Poverty is humiliating, but the Cuban version sears the soul
By Osmel Ramírez Alvarez
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.