What Everyday Life Is Really Like in Cuba Under Raúl Castro

(Cjaronu) Cuba
Cubans often sell everything they own to travel 90 miles to Florida by boat. (Cjaronu)

By Mariela Palma Cambronero

EspañolCuba is like going back in time.

It’s old and dirty.

There’s no advertising, probably because there’s nothing to sell. The only billboards are propaganda for the dictatorship, with the faces of Fidel or Raúl Castro, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos.

You hear on the radio again and again “in 1958,” or “since the Revolution,” followed by news on Venezuela: ” …the monopolization of private supermarkets of the right and their allies…the international press…thanks to public policies of the Venezuelan government…famine has declined…”

Money is the key factor determining how a person is treated. If you are a foreigner, things are great, given that apart from having money, the regime forces Cubans to try to “make a good impression” — though it is difficult to pretend. The government behaves as if foreigners were royalty and Cubans were commoners. The same happens with Cuban-Americans who fled the island and return to visit, because they come back with purchasing power.

Cubans work for practically nothing. The average salary for a Cuban is US $20. A nurse earns $40 per month. A teacher earns $20 per month and a doctor earns $60 per month.

There are two markets in Cuba: the Cuban peso market and the dollar market. The dollar market has decent products, while poor quality products are valued in Cuban pesos. With the salary of a Cuban, the possibilities are limited to buying products in pesos, because only foreigners can buy products in dollars.

Usually, when one goes to the market looking for a food item, it is not available. Sellers say they might have it tomorrow, but they rarely do. Other times, sellers do not have any money for giving change to the customers, or no packaging like napkins, plates, cups, bags, etc.

Each family has its own “sales control for food items” book, which indicates the amount of food that families can buy from the government. Often, they are the only things accessible and reasonably priced for a Cuban salary.

Fruits, vegetables and meat are not part of the Cuban peso system, so not everyone gets to enjoy such things. The sales control book only includes rice, beans, sugar, coffee and pasta. Together, they still aren’t enough to form a healthy diet.

The installation of a landline is valued at US $600, and a card to access one hour of internet is $2, but only in certain areas of Havana. A cellphone line is $40, so communication is very expensive and thus almost inaccessible to the average Cuban.

Given that cell phones are also expensive, people generally do not call each other. Often they only ring each other to alert if they have arrived somewhere, but hang up before the other person answers, so it doesn’t technically charge the cell phone plan.

Currently, the island is suffering from an energy shortage. Power is interrupted several times a day without notice. Additionally, a liter of gasoline — if there is any — is US $1.50, because Venezuela’s oil crisis has prevented it from helping the island.

Schools and hospitals are in deplorable condition. Like everything else in Cuba, buildings are damaged, outdated and unsanitary.

Almost every Cuban has a relative who lives abroad and sends them money so they can survive. the streets are full of people wearing t-shirts with phrases like “I love NY” or “Miami Beach.”

Another way for Cubans to survive is having children, marrying, or prostituting themselves with foreigners in exchange for money. It is very common to see family members walking around offering tourists such options.

It is therefore understandable why “the 90 miles” — the distance from Cuba to Miami — is so famous. The United States feels so close and yet so far from reach. Many Cubans will tell stories of their attempts to escape in a boat, how much time it takes to save enough money to pay someone to get them on a boat, and how Cubans who want to escape must use oars and not start the engine until a certain distance so the government won’t notice them and put a stop to it. Plenty have died on the way.

Some Cubans aiming to escape in search of a new life and opportunities sell everything they have and then leave. Getting sent back to the island, then, is sometimes a nightmare.

Cubans are hoping Raúl Castro will leave office in February 2018. Though how the new president will be chosen remains unknown, people believe the current Vice President Miguel Díaz-Canel is the likely successor.

It’s doubtful he will repair the failed system of this socialist country, though. Hopefully someone will do so soon.

Mariela Palma is the president of Fundación América Libre.

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