Roger Marolt: Feeling like the last Americans in Cuba
“When I fall asleep, I feel I have one foot on the homeland and the other in jail.” Our Cuban guide was candid after we concluded our tour of the city at his home. The shot of rum we shared as a toast to new friendship appeared to bolster his courage.
The day before had been lighthearted by comparison. With another guide, we toured rooftop bars, traveling between in antique convertible taxis. The cars were late 1940s or early ’50s vintage, but nearly every part has been replaced; all with diesel engines, 1980s modern wheels, maybe a Hyundai steering wheel. None of this is surprising on vehicles that have perhaps logged over a million miles carting tourists for the past 60 years and being repaired by their drivers with limited access to parts. As with everything else in the country, most of the taxis are owned by the government.
Our treasure hunter of rum drinks, between sips and pointing out views, admitted there are problems with the communists, as there are with all governments, but in Cuba there are good things, too.
Everybody has food, even if they don’t work. Everybody is provided a place to live, including utilities. Everybody gets a free education. Everybody has free health care. There is almost no serious crime in Cuba. There are no guns or drugs. But, yes, he admitted, alcoholism is an issue.
A bad part of communism? He informed us there is a government person living on every block. They are ostensibly there to help; you tell them there is a street light burnt out in front of your apartment, for example, and they get it fixed. The truth, however, is that they are more like spies. They watch. You bring a new television set into your house. They know you can’t afford it on your salary. They keep notes.
We noticed very little panhandling. It is not frowned upon, our guide said, but nobody begs because everybody knows the would-be beggars don’t need food or shelter. If they have their hand out, they want booze.
It is a lot to sleep on. We bombard a new guide the next day with questions. He was an economist.
We learned a Cuban surgeon makes the equivalent of $42 a month. That’s $10 to $12 more than anyone else, but not nearly enough to live on. So, there is a secondary economy. It is where “search” happens. Search is an illegal way to make money from your real job. If you work in a perfume factory, you steal perfume to sell. A doctor might steal medicines from the hospital. Working at the meat processing plant is one of the best jobs because it is illegal to kill cows in Cuba, except for the government, and beef, while commonly served to tourists, is scarce for everyone else.
The joke of Cuban hierarchy is: first tourists, second cows, and third citizens.
“Nothing gets done, but it is not because we are lazy,” the economist said. “There is no incentive. They pretend to pay us, so we pretend to work. But, in the secondary economy, we are all entrepreneurs.”
The most sinister part of the secondary market is that the government tacitly allows it. This is not to help its citizens, although it does financially. It is to “let off steam” from the “pressure cooker” that government-controlled life on the island is. Mostly, however, it is so that the government “has something” on everyone. They can put anyone in jail at anytime for this. Neighbors disappear without explanation. All lawyers work for the government.
As for the benefits, free health care can take weeks. Housing is in great disrepair and you live in the same place as your grandparents. Free food is primarily a steady stream of rice and beans and is precisely barely enough. Progression in free education is based on aptitude tests. There is little reported crime and, yet, everyone is a criminal because of the second economy.
“We are more than 60 years from the Revolution and the country only gets worse,” a taxi driver told us. “Where is the promised prosperity?” There is not a recession or depression, as we would call it. It is only a “special period” necessary to get through to complete the vaunted change.
There doesn’t appear to be much love lost on America. Obama came too late. Trump is evil. Propaganda is ubiquitous. Yet, they welcome the U.S. tourists and many would like to live here.
Most who are not high members of the communist party want to leave. On the surface, there are no laws preventing this. The reality is that almost nobody can. The mercurial cost of an exit card and the price of an airline ticket render leaving a dream.
In the meantime, if you ask a resident on the streets of Havana how things are going, they answer as honestly as they dare: “I can’t complain.”
Roger Marolt has never felt less relaxed on a vacation or returned more invigorated. Email at email@example.com.
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