Cuba: The Time That Flies

Warhol P

Heroes. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — While reading an international magazine, I came across a quote by Confucius that caught my attention: “In a country well governed, poverty is something to be ashamed of. In a country badly governed, wealth is something to be ashamed of.”

I spent the better part of the night awake, thinking of these words. I couldn’t fall asleep. I think that, had I had a gun within reach, I might have put a bullet in my brain to free myself of the many contradictory thoughts going through my head. Instead, I took an antihistamine (which always helps me sleep).

I am not a suicidal person, mind you. The way I see it, if I didn’t commit suicide in the 90s, why would I do it now? I am the kind of person who thinks human beings ought to keep moving forward, no matter what the obstacles. Isn’t that what we Cubans do these days anyway, take it without saying a word, hold our breath, even though the rope shows no signs of breaking?

One of the things that crossed my mind is that I was born here, that this is the country I was dealt. Even though I love my country, I realize that the clock is ticking. I suppose many feel the same way. I’ve already turned forty and can jot down an inventory of the things that have happened in my life.

I’ve had five dogs that have died. Now, I have a small cat who will also die someday, a cat that was born in this country. My dogs were also Cuban. I feel that the cat has been rather fortunate, as he is a black cat and they say there is no racism in Cuba.

None of my pets ever had a good diet. If we humans born in this land graced by the revolution (by de-evolution, to be more precise) don’t get to see much of that, you can imagine that animals have to content themselves with whatever is thrown their way (to make my point clearer, suffice it to note that my kitten does not yet know what a fish bone is).

My father also passed away. His name was Juan Armando Perea Hernandez. He was a revolutionary. His remains rest in the vault for revolutionary combatants in Havana’s Colon Cemetry. I suppose that’s a great honor. However, my father died without heroism, stripped of possessions, in absolute poverty, devoid even of a TV to watch the news on or a refrigerator to make popsicles in.

He died of cancer. While dying at home, none of these so-called “revolutionary combatants” ever came to see him and ask him if he needed anything.

Photo: Juan Suarez
Cafeteria. Photo: Juan Suarez

I still preserve some of his medals as a keepsake. They’re worthless – I can’t even grind them up and make a soup out of them or add them to a plate of stew. Incidentally, a pound of red beans costs 15 pesos at the market these days. All food products, no matter how bad the quality, are being sold at ludicrous prices.

I don’t want to dwell on our hardships. I’ve written about them elsewhere and I hate being repetitive.

Repeating the same, tired phrases and disguising the old as new is what those in government do. In these past fifty and some years, they have used long speeches with subtle twists of rhetoric to manipulate citizens, who only know the same hardships year after year.

They clean their hands of the whole affair giving people honorary diplomas and medals, as though people could live off that.

One thing is clear: we are poor and we have food shortages. I don’t understand the reasons for this well. We are a small country surrounded by water. Despite this, the only fish that thrives here and is sold to the population is the claria. You put one of these in a nursery and, within two months, you have hundreds of fish. They even crawl out of the water and eat chickens on land.

If you catch a bus to travel to any province in the country, you immediately realize there are thousands of hectares of idle land, where you can grow food or construct buildings or houses for the many people in need of these.

Those who read this article will probably say there are not enough resources for that or that the government doesn’t have the money to pay for the manpower. Many people, as we know, don’t want to work in the countryside or in the construction industry because salaries are infinitesimal.

Before, we lived off the Russians. Today, we have to wait for Venezuela or China to help us. Are we always going to depend on others? The way things are going – and I hope I’m wrong – we will continue to be poor, because nothing works properly here. A lot of time has passed, and time has the last word.

Nonardo Perea

Nonardo Perea: I see myself as an observant person and I like to write with sincerity what I think and live first hand. I’m shy and of few words; thus it’s difficult for me to engage in conversation. For that reason, my best tool for communicating is writing. I live in Marianao, Havana and am 40 years old.

14 thoughts on “Cuba: The Time That Flies

  • Portabales popularized the guajira genre, but he sometimes sanitized the lyrics in the name of political correctness. For instance, in the linked video he doens’t say “I work for the english” but “I work for whoknowswho” to avoid offending sensibilities, so be warned.

    In this specific case, the original song is from Ñico Saquito but I could not find a decent version with the original lyrics, so the next best thing is Portabales (specially since you guys probably don’t understand Spanish anyways).

    As for the source of the saying, I think it comes from the age of piracy where English buccaneers used to attack ships and steal stuff from the Spanish and as I mentioned before it means basically working for naught.

    Also notice that Cuban songs in those times were notorious for the double meaning of the lyrics (if you are in for laughs, try something from “El guayabero”), so it could be understood (and in fact was understood) as working for a foreigner (specifically Americans) basically for naught.

  • Looking further at the labour statistics, given that in 1958 the total Cuban workforce was some 2,240,000 workers, and given that US owned firms employed 160,000 workers, the percentage of Cuban workers employed by US firms was 7.14%

    That is a far cry from the 90% figure cited in ac’s quote. These US owned corporations included Cuban sounding firms like Cuban Electric (owned by Boise Cascade) and Cuban Telephone Company (owned by ITT). The total value of seized US assets was about $2 billion.

    The revolutionary government soon carried on with their program by seizing the properties of Cuban owned businesses and farms. Eventually, even small business like barbershops and cafes were “nationalized” by the regime. Far more wealth was seized from the Cuban people than was ever taken from US corporations.

  • Thank you for the music link! I’m now listening to a playlist of songs by Guillermo Portabales.

    The line “I work for the English, what traitorous destiny” is interesting because except for a very brief period, Cuba was never ruled by the English. However, the English were a standard villain for the Spanish aristocracy who did rule Cuba. A singer who wanted to complain about the hardships of life in Cuba would be wise to blame the English, all the while he and the other guajiros understood who the real villians were.

    Somethings never change, eh? Cubans today will blame “el bloqueo” for the late bus or the burnt peas in their coffee. They nod and wink and stroke their chins and everybody understands who is really to blame.

  • I do not dispute there was great inequality in Cuba before the revolution (if less so than other most other Latin American countries). I am arguing for people to be more accurate in their statistics. In that light, I take the statistics you quoted above with a large grain of salt.

    The economic situation in Cuba was neither as bad as the pro-Castroists say, nor was it as fine and dandy as the anti-Castroists say it was. The standard of living was bad for most Cubans, but it was getting better. There was a growing middle class and industrial wages were rising with an organized union labor movement. The issue which propelled the people to overthrow Batista was political, not economic. The Cuban people hated the dictatorship and wanted their constitutional democracy back.

    For the record, the “revolution” did not happen in the 1950s. There is no evidence that anything near a majority of the Cuban people supported a Marxist style revolution. The Communist PSP faired very poorly in the last legitimate election in Cuba, gaining only 7.2% of the vote. The people joined a rebellion against the dictator Batista who had illegally seized power in a coup. The broad based popular movement against Batista was publicly committed to free and fair elections and a restoration of the 1940 Cuban Constitution. Castro had publicly disavowed any connection with the Communists. The people would not have supported the 26 July Movement if Castro had been honest about his intentions.

    The old dictator Batista was overthrown when he fled on December 31, 1958. The new dictator, Fidel Castro, soon cancelled the long promised elections. It was only then that the real revolution began, and by then it was too late for the people to have their say. Fidel himself admitted as much in 1965 when he declared that a socialist revolution was his goal all along but that he knew in the 1950’s that the Cuban people would never accept it if he came out publicly for revolution.

    (By the way, that’s a funny source you linked to: a Lesbian pro-Castro website. Considering how the Revolution has treated gays, the editors of that website have a serious problem with cognitive dissonance. Their statistics are suspect.)

  • BTW, WHO owned the land is irrelevant in my argument, the main point is that most people were working for someone else and getting just scraps for their effort. And in the linked article you can confirm that between 1946 and 1959 more and more land was owned by less people even when latifundia was supposed to be unconstitutional.

    The “English” in the song could have historical roots (after all there are good chances that whoever inspired the song was working for an US citizen or corporation), but the phrase is generally accepted amongst Cubans as a metaphor for working for somewhere else.

  • I checked the linked article and some of those numbers look incorrect (ridiculously so in some cases), not to mention that it fails to account for the huge disparity present in the country at that time.

    If something close to the picture in that article were historically correct there is no way that people would have joined to support the revolution in masse as was the case.

    Is hard to find factually correct information about Cuba because of the deep hatreds that permeate the issue in both sides of the political spectrum and the related propaganda, so at least allow me to point to other sources (dunno about how trustworthy, but THESE at least explain the popular support to Castro’s revolution)

    Some excerpts:

    -75% of rural dwellings were huts made from palm trees.
    -More than 50% had no toilets of any kind.
    -85% had no inside running water.
    -91% had no electricity.
    -There was only 1 doctor per 2,000 people in rural areas.
    -More than one-third of the rural population had intestinal parasites.
    -Only 4% of Cuban peasants ate meat regularly; only 1% ate fish, less than 2% eggs, 3% bread, 11% milk; none ate green vegetables.
    -The average annual income among peasants was $91 (1956), less than 1/3 of the national income per person.
    -25% of the (total) labor force was chronically unemployed.
    -1 million people (18% of the total population, 45% in rural areas) were illiterate.
    -27% of urban children, not to speak of 61% of rural children, were not attending school.

  • The last 4 paragraphs you quoted say nothing about US ownership. And you misread the paper you linked to:

    “In 1939, U.S. investors owned 68 of the 176 existing mills and 55% of total production. By 1950, they owned 44 of the 161 mills and slightly over 47% of total output. Cuban nationals were the proprietors of 56 mills in 1939 and of 108 mills in 1950, and their share of total output increased from 22.4% in 1939 to 49.5% in 1950. Of the remaining countries with a presence in Cuba’s sugar industry in 1939 (Spain, Canada, England, Holland, and France), investors from Canada and England had sold their properties by 1950, and investors from Spain, Holland, and France had greatly reduced their properties in Cuba.”

    US ownership was declining prior to the revolution. I have read other sources which quote much lower levels of US and other foreign ownership. (alas, I don’t have the citations at my fingertips).

    Some of the figures cited in the first paragraph above are absurd, “160,000 workers, over 90% of Cubans, were employed in North American firms in Cuba”

    Did you stop to think about that number, ac? If 160,000 workers represented 90% of the Cuban workforce, then the total Cuban workforce was about 178,000. Do you really think a population of over 6 million people lived off the labour of 178,000 workers? Nonsense!

    This paper gives a more believable figure for the total Cuban workforce in the late 1950’s as 2,240,000.

    I do not dispute that US corporations held a large percentage of Cuban property and businesses in the 1950’s or that this situation angered many Cubans. I simply don’t accept the ridiculously over-inflated figures for the extent of the foreign ownership. The Revolution of course, had their political reasons for exaggeration as it provided the political cover for expropriating the property of 100% Cuban owned corporations, such as Bacardi and Havana Club, amongst thousands of other smaller businesses.

  • Is not a myth, check the numbers:

    Relevant excerpts:

    160,000 workers, over 90% of Cubans, were employed in North American firms in Cuba, and North American firms spent $M730 in Cuba, of which $M70 was in taxes—almost 20% of the Cuban budget. Many of these firms were Cuban subsidiaries of U.S. companies, dependent on the parent company for supplies. Any radical party in Cuba would have been driven to affect these interests since the U.S. business community dominated Cuban trade…

    The 1946 Cuban agricultural census provides a general picture of the land situation in Cuba (IBDR, 1951, p. 87). Of the total land area of approximately 11.5 million hectares, close to 79% was considered as land in farms. The land in farms was distributed as follows: 21.7% was cultivated, 42.9% was in pastures, and 13.9% consisted of woods. In addition, 3% was covered by a damaging weed (marabú), 18.2% was devoted to other uses (roads, buildings, and unproductive land), and 0.3% was idle or uncultivated farms. There were 160,000 farms with an average farm size of 56.7 hectares (IBDR, 1951, p. 87).

    Changes in farm size between 1946 and 1959 can also be compared. The 1946 Agricultural Census lists 62,500 farms with 9.9 or less hectares, accounting for 39% of all farms, or about 3.2% of total area. At the upper extreme, the Census counted 2,336 farms with 500 hectares or more (including 114 farms with over 5,000 hectares), accounting for 1.4% of all farms, or 47% of the total area (IBDR, 1951, p. 88).

    The comparisons between 1946 and 1959 show two irrefutable facts about pre-1959 Cuban agriculture. First, both latifundia and minifundia, so damaging for agricultural development, coexisted side by side. Second, agricultural land ownership had become even more concentrated in the period that preceded the revolution. While in 1946 about 8% of the farms were 100 hectares or more in size, by early 1959 the same percentage of farms had 402.7 or more hectares.

    The existence of latifundia was a clear violation of the 1940 Cuban Constitution. Article 90 stated that latifundia was proscribed and that, in order to eliminate it, the law would determine the maximum amount of land that every person or entity could possess for each type of agricultural activity. It also stated that the law would limit the acquisition and possession of land by foreign persons and companies and would take measures aimed at returning the land to Cubans (Constitución, 1940, p. 28).

  • It’s a myth of the Revolution that Americans owned all the big farms in Cuba. Most of the large land owners were Cuban. Many the medium sized farm owners were Cuban (such as Fidel & Raul’s father, a Spanish soldier who settled in Cuba after the Cuban War of Independence) and all of the small farm owners were Cuban.

    The cultural attitudes of the slavery plantation held on long after slavery was abolished, which undermined the work ethic of farmers in Cuba. This attitude is true throughout Latin America, where large landowners controlled the land on which peasants worked. This is in contrast to the US & Canada where European immigrants regarded owning a small plot of land as a dream come true.

    Today in Cuba the gov’t has decreed that farmers can lease farmland to work it. But the lands will not belong to the farmer and that only serves to perpetuate the same landowner-peasant mentality. If they want the Cuban farmer to prosper, the government should give the land away to farmers, or to farm co-operatives, to own, on condition they work it. And they must allow farmers to sell their produce at free market prices. Only then will food production grow.

    Fifty five years of totalitarian socialism has not only destroyed the accumulated wealth of Cuba, it has destroyed the mentality for creating wealth. It will take a generation before the Cuban people learn to be self-sufficient and entrepreneurial. Meanwhile, any Cuban with a spark of self-motivation leaves the island for brighter future elsewhere.

  • Bravo Warhol. That’s how all cubans see it.
    Now watch out, non-cubans are going to tell you otherwise in this site.

  • Is not just the revolution, it goes deeper than that. Before 1959, most lands belong to someone else, not to the people that work it, so most farmers where dirty poor, while the landlords (mostly foreigners) made millions and before that, most of the work was done by slaves first, then immigrants later, so by association it was considered the bottom of the society.

    It didn’t help the seasonal nature of the labor needs, intensive for a few months, then idle most of the year. This caused severe unemployment and poverty amongst the workers, and with it comes all the associated ills: disease, illiteracy, marginalization, repression, etc.

    You can find echoes of that situation in some traditional songs like “Al vaiven de mi carreta”:

    Partial translation as I remembered (not the version in the video):

    “I work from January to January
    And also from sun to sun
    and how little money
    they pay me for all my sweat

    I work for the English
    what traitorous destiny
    sweating for a money
    that I’ll never never have in my hands”

  • My mother-in-law is a sort of agricultural engineer in Guantanamo. She specializes in soils analysis. Anyway, I asked her once why more Cubans don’t lease some of the available land and grow their own food and raise their own livestock. She could then hire herself out as a private consultant and make a fortune. It would cut back on my monthly subsidy (hehehe) You are correct when you write that on average, Cuban farmers eat better and live healthier than most Cubans. She explained it to me her opinion why more Cubans don’t choose to be farmers: unlike other Latin American countries where life in the countryside was held in high regard, in Cuba, the opposite was true. Well before the revolution, Cuban farm life was seen as backward and hopeless. Compared to Mexico, for example, where large Mexican farms were owned by wealthy Mexicans, large Cuban farms were either owned or run by Americans. I have not confirmed this but it seems to be true. She explained to me that Cubans don’t see the value in ‘hard’ work because of their experiences over the last 55 years. Cubans often say “no es facil” (It’s not easy) as a way to make light of a difficult circumstance. I see a deeper meaning in this “dicho”. It may mean that Cubans WANT things to come easy. Farmwork certainly is not easy. Collateral damage caused by Castros’ revolution is the Cuban work ethic. That is what seems to be the problem.

  • Well, I don’t necessarily disagree with your points, but I’m utterly disgusted with your attitude in general. You complain about a lot of issues in particular whether your country and your people are leeching the efforts of others but for some reason you exempt yourself from your own reasoning and that my friend reeks of hypocrisy.

    The bottom line is that as you mention, there are a lot of idle lands in the country and a legal framework for leasing them to whoever wants to work them, yet most people don’t bother themselves. Not because salaries are infinitesimal mind you (a farmer earns many times more money than almost everyone else and that has nothing to do with salary), but because farm work is hard and most people rather have SOMEONE ELSE doing the actual work, then reaping the benefits for themselves.

    Well, as long as that attitude prevails in your society, your country is not going anywhere (well, not exactly anywhere. You see, hard work is… well, hard, and as opposed to it there are more than enough people “innovating” and making economic mistakes and every single one of THOSE is moving a little further towards economic collapse).

    And for the record, yes, there are a lot problems in Cuba. And yes, knowing that a problem exists is the first step to solve it. But as long as it is the only step, the problems are not going to solve themselves. So, please, make a favor to yourself and put some of that idle lands to work. That will benefit you individually and your country as a whole; and more to the point, it will enable you to complain about the issue without smelling of hypocrisy.

    I happen to like that quote in your article, but I think that you should be aware of another one particularly meaningful in this context: “don’t ask of others what you are not willing to do yourself”

  • Thank you for what reads to be a revealing analysis of reality from the perspective of a Cuban forced to live under the conditions which exist today in Cuba. I hope that before the handful of Castro apologists respond they read your post again carefully. Available land for agriculture and a surrounding sea rich with fish to eat go untapped. True heroes who sacrificed their entire lives to sustain Castros’ revolution die unrewarded. Current cosmetic reforms enable the privileged few to extend their privileges while most Cubans’ lives remain unchanged. I disagree with Warhol P in one regard. I believe the rope does show signs of breaking. The end of Castro tyranny is nearer than most Cubans allow themselves to believe.

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