As Raúl Castro’s government announces new policy changes, many are wondering if the authorities are finally loosening their grip and what this spells for the future. A trip to Havana revealed the reality in the streets, which defied preconceptions and easy classification.
By Sophie Wall
The recent flurry of news reports about potentially groundbreaking policy changes in Cuba happened to coincide with my return from a two-week stay on the anomaly of an island, where I volunteered for the community-run art project Muraleando.
To describe the planned developments in Cuba as ‘potentially ground breaking’ is admittedly sensationalist. The recent reports of more affordable and easily accessible internet and unrestricted bilateral relations with EU countries are seemingly some of the most significant developments to occur during the 55-year communist regime. Proposed policy change, however, does not necessarily equate to change on the ground. January 2013 saw President Raúl Castro announce unprecedented changes to immigration laws thanks to the abolition of the abhorred ‘white card’, an almost impossible-to-acquire exit document. In theory, this gave Cubans the long-awaited freedom to travel abroad, yet over a year later, the prospect of leaving the island remains a fantasy for the vast majority of the population. At 100 Cuban Convertible Currency (CUC), which is equal to 192.300 Colombian pesos, the cost of a passport alone is equivalent to 5 months’ earnings of the average Cuban citizen.
Furthermore, a news story of more scandalous proportions hit the headlines during my time away in early April. An attempt by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) to disrupt the Cuban government with a Twitter-like social media service, ZunZuneo, was sniffed out by Cuban authorities and shut down due to lack of funding in 2012. The US government and contractors of Zunzuneo insist that the project was neither covert nor subversive, but a service to break the “information blockade” imposed upon Cubans. According to the Associated Press, USAID’s goal was to surreptitiously incite “smart mobs”, or spontaneous political rallies, against Castro’s restrictive government; a Cuban Spring of sorts.
So, when I touched back down upon Colombian soil, everybody had a question about what was actually going on in the last bastion of communism. Due to its removal from the globalized world at large and its tight government control of all forms of expression, Cuba is an isolated bubble, or as dissident Cuban blogger Yoani Sánchez puts it: “the island of the disconnected”. The reality of Cuban life remains mysterious for those outside of its borders. After having had the enlightening experience of living and talking with Cubans at a moment of flux on the island, what could I tell them?
Since my last visit there three years ago, change has been brewing in the Latin American nation as the collapsed economy and decreasing salaries forced Raúl Castro to loosen his iron grip. Cubans are now permitted to buy and sell their houses and own more types of private business. As a result, street vendors, restaurant and shop owners, taxi and mule drivers, real estate agents, soap makers, party clowns and palm tree trimmers are among the 201 job roles that Cubans can legally undertake. According to statistics, business has flourished; the Miami Herald cited that in 2013 there were around 436,000 licensed self-employed people in Cuba, up from the less than 170,000 eight years ago when Fidel Castro retired. Although the new law is generating more money for Cubans and the State, as well as creating much needed supply for heavy demand, Cuba’s GDP remains sluggish at just 2.7% (almost an entire point below its 3.6% target), largely due to the debilitating trade embargo imposed by the US.
See a clip here of ‘BBC This World: Cuba with Simon Reeve’ for more on this new surge of private business in Cuba:
In late March, I arrived in Lawton, an area 15 minutes’ drive from central Havana, to volunteer with a community-run art project called Muraleando. As the name suggests (it translates as ‘muraling’ or mural-making), the project involves bringing art into public space and in turn strengthens the community, creating a ‘people’s art gallery’ for children and adults alike.
I settled in with a Cuban family and began two weeks of soldering, tiling and cementing, drinking coffee, eating congrí (Cuba’s most popular rice dish), playing with children and talking. Everyone from my host family to other young people I met on the streets of Lawton talked candidly with me as if I were a friend, and I got the impression that that is what they considered me to be. I had arrived with an embedded negativity towards Castro´s authoritarian system, tainted by poignant memories of unjust oppression from my first encounter with the country. Slowly, however, this steadfast stance began to be chipped away at. I was surrounded by limitless positivity at Muraleando, and more than a few were keen to tell me just how happy they were.
Although the mother and children of my host family were eager to highlight the limitations they faced as Cubans, they also talked proudly of the achievements communism had brought to Cuba. Over the space of two weeks we discussed their inability to travel, low wages, milk shortages, song lyric censoring, their lack of internet (the new reforms had apparently not come into effect yet), the expensive rates of phone calls and not being able to buy good quality phones due to extortionate prices. Over the same period, conversation covered low crime rates, the high quality education for all, the absence of serious drug problems and how, despite everything, they were content. Listening to the family, my prior extreme stance on Cuba’s politics no longer seemed to hold up; the idea of trading up authoritarian communism for democratic capitalism was overly simplistic. Cuba, as a friend from Havana used to repeatedly tell me, is “complicated”. Any discussion of its future would be so too.
Yoan, an artist and teacher in his late twenties, would often excitedly talk about his art, ideas and take on life in Cuba. He was unfalteringly optimistic. Recounting a story from his youth, in which he and his grandfather built a raft and sailed it down a lake together, he commented that “children in other countries have video consoles, but I don’t think many have the opportunity to do things like that”. I had to admit I had never sailed a raft with my grandfather. Victor, an ex-national gymnast and translator who had studied in Russia when Cuba still had its Soviet ally, was also effusive about his patriotism. He had travelled more extensively than any Cuban I had ever met, but he assured me that he had never been happier than in Cuba. “You see everybody laughing?” he would often repeat, “we may be poor, but we are the happiest people you will ever meet”. I broached the subject of the ‘special period’ with him, the extreme economic hardship during the early 1990’s. “We were starving” was his response, “but we were still happy”.
I couldn’t quite believe that Victor’s contentedness, even during Cuba’s most horrific episodes, mirrored the opinions of his countrymen and women. Although my previous perceptions about the ‘grim’ reality of Cuban life were softening, certain things continued to shock and disturb me. I met eight-year-old Yessika in the street and took her up on her offer to have coffee with her sister and mother. I immediately felt as if I were transgressing some societal code, as Yessika told me to walk ahead of her as we passed the police, because she would get in trouble if we were seen together.
The mood relaxed as her sister, Taina, seemed almost ecstatic to meet me and welcomed me into their bare home, which had one bed for the whole family. I discovered that Taina and I were the same age, she was a dance student before she had fallen pregnant, and that she and her mother were the sole carers of her baby. “Mi amiga, do you not have a child?” she asked me. I told her I didn’t. “Why not? Your 20 like me”. She had asked me so sweetly and with such honest intentions that I found myself mumbling some excuse about not having a boyfriend. The honest answer to her question felt impossible to give: having a child so young would hinder my progress towards making something of myself. We were standing in the same room, girls of the same age, but the opportunities and information available to me separated us into different worlds. Our differences hadn’t passed Taina by. “Amiga, look how poor we are! We have nothing!” she joked, in such a way that, unaccountably, I laughed with her. She wasn’t content, but like every other person I had met, she was infectiously upbeat.
Of course, not all young Cuban women sacrifice an education to raise children, and teenage pregnancies also happen in Britain. But Taina’s outlook was reflective of a system that offers little in the way of social mobility. If a Cuban can only ever hope to make a maximum of 20 CUC (almost 20.000 Colombian pesos) per month, and most probably less, then for those with very little, the future looks frustratingly limited. It is a concept most British youth could never fully comprehend, as there is often an opportunity to improve one’s social and economic situation, however slight.
Contrary to what might be assumed of a socialist State, Cuba doesn’t have a classless system. The class and wealth distinctions in Cuba may not be as extreme as those in the UK and Colombia, but some live far better than others. Those who work for or have connections to the government, for example, are incredibly wealthy compared to the average Cuban. Critics have long speculated over pictures of Fidel’s children enjoying the kinds of luxuries denied to everyday citizens: trips abroad, expensive dinners, games of golf. It is due to this inequality that the apparently booming private sector is not free game for all.
As the average Cuban wage is incredibly low compared to the price of goods in the country, despite the free housing, healthcare and education most have little opportunity to save. Without savings, starting a new business of any kind is virtually impossible, making the new private enterprise law changes more or less irrelevant for the masses. Yelen, the mother of my host family, had been working for over thirty years receiving the menial average wage. She supported herself and her three children by making her “dinerito” or ‘little money’, doing other people’s laundry on the weekends and giving manicures to neighbours. Even with her dinerito, she lacks the funds to set up a cafeteria below her house, conceding that “it’s only in central Havana, where there are lots of tourists, that people can make a lot of money here”. Considering that the amount I paid Yelen to stay a night in her house was almost equivalent to her monthly wage, it is easy to imagine the disparity between those who have a slice of the tourism pie, and those who don’t.
The reality of growing inequality in a more liberalized economy suggests that, although communism isn’t working, the introduction of capitalism would bring its own dangers. Economic freedom would undoubtedly bring prosperity, but it is in danger of mirroring the characteristics of ‘prosperity’ in other parts of the developing world: unequally distributed and benefiting only the privileged minority. Freddy Knaggs, a British student and Havana resident, told me that he “doesn’t think it is capitalism that the people are necessarily longing for here, just greater overall wealth and standard of living, a more equal spread of opportunities and the chance to provide for themselves and their families to a greater extent”.
However, Joseph Weiler, Professor of Law and European Union at New York University Law School, has argued that capitalism has brought with it a greater quality of life in almost every country where it has been introduced. So, capitalism may potentially bring freedom and prosperity to Cuba, but there is an important question of pace to be considered.
Cult Cuban author Pedro Juan Gutiérrez doesn’t welcome a swift and savage end to the regime. “All the changes that (the government) are putting in place in Cuba are being implemented gradually, slowly, taking great care, as is evident. I believe it’s the best way,” he revealed to El Espectador. “If the government acts hastily, makes rushed decisions, everything may well fall apart and that would be much worse. The situation in my country is extraordinarily complex, and I repeat that the government does well to take steps with care, taking their time. There is no other way to do it”.
Despite the regime’s unrelenting control, according to some experts, the US still has the potential to exert great influence over Cuba’s future. The US “is a country that committed and still commits a great historical error with Cuba: the embargo”, Joseph Weiler told El Espectador. “If the US simply were to declare the markets open, were to free up immigration and treat Cuba like Canada, the Cuban regime would collapse in six months, it would be unsustainable. So, that political American error ends up sustaining the regime it opposes”. While Weiler recognizes the positive role the EU can play in Cuban development, he stresses that “the Cuban problem […] will only be resolved when the US realizes […] it must open up everything […] because one cannot sustain repression when it is side by side with freedom. It simply becomes illegitimate”.
Additionally, more and more American citizens are starting to criticize the blockade they have supported for decades. With the 2011 changes in immigration laws, thousands of American tourists have been able to pour into the neighbouring Caribbean island, strictly on tightly controlled package tours. The result has been revelatory; a recent survey cited by the BBC in February revealed that 88% of American tourists return from Cuba less likely to support US sanctions against it. British student Freddy Knaggs echoed this changing tide of opinion: “It is a collective punishment of the people”, he told El Espectador, “and incredibly inhumane”. The rising call for an end to the blockade is no longer just coming from within Cuba’s boundaries, but from voices worldwide.
I wasn’t exposed to the darkest acts of the Cuban government, unlikely to be visible to a visitor of two weeks. The so-called ‘Black Spring’ of 2003, when peaceful protesters speaking out against the regime were brutally attacked and detained for years, epitomized the strangling of free speech that occurs regularly in the country. Blogger Yoani Sanchez and many of her journalist contemporaries have been shut down by authorities and the majority of Cubans are denied the right to the internet, where they would be exposed to a world of diverse opinions. Events that might potentially involve anti-government discourse are frequently shut down, and despite policy changes most Cubans are, in reality, trapped on the island. It is on these points that the Cuban regime commits its gravest offenses against its people.
While recognizing Cuba’s oppression and poor conditions, it would be ingenuous to characterize it in such linear and morose terms. During my most recent stay at Muraleando, I met people who were passionate, empowered and happy, creating a civil society that was growing in scope and size. Everyone had very little money but had security, safety and a strong sense of community. While Muraleando represents just one small slice of the Cuban reality, I can’t help but admire what is happening in Lawton, and what it says about Cuba. Comparing London to Havana, where the poorest sectors of society rarely live in safe neighbourhoods or have access to a good education, and the demands of low wage employment come at the expense of civil society, I couldn’t ignore how some Cubans appeared to live more happily than their English counterparts. Good living conditions, from this perspective, are not an assured result of access to free markets and greater potential for wealth.
Everything I have discussed in this article leaves the question of Cuba’s future political and economic path ambiguously open. Communism isn’t working, but as Pedro Juan Gutiérrez points out, any drastic change could leave Cuba worse off than it already is, with rising inequality or, even more worryingly, with consequences that mirror those of the Arab Spring. The changes in Cuba are frustratingly slow for many, but they are happening at a more accelerated rate than ever seen before during Fidel Castro’s reign. Perhaps, if Gutiérrez’s take is anything to go by, “there is no other way to do it”.
*All photos taken by Deborah Danelly