Cuba in the Name of Deception

By Maykel Paneque

In one of the UMAP labor camps.
In one of the UMAP labor camps.

HAVANA TIMES —I don’t recall when I began to distrust the Cuban government. It may have been a Saturday near the end of the 90s, during a hot month like August, when I first heard about a series of forced labor camps that existed in Cuba, known as the UMAP.

At that age, misinformed by the press here (or lack thereof), I had believed those infernos had existed only in Nazi Germany or Stalin’s Russia, that they were unthinkable on an island that had undertaken a socialist revolution to dignify the people.

I do however recall when I lost all confidence in and respect for the policies traced by the government. After a long wait, some ten years ago, this government finally raised worker salaries. I can still recall the faces of many, satisfied they’d be earning 20 or 30 extra pesos, as if it was yesterday – as though such a raise represented any significant change in their real purchasing power.

The following month, some subsidized products offered through the ration booklet would go up in price. When you think about it, the raise was actually a way of leaving the salary as it was, as those 20 or 30 pesos had to be spent in products that cost less before. It was a master move by the Cuban government, if you wish, but it is nonetheless deceitful.

The 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party.
The 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party.

Now, after Obama’s visit, those who took part in the 7th Congress of the Cuban Communist Party say they discovered that Cubans need salaries that afford them purchasing power. How many decades did we have to wait for this realization? What money did the previous Congress participants and the Cuban government think workers had to buy things with? Have these “deep-thinking” leaders only now come to the realization that wages aren’t enough (and haven’t been so for nearly 30 years) even to buy rice and beans for a month? How do they think we average Cubans have managed to get by for so long, if not through corruption and the “crime” of roughing it to put food on the table?

One of the agreements reached during the 7th Congress was lowering the price of some products by 20%. So that we have a true sense of the magnitude of this “benefit,” suffice it to note that a 10 kg box of chicken cuts costs 17 Cuban Convertible Pesos, the equivalent of 425 Cuban pesos, a sum well above the full monthly wages of 90% of workers (which is around 365 pesos). If that worker wanted to eat chicken the entire month, he would not have enough to buy it with, not to mention the fact that he’d have to eat that chicken raw and without any kind of seasoning.

A box of 15 kilos of chicken for 600 pesos.
A box of 15 kilos of chicken for 600 pesos.

It’s hard to persuade a country’s citizens with hypocrisy, speeches that are out of touch with reality and hackneyed slogans. Saying that the revolution continues is one thing, defending it with conviction and faith is quite another. Disingenuousness and double standards have doubled Cuba’s population from 12 to 24 million, as can be easily demonstrated any May 1st.

I recall a saying that captures our ability to adapt to a country where the government believes it is smarter than the average fellow: “the State pretends to pay us and we pretend to work.” It’s hard to believe this popular saying, which I’ve been hearing for centuries, never reached the ears of those “chosen” to take part in the Party Congress and the country’s leaders. To believe that the Cuban people live in a bubble, as they did in the 80s, is to be far too naïve. Pretending and being loyal are two very different things.

I’ve forgotten when I came to suspect that living is more than having the guarantee of an education and free healthcare. “It’s free education and medical attention that they will charge you for life, offering you a salary that won’t buy enough food for the month,” a friend of mine said to me yesterday. She’s quite right. Living is fulfilling one’s dreams and leaving the world a better place than we found it. Living is more than breathing. It is also believing in the future of a country, not leaving it. Living should never be associated to monotony, disenchantment and frustration.

Cuban doctors in Venezuela. Photo: Caridad
Cuban doctors in Venezuela. Photo: Caridad

Like so many other Cubans (myself included), my friend went to work in Venezuela. She is very upset and unhappy, and with good reason. It’s been a year and a half and she still hasn’t been paid for November and December of 2015. In Venezuela, our superiors told us the money had already been deposited by the Oro Negro Foundation, that we’d find it in our accounts when we got back.

The new version of events they’re peddling now is that the Venezuelan government did not deposit the money and that our own government, in an act of “altruism” (as though our wages were a gift) would take care of it, though we don’t know when that could be. My friend dreams of the day when they’ll announce the payment. I would love to see that day, but I’ve lost faith. “It’s not enough the government scams us, it even gets offended when you remind it of this. But I still have hope,” my friend says.

Part of life is not losing hope, and also breaking the silence about injustice and cheating. It’s true many get away with murder, and this includes the Cuban government. Some of us are irritated by its unreliability and the long terms it announces such that its lies can one day become truth. I tell my friend she should not lose hope, as scams also have a lifespan, as do the villains who hide behind them. The lot of many of us is to stick around to express repugnance and deception. That doesn’t make us heroes, of course, only citizens.

34 thoughts on “Cuba in the Name of Deception

  • When will the Cuban people realise that enough is enough and banish the Castro clan from Cuba? The Castro clan took Cuba by revolution, so it might take another revolution to remove them? It does not need to be a military revolution, more a peoples for Cuban freedom type of revolution?

  • To you and I Gordon, shortage of lumber and of wood for doors and furniture in a country of which two thirds at least is tree covered is ridiculous. Look at the Province of Mantanzas or Sancti Spiritus. I hasten to add that I am not suggesting chopping down the beautiful trees in the National Parks – I have a lovely memory of looking at a large mahogany tree in full glorious blossom in the Alexander Humboldt National Park – with feral hogs descended from pigs imported centuries ago, rooting around its roots. but there are millions of acres tree covered and those could be commercialized accompanied by a tree planting scheme such as the one in your own home province of BC.
    The problem reflects folks not being encouraged or allowed to use their own initiative to develop businesses for the purpose. It is time Gordon for actual change to be permitted rather than the talk, talk, talk demonstrated at the 7th Congress. Time for Marino Murillo to get off his expanding rear end get out there and address the huge economic potential rather than endless talk about
    the merits of socialism. This isn’t about political nonsense, its about providing a better future for the people of Cuba and opportunity for their children.

  • Correct about the houses. I would have built of lumber but none was available.

  • Well Gordon, you must have an ‘In’ with someone. I know of an application to build a 640 sq. ft. two bedroom house with architectural plans, site and finance in place. Application made to the municipality in November and by December over a year later, the municipality had still not got around to considering it. The obvious answer is that nobody cares. I think your houses must have had plain concrete floors and corrugated sheeting as roofs, because if you had put in tiled floors, tiled the bathroom and kitchen, and poured a concrete roof your costs would have been higher. Yes, metal slats are cheap, but wooden doors (if you can find them) are fairly pricey. My own view is that total construction costs for 640 sq. ft. (I am taking 32′ x 20′) are closer to $10,000 US plus site. Remember that the average Cuban receives only just over $20 per month.
    Regarding manufacturing plants, Vietnam has adopted capitalism following the Chinese model. Cuba has not. Of course it ought to be possible for foreign companies to construct and operate manufacturing plants in Cuba, where there are one of the lowest rates of pay in the world. But the regime necessitates companies paying them much higher sums and it then gives the workers a pittance. Surely you know the reality of that. There is a world full of opportunities out there in which Cuba and Cubans could share if only the regime was to adapt to living in the 21s century rather than lurking in the 19th.
    I want to see a better life for the people of Cuba with improved living standards and opportunity to utilize their talents and abilities, rather than the iron grip of an outdated dictatorship operated by octogenarians. How about you?

  • They lost when helping Asad invade Israel, but then that is why there is no annual memorial day even mention, for the Cubans who died.

  • I think you ought to recognize the endeavors of Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968 to throw off the yoke of USSR communism and don’t you think that Poland led by Lech Walesa’s ‘Solidarity’ merits recognition? There was no foreign intervention in Eastern Europe when thirteen countries (including Romania) were freed.
    Although most Cubans have never known freedom and the non-acceptable word of democracy, they look at the horizon and think that the flavour of their saliva has changed. Then there are those who have traveled to free countries and returned home to tell their friends and family about the flavour of freedom.
    A difficulty is that freedom is like a nice fresh mango straight off the tree, once tasted, never forgotten.

  • My Cuban family and I have built numerous houses in rural Cuba – average cost material / labour $ 5,000.00. The US lost the Vietnam war but many US companies have plants in Vietnam ?

  • “… By your reasoning, as there are many places in the world where being poor is much worse that in the US, we should accept and abet the system that creates them here. I don not think so, whether it is USA or Cuba…”

    Now you’re simply trying to put words in my mouth. Lame.

  • I was born and lived in Cuba for 48 years, and I know what it means to lower your voince inside your house when talking something politically dangerous, and I know what it is to have to go to a CDR meeting to listen to someone reading a whole Castro speech when you are not in the least interested. When I say terror, it is the putting it mildly. It is a fear that is inside you so much you make it a second nature and almost do not notice. It is such fear that quite a few Cubans arriving into the US, do not dare to shout , down to Castro! for a good time after they have been living abroad. It is true that it has changed recently and the whole system is un-raveling but the fear remains. Its what explain thousands of people marching on May 1st in Revolution Square. That is not a show of support but of control.

    By your reasoning, as there are many places in the world where being poor is much worse that in the US, we should accept and abet the system that creates them here. I don not think so, whether it is USA or Cuba.

  • I’m agreeing with almost everything you say, I just think you’re vastly exaggerating some aspects. Most of the Cubans I know aren’t in a “permanent state of terror,” that’s pure hyperbole.

    Yes, life sucks for many and the government leadership is pure crap and most of Cuba’s foreign supporters – several of whom post endless naive accolades on this forum – have their rose coloured glasses glued to their faces and most wouldn’t last a month living like one of the real Cubans they imagine they’re comrades with.

    But let’s not too crazy with the blanket condemnations. There are many, many MANY places in the world where is FAR worse to be poor than in Cuba.

  • International companies like to sell their products world wide. There are few car companies that would not like to have a franchise in Cuba and remember that Hyundai did so. The name of the franchise was Todmakian one of your fellow Canadians, but he got jailed for fourteen years and the state confiscated his business and took over. But when a seven year old Peugeot costs $85,000, how much is a decent sized Caterpillar bulldozer going to cost – and who apart from the state and GAESA subsidiaries (ie; the military) is going to be able to afford one?

  • Sorry, they do care, they do not like what is going on, but most cannot understand the causes very well and, over all, they are afraid. Under a totalitarian regime, people live in a permanent state of terror, feeling they are always watched. Just talking about democracy is like saying a four letter word, and many are afraid of it. The only solution most people see is to try to solve their personal problems because the system is impossible to change. Same as most people in concentration camps. See how Cubans change dramatically as soon as they reach Ecuador, Panama, Costa Rica or NIcaragua, and protest and demand.

  • Well, just remember, the odds are always in the house favor. Meaning that in the near term you’re likely to lose your money!

  • The economy of a country depends upon its production. So when is the Castro regime going to address that reality and start to produce rather than pursuing communist policies which continuously drive production down.
    Houses in Siboney (Where Fidel has his compound) have been sold for $400,000 but the average ‘wage’ is only $20.68 per month. So what odds are you being offered on Cuba?

  • This constant harping on about the US does get boring. Those of us who live in other countries are subjected continuously by US contributors bitching on about their country. That is a problem for them to address there – the rest of us don’t want to know and refrain from making such comparisons.

  • If Canada was not able to sell oil – natural gas – forest products – autos /light trucks – minerals – electrical power to the USA – where would Canada be today ?
    Today the average price of a house in Vancouver is $ !.5 million but the average wage is only $ 43,000.00.
    I am betting on Cuba.

  • “… Besides, after half a century, more than 70% of the population has never knew anything but this system and does not even know what freedom and democracy tastes like…”

    Which is exactly my point. Almost zero direct confrontation. They still gladly get herded onto buses like sheep to be trotted out at whatever this week’s pro-Cuba demonstration is. Most would never consider simply staying at home instead.

    They complain, but in their hearts most don’t care.

  • Do you mean that what the author of the article says is not true? If so, Do you have any additional information to back up your claim?

  • If you read some history, practically no totalitarian regime has been toppled by its own citizens. They always fall through foreign intervention or through changes introduced from the top of the regime. One exception was Romania, although it most be said it happened after the USSR had removed their troops from the Eastern Europe and these countries had started their transitions. Cuba is not an exception to this rule, and it is unfair to compare it with the afro-american population living in a country where they are legally allowed to openly organize, protest and create their own social and political movements.

    Besides, after half a century, more than 70% of the population has never knew anything but this system and does not even know what freedom and democracy tastes like.

  • So let me get this straight: You are defending the horrible state of affairs in Cuba caused by the Castro dictatorship by highlighting the institutional racism in law enforcement in the US? WTF? Both are disgusting. And no thank you, I am quite happy in my pre-earthquake brownstone here in San Francisco.

  • This is a typical example of the lies, distortions and incitements that has been pumped into Cuba for decades, hoping it will create an uprising.

    In 1981 I landed in a Miami engulfed in flames, under siege and occupied by 3500 National Guards armed to their teeth with M-16, armored vehicles and helcopters. By the end of days of rioting, 100 Million dollars was lost, 14 dead and close to 400 people was wounded.

    The motive for this carnage was the brutal killing of businessman and Viet Nam veteran Arthur Mc Duffie, who was brutally murdered by 4 white police officers, who busted his skull and turned his brain into a pulp with their flashlight and as is usually the case, they were acquitted by an all-white jury.

    Since, the massive and relentless murders of blacks with impunity in the US has worsened with no end in sight. Amadou Diallo, Tamil Rice, Freddy Gray, Michael Moore, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, Oscar Grant and others to reach the frightening statistic of a Black Male murdered every 28 hours.
    Maybe Moses would feel safer living in Flint, Miami Gardens, Oakland or Jacksonville than anywhere in Cuba.

  • Cubans didn’t “tell the US to go to Hell”. The Castros did. The Cuban people were forced to go along with the plan.

  • Ouch!

  • “Athletic young police officers”? Are you being sarcastic? Cubans complain ALL THE TIME. Again, are you being sarcastic or are you talking about a different Cuba?

  • Never did I consider that before. But it is true, no way American black folks would put up with it. Castro better pray activism from the American social justice community does not cross over.

  • With respect Gordon, how are you able to promise that ‘Things will get better” when the Castro family regime have been unable after fifty seven long dreary years to make things better? The all too evident truth is that as long as ‘socialismo’ controls Cuba things will not get better. The much extolled concept of ‘Los Ideas’ emanating from the fertile depths of octogenarian minds is really an insult to Cubans who have suffered similar propaganda blarney for so many years that they recognise the falsehoods.
    It’s long past the time when the octogenarians should have retired gracefully. The difficulty I guess is that they remember Huber Matos endeavoring to do so and who following the trial personally conducted by a vindictive Fidel Castro, was jailed for twenty years. So they continue to visit the few remaining but deteriorating sugar factories as national production declines. Yes, as the mess deteriorates it leaves more opportunity for things to get better, but until the Castro family regime and the Communist Party of Cuba step aside, things will continue to get worse not better.

  • Nothing in your post has anything whatsoever to do with Cubans questioning the authority that rules them. The vast majority of them don’t, period.

    Their actions in war or against the US is a meaningless red herring argument.

  • “And, they’re lazy about direct confrontation. They only get tough when someone’s back is turned – or there’s a chica to impress.”
    If you are calling Cuban cowards, then you are an ignorant and you should read more. There are not many countries that tell the US to go to hell, plus many wars undercover and open where Cuban soldiers fought bravely and won.

  • No it wasn’t. But as Augustus once said of Rome, “I found it made of brick, but left it of marble.” ….In less than time than the Castro’s have been in power..

  • Have you ever tried to complain in Cuba? It is hard to complain when your neighbors, friends and even family have done something, even given their lives for the system you are about to complain. It is like a brain freeze, complain or not complain, then you have those athletic young police officers, ready to beat you up, because they are not even from the state they are deployed in and they have no ties to the local community and you have no weapons. Think about or just go there and try. Also, the government doesn’t kill protesters, so the anger, never reaches a boiling point.

  • Things will get better and remember ” Rome was not built in a day ”

  • “… When will a tipping point be reached, if ever…”

    I believe that no matter how bad it is they know they still have it
    better than some of their truly poor neighbours in the Caribbean,
    Mexico, Central and South America.

    And, they’re lazy about direct confrontation. They only get tough when someone’s back is turned – or there’s a chica to impress.

  • Cubans love to complain. Even after having lived there, I still don’t understand why Cubans do nothing more than just complain. Black folks in the US would have long ago taken to the streets. The recent riots in Ferguson, MS and Baltimore, MD are just two examples. The Castros continue to maintain their foot on Cuban necks. When will a tipping point be reached, if ever.

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