Cuba was an incredible experience…unlike no other trip I’ve ever taken. We had access to the people (although the people we had access to were all pro-revolution); however, we spoke candidly and asked tons of questions. The people are wonderful and warm; the situation stinks. It really is as if time stood still. As far as I can see, socialism while ideological doesn’t work. It has only destroyed the island and redistributed the poverty among the masses that stayed behind.
While a few buildings have been restored, most everything else is in decay and decomposition. The people who beg ask for soap, toothpaste, pens…the kids ask for bon bon (candy). I had been prepared and brought gifts but, in the end, I wound up leaving 2 pair of shoes, some clothes, costume jewelry, all my toiletries and first-aid stuff.
Their economic and housing problems are severe. Newly married couples have to live with relatives because there is no new housing. People cannot sell their homes (no profits allowed); all they can do is attempt to find a barter situation where they can change homes with someone else. They live on monthly rationed food (like 4 lbs of rice, 2 chickens, etc., extremely limited) and there, too, if they run out, they try to barter with a neighbor…I’ll give you a cup of rice if you give me a cup of sugar.
The highest salary is about 400 pesos a month (26 pesos to the dollar) and that’s for professionals like doctors who have had 9 years of medical schooling…so you can imagine what other people make. They supposedly have free education and healthcare but, trust me, you don’t want to get sick there. A family doctor we visited in a small town was responsible for about 120 families and didn’t even have a phone in the office. They can’t get new medicine and while they are trying to make some medicine there, they do not have the new formulas nor the proper ingredients.
Transportation is another mess. People stand by the roadsides waiting for buses that may or may not come or try to hitch rides. At some stops, there is a government official who flags down cars with official plates to give people rides. Others resort to horse driven carts. Electricity goes on and off. One day we had to walk down 15 flights in our hotel because a storm had flooded the generator. We were lucky…other people, who were checking out that morning, had to walk down with their suitcases!
Food is scarce – even for tourists. Selection at state restaurants (which is all we were supposed to eat in) is not great. Chicken legs or a piece of fish with a small scoop of rice was the most common. Not even frijoles (beans) were available in every place. We did manage to blow off the program one night and went to a paladar (restaurant in someone’s home) which was one of the most fantastic dining experiences I’ve ever had (including all the great nuevo latino restaurants in NY and Miami). Our guide who was wonderful told us about the place; however, the bus had to drop us off 2 blocks away because they could not be seen taking us to a paladar.
…and yet all the people we met were very proud of what they think they’ve accomplished and where their current and future efforts were headed particularly as it relates to women’s rights and culture. The women’s groups say that under Fidel they have more rights than before. They also say their literacy is in the high 90s percentile and that infant mortality is extremely low due to their obstetric care…who knows?
Economically, tourism is the only thing that is helping them and while they want an end to the embargo, they are adamant that they do not want U.S. interference in their government. One person even told me they live in fear that U.S. will attack them like it did Iraq.
On the brighter side, there is live music everywhere you go and increasing decoration of urban neighborhoods with artistic groups creating street art to motivate the population with something positive.
But, in the end, one comes home with a heavy heart and little hope.