By Alberto N. Jones
HAVANA TIMES, Oct. 12 — Having barely shaken off the dust from the road —as our “apostle” [Jose Marti] once said upon his arrival in Caracas, Venezuela— I’m rushing to share with HT readers, some of what I observed during my recent 1,700 mile trip through valleys, mountains, cities, countryside and beaches in Cuba.
This experience made it possible for me to speak with friends, former co-workers, intellectuals, ordinary citizens, retirees, professionals, derelicts, tourists, foreign students and one or two petty crooks.
What I found, was everyone clamoring in unison for a change in the country’s socio-economic situation, while a few called also for political change.
What was it that prompted such a uniformity of opinion among the Cuban population from east to the west of that country?
All signs pointed to the marked worsening of the economic situation of the population, which have experienced a suffocating increase in the cost of living and whose wages in domestic currency do not cover the needs of the basic foodstuffs (not to mention the many other basic and non-basic items that can only be bought in convertible currency, which is not part of their wages). All of this has shaped that collective opinion across the entire country.
The low wages and the situation of two currencies have led the whole population to gradually accept the concept of inventor (literally, “inventing”) as being valid. This has become the sole form of survival, though it has weighed heavily on the moral crumbling of a people who now take such illegal activities as normal.
The existence of two currencies in circulation is not exclusive to Cuba. Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and many other countries in our region have similar systems. What’s unique in the case of Cuba, is that the wages paid in domestic currency fail to maintain parity with the value pegged to the foreign currency.
That’s where the conflict between both currencies in Cuba constitutes an antagonistic contradiction that is leading the country into a moral and structural crisis that threatens the nation’s very survival.
How can we explain or ignore the fact that the daily wage of an average worker is about 20 pesos, which in the best of cases can only buy 20 oranges or a pound of pork? The question then becomes: How can one meet their family obligations and material needs without resorting to some form of crime?
Economic evil affecting all social strata
As a result of this situation, economic corruption affects all social strata. Many doctors openly ask if their next patient has a “traje” (brought a “gift”), while taxi drivers regularly turn off their meters, and local bus drivers brag about pocketing fares of between 150 and 200 pesos daily. Likewise, bakers pilfer and selloff flour and cooking oil, grocers walk off with part of the store’s allotment of food, and airline tickets and inter-provincial bus tickets are acquired at premium rates at the homes of the employees, rather than in the sales offices.
Mechanics cannibalize car parts and replace them with others in poor condition, selling the good ones in the underground market; just as managers of warehouses and stores with products sold in convertible currency, pick out high-demand products and then sell them just outside the premises of those same businesses.
Teachers pass students of parents who are able to give them gifts, and exams are even sold on occasion. Laboratory analyses, prostheses and many surgeries are provided in exchange for money, and construction licenses are blatantly sold or exchanged for sexual favors.
In addition to it being convincingly demonstrated that small business operations (like barber shops, cafeterias, bodegas, hairdressers, taxis, restaurants, soda fountains, etc.) cannot be administered from Havana or even from provincial capitals, the supervision of these operations has been assigned to the local bodies of Poder Popular (similar to city councils). However, these bodies lack the resources and authority to guarantee the proper supply, operation and/or the quality of those services.
The lack of resources of the local governments prevents them from providing their communities with adequate water and sewer services, construction and repair of government and other public properties. This has transformed these bodies into ornamental agencies, and because of that they have gradually lost their credibility in the eyes of the community. It hurts to see high officials of these bodies worried about the construction of a cafeteria, a pedestrian walkway or a small market, while the community’s major problems languish without solution.
The serious problem of apathetic food-service workers, especially those who operate in domestic currency, is characterized by the marked mistreatment of the public, endless delays in service and the serving of cold food and warm “cold” drinks.
While this outline of the situation in Cuba could seem to be exaggerated or pessimistic, it can be easily verified. One needs only to compare the appearance and operating condition of hundreds of privately owned trucks from the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s —converted today into a means of human transportation— with thousands of Yutong buses with less than five years in use. These vehicles sit broken down, stalled or stopped anywhere along the highway due to mechanical defects or simply because the drivers are in the homes of campesinos trying to resolver (“solve”) their own problems while exasperated travelers wait defenselessly for the return of those employees to their jobs.
Equally fatal has been the false concept of social and economic egalitarianism, which has demoralized thousands of professionals, intellectuals and technicians. Members of this stratum have to live in the same neighborhoods, beside, under or above people without education or standards of social coexistence. These people have transformed those residential areas into infernally noisy and dingy tenements where they show their absolute disrespect for their own neighbors. All of this has atrophied the desire to study, broaden their knowledge as well as the manners of professionals and their offspring.
The cost of the emigration…and its potential
Perhaps the most serious consequence of this misconceived economic philosophy can be seen in tens of thousands of young professionals in all branches of knowledge, who have been forced to emigrate all over the world in search of better lives. This has transformed Cuba into a world leader in the export of gray matter, contributing a flood of free knowledge to the same developed countries that we’ve criticized of a monstrous brain drainage against underdeveloped nations.
These and many other examples of inefficiency, lack of foresight or control, listlessness, indiscipline and the misappropriation of resources are the basis for people’s clamoring. They are demanding a change in the prevailing socio-economic system that has led the country to the brink of collapse while simultaneously eating away at the nation’s moral fiber.
Fortunately the Cuban people have decades of cumulative experiences in a lopsided struggle – one that has forged them through adversities and has taught them how to turn setbacks into victory. Because of this, we can assume that they’ll know how to lift themselves up and emerge gracefully, triumphant in this defining test of their character and their future through the application of the axiom “great problems demand great solutions.”
However, this requires what was advocated by our apostle Jose Marti when he organized the 1895 War of Independence: Wherever they find themselves, all Cubans —together with their sisters and brothers on the island— must overcome ideological, social, ethnic, religious, sexual differences or those of any other nature that have artificially divided us. We must unite as a single force under the aegis of safeguarding our nation, culture, individuality, history and everything that distinguishes and characterizes us as Cubans.
For our people, for our nation, it is required that all Cubans together, confront the greatest threat to our integrity and sovereignty that our country has had to face in its 500 plus years of existence.
Let us then make a profound and sincere call to our government and its institutions to find a common ground and national reconciliation, so that it can courageously call to its dispersed children in the diaspora —which never should have existed— to return home physically, mentally or in solidarity with their sisters and brothers, so that together, we can create the country dreamt of by those who gave it all for our homeland.
The graveness and urgency of the current moment does not permit us to analyze past events and circumstances. When this nation is safe, when tempers have cooled-off and the future is in our hands, then and only then, will there be room for reflection, analysis and the correction of errors.
Today, our country’s treasury is practically depleted at the precise time when what is needed are enormous amounts of funds to undertake the greatest development of agriculture, industry and public works in our history. Likewise, what is needed, are the economic resources for the financing of self-employed workers, as well as small and mid-size enterprises, in which tens of thousands of workers could find decent and well paid jobs to satisfy their families and social needs.
Reliable studies indicate that between 1.5 and 2.0 million Cubans live abroad. These same studies estimate that only between 0.5 and 1.2 percent of them are politically committed to anti-Castro organizations or profess ideologies incompatible with the ideals of the Cuban government.
Could it be, that in this mass of economic émigrés —upon whom our country should center all its efforts and intelligence to design bridges and comprehensive programs— to re-unify the Cuban family; the ones who will be able to correct errors, heal wounds and promote the broadest process of national reconciliation?
If this was achieved, our country could generate a diverse number of formulas, agreements and economic mechanisms, that could allow those émigrés to contribute roughly $10-15 billion that the national economy needs to launch the largest development program in all of its history.
Cuba must not and cannot succumb! The value and the teachings of Cespedes, Aguilera, Maceo, Mariana, Maximo Gomez, Hatuey, Guarina or Quintin, leave us no room to be frightened, shy away or in any other state of mind, that doesn’t respond to the blare of the bugle calling to us into battle.