INSIDE CUBA: Mystery Island
How Cubans resolve to survive.
By LEONARDO PADURA
IF A GROUP OF people were to alight on the coast of Cuba in a hot air
balloon and, like characters in a Jules Verne novel, try to understand
their surroundings in order to guarantee their own survival, they’d
certainly think they had arrived in an enigmatic world where the most
varied and intricate mysteries reign, hermetically sealed from logical
thinking and barely intelligible even to the native population on this
After half a century of revolution and almost the same number of years
under socialism, Cuba has made irrefutable—if controversial—strides in
culture, sport, health and education. The historic leader no longer
officially governs, but he lives— and occasionally thunders—though
strictly through his writings. The new president, with a discourse of
realism, creates hope for change that, nonetheless, comes slowly or
not at all.
The miracle is that we survive in the midst of persistent scarcities
(food, always and above all else, food). Our society is increasingly
more diverse, pluralistic and weary. A notable and increasing
percentage of the population is impoverished and either apathetic or
focused on exile as an answer. The orthodox socialist economy, in
which three official currencies circulate, is dysfunctional. We are
besieged by a North American commercial embargo that is almost 50
years old. But more than anything, we are overwhelmed by our own
proverbial inefficiency because of excessive central planning.
These would be, among other and greater matters, the most visible
characteristics of contemporary Cuban life and the keys to the
mysteries in which that life is shrouded.
Perhaps the first and most curious enigma arising from life in Cuba is
the daily planning by its citizens. Even the Cuban government
recognizes that the salary (on average 440 Cuban pesos—CUPs—per month)
it pays its workers—the vast majority of the population—is not enough
to cover their needs. How, then, do Cubans survive?
Let’s say that a pair of the most ordinary shoes costs around 20 CUCs
(Cuban convertible pesos, a hard currency)—more or less equivalent to
$25 or 500 pesos. In other words, a pair of the most ordinary shoes
costs about 60 pesos more than the average monthly salary of 440
pesos. How does a worker buy those shoes and also pay for food,
electricity, transportation, etc.? On the face of it, an insolvable
Another mystery: The groceries subsidized by the State and provided
through the monthly ration cards barely cover the nutritional needs of
a person for 12 days. How is a Cuban supposed to eat for the rest of
the month, especially when prices at the CUC stores and the farmers’
markets are prohibitive? Let us realize that one liter of soy cooking
oil costs 2.15 CUCs, or $2 U.S., or 54 pesos—that is about an eighth
of the average worker’s monthly salary just for one liter of oil.
One more mystery: If a ride in a taxi that runs along a specific city
route costs 10 pesos and workers earn, on average, about 18 pesos a
day, how is it possible that so many people depend on those taxis to
get to work?
And if, in spite of these and so many other real-world, day-to-day
mysteries, the nation’s media repeats over and over that the island is
some kind of oasis for justice, equality, security, educational
guarantees and healthcare, why do so many Cubans emigrate or want to
emigrate, especially the young and the skilled? This is another of
those many Cuban mysteries.
To help us decipher these conundrums that on first and second glance
seem incomprehensible, there is a verb that Cubans use daily—a verb
re-semanticized by popular wit—that offers an important clue:
resolver, or to resolve.
In Cuba, people resolve when they practice any of the many survival
strategies that allow them to buy a pair of shoes, pay for
transportation, find enough food so as not to go hungry, paint the
house (a gallon of paint costs about 10 CUCs, more than half the
average monthly salary) or pay for what’s probably the world’s most
expensive cellular phone service.
You resolve, for example, when you have a relative abroad who
frequently sends a few hundred dollars to the family “inside,” You
resolve when you steal resources from the State (from a chicken thigh
to a box of chicken thighs), or use an office with some authority to
sell favors or services (it can be exchanging housing or simply
obtaining needed documents without a wait). You resolve when you work
with tourists who tip, or when you work with an empresa mixta, a
Cuban- and foreign-owned business, in which the foreigners (taking on
the fiscal burden) pay their Cuban employees under the table in
addition to the salary the State gives them. The doctor who accepts
gifts from his patients also resolves or, even worse, the teacher who
takes what’s offered by parents interested in their children receiving
good grades. All these people are resolving something.
Of course, both the act and the need to resolve generate certain
social ills: different levels of access to goods and services
depending on which goods or services resolve the most; the corruption
of many public functionaries (so many that the Cuban leadership
recognizes that corruption is an enormous threat to the system’s
survival); disdain and indifference by those who can’t resolve or by
those who can resolve without the need to work or to make much of an
effort to do so.
To resolve, then, is indispensable to Cubans, but it’s also a social,
economic and ethical waste. And it will be until the day that the
workers mentioned above, in the first mystery, can live on their
salaries, as they should be able to in a socialist state with
healthcare, education and access to culture guaranteed to all—and
still buy a pair of shoes.
The great crisis of the ’90s—officially christened “The Special Period
in Times of Peace”—that followed the fall of East European socialism
and the disintegration of the Soviet Union (resulting in the loss of
the political allies who sustained the island’s economy) generated a
deep rupture at all levels of Cuban society: economic, social and
In 1993, one of the practices introduced to alleviate the crisis was
the creation of a double monetary system (Cuban pesos and American
dollars), a double economy and a double market. Until that time it had
been a crime to own dollars. Since then hard currency—first the U.S.
dollar and now also the CUC (these convertible pesos are pegged to the
dollar)—is used to price just about everything in the country: from
the aforementioned pair of shoes, cooking oil and paint to
transportation, fuel and even certain official transactions. In the
meantime, the costs of other services subsidized by the
State—electricity, phone, medicine, rationed food quotas—have
increased and their price in Cuban pesos are now out of reach of most
In the last three years, the new government in Havana under Raúl
Castro has tried to find solutions to these complex economic and
social problems. The public acknowledgment that “structural and
conceptual” changes to the system are necessary to guarantee its
survival was accompanied by specific economic and social policies
designed to stimulate certain means of production, service and even
morale. These include allowing Cubans to buy computer equipment and
cameras in stores that take CUC currency, to enter hotels on the
Island where previously only foreigners were allowed, to have cellular
phone service, and to rent empty State-owned stores that are now
largely overgrown with weeds. The new reforms also eliminate salary
caps and allow Cubans to have more than one job. There has been an
opening up on issues such as sexuality and the right to
sex-reassignment surgery, and a new flexibility on the canons that
govern artistic and cultural expression. Limits have been placed on
the privileges that certain government bureaucratic sectors and their
employees have enjoyed for decades. And moves are afoot to ensure
Cuba’s adherence to international protocols on civil and human rights.
All these are concrete moves to correct absurd and obsolete
restrictions, although as “structural and conceptual” reforms they’re
still too subtle given the need of our society and economy for more
dynamic and transformative changes.
The centralized economy, the poor efficiency in production, the high
cost of living (which must be measured in hard currency, and not the
Cuban pesos in which State wages are paid), the great housing shortage
(and the bad conditions of much existing housing), the limits on
social activity and personal development (like the official travel
permit needed to leave the Island; most Cubans would like to eliminate
it), and the visible increase in poverty and ghettoization are among
the daily burdens Cubans bear today.
Fifty years after the coming to power of the men who still determine
the destiny of the country, the reality of the situation is not
totally satisfactory to a population that is as literate and cultured
as any in this hemisphere, but tired from decades of material
scarcities. The better future that was promised and dreamed of, the
future that would come after so many sacrifices, continues to be
postponed. Instead, there’s always talk about new and more sacrifices.
What real future awaits us? That is another mystery, another enigmatic
question to which so few of us have an answer.
Leonardo Padura, Cuba's best-known novelist, is the three-time
recipient of the Dashiell Hammett Award given by the International
Association of Detective Writers. His books that have been translated
into English include Havana Red, Havana Gold, Havana Blue, Havana
Black and Adios Hemmingway. He lives in Havana and can be reached via
Achy Obejas, at email@example.com