode 143 km to Santiago in a comfortable air-conditioned bus. On the return trip from Santiago we were too late arriving in Holguin to catch a local bus back to Puerto de Vita. Two bicycle cabbies charged us a dollar a head to take us from the bus stop to an intersection where we could catch a car taxi (which ended up being just around the corner -- a good example of dumb tourists contributing to the material well-being of clever Cubans). The cab fare back to the marina was $20, or over 50 times what we had collectively paid going the other way three days earlier!
We were impressed by Santiago and its citizens. Compared to what we saw when we visited the city four years ago, most buildings appeared to be in pretty good shape. We stayed in a newly renovated small hotel in the city centre for $25, including breakfast (substantial, even by David's demanding standards). The streets were spotless and the gardens in the many public squares were well tended. Neatly dressed Cubans filled the downtown sidewalks, walking determinedly to ... shop. Dollar stores had sprouted everywhere and on the Sunday we were there, entire Cuban families were pursuing North America's favourite pastime: buying stuff. Or to be more accurate, they were looking at stuff to buy. Very few Cubans can afford the more expensive items in the dollar stores; most are there to dream and hope.
The night we spent in Holguin we stayed in a local home. Our host, Yolanda, personifies the entrepreneurial spirit that is slowly taking hold of the country. Yolanda is a geological engineer who earns the equivalent of $20 per month. She lives with her 18 year old son, Enrique, who is about to graduate from teaching college. Next year, he will earn $10 a month as a secondary school history teacher. Out of context, these salaries seem absurd. But we're not talking a free economy here (at least, not yet). Basic food is rationed in Cuba and sold in government stores called "bodegas". A Cuban family's monthly food ration book costs about five dollars -- although most Cubans find they have to supplement the rationed items with food bought in public markets at significantly higher prices (but still only a fraction of what's charged in the dollar stores). Rents are limited to 10% of family income. Many Cubans own their own homes, largely because of a programme that's been in effect since 1960 that converts rent payments into mortgage payments over a five to 20 year term. Education from pre-school to university -- including books, supplies, and living expenses for out-of-town students -- is absolutely free. Similarly, Cubans don't pay a cent for health care (which, incidentally, is excellent; Cuba has the world's highest number of physicians per capita, the lowest infant mortality rate in Latin America, and a life expectancy rate essentially identical to the US).
Yolanda and Enrique could eke out a spartan existence on their monthly family income of $30. But they watch TV and know what people elsewhere have, and they've seen what's in the dollar stores. Yolanda was proud of two recently acquired appliances: a small colour TV and a refrigerator. She told us she had bought them with part of the proceeds from selling the development rights above her one storey house to a Canadian (we're not sure exactly how this transaction occurred, since it's not supposed to be possible to buy and sell real estate in Cuba, only to trade it). Having one of the few refrigerators on the block has given her another source of income. It's stocked with bottles of soda. While we were in her home, there was a steady stream of neighbours dropping by to purchase a cold soda at a mark-up over the store price. She showed us examples of the hand made photo albums she assembles on weekends to be sold in tourist craft shops. We and Bob and Viviane paid her $10 a room to sleep in her two bedrooms; she and Enrique spent the night next door at her brother's house.
Little by little, Yolanda and others are joining the consumer society. A few opportunities for free enterprise are opening small fissures in the monolithic state run economy. As a result, Cuba is just beginning to lose some of its social homogeneity. We wonder what other changes are in store and what tensions may emerge as the separation grows between Cubans who have dollars and Cubans who have pesos. The next time we visit Holguin, will Yolanda and Enrique be satisfied and sleeping in their own beds?