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

  • 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).

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • 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.

  • Griffin: you make many valid points. They are all economic as the rest of the posts here, including mine. But can we acknowledge there is more to quality of life than economics?

    No question that Cubans want a better economic situation. But so does everyone else including the US residents and all of the other top tier economic countries. Cuba is certainly not unique.

    I live part time in a Cuban community with a poor economic situation. The average salary per the most recent census is the equivalent of US$11- per month vs. the Cuban average of $20-. Yet I would have to say that their “happiness quotient” is higher than the relatively high economic community where I live in the US the rest of the time.

    Let us not forget there is much more to happiness and quality of life than economics.

  • Keep in mind that remittances to Cuban people, coming predominantly from US citizens, are somewhere between US$3.5 billion and 5.1 billion. Compare that to the total payroll of the Cuban government, employing 70% of the workforce, at only $1.1 billion.

    With the recent drop in crude oil prices, it appears that economic support of Cuba from US citizens is now equal or exceeding that of Venezuela.

    A recent Fortune magazine article computes the economic impact of the trade embargo to the Cuban economy to be $685 million.

    Now one can dispute those numbers but even saying some should be halved while others should be doubled, one still must conclude that the US is one of the best things happening economically to Cuba. When one looks at the economic facts and ignores the rhetoric of decades ago, It is quite difficult to call that a war or interventionist policies hurting the Cuban people.

  • Bob, I know you well… and I know that you live part time in rural Cuba in the oriente. I also admire all of your Cuban photography, and as I’ve come to know you over time, I likewise admire you as a person. But Bob, until the U.S. government repeals all of their interventionist policies directed towards Cuba, I feel the Cuban government will continue with the mindset that America is still at war with Cuba. Given that reality, I certainly can understand why they would feel they are in no position to augment their firm control over their population while maintaining their wartime siege mentality to survive America’s continuing attempts at subverting their authority. In other words, I don’t think anyone can expect Raul to make concessions to Obama as long as America’s war on Cuba remains ongoing. The ball is still in America’s court to level the playing field first by completely ending their war on the Cuban government…by repealing all American interventionist policies, that in reality, only hurt the Cuban people…not their government. To me, it’s completely academic what needs to happen first. It’s really very simple, but it’s your government that is continuing to make it unnecessarily very complicated.

  • You don’t know me well enough to believe me when I tell you that if I thought I was wrong, I would say so. Cubans did not win anything. You are obviously not Cuban. They do NOT think it was worth it. Americans are indeed arrogant. You would be too if you had accomplished in 250 years what other civilizations have not come close to in a millennium. There is no crow on the menu yet.

  • I think Moses has it right. The top to bottom corruption within the Cuban government has almost nothing to do with the embargo and much to do with the economic situation created by the Cuban government’s unwillingness to modify an inefficient political / economic system. Terry is correct that it is the Cuban instinct to survive.

    Yes, the Cuban government has a “siege mentality”. That is a result of an unwillingness to recognize anything has changed in 55 years. I frequently experience that “siege mentality” working on a project at the request of the Ministry of Culture but resisted by Cuban State Security. At least the Swiss government has the same problems directly financing a cultural project. We all know that you can’t trust those Swiss to merely give you money.

    We currently see that “siege mentality” in the Cuban government’s unwillingness to reciprocate in any of the small proactive gestures made by President Obama.

    You say “in the face of continued American aggression, the Cuban revolution and it’s siege mentality will continue to live on” The situation have changed vis-a-vis the US recently from early history. Yet, the Cuban government seems set on continuing to fight a war that is no longer going on. And it is the Cuban people that are suffering.

    BTW, I live part time in rural Cuba with a committed supporter of the Revolution. But I am seeing too many people, including my own, becoming aware of the economic situation of everyone else in the world and seriously questioning their own government. They certainly do not want to see their culture “Americanized” or revert to the colonial period but question the political / economic policies and believe there must be a better way.

  • “…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.”
    This is something I noticed decades ago in Canada. Just one example,I met a West Indian man who worked as a chef at the CN Tower (Toronto) and worked full time as a millwright in a factory.

  • Stay honest? Sorry, too late. Wealth and crime do not go hand in hand. Singapore is well off with relatively low crime. Likewise, being poor does not lower crime. In fact, around the world, many of the poorest countries suffer from the highest crime rates. Venezuela, albeit not among the poorest countries has one of the highest crime rates in the world. The best insurance against crime is opportunity. When people believe that honest, hard work will pay off, they are less likely to steal. When people have good jobs that pay a dignified wage, they are less likely to use drugs that imperil their capacity to keep that job. Capitalism has helped more people escape poverty than any other economic system. Blaming capitalism as a cause for crime is empirically unsupportable.

  • One can feel the pain the in the author’s life, struggling to survive in the insanity of the Cuban system, but there are several factual errors and misunderstandings.

    First of all, Cubans do pay for schools and hospitals. The paltry salaries Cubans are paid represent never see the actual value of their labour, as the Cuban government takes their cut off the top, effectively an income tax rate of 95%. Cubans should be taking home $400 CUC’s per month, instead of $20 CUC.

    The government adds insult to injury by overcharging at dollar stores, through the outrageous markup on every product. No, the markup has nothing to do with the US embargo. Cheap Chinese made products are marked up, whereas any Mexican or Canadian will tell you Chinese consumer products are less expensive than similar US made items.

    The description of how the centrally planned economy works, or rather, fails to work, is perfect. It’s a system designed to foster corruption, sloth, and a lack of productivity. Personal initiative is unrewarded and often punished.

    There is indeed crime in Cuba, which is one reason why Cuba has the 6th highest incarceration rates in the world:

    Of course, there are many activities most people around the world would not consider criminal, but which in Cuba will earn a stiff prison sentence, such as criticism the president of the country. Millions of Americans do that freely every day, in Cuba to do so publicly risks arrest and a long jail term.

    Why shouldn’t the Cuban people steal from work? The Cuban Revolution was founded on theft, after all. First they stole the property of foreigners in Cuba. Then they stole the property of wealthy Cubans. Then they stole the property of ordinary Cubans. All in the name of the Revolution Fidel made a virtue of theft. The Castro regime continues to steel the labour of the Cuban workers by refusing to pay a reasonable wage. The Cuban people are merely carrying on that example of theft, because they need to to survive.

    Perhaps one day the Cuban people will prosper. Cubans in exile have prospered, and there is no reason why, if given the chance, they cannot do so at home in Cuba. But the Castro regime and it’s rotten system must go first before that can happen. Cuba must become a free and democratic society first, and only then will the Cuban people have a chance to earn what their work is worth.

  • Moses, you still don’t get it…nor am I afraid, will you ever get it. The Castro government has maintained a siege mentality in the face of American repression, economic starvation, and interventionist policies while illegally plotting the Cuban government’s over-throw… and the over-throw of Cuba, for well over 50 years. By removing these obstacles to rapprochement and by completely recognizing the legitimacy of Cuba’s revolution and Cuba’s sovereignty, the Cuban government will finally be able to loosen their war-time siege mentality affecting their people and begin embracing American ideals to transition to a free market economy… which of course will also spill over into providing their citizens with many renewed freedoms as their prosperity grows. The inefficiencies of their current system are well documented… many are understandable given their circumstances… many others are not. But in the face of continued American aggression, the Cuban revolution and it’s siege mentality will continue to live on. When the dust finally settles after the repeal of all American interventionist policies aimed at Cuba, meaningful change and prosperity will then also come to Cuba. The Cuban government’s victory over America’s attempts to subvert the Cuban revolution will go down in history as a great accomplishment by all Cubans… and not just by their government. All Cubans have always known that the means justifies the end. The might bitch about it… and do whatever they have to survive… and even dream of a different future… but once that victory is sealed, and their better future finally arrives, you can bet that the Castro’s legacy of standing up to the greatest economic and military power on earth… and winning… will live on for centuries around the world. That can’t be blamed on the Castros… it was America’s arrogance that set them up for the defeat.

  • You say you have no crime and that’s because no-one earns enough to create envy for anyone wealthier. Stealing from the poor when you’re poor is pointless. But when your embargoes are lifted and you start to participate in a capitalist society, crime will inevitably follow. There will be greed, corruption and stealing and in turn, drugs will be desirable and available and so the downward spiral will start. Believe me! Is that what you want? Of course not, so please ensure it doesn’t happen by being aware of the potholes, stay honest, stay true to yourselves. I wish you luck.

  • The boogeyman is not the embargo. It has an impact but stealing from your government job is not because of the embargo. Not working as hard or as long as you can is also not because of the embargo. Lifting the embargo won’t raise salaries. I agree it will take away from the Castros and, obviously, from you the last excuse for a failed Socialist economic system.

  • This is so factual, I feel I have only begun to understand the politics in this beautiful country. People smile and make do. Thank you for the article

  • Spot on, Osmel. I look forward to the day when the U.S. embargo and all other U.S. interventionist policies leveled against Cuba are repealed. At that time, I have absolutely no doubts that prosperity will begin to return to the island and average Cubans will be included to share in the benefit. The current Cuban government will have to spread the new wealth, otherwise there will be wide spread revolt and a new revolution will most certainly transpire. By removing the economic embargo… the genie will be out of the bottle to affect change one way or the other.

  • What a disaster. It does not need to be like this.

  • Brilliant Osmel! The problem is the system and not stating that we have the best in the US but most certainly the present set up in Cuba must change. One of the goals in life is to wake up and look forward to the day. That doesn’t seem to happen in Cuba and in all fairness is becoming a major problem in the US.

  • Good post.

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