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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Life in Cuba

By: Guillermina Sutter Schneider - @gsutters - Nov 14, 2014, 10:11 am
"Life in Cuba is incredibly routine."
“Life in Cuba is incredibly routine.” (Yusnaby Pérez)

EspañolOn Tuesday, October 28, I received an email asking me to give a presentation on activism and social networks to three Cubans living in Rosario, Argentina. Excited by the prospect, I dusted off a couple of books and collected some research in preparation for my class.

I anxiously awaited the arrival of my three pupils on the morning of October 31, loaded with lesson material and ready to get started. Shortly after 9 a.m. local time, they arrived: Juliette and Raino, both 19 years old, and Ricardo, an older gentleman of about 60. We broke the ice talking about hobbies, family, and friends, but I sensed from their responses that these topics did not resonate. Instead, my students spoke of the monotony and sadness of life in Cuba. I asked if I could interview them following the presentation, and they readily agreed to my request.

Juliette and Raino are dating, and have been living together with Raino’s family for a year and four months. Juliette’s mother works in a hotel, while her father does whatever he can to put food on the table. Raino’s father is a chauffeur for a Cuban government agency, and his mother works around the house. Ricardo is married with two children and two grandchildren.

Ricardo’s life story is moving. In 1981, he began a 10-year prison sentence for treason and attempted desertion. He said the typical sentence for these crimes in Cuba is three to four years, but he was tried three times for the same crime. Once in prison, life became unbearable, and Ricardo soon lost all sense of time. For 10 years he lived in complete darkness in a windowless cell. The door to his cell was only opened when guards tossed in his daily rations. When the time came for him to leave, the guards immediately exposed him to light, damaging his retina, and left him almost completely blind.

What is a typical day like in Havana?

Juliette: I have a daily routine that rarely varies. I get up and go to the Information Center where I work. Then I go to my house, shower, do some house work, and go to bed. That is what I do. It is my routine every day. My problem is that I left school in 10th grade, because I had to start earning money to help my family. I have started studying gastronomy now, and waitressing, and that takes up a lot of my time.

Raino: I wake up and take care of any chores that I have to do. I might go to a friend’s house, hang out for a bit, and the go back home…. Life in Cuba is very routine. Every day is almost always the same.

Ricardo: My days are a bit complicated. I wake up early and eat breakfast. Then I bring my wife to work and my grandson to school. I keep driving to the pet store where I work, and I’m almost always there until five or six in the evening. Then I head back home and confront the difficulties of everyday life. I might have to go search for bread or gasoline, or just run errands — go find whatever I’m missing.

Where and how do you buy things on a daily basis?

Juliette: Let me give you an example. In Cuba, you can’t find toilet paper anywhere. If toilet paper appears, then perfume disappears. Then, suddenly, perfume has disappeared along with detergent. Same thing with the rugs and soap. Something is always missing. It goes without saying that we are always in need of something.

Ricardo: Believe it or not, these guys [Juliette and Raino] do not know what a supermarket is. Every supermarket in Cuba has closed. There are two or three big stores like Galerías de Paseo, which is like a shopping center, but buying things becomes complicated with such a shortage of stores. You go out to get a soda and there is no soda. My wife just wrote to ask me to pick up a bottle of cologne, because it’s my brother-in-law’s birthday and there is nothing on the island we can give him as a gift.

Are there restrictions as to what you can bring into the country?

Juliette: You can only bring five articles of clothing, and all shirts must have long sleeves. You can bring in blazers, coats, and shirts. They now regulate the number of press-on nails you can bring in to a 24 pack. Look how far they go.

Ricardo: The problem is that the Cuban economy is very bad and very informal. People travel around the country with everything they need, which the regime does not permit because then people don’t buy things as they travel. Of course, the state sells everything at a higher price.

Tienda estatal donde los cubanos pueden adquirir productos en CUP. (Yusnaby Pérez)
A state-run store where Cubans can buy products in Cuban pesos. (Yusnaby Pérez)

What is the relationship between the dollar and the Cuban peso (CUP)? 

Raino: They will give you CUC$0.87 (Cuban convertible pesos) for US$1. The CUC is stronger than the US dollar. For CUC$1 they will give you CUP$24 (Cuban pesos), which is the national currency of Cuba. It’s a little complicated, if you’re not used to it.

Can you use any one of those currencies in Cuba?

Ricardo: Yes, but it’s difficult if you earn a normal salary of CUP$400 per month, which is equivalent to CUC$20, because the stores sell everything in CUC. What’s the problem? Well, a bottle of oil costs CUC$2.50 or CUP$60, so in one day you can spend nearly half of your monthly salary.

Do any of you have a car? How did you manage to buy it? Is it imported?

Juliette and Raino: No.

Ricardo: Yes. A friend of mine sold it to me cheap, because it was too expensive for him to maintain. It’s an old Soviet model. Only the government can import cars to Cuba, nobody else. They get cars that are out of circulation in France, refurbish them, and the Cuban government buys them for cheap. Then, they put them up for rent for tourists or Cubans who can afford it.

They now allow Cubans to rent cars. Once the car is no longer in circulation, the government will fix them up a little and sell them to Cubans for US$50,000 or US$60,000. These are old clunkers that are ready to fall apart, and that’s what is being sold to Cubans. A used car on the island costs the same as two new ones outside the country.

Juliette: It’s a joke. You’re making US$20 a month. How long would you would have to work in order to buy a car? You’ll die trying.

If you guys like Argentina and wanted to stay and live here, could you do it?

Ricardo: Well, yes, you could come here and stay. The problem is that Argentina would have to grant you asylum. Cristina [Kirchner] is not granting asylum to any Cuban, I’ve been told.

What was your first impression after leaving Cuba for the first time? How did you feel when you arrived in Argentina?

Juliette: The first thing I thought was, “Where are we living?” As soon as I got here, I saw every flavor of ice cream, perfume, all kinds of different clothing.… It’s impressive. I can’t believe that outside of that place [Cuba], all of this exists, and yet that’s how we live.

Raino: So many things bring up questions like: “Is this real? This exists?” From the way people interact with one another, to all the different things, it’s completely different. To have never seen any of this — it’s stunning. Well, maybe you have seen it; there are people who have cable, and you can watch Telemundo and Univisión. These are illegal channels. So, to leave the country and see all of this in front of you, you don’t believe it, because you’ve only seen it on television. It’s hard to believe it’s real, and that we can’t have this.

You can connect to the internet everyday without an issue. You can discuss whatever you want, whenever you want. It really shocks you. Even today, we spoke softly as we walked down the street.

Juliette: Over there, we can’t say “under Fidel.” You can’t say the word “Fidel.” We were talking about the government, saying something critical, and I said to him [Raino], “Why are we talking so quietly, if we aren’t in Cuba? We can speak in a normal voice.”

Raino: There are other things too, but riding the subway is really impressive. I didn’t know how to enter when I went to buy the ticket. The guy that worked there had to help me.

A few months ago, the World Health Organization released a statement saying the Cuban health care system is an example the rest of the world should follow. Do you think that’s accurate? 

Raino: That’s a lie. Go to a children’s hospital with a newborn baby, with any type of illness, and there will be a single doctor for an entire town. And this doctor will be a Venezuelan, Bolivian, or Peruvian medical student, not a Cuban.

It’s true that there are good doctors in Cuba, but they are not the ones that treat you. The doctors in the hospitals work in horrible conditions. The hospitals are dirty. The bathrooms are covered in urine and vomit. Many times they will tell you they can’t treat you because they don’t have gloves.

If you need to be admitted to the hospital, you have to move there. Clothes, food, sheets, towels, you have to bring everything. You enter the hospital and you see elderly people lying on stretchers like bags of trash. They don’t care about anything.

When you arrive, there will probably be an endless line of other people seeking medical attention. So, to be seen quickly, you may have to give the doctor a gift, like a snack, so they treat you better.

Juliette: All of the things we are telling you, this is why I don’t want to have children in Cuba. I can’t bring a child into the world knowing what awaits him. He’ll have to start working hard as a child, just to die of hunger as an adult.

Translated by Peter Sacco and Alex Clark-Youngblood.

Guillermina Sutter Schneider Guillermina Sutter Schneider

Guillermina Sutter Schneider has a master's degree in Economics and Political Science (ESEADE) and she is a researcher at the Center for Social and Economic Studies at Fundación Libertad, in Rosario, Argentina, where she also leads the institution's Youth Group. Follow @gsutters.