Cuba’s “Revolutionary Socialism” works great for the very few at the top. Of this you can be sure. The big bosses, including the “supreme” boss himself, live the good life; plenty of gourmet food, servants, great wine, fine lodgings (with back up generators for the frequent electrical outages), air-conditioned rooms and cars, unfettered access to the world through the internet, international travel with dining, accommodations and entertainment in the world’s finest hotels, new clothes, maid and laundry service, being fawned over and pampered by all those whom you meet � they could hardly have it better, these “gran jefes.”
The other Cubanos, the one’s I met and befriended, struggle most days just to keep body and soul together.
Oh, I know, many argue that compared to much of Latin America, average Cubans have it good. And there is some truth to their arguments. Anyone who has witnessed life in the cardboard and tin roof shanty’s on the outskirts of Mexico City or Guatemala City knows true, abject, grinding poverty. “There are no people living in the streets of Cuba” is a well-known phrase of those defending Cuba’s present social/economic/political system. And they are right. Also, one cannot dispute that socialized medicine has been beneficial to the overall health of average Cubans, except when there are no medicines, which happens often. With such high numbers in the state sponsored medical schools, Cuba churns out thousands and thousands of new doctors annually. Castro is now in the business of exporting this cadre of excellent health care workers all around the Latin world and Caribbean. No one can dispute that this is a strong propaganda tool that also does a lot of good for the poor in these countries.
And then, of course, there is the oft-repeated argument that Cuba’s free schooling, including college, is exemplary for all of its benefits to the population. Cuba is now filled with one of the most literate and best-educated populations in all of Latin America, to be sure.
Except, the same system that gave them their education now offers them little or no opportunity to reap the rewards of their hard work. The system itself, with its heavy handed controls and restrictions, has become a millstone around their necks for any chance at improving their standard of living.
Imagine being a neurosurgeon or a top civil engineer or a Ph.D. biochemist and taking home a monthly paycheck ($25 US) that is less than a tenth of what chambermaids and bartenders can earn with their tips at the local tourist hotel. Imagine, in this same tourist hotel, being a manager of the retail store, responsible for tens of thousands of dollars monthly income, all going to the state, and getting your monthly paycheck for $32. Imagine a system where the government owns and jealously guards almost every single asset for economic activity � all the way down to the skinny rental horses on the beach. Imagine a system with a stack of regulations and prohibitions on individual endeavor that would stretch for a mile and impose severe penalties on anyone engaging in “unpermitted” enterprise. Imagine a swollen and bloated bureaucracy, endlessly shuffling reams of inconsequential paperwork, to hardly be able to deliver even the most basic necessities of existence. Imagine store shelves perpetually looking like those in the aftermath of a hurricane rush to stock up. Imagine a rationing system that counts every precious calorie as if it were gold because of the perpetual shortages, and your monthly salary covers only the costs of oil and flour. Imagine walking down barren streets; block after block, with no shops or stands, no hustle and bustle of commerce. Imagine a crazy mishmash of laws and taxes on commerce that change constantly and are known for their basic unfairness. In all of this, you imagine Cuba today.
What such a system spawns, of course, as it did in the Soviet Union, is an active and burgeoning underground black market in goods and services. Today in Cuba petty thievery, slight-of-hand, double-dealing and secret enterprises have risen to an art form as individuals do what individuals will do in such a system � whatever it takes to make ends meet and keep food on the table. What’s not available in the rationing stores may well be available out back, if you have dollars instead of Cuban pesos. A Cuban with dollars is a king and enough money will usually find whatever you need. Bartering of pilfered goods is common and widespread. Even large institutions like hospitals have to play the game—trading a truck full of toilet paper for necessary medical supplies “outside channels.”
The other side of this faux economic coin is, as always, a police state of constant vigilance. Hard eyed, stony-faced men and women are constantly around, dressed in civilian clothes but escaping the attention of none. Paranoia and fear reign supreme in a system that has devolved to a black market economy. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who has been busted, heavily fined or is being “surveiled.” Neighbors are encouraged to spy and report on neighbors who deviate from the correct path. It is a constant game of cat and mouse between those who would try and enforce conformity to this perverse, largely failed economic system, and those who would be self-enterprising for the purpose of survival.
Then there is the reality of the pay-offs and under-the-table dealings. Large-scale black market entrepreneurs have to have protection and collaboration from authorities to “look the other way.” Even Raul Castro and his security apparatus, which rivals the best the KGB or SS ever had, cannot entirely eliminate this complicity. Almost everyone in Cuba, in the end, plays the game.
The worst of it perhaps is the dispiriting and discouraging effect such a system has on the human mind and heart. Locked into a system that seems hopeless for any real opportunity at advancement, without the normal choices offered in an open economy, Cubanos simply try and endure while maintaining some optimism for a better day. “Las problemas,” which all but those at the very top recognize and admit to are many and manifold in Cuba’s extreme socialist economy. These problems are perpetually lamented and made fun of as a way of coping—while average Cubans struggle through their days, just hoping for a decent meal on the supper table that night, and perhaps some relief from the oppressive heat and humidity during the frequent black outs.
The islanders have become genius at improvisation; they’ve had to. Their vintage 50’s cars are amazing contraptions of American/Russian in-breeding. They secretly carry out their small enterprises while trying to avoid the heavy hand of fines and imprisonment that hangs perpetually over their necks.
“That which is not permitted,” a list that would stretch from Havana to Miami, stays uppermost on their mind as they try and make it through yet another day, enduring. As testament to their greatness as a people and internationally recognized for their sincere warmth and friendliness, they still manage to enjoy the simple pleasures in life; a sentimental love song, a torrid dance rhythm, a game of checkers and a good belly laugh at the many vagaries of their existence � enduring, until the day when things are better.
John R. Bomar