So what did I think of Cuba?
When you’re traveling in Cuba, communism is sort of an elephant in the room. There are very few visual reminders, other than the odd billboard or a t-shirt with a portrait of Che, and you never run into no-go zones with a Soviet-esque military presence, but the affects of communism are all around, all the time. And it becomes so starkly clear when communist ideals run smack dab into the unwavering invisible hand of the free market. It’s a strange clash where everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others, and where Cuban nationalism and pride thrive amongst the decay of their infrastructure.
The first hint that things are going to be a little weird is when you get your CUC’s, your tourist play money, and realize how much more valuable it is than the peso that most Cubans use. An average tourist is carrying a Cuban’s full-year salary in their wallet and your first thought is “well damn, I’m gonna live like a king.” But no, you won’t. Most things that you buy as a tourist – hotel rooms, meals, taxis, etc – will cost nearly the same as back home. And when you pay $20 for a taxi ride to the airport and realize that it’s a month’s salary earned in under 30 minutes, you really start to wonder WTF. How does this system of equality work exactly? Clearly the cab driver is a lot more equal than others.
But maybe you’re a savvy traveler, one of those backpackers who will drop thousands of dollars on airfare and still haggle street vendors down the last cent. For you, there is the peso. It’s entirely legal to convert your CUC’s into pesos and tap into the peso economy in which you can get to/near the airport for under a dollar, and you can get a pizza and an ice cream cone for about a quarter. “Great!” you say, “Where do I sign up?” Well, the line starts around back, in the alley near the chicken carcasses, and it shouldn’t take more than a few hours. In other words, pesos buy shitty items from shitty places that have shitty service. Still want those pesos?
So that’s when the confusion becomes clear – when you realize that there are 2 economies running in parallel. Some Cubans have no access to CUC, and basic things like a bar of soap or a can of beer can be hard to come by. Other Cubans have limited access to CUC, and they can afford TV’s, cell phones, and other ‘luxury’ items. And lastly, a few Cubans are paid almost exclusively in CUC, and they live head and shoulders above the rest, driving new cars and putting new Nikes on their kids’ feet. In other words, quality of life in Cuba isn’t dictated by government policies anymore, nor is it determined by your work ethic, it just depends on whether you can figure out how to sell things, anything really, to tourists. So under this system, a taxi driver or a waitress can out-earn a doctor or an architect by a long shot. And the elephant in the room suddenly becomes hard to ignore.
What also seems a little illogical is Cuba’s immense pride in their country, their leaders, and their communist revolution. I mention these 3 things together because they seem intrinsically tied together in Cuba, unlike other countries in which patriotism usually involves constant scrutiny of leadership and politics. And it would make sense for Cuba to champion the successes of their leaders and politics… except that at every turn there are glaring examples of their failures. The medical service that has a reputation for being quite good, is doled out in aged facilities with peeling paint and flickering light bulbs. The schools and sporting facilities that sprouted after the revolution still have the same desks and basketballs, all just a lot more weathered and broken these days. Even the architecture and automobiles around Havana tell the same story, of a prosperous country that essentially slammed on the brakes when Fidel Castro’s motley crew rolled into town in 1959.
Some argue that pre-revolution Cuba had an alarming crime rate and a growing gap between the have’s and the have-not’s, and that the revolution brought a lot of positive social change. Sounds like a good thing, right? Except that I can’t help but see similarities in western countries during the first decade or two of their industrial revolutions – ghetto’s popping up in rapidly-growing cities, robber barons taking more than their fair share, and crooked politicians helping to keep the status quo. The difference is that these problems were addressed through reform rather than revolution and, by most estimations, the more moderate approach has built stronger economies.
So why do Cubans not see this? They get American TV and radio, so it’s not like they’re not cut off from the outside world like North Korea. They must see the prosperity that their government withholds from them, and yet they remain stolid on the subject. Maybe it’s a manana thing? I don’t know but here, again, I see the elephant.
I foresee Cuba changing, not through another revolution, but through the slow death of communism by a million cuts, and through the inability of their geriatric revolutionaries to stop a growing tidal wave of free enterprise. While this may be a good thing for Cubans, it will likely strip away much of quirkiness that makes the country so endearing to travelers. Gone will be the old 50’s jalopies, the curious decay, and the relatively naïve tourist industry. Sure, you’ll still have gorgeous beaches, a thriving arts scene, and beautiful landscapes but it just won’t be the same without that elephant in the room. So my advice is; go now, before the revolution succumbs to evolution.