Life in a socialist country
After living the greater part of my life in a capitalist society in Australia I have had many experiences in Cuba that have provoked surprise and admiration as I learn the subtle, and not so subtle differences between our two cultures, way of life and the Cuban reality. If you think you are widely travelled and know the ropes, well forget it all and start again because Cuba is so different to any other country for a lot of reasons.
The average person here is well educated and aware of world events and history. Most know something about Australia, and most know Skippy the Kangaroo, which was on TV here years ago.
The tropical climate has a great attraction for me also, especially after living in Melbourne and growing up in a cold part of Central Victoria, though July and August do tend to be a bit hot and humid.
There is a tranquillity here that makes it safe for women, as well as men, to go where they want when they want and the streets are safe to walk at night. People hitch a ride with strangers, acts of random violence are rare unlike some other countries, and this sense of security in itself is a sense of pride to Cubans. As with anything there are exceptions, and foreigners showing obvious displays of wealth may become a target in some situations, but they are rare and people here will intervene to assist anyone in trouble.
After seeing road rage at home, some years ago I saw two cars in Havana almost collide while one was turning. The two male drivers got out of their cars and I thought to myself here we go, but they shook hands and got back in their cars and continued on their way. I couldn’t believe it!
During my first visit to Cuba in 2008 I noticed the security on doors and windows, and asked someone why the houses had such a number of security grilles when it is a socialist country.
The bemused reply assured me that no society is perfect, not all social problems have been solved and there are still thieves.
There are two currencies in Cuba, CUC which is the Convertible Peso and equal in value to the US dollar, and CUP, National Money Peso which converts at the rate of 24 CUP to 1 CUC.
Where to use each currency is being simplified as many shops now accept both currencies, but as a general rule foreigners need not use CUP. However, since I live locally, I buy grocery items, alcohol, coffee, and imported foods with CUC and my fruit, vegetables, fish, meat and public transport with CUP.
Things we consider normal from our own experiences in our own country are sometimes completely different, because the society is about people rather than the drive for profit and this is reflected at grass roots level in various ways.
I have found Cubans a very friendly people. The way in which they stick together in every day situations is surely one reason they have survived the attempts to disrupt their country and to effect regime change to return life to how it was before the revolution.
It would not matter how long anyone lived here, one would always be considered a foreigner, and a healthy, but not necessarily hostile wariness, is sometimes displayed.
Cubans spend a lot of time outside. There is always life on the street and they know what is going on in their neighbourhood, which is one reason the Committees for the Defence of the Revolution (CDRs) – an advanced form of neighbourhood watch – have been so successful in uncovering counter revolutionary activity over the years.
Some time ago I shifted into an apartment and went to advise one of the CDR representatives that they had a foreigner living in the building.
Her simple reply was “I know”.
I took some photos at about 2pm one Saturday afternoon in the street in front of my Australian house in the inner city, there is not one person in sight, and the Cubans I have shown the photos to are amazed that nobody is out in the street at that time of day.
Internet access has improved a lot in recent years, for both foreigners and Cubans, thanks to a submarine cable between Cuba and Venezuela.
My previous option for internet was in the business centre in a tourist hotel, which cost 10 CUC per hour.
Cubans could access the internet in computer halls and ETECSA (phone company) offices at a more economical rate.
Wi-Fi access has been developed more recently with access points in nearly all major cities. In Havana there are a number of places spread over the city. These points may be accessed with a scratch card that costs 2 CUC per hour. These places are listed, or new locations are publicised in the newspaper, but are easy to find by the number of people congregated around with their phones or laptops.
Learning Spanish has been a challenge, and Cuban Spanish is slightly different than in Spain and other parts of South America. There is a lot of slang and some words have very different meanings in different countries; there are lots of traps for potential embarrassment for new students. Many words are similar, or have a stress mark so if your pronunciation is not correct you could be saying something completely different to what you intended.
There is an old saying that necessity is the mother of invention.
One friend has the view that the rich have never invented anything, it is the poor people who have been the motive force for development, because with necessity comes improvisation, which leads to invention.
The Cubans have become experts at improvisation in quite a number of areas to overcome shortages caused by the US blockade, and one example is the way they keep old cars on the road.
Very few of these cars still have their original motors, typically having Russian Lada diesel replacements. Later modifications have a Toyota or Nissan motor and gear box under the bonnet. There are lots of very nice ’40s and ’50s convertibles that are used to entice tourists for a tour in all parts of Cuba.
We are encouraged to be a throw-away society and to buy the latest products on the market.
Cubans reuse or repair almost everything. I have got into the habit, as my Cuban friends do, of saving serviettes and always having a plastic bag in my pocket, as not all the shops or fruit and vegetable sellers give a bag to put your purchase in.
The Cubans have many jokes about the importance of a plastic bag, as it has a multitude of uses and you never know what you may find for sale to put in it.
I have some green Coles bags, and I have seen people with similar bags with their shopping in them.
There are many shoe repairers all over the island, and I have had the life prolonged of some of my shoes and boots. I have a pair of thongs that must be over ten years old, and have new soles that don’t slip on wet tiles. The straps have been repaired a number of times so they will probably outlast me.
I broke the frames of my glasses and I thought that was that, I would have to buy a new pair.
I asked someone who told me that is not necessary and guided me where to take them to be repaired.
The woman had a bench with some tools, a box with partitions with all sorts of spare parts for glasses. She completely dismantled them, then rebuilt them soldering a new bridge in place, and when completed they were good as new! She charged me two CUC and a friend told me I was overcharged!
A number of older people have said to me that if anyone thinks it is bad now, it was much worse before the revolution.
I know some people who had lost their house in a cyclone and now live in a small apartment, the question came up about costs in our respective countries and I asked how much rent they paid.
They did not understand what I meant, there was no rent.
They said their apartment is small, but have the philosophical view that something is better than nothing.
The US blockade has wide ranging and severe effects for Cubans, to the extent of being life threatening, with limited access to some medications which must be purchased by the government from a third country at a much higher cost, while others still are unavailable.
Online shopping is virtually impossible here.
After one visit to Australia some years ago, I returned to Cuba and had to sort out something in my PayPal account as I had sold numerous things on eBay. When I opened my account a screen appeared telling me that I had entered PayPal from a prohibited country, and my account is closed forthwith. I enjoy reading so someone suggested that I get Kindle books but that is another thing that is impossible to do from here thanks to the blockade.
Books in the national money (CUP) bookshops are heavily subsidised and there is a large selection of different subjects available. Prices range from 10 to 25 pesos CUP, or 40 cents to $1 CUC.
In the tourist areas they are much more expensive, but titles in English are available. In both the CUC and CUP shops there is a range of national and international authors. I have seen Stephen King, John Grisham and other writers’ books in Spanish.
As a former engine driver I am accustomed to hearing complaints about public transport, and it is the same the world over. During peak times the Chinese built double articulated busses are packed. The fare is 40 cents CUP or equal to less than 2 cents, and there are old cars which run on a fixed route mainly from the city centre out to various outer suburbs for 10 CUP, equal to about 40 cents, per section.
The universal problem is knowing what takes you where and where you need to get out, but people are always ready to help when you ask directions.
There is Cuban music everywhere, on the bus, in taxis, shops, and children learn to dance at a very early age.
I am assured that not all people who leave the country are counter revolutionaries. Many leave for economic reasons, as the reality is there are a lot of people who struggle financially.
One man I have met who is a welder, went to the US and comes home once a year to maintain his Cuban citizenship. He supports his elderly parents and family financially with the money he makes overseas. He told me that when he retires he will be coming home as the lifestyle is better in Cuba.
All over Cuba you see mainly elderly people selling the daily newspapers, initially I thought, as in our situation that they were Party activists. The reality is that they are mainly pensioners supplementing their income by buying a bundle of newspapers for 20 cents CUP each from the newspaper kiosk early in the morning and selling them for 1 peso CUP to the later risers such as myself.
As all over the world, in tourist zones you meet the hustlers begging, telling anyone who will listen how difficult life is and using all means to get money. Away from the tourists zones though, people are very different, some would even be offended if you were to offer them money! However, it seems quite normal, and people will sometimes ask if you have 10 or 25 cents to make up the amount they need to buy something.
A common scam involves offers of assistance in finding a room, restaurant or taxi in tourist areas. Once there, you will be paying a premium on whatever service you needed as the helpful local is actually being paid a commission for taking you there.
However, if you really are lost and need help, in reality a few CUC is a small price to pay.
A few years ago I went to a small museum related to the revolution and a guide appeared and showed me around. At the end of the tour I offered a tip and she was offended, she told me it was her duty to show anyone that was interested.
It is a fact though that tipping is part of the culture; even Cubans usually leave a bit of small change when buying something.
Some tourists were in a bar that I go to sometimes and the barman spent a lot of effort making different cocktails for them to try. When they left they paid the bill right down to the exact cents with no tip. He was upset and asked me what he did wrong, as the tip is more a gesture of appreciation for good service than payment itself.
I have mixed feelings about foreigners being charged inflated prices for a haircut and other things. Some barbers have a price list on the wall with different prices for foreigners and Cubans, the logic being that we have more resources than a Cuban.
From my own experience I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of the population support the revolution, however, there are people who do not.
I have encountered hostility a couple of times, once in a bar from two men from Miami, who were aggressive because I was wearing a Cuban 5 t-shirt. I am very grateful to a group of local men who intervened to support me.
One man told me that his grandfather owned a large shop before the revolution, so he has a negative view since he would have been well off under the old regime.
The dissidents seem to enjoy contact with foreigners for some possible advantage I suppose, and I know of a number of cases of it. I know one that seems to go out of his way to say hello to me, he was a rafter in the ’90s (people made their way to the US on anything that would float because they were given assistance and residency on arrival) but rumour has it that he was deported back to Cuba from the US for his criminal activity.
Many visitors to Cuba have the impression that there is a shortage of items such as shampoo, soap, perfume and deodorants among other things. This is completely false.
The reality is that the problem is economic, for the average Cuban these things are expensive and they do not always have the money. Especially in recent years shops all over the country have everything you could desire in the way of clothes, toiletries, hardware and tools.
A good example of this lack of understanding is when I was told the story, and was assured that it was true, of one foreign gentleman with amorous intentions who sent a parcel of shampoo, soap and other toiletries from Australia to the lady in question. Trouble was it was all used, half bottles of things, and bars of soap complete with hairs attached!
Quite apart from being an insult, it displays a total lack of understanding of the situation that Cubans find themselves in.
Suffice to say that it was the end of the prospective romance.
For a foreigner who has more financial means it is a foregone conclusion that when you invite Cuban friends to go to a bar or restaurant, it will be up to you to pay the bill as they quite simply do not have the economic means to do so.
Some restaurants and bars are much cheaper in CUP but their quality varies.
To me it is a good indicator that Cubans have a little spare money because you see people buy an ice cream, soft drink or snack from the take away trolleys and shops whose prices are in CUP.
There is a fair degree of honesty in the restaurants if you ask the waiter what they recommend, it was suggested once to go somewhere else as they had nothing good left. I could not imagine that happening under capitalism.
The wages are very low, 25 CUC a month is the average, but doctors and medical workers earn much more. Sugar industry workers also earn above the average. Workers in state enterprises do not pay tax, but the private, self-employed workers who have the capacity to earn much more pay tax. I have heard it suggested that in time this tax will subsidise the lower paid state sector workers.
This year on two different occasions the prices of different food items have been lowered, for example the price of chicken has been reduced by almost 20%.
Both from observation and what I have been told, Cubans are able to take a low interest bank loan to buy a fridge, television or other items in order to have the essentials in their home.
There are five channels, and eight UHF for those with a set top box, all free to air, one is Telesur from Venezuela, that has English programs a couple of times a week. It is fantastic for its news service, documentaries and current affairs programs.
It is a pleasure to watch TV as there is no advertising.
There are public announcements. For example, the government subsidised the price of small induction cookers for the people. Each household was entitled to one as they are very energy efficient, and for a few weeks broadcast the instructions on how to use them safely.
Weather alerts during the cyclone season and other important events are also broadcast.
There is a lot of Cuban content, but also documentaries and movies from all over the world, including many movies and programs from the US and Europe, even some from Australia.
The late Steve Irwin’s programs are very popular all over South America, including Cuba. As are other Australian wildlife documentaries.
A number of people have commented to me how in Australia we have got the lot in regards to dangerous and poisonous animals.
There are snakes in Cuba but they are not venomous, and some isolated regions have crocodiles. There are large spiders whose bite may become infected, but again, they aren’t venomous.
Soap operas are very popular at night on the TV, some Cuban made and one from Brazil that is very widely followed.
I don’t think that Neighbours has made it this far!
Building materials have been subsidised and made available in National Money, and I have noticed during the last couple of years a lot more maintenance work being done to people’s homes.
After the revolution a lot of buildings were divided up into apartments and the government takes responsibility for painting and maintaining the façade, but the interior, and rear of the building is the responsibility of the building committee, or the individual owners themselves if they own their apartment, as many people do.
During the eight years since my first visit there have been many changes, more things available in the shops, changes to the economy with self-employed people and the formation of more cooperatives.
Cubans I speak with are happy with the changes as they have the possibility to earn more, and there are more services available.
I learned with time that not all the shops carry the same items, and it is essential to do the rounds of the area to check what is available or new in stock. There are five shops in walking distance of where I live and I regularly do the rounds to see what is new.
I look forward to seeing more positive changes in future.