As a professional employment counselor, a primary focus of my visit to Cuba was to better understand their labor market and workforce. Upon our arrival we met our tour guide, a lovely 29-year-old young lady fluent in both Spanish and English. She clearly loved her homeland, but told us that the majority of the Cuban people were poor. To help us understand Cuba she told us about the two different types of currency. Cuban Convertible Coins (CUC), roughly equivalent to the US dollar, are the currency of the tourists. During 2004, Cuba outlawed the use of the US dollar in Cuba and imposed a 10% tax on US dollar exchanges to Cuban currency. We actually paid 13% to make the exchange at our hotel. Despite paying the tax, just about everything seemed to be fairly inexpensive.
The majority of the Cuban people however, are in the Cuban Peso (CUP) society. There are roughly 25 CUP in 1 CUC. What I viewed as inexpensive was out of the price range of most of the population. It became quite clear as our tour unfolded that almost everybody was on a quest to acquire CUC. As I better understood the CUP and the CUC, I better understood the various occupations on the island.
No weapon has ever settled a moral problem. It can impose a solution but it cannot guarantee it to be a just one. ~ Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway was probably not speaking about Cuba, but none-the-less we could argue that on such a beautiful Caribbean island, the words have some truth. In July 1960 Hemingway left Cuba for the final time. His residence, Finca Vigia, was expropriated shortly thereafter by the Cuban government. As we viewed his home, looking in doors and windows, we saw inside one lady working in silence, apparently with the task of not allowing tourists to enter. I wondered how much she was being paid to stand vigil in a relic hardly changed in the last half century. I also spent some time watching a construction crew working on a new sidewalk. They mixed concrete in a small hand turned tumbler, shoveling it in and out of wheelbarrows, engaged in serious hard labor. In retrospection, the rest of Cuba was not unlike the Hemingway estate, on hold since the 1950s. I saw little that was new and saw considerable deterioration of what had been. At best there were a few pockets of limited renovation.
Before the Revolution, Cuba was relatively prosperous with a large upper middle class and a fairly strong economy. Havana in the 1950s was later described as “what Las Vegas would later become,” a playground for rich tourists, celebrities and the American Mafia. Rural Cuba however was not so pleasant with difficult living conditions, unemployment, poverty and a high rate of illiteracy. That would change under Fidel Castro and we heard the story at the Cuban Literacy Museum.
The director was clearly passionate about her work. She was proud of her accomplishments. Her presentation had been strong. The story about Fidel’s 1961 campaign to eliminate illiteracy was powerful. Now time for questions, I presented my query with the idea that many US teachers considered themselves underpaid. I asked if Cuban teachers were paid enough money. Immediately a slight frown on her face revealed a reluctant truth. Everybody could use more money she said. Then she shifted into what seemed like a standardized rationalization, we get free education and free medical coverage. The basic needs of the people are met.
Our next stop was an elementary school with many veteran teachers. The director told me that salaries ranged between 400 and 500 Cuban Pesos (per month). Yes, the equivalent of $16 to $20 dollars. I asked the teachers about other sources of income and they had none. I was told that university professors, doctors and those with advanced degrees might be earning 700 Cuban pesos a month.
We traveled along the rural roads in Cienfuegos on route to our hotel. The homes were weather beaten and modest. I saw farmers using hand plows to till their land. Fortunately farmers now have the right to operate a private business. There were not a lot of cars on the road, however we passed many horse driven carts. I asked our guide about the ones transporting people and learned they were taxis. The locals paid a few Cuban pesos for local travel. The income easily supported the cost of the owning a horse. As it turns out the taxi business is one of the better trades and I would learn there are many different types of vehicles. Those transporting tourists could make a decent income.
We took a walk along the street from our first hotel quickly encountering requests to take a bi-cycle taxi. Not half way down the first block, we were offered Cuban cigars and traditional Cuban music. Obviously we looked like tourists and street peddling we would find was ubiquitous.
Our financial education continued when our group visited our first market place. We walked through a Cuban peso store. The selection was limited and the quality of many products was certainly questionable. Most of the stores on the street offered higher quality merchandise for the CUC currency. The appliance store had older looking models of washing machines, gas stoves and electric fans at prices we would consider quite reasonable, yet I would suspect, out of the price range of the average citizen. I noticed that at virtually every home clothes were hung out to dry. While not surprising in the rural country side, a few days later we would see the same held true in the big city of Havana. We also visited a Bodega. Each citizen had a ration book and could purchase their share of basics for Cuban pesos.
Our group entered the city center park to view historical buildings and see the local statue of Jose Marti. Marti is a Cuban national hero, a political activist, novelist, poet in the 19th century who advocated for independence from Spain in the 19th century. In the park was my first encounter with an “older person” rubbing their hand and arm, “begging.” I asked about the gesture and our guide told me it meant, “buy me soap.” I thought to myself, they looked old enough to be alive at the time of the revolution or otherwise they had endured a very difficult existence. There were many people who “worked” just asking for money.
We visited an artist community, craft booths on the road and a market place filled with vendors. People pleaded with me to buy and for most, no price seemed too low. They tugged at my heart string and when they did extricate a CUC dollar or two the thankfulness was deep and sincere. We listened to a chamber orchestra and several bands, every time being invited to dance and they all were selling CDs. I now have a small collection.
While traveling to Havana, we passed through many rural communities. Cuban law mandates that every government vehicle that is not full must stop and pick up those seeking transportation in their direction. Hence, the yellow man has a job ensuring that those vehicles stop and allow passengers to board. We often saw a person dressed in yellow at a prime location surrounded by a group of travelers in need.
I was not prepared to see the big City of Cuba. Built out of limestone, buildings were crumbling. There were signs of renovation but our guide told us the progress had been slow and clearly there was a lot that needed to be accomplished. One cathedral covered in scaffolding had been that way as long as she could remember.
In Havana, Coco Taxis (three wheelers) and vintage automobile taxis were everywhere.
The Gentlemen “Dandy” and Habaneras (women posing in colonial dress, some selling flowers) strutted around the center square offering a picture opportunity for a few coins. We also encountered Caricaturists, quickly sketching our continence hoping to sell to us for a few dollars.
Not the most glamorous job, rest room attendant may none the less be lucrative. We paid 25 Centavos (a quarter) to use public restrooms that featured seat-less toilets. At the museum after I used the facility the attendant went in and flushed with a bucket of water.
During 2008 Raul Castro opened up private enterprise to the people. While tourism is controlled by the government, at least now a greater percentage of the population has hope of getting a share of the dollars. Most of the entrepreneurial jobs described are fairly new occupations on the island. Private construction is one and there is a lot of work to be done.
I spoke one morning with the cook who made omelets and told him I was from the United States. He lamented that he would never be able to go and if he did he would not come back. He told me he worked long hours and while food was cheap, there just was not enough money. That seemingly was the story all too familiar for the vast majority.
However, there is another emerging side. We stopped for lunch at Casa Hostel Enrique, a privately run business. It was beautiful. Everything had a recent coat of paint. The tile floors and décor in general reflected the life of a higher middle income family. Allowing private business ventures is relatively new with major changes starting in 2008. With five rooms to rent, they pay the state 35 CUC ($35) per month per room and another 10% tax on profits at the end of the year. They rent rooms for 30 to 35 CUC per night. They said they were very successful with so far, limited competition. The home next door was also rebuilt and freshly painted. The home next to that was half rebuilt. They were the only three homes on the street reflecting significant renovation.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Cuba and highly recommend the experience. The Cuban people are delightful and very warm. They love to dance and love their baseball, one of the top paying jobs! They are a society in transition and I am hopeful for their future!
I find hope in the darkest of days, and focus in the brightest. I do not judge the universe. ~ Dalai Lama