Life Inside Cuba

Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

A good massage. Photo: Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — There are everyday experiences that reveal a country’s essence far more eloquently than any economist or political analyst could. The day-to-day life of Cubans is very tough, uncertain, stressful and monotonous. Luckily, there’s not much violence in the country and one doesn’t have to pay for schools or hospitals, for that would make it a true, living hell.

If you work for the State, you earn very little, next to nothing, and are forced to “scrounge up” what you can to make ends meet. Everyone steals something from the State: food, concrete, a spare car piece, a bit of tubing, anything one can sell in the black market to make up for one’s deficient salary.

The word “stealing” is only used in Cuba when the person affected is an individual or when something is taken from the State by breaking into one of its properties. Taking things from the State is popularly referred to as “roughing it.”

Those who have nothing concrete to take away with them take time off. They go around in search of a job on the side or something cheap they can resell. They do manicures or trade influences with other employees to address mutual problems.

Higher-ups have to turn a blind eye on this and allow their employees to “rough it”, because, if they turn the screws on them, these employees will quit and, if they quit, they’ll have to be replaced with people with the same needs.

A Cuban State employee doesn’t go to work to take on the most urgent tasks at hand, he goes to see what he can take away with him that day, what story he can tell his boss to get this or that from him, or to be let out early for a job on the side he’s got that day. No country can make any progress this way. This economic system is completely mad.

They tried to reduce the country’s swollen payrolls, but it proved impossible in practice. They ran into thousands of insurmountable obstacles inherent to the system.

As way of an example, at a retail store there are around ten employees in total and, even though two or three of them are doing nothing, no one will help you because the person who sells the item you want is in the bathroom. When you stand in line, you have to wait a long time because several control mechanisms (supposedly designed to prevent theft) are in place. They couldn’t care less about customers and, if you dare complain, they’ll bite your head off.

Another example: a Cuban company that manufactures a certain product may be crammed with that product because the planned sale to a given client fell through, but it is not authorized to sell to another company, even if that company is interested in the product. Dozens of requests must be submitted to planning entities to get authorization for such a transaction. This takes so long and requires so much effort that no one even tries it. The deal simply runs into a dead end.

That same company, in turn, is in need of services that are rarely satisfied through official channels. If you don’t do things under the table, you’re unable to produce. If you do not produce, you do not meet the production plan and, if you do not meet the plan, they can you for ineptitude. And, if this happens to you, you’re out of the loop and out of the car you get for being the boss. That’s the way things work.

Our duty is to preserve and perfect socialism. Your example lives on. Photo: Juan Suarez

An employee at a State coffee shop earns less than 10 Cuban pesos in 8 hours of work, and a can of coke he sells at this establishment also costs 10 pesos. That is to say, he works all day for a can of pop. If he drops a beer on the floor and it break, he would have to work two days straight to be able to pay for it, as it costs 20 pesos. Ask yourself, now, whether that employee isn’t basically forced to steal.

It is aberrant and illogical, a true affront on common sense. All prices have gone up in Cuba, but the workforce continues to earn the same. Workers are undervalued. The private sector pays a bit better, but it doesn’t pay enough either. Everything works against working people.

This is why, when Cubans arrive in the United States and begin to earn real money for what they do, they go a little bit insane and get two or three jobs at once. Rest seems like a waste of time to them. Gradually, they adjust to the new environment, but the change is dramatic.

I don’t know who does the math in Cuba and thinks that paying people poorly is good business. When an employee is able to make a living with a job, they do that job conscientiously and, of course, do not steal from the company.

All business management manuals recommend committing employees to the aims of the company as a means of success. It is no accident most of our companies are inefficient and that those that appear to function properly do so on the basis of privileges and monopolies.

But let’s not dwell on this any more for today. These are daily realities that are truly regrettable and painful for the patriots who suffer over Cuba’s fate. Luckily, we Cubans manage to get by, even if only by a thread.

Despite all this, we should not lose hope. The day will come when we can prosper through honest work in this beautiful island where we were born, when our jobs are respected and well paid. I’m sure we will get there, sooner rather than later.

22 thoughts on “Life Inside Cuba

  • September 29, 2018 at 3:28 pm

    not to be invalidating to your experiences, but it seems that cubans have a very scewed idea of what american life is like. people are not equal here, i experience all of the problems you stated (except there are new cars, i still cant afford them though), except i DONT have free college or healthcare or housing. I make $7.25 an hour, and there is a beer worth 300 dollars in my shop, meaning id have to work 4 days to repay that cost if i break it. My rent is $700 a month and i live in a downtrodden 1 bedroom apartment with my boyfriend.

    People are complacent, service is bad, products aren’t the best quality, i haven’t been to a doctor in 5 years, i cant afford college, and our government purposefully discriminates against homeless people to keep them homeless.

    as for the corporate selling of commodities, its no different here. in fact, most of our cheese producers hide several tons of cheese in caves because they cant sell it. (it hasnt gone bad, its just such a large quantity that it would bring the national price of cheese down).

  • September 17, 2018 at 8:28 pm

    Wow, i’m Cuban, living in the states now, and have been back to Cuba as a researcher, and to visit family in 2013, 2015 and 2018. There is so much American BS in this article and the comments, I don’t even know where to start. My family in Cuba is so much richer and more free than the average indebted, fearful, stressed, bored, homeless, crime-ridden, abused, addicted, and poverty-stricken American in so many ways. (40% poverty in CA, most Americans live paycheck to paycheck, can never pay off their homes, have no savings, etc). Please just go to Cuba now, and learn a few things before you make your ignorant comments. It’s no longer 1959. It’s your mindset that needs to change.

  • July 1, 2018 at 6:49 pm

    I’m Cuban, have lived in the states for decades. Have visited Cuba as a researcher and to see family several times including a few months ago. Your US pie in the sky idea is false. The US has so many problems that Cuba doesn’t have. And comparing the US to Cuba is silly. They’re completely different countries in so many ways. We have a lot we can learn from Cuba and Cubans. Get off your high horse, and do something to fix the US: poverty in CA is 40%, homelessness is everywhere, jobs are impossible, overtime is crazy, and many work and are still on gov’t assistance. Plus people just aren’t nice, and it’s hard to find a sense of community with our “independence.” It’s far from good, let alone perfect over here.

  • February 25, 2016 at 1:01 am

    The embargo prohibits the sale of Cuban goods to the US. Cuba is free to sell their goods to any other country in the world. Cuba is also free to purchase products from any other country in the world. Furthermore, Cuba can buy food & medicine form the US.

    Therefore, to claim that the embargo costs the Cuban $685 million, there would have to be an inventory of $685 million in unsold Cuban goods which weren’t sold to the US and couldn’t be sold anywhere else.

    No such unsold inventory exists. Cuba sells as much of their products abroad as they can. The problem is that Cuba produces so little and they do so very inefficiently.

  • February 23, 2016 at 3:34 pm

    Griffin: I personally struggle to reconcile our common beliefs about the importance of freedom, democracy, and human rights with what I actually see on the ground in Cuba. I simply do not see Cuban people assigning the importance to those as we talk about.

    I really cannot think of anything off the top of my head that I see the Cuban people really want to do that the government will not let them because of restricted freedoms. But they like the fact that every Cuban has a roof over their head, something to eat, medical treatment, and the like.

    We ballyhoo democracy and Cubans lack of. Yet our voter turnout in the US in Presidential elections is around 60% and 40% in midterm election years, and even lower in primary and local elections. Yet there are very high voter turnouts in Cuba for municipal delegate elections as those elected officials elect provincial delegates who in turn elect national delegates who decide national office holders. True Cuba has one political party thus no real effective choice but this simply does not seem to bother many Cubans.

    As far as human rights, most Cubans seem to think that their government protects theirs while other countries suffer from societal limits on gender bias, racial discrimination, limits on upward mobility and such. They see gun violence in the US and ask why does the US government not do something about the problem.

    Granted much of the Cuban thinking is biased because of the propaganda they receive daily and not missing what one has never had. Still, lack of freedom, democracy, and human rights do not seem to be things that are priorities to most of the Cuban people.

    For the umpteenth time, I am not contending the Cuban political system is better, just different. And, the majority of the Cuban people are much happier with their existence that most of us believe.

  • February 23, 2016 at 1:38 am

    I absolutely agree there is more to human happiness than economic factors. Far more important are freedom, democracy and respect for human rights. The Castro regime denies these things, which are most important to the Cuban people.

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