Cuba and the Curse of the Substitute

The government slogan: Full speed ahead! Photo: El Toque

By Anonymous (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – My friend from Holguin has literally worn out the soles of her shoes looking for someone to fix her rice cooker. She tells me that there used to be an older gentleman in the neighborhood who did it well and didn’t charge much, but he passed away a few months ago. Another young man who showed great promise left the country. Those who remain are in distant neighborhoods, charge exorbitant prices, or don’t know how, or don’t have the necessary parts. Conclusion: disaster in the kitchen.

A veteran professor from Pinar del Río complains that he can’t find a mason to repair his bathroom. The one who built it a decade ago —a true artist of design and tiling— left “to see the volcanoes” (to head north via Nicaragua). Others who have done work in the house, are also gone; and sadly, the least capable ones have stayed in the neighborhood. It’s more work for me to correct what they do than to do it myself, even though I don’t have the necessary tools, laments the teacher.

In Havana, another friend narrates, the optometrist who used to measure her vision from time to time and was lovely in dealing with patients, left the position and took on a lesser assistant role in a small private business. It has nothing to do with his previous profession, but he earns more, and his family fills their plate better. They’ve put a newly graduated girl in the hospital who tries hard, but she just can’t get it right, the patients get upset, she gets upset… everyone loses, recounts the needy one. Conclusion: delay, anguish, and more darkness to see the dramatic face of day-to-day life on the island.

Any of us, in every province or municipality of Cuba, could expand on what my friends tell with other stories, which surely led to similar headaches. The hard data reinforces the anecdotes. According to the most recent Statistical Yearbook of the National Office of Statistics and Information published in 2023, from 2021 to 2022, the country lost more than 31,000 Health professionals, which obviously results in fewer consultations, worse care, longer waits. In the document, in the section regarding Education, it is observed that in higher education, the number of teaching staff in front of the classroom decreased by more than 1,300 people from one year to the next. Similarly, the enrollment in this level of education decreased.

The vacant positions are often filled by a “substitute,” to use the almost humorous phrase that the Ministry of Internal Trade stamped on the coffee packets “Hello” during a certain period, “Mixed with a 50 percent substitute.” Whatever they put in there —presumably peas— that wasn’t coffee, it wasn’t ideal or natural, and ultimately, it resulted in something worse.

Obviously, the “substitute” is not the villain of the movie; in any case, it would be a kind of hero who, sometimes without being qualified for a position or responsibility, assumes it with courage, discipline, or resignation; or an indescribable mixture of all of them; and tries to do it the best they can. But there are things that cannot mature with instant chemicals, as they require a process. The “due process,” borrowing the term from jurists.

Thus, in an academic discipline, one does not magically transition from a bachelor’s degree to a doctorate or from an instructor to a full professor. Nor can a newly graduated PhD in a medical center assume with good results the task that would correspond to a specialist. There is even the case in which the staff of institutions consists of very elderly veterans —who cannot handle excessive workloads— and newly incorporated rookies who also cannot and should not, even if they are forced to “assume” it. The mature professionals, of middle age, who combined the necessary youth with instructive experience, simply disappeared. They went to other jobs, to other countries, or to the “struggle” of illegal hustling. They vanished. In their place, many times, a substitute.

On the other hand, it would also be necessary to see what the suitable ones could do (those who left, got tired, became obstinate, or died) in a country and living and working conditions more impoverished, with a crisis that becomes almost eternal after 34 years of a disastrous economy. Perhaps, even those that have  the intellectual conditions to be successful and provide the best services, would deviate towards shoddiness, mistreatment, or rampant inefficiency. The human being thinks and acts as he lives, except for the exceptions of the extraordinary; those “animals of the galaxy.”

The real, the very painful thing, is that the substitute country, little by little —without an immediate solution in sight— is replacing the country that should be; which, logically, does not seem to lead to anything edifying. When we can change the substitute rulers —who are indeed accomplished dictators— for the real ones, those who do and think, in minimal democracy and justice, under the rules agreed upon by the sovereign, perhaps the mess will begin to be rectified. But apparently, we have many bitter sips of “Hola” left, an infamous concoction masquerading for coffee that, to top it off, lost even the label stamp on its plastic bags.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.