The large clap of thunder sounded and then the torrential downpour began. It was a typical afternoon in Cuba in August – rain arrived almost at exactly 4pm each day and on this particular day we happened to be caught in it.
I spotted a Cuban tour agency and grabbed Dave’s elbow. We’d been meaning to book a horse riding jaunt into the mountains and the rain was the perfect excuse to shelter in the agency for awhile.
Jumping over the puddles we made our way in to the immaculate but sparse agency. Behind the wooden desk, on which sat a notebook and a phone, was a smiling woman in her early 50s who introduced herself as Maria*.
Meeting a local
After we’d sorted out our horse tour (which I later returned to cancel), we got to talking as we waited out the rain. Maria told us her son was about to join the Cuban navy, which would mean she’d have to give up her job. “You’re not allowed to have anyone working in a government job if you have someone in your family who works for the military,” she says.
I ask her what she’ll do instead.
“I’ve been doing up my house for awhile and it’s thankfully nearly ready. Then I’m going to have guests.”
“Is it a Casa Particular similar to the one we’re staying in?” I ask.
“It’s like that, but for locals instead of foreign tourists.” She then goes on to explain the hassle she’s had in getting her house ready. Her renovations have taken her nearly 10 years because what was meant to be a small job ended up being an enormous one after more and more problems with her old house were discovered. And on her measly
$350 a month $20 a month government salary, she had to keep saving up before each new job was carried out. (My friend said I got my original $350 a month wrong, and indeed, when I researched it I realised I had misunderstood Maria – she was speaking in pesos, not CUCs. $5 a week is shockingly little to live off!)
“But finally it’s about ready,” she says with a sigh.
“Wow, what a lot of bother,” I acknowledge.
Changes in Cuba
“At least I can sell it if I want to now. Two years ago, us Cubans weren’t even allowed to sell our houses.”
She pauses and I grasp the opportunity to ask, “but if no one was allowed to sell a house then how did anyone ever get a house?”
“We inherited them from our parents. So they stay in the family. Or you could buy land from the government, but they’d only sell it to you once you had half the building materials ready to go.”
“Where the hell would you store the materials if you didn’t have the land?” asks Dave.
“Yeah, it’s hard. But us Cubans have our way. Whatever we can’t take with a left hand, we figure a way to do it with our right…” Maria twirls her right hand in the air, open palmed. She puts it bluntly, “There were a lot of under the table deals.”
She quickly moves her hands back to her lap. “Myself, I inherited my house from my mother.”
Living with your in-laws… forever
I think of the Casa Particular we’re staying in in central Trinidad which is run by a husband, wife and their son, who must be around Dave’s age, and a woman whom I’m assuming to be the son’s wife. It makes sense now – why they were all living together. I have visions of Dave and I moving in with either mine or his family until the end of their days and shudder. I love my family but that’s a little too close quarters for me.
Not that Cubans have many options – moving in with the in-laws is a way of life; they don’t know much different.
Wages in Cuba
For Maria, she’s one of the luckier locals on $350 a month. The minimum wage is $200. I wonder how the Cubans survive on just $50 a week. Where do they even get their food from? There’s no such thing as a supermarket, only small stores with wooden shelves displaying odd bits and pieces like crackers, juice and packets of pasta. The prices are similar to those in the US.
Every store has a wall of booze though, and another stacked with cigarettes. These items seem to carry hardly any tax – you can get a bottle of rum for $3 and cigarettes for $2. The government might not be too interested in helping its people eat but it’s not worried about getting them wasted or giving them lung cancer.
Money in Cuba
There are two currencies in Cuba which can be a little confusing for a visitor. There’s the CUC – which is the hard currency that tourists use and is worth the same as the US dollar. Then there’s the Cuban peso, which is worth 4c of the US dollar. Ten years ago, the government banned the US dollar from being present throughout the country, as a large black market had started up in this currency. Any locals found with US dollars on them would be sent to jail. As a result of this black market though, the Cuban peso fell, and so the government created a second economy just for tourist dealings – CUCs.
The government still pays its people in Cuban pesos, but of course many locals would rather CUCs and try and make money in this currency wherever possible.
I ask Maria how she feels about their wages. “We survive. We really rely on tourists’ tips. They help us through the month.” It makes sense, as all tips are CUCs and therefore much more valuable than the Cuban peso.”
Owning your own business in Cuba
“At least people can own their own businesses now too,” Maria adds.
I raise an eyebrow. “Now?”
“Yeah. A few years ago we couldn’t even do that. Absolutely everything was government run. These days you can run your own Casa Particular or drive your own car as a taxi, and make money from that. Of course, you have to pay quite a lot of tax but at least the rest of the money is yours. Many families are doing better because of this now.”
“That’s really great,” I smile softly.
“But that doesn’t mean we’re getting rich,” Maria laughs a little and shakes her head. “All us Cubans want is clothes to wear, food to eat and a table to eat it on. We’re hardly getting rich.”
I ask her if she’s much happier with the government though, now that Raoul is in power after his brother fell ill. From what Maria’s told me, Raoul is evidently making changes.
“We miss him. The other one. He’s not like him,” Maria taps her head, signifying that Raoul is not as smart as his brother. Then she looks over my shoulder, eyes widening. “I don’t want to say names.”
Surveillance in Cuba
Suddenly I have an awful fear that the room might be bugged. We were sitting in a government building after all, and Maria had all at once become nervous. A chill ran down my spine. I bite my lip softly. I don’t want to get anyone in trouble with my endless questions.
A moment passes and in the silence I can hear the rain pouring down outside.
Maria seems to calm. She looks at me again. “Some people want things to change. But I watch the news. Places elsewhere are unsafe. I’ve known some Cubans who’ve gone to Venezuela – engineers and doctors are allowed to travel there sometimes – and stories have come back of them getting robbed.”
“And you’ve seen how safe Cuba is. You can walk around at night and you don’t have anything to worry about. It’s very safe. I don’t want anything to change; I like the system,” she continues. “Why would you want the system to change? It works.”
The future for Cubans
A million thoughts run through my mind – that Cuba’s media is tightly controlled and that there’s no internet access so what the locals learn about the outside world is not really the whole truth. That a system is hardly working when there’s people rummaging in dumpsters looking for food and there’s so much bureaucracy that you can’t even easily own property or run a small business. I long to tell her that it’s very safe in lots of other countries run by democratic governments but my tongue is in knots. I don’t want to upset her; and perhaps she already knows this anyway and is just saying her spiel for safety. It’s hard to tell.
Following up on her speaking about people she’s known to go to Venezuela, I ask her how easy it is for them to travel. “Can you get a passport?”
“Oh yes. We can, but it’s very expensive for us to get visas.”
Of course, when you’re earning $200 or $350 a month then you’ve hardly got enough left over for airfares or visas.
Travel for Cubans is almost non-existent
“I guess we can travel to places where we don’t need visas,” Maria adds.
“Russia…” Maria pauses and thinks. “I’m not really sure where else. But you have to understand too that we’re frightened of flying! None of us have ever really done it and to get on a plane and to go somewhere that does’t speak our language… well it’s very scary.”
It’s a fear that Maria probably won’t ever have to worry about though. Sadly, in this tiny country island of just 11 million people, very few will ever get the chance to leave, unless relatives outside of Cuba can afford to fly them off the island. And that’s if they can manage to get a visa – many countries like France and Australia aren’t keen to accept Cubans, even for a holiday.
I change the topic. “But what about the healthcare? It’s free, isn’t it?”
“Yes, we don’t have to pay for the doctor. We have to pay for medicine, but it’s very cheap.”
I nod. I know Cuba has a hard time getting many medicines thanks to the US embargo. I want to keep the conversation light but I can feel it’s getting strained. As the rain peters out, I think it’s time to leave.
“Thanks so much for all your help. And your interesting conversation,” I say as Dave and I get up to go.
“Thank you!” Maria smiles her warm grin. “I was absolutely dying of boredom before you two came along.” Of course, Maria doesn’t have Facebook to browse or an iPad to keep her occupied. There’s no computer in sight. She could read a book but then again, the socialist and heavily censored literature found throughout the island is hardly riveting reading.
*Names have been changed to protect identities