Drinking a Heineken in Cuba

Poverty is humiliating, but the Cuban version sears the soul

By Osmel Ramírez Alvarez

Cubans. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES – I was in a bathroom when I read a peculiar news item on a piece of newspaper left there to be used as toilet paper.  It was in Juventud Rebelde, the propaganda organ of the Young Communists League (UJC).  It’s an official party outlet, of course, like all the Cuban press.  In an article dated June 10, the journalist, René Tamayo León, announced that the government had reduced the price of imported Heineken beer.

But this post wasn’t inspired by the simple fact of a price reduction.  The peculiar thing is the way that the journalist begins his commentary on the fact: “My budget has never been ample enough to drink a (…), so I had to call some friends to confirm how much it had previously cost.”  As he describes it, the price was previously 1.60 CUC and now costs 1.20 CUC (1.85 – 1.38 USD)  .

Nothing too surprising there at first glance, because we all know that 1.60 CUC is equivalent to 40 regular Cuban pesos; and in order to earn that kind of capital an average Cuban worker would have to work more than two days. But the fact that a government journalist from a national newspaper, one of the most important ones in the country, doesn’t earn enough to buy a beer and recognizes this in his article is shameful.

The fact that this happens is as outrageous as the circumstances in which it was recognized: in the lead-up to a news item announcing a price reduction of little importance.  It forms part of the smokescreen that the government sends out to simulate improvements and hide their failures.  It’s embarrassing to recognize these things, but they’re part of our raw realities. We proudly display to the World Health Organization an infant mortality rate near zero – a tremendous accomplishment! – but we can’t produce an affordable beer to sell the public, nor a thousand other things that don’t form part of this analysis.

In the eternal summer that is Cuba, it’s torture to pass a transparent refrigerated case displaying cold beers and sodas; and while one passes by them in search of detergent or cooking oil (very necessary and unavoidable purchases that rob us of all we earn), our throats dry up even more due to the sensations produced by these attractive images.

But – don’t even think about it! – buying one is taboo.  Beside you a happy family (because they have relatives up north or maybe a family member working on a foreign mission) pulls out a “magic” credit card and as if such expenses didn’t bother them at all, and amid one and another purchase they begin to order soda pop for the children and beers for the adults. That’s when the thirst of the “CUC-less” who observe them open-mouthed becomes unbearable, and you have to get out of that store, even though you haven’t checked for everything that you wanted.

Further, if you are there with your children, who are innocent and don’t know how things work, they begin to ask for “some of that stuff that those people are buying” and you can’t find a good excuse to give them.  It’s funny, but that’s the way the capitalist past was stigmatized here – with the image of the poor looking through the store windows at dreamed-of merchandise that was way beyond their reach.  Somehow, down the road of radical socialism, we have ended in that same point.

Poverty is humiliating.  But the Cuban poverty goes even further: it sears the soul.  In the majority of countries there are millions of poor people like us with little purchasing power.  We realize that.  But the roots of their poverty make it impossible for them to suffer it consciously, at least as much as we do.  A marginalized person with a low educational level who has lived in unhygienic conditions since they were born, child of parents who came from the same circumstances, see their poverty as something normal and may suffer materially, but not psychologically.

Nonetheless, the great majority of us Cubans are not from marginalized groups and we have a fairly high educational level, despite the deficiencies in our education.  We’re prepared for prosperity, but we live in the most abject poverty.  For that reason, our worst suffering is of the psyche. If a person who has received academic preparation can be compared to an “Indian in a frock coat” then we Cubans would be “white men in loincloths”.  The expression is racist and as such deplorable, but beyond its literal meaning is the analogy that I want to transmit.

A Cuban who exercises their profession in Cuba earns some 50 to 100 times less than someone doing a similar job in other countries of the region – Panama or the Dominican Republic, for example.  I don’t even want to make comparisons with Europe or the U.S. The Cuban salary buys 25 times less than it did in 1989 when the acquisitive power of a Cuban peso was more or less that of a CUC today.  But even if the Cuban government should decide to pay all Cuban salaries in CUCs, and supposing that this didn’t provoke inflation, we would still have the lowest salaries in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The worst thing is that no other country in the area has had a revolution, nor installed socialism to supposedly create a more just society; nor were these peoples sacked of their riches by the state so that there’d be more justice and equality.  It rings of deception and failure.  The worst is that on the road we’re headed there won’t be any just improvement for the Cubans even if we wait until 2130.

It’s clear that under radical socialism and the state system we won’t improve. There’s neither a future nor hope on the road we’re headed.  We need to change direction towards a more just and democratic society with a dynamic, productive and efficient economy.  Following the initial example, that’s the only way we might one day drink a Heineken beer, or a nationally produced one, without depending on family remittances or on having a father or mother separate from their family for years, exploited by their own government in foreign countries.

It’s a huge challenge that demands large quotas of civility, tolerance and good judgment. The sacrifices of our people have been many and their needs are great; more than enough reason to never cede in the sacred duty of pushing for that change, as necessary as it is inevitable.

5 thoughts on “Drinking a Heineken in Cuba

  • What will have me thinking for some time is this person’s shame at not being able to afford a Heineken, combined with his knowledge of what some academically credentialed professionals may earn in other countries. During many decades I have noticed some common features among the Cuban exiles I have known. First among those features was resentment at not being able to live a high consumer lifestyle, not just not having pretty things, but not being able to go to a store and see it filled with pretty things, as if the store’s merchandise reflected one’s country’s wealth. This writer seems to embody this spirit.

    Taking pride in the pretty things one’s culture is one way to define happiness, the American way. I know something about this way because my academic credentials are in marketing and mass communication, and I have been a business professor in the U.S. for a quarter century. I have also escorted immigrants into U.S. department stores and supermarkets for the first time, and on more than one occasion have watched them burst into tears at what they have seen. I know how powerful the charm of pretty things is. It is the genius of my culture.

    I also grew up in Detroit, at a time when the working class achieved a lifestyle unheard of in human history. All of our working class families owned their homes, had boats to take out on the lake, had cabins up north for hunting and fishing, and (U.S. readers will understand the importance of these observations) had health insurance and money to send their children to university, so their children could have professional jobs rather than factory jobs, which they felt were demeaning, even though they could afford to buy all the pretty objects they wanted on their working-class wages. We did not realize just how exceptional we were in our time and place.

    Right now I don’t know where to go with these reflections. I do know that it is human to desire more than one has, and to take for granted what one has at the very moment one longs for other things, like a Heineken. I also know that a central feature of my culture is to stimulate desire. Once we urbanized, it was one of the key ways we used to achieve economic growth. But for some time now, our model has been fraying. My Detroit has died. Working class jobs now pay less, and health care and higher education are now, for the first time in over a generation, too expensive for our working class and an increasing number of our professional class. Both the professional and working classes are on edge and at each others’ throats as we approach the coming election.

    The U.S. professional class to which so many Cuban exiles have aspired is particularly interesting. Professional positions have paid well, but as a business professor who talks regularly with recruiters, I can tell you that we do not produce quality professionals in sufficient quantity. We rely on H1B visas and on immigration to fill our engineering and information technology positions. We do not produce enough people skilled in these areas ourselves. And because they are expensive, our companies are now finding ways to outsource entire classes of professional work to India, China, and Bangladesh. Professionals here in the U.S. sense something is wrong. They don’t know what to do.

    To live surrounded by charming objects, endless Heineken beers, dozens of styles of coat hangers in the department stores, is a double-edged sword. The systems needed to produce these objects seem to be the same ones that rob our culture of its capacity to produce its own professional and intellectual talent. For this reason, at this moment, I see dialogue between U.S. and Cuban people as crucial for both sides. Clearly you want more charming objects. Not so clearly (our pride and conviction that we’re the best will get in the way so we won’t admit it, but), our culture needs help. We are increasingly distracted, increasingly unable to string two thoughts together as we scramble to find the jobs that will give us the incomes needed to buy stuff. Our medical doctors, and our higher education, are increasingly inaccessible.

    If we don’t talk to each other, the most likely thing that will happen is that we will shove the prospect of pretty things down your throats. Worst case: Our corporations will take over the management of your resources and we will think we have won when in truth, we will not know the opportunity we have lost. Two cultures have followed very different paths. Each has deep knowledge of some aspects of the human condition, but that knowledge is different. Complicating matters, one culture wants to change and the other doesn’t. How, in such a situation, can we talk to each other? I think this question is the point of my reflections.

  • dani, that is a wonderful description of Cuba!
    “a country without a paper trail”
    Not even in the bathroom!

  • Comparing countries on wages is meaningless, since it doesn’t take into account free services. What you should compare is gross domestic product (at purchasing power parity) per capita https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_by_GDP_(PPP)_per_capita. By doing that you will see that Cuba is generally average for the region. However you must also take into account that countries like the Bahamas are tax havens and so a small number of millionaires bump up the stats. Finally you need to take into account the shadow economy – in a country without a paper trail everyone knows that what people get officially is not the same as what they get in reality. If it was, then there is no way that paladares could charge 10-15 cucs for one dish and you wouldn’t see teenagers everywhere tapping into their mobile phones.

  • The government didn’t reduce the price of Heineken. They merely adjusted the price to meet the fall in the price of the Euro against the US dollar, The CUC is artificially maintained at par with the US dollar. The price being charged by Cimex in our town for Heineken was CUC 1.65, but when there had not been any Buchanero or Cristal for a month, there was temporary reduction in the price of Heieken in February to CUC 1.35.
    As Osmel Ramirez Almerez points out, the Castro regime has slowly but steadily reduced the real income of Cubans until it has reached an average in US dollars of $20.68 per month and the pensioners revel in the generosity of the equivalent of $8 per month.

  • Want beer? Leave Cuba, I did. By the way, there are many, many more beers than Heineken.

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