We humans live in a variety of screwy systems created by ourselves. Within those systems there are people who supposedly have power, and some who don’t. There are people who supposedly are rich, and some who aren’t. There are people who supposedly take advantage, and some who won’t. Our thoughts, opinions and actions are certainly formed in part by the influences of our social status in whatever screwy system we might inhabit. Yet it is possible to ignore these fabricated skins, to stand face to face with another human, equal and free of divisive measure. I found that with a guy named Julio.
We made Cuba our first vacation destination of the year because we wanted to see it before it changed too much, before the free market crept in. Indeed we saw a lot. We saw more than we expected. And that’s usually why one travels, right? — to see other people, places and things. What was most unexpected, for me personally, was that nearly every person I met in Cuba unknowingly served as a mirror of sorts, turning me into the object of my tourism; I couldn’t help but consider my nationality and relative wealth with every interaction. I was constantly reminded of my status as a tourist, in part because there are many things that are legal for tourists but not for Cubans, such as staying in a hotel. Rules like these have loosened in the last decade, lessening the apartheid, but still it exists, glowing with injustices. Since tourists are given their own social class, I often felt like a voyeur more than visitor. It’s as if I was paying a premium to observe people living in a system that’s clashes so severely with the one I live in.
Before I get to Julio and what he taught us, a little anecdote to elaborate the theme. We were wandering one night in Old Havana trying to decide on a dinner spot. We were struck by the music at the Chinese restaurant in Old Havana so we got a street-side table. The singer/guitarist was an old man. He was obviously drunk and as he talked between songs his partner had to chill him out once or twice at the request of the manager. He sat very close to us and his voice betrayed a certain pain in his heart. He sang passionately. When we told him we were from the United States he responded by raising his hands and exclaimed, “Oh, how wooonderful. We are brothers then.” His tone at once hinted at sarcasm and genuine happiness. For what it’s worth, he certainly didn’t have the same reaction when the table of six next to us divulged that they were from Spain. I am confident in my ability to sense dis-ingenuousness, nonetheless gauging the musician’s true meaning was difficult. Regardless, he was supremely entertaining and obviously passionate about his music; the dinner and the evening as a whole was wonderful.
Now, adding to the wonderful evening was this old be-ragged lady on the other side of the street, gently dancing to the music I described above. She stayed through our whole dinner. No too long ago I imagine she would have been removed from the street by police or not even allowed in that neighborhood in the first place. We were happy she was there enjoying herself. She looked free.
One quickly learns that everyone has a hustle in Cuba (people make money there in ways that would be possible nowhere else), which puts one on guard a bit — “What’s this guy really want?” was the background mantra to most social interactions. Julio was the one person we met whom I could look in the eye and feel a sense of equality, stripped of the status markers. I never thought he was trying to con us in any way. We sat down with him at the cafe in Callejón de Hamel and he described at length the quality and habits of his life in Havana. He’s a baker by day, and every other weekend he drums at the Santeria dances that occur there. For his baking, he makes about $10 a month (paid in Cuban Pesos).
An economic aside: In 1993, Cuba created a currency that was meant to be used alongside the US Dollar, by tourists alone. Since 2004 the US dollar has been removed from circulation, supposedly to retaliate against continued US sactions and the CUC is still valued at 1-1 with the US dollar. What has happened is that the CUC is being used for most everything now, by everyone. The Cuban Peso, which is 1/25th the CUC, is only used in some markets, food stands and places where tourists originally were not allowed to patronize. Think about it, a beer costs 1 CUC. That’s 1/10 of Julio’s monthly salary. Shoes, clothes and anything from a supermarket fall in the same category, just more expensive than a beer. You can see why everyone has a hustle.
But constantly having to hustle wears on a person. In Julio’s mind, the great problem for the people of Cuba is that the government values them less than it values tourists. To illustrate this, Julio said I could go up to a policeman and tell a lie about Julio stealing my money and Julio would swiftly be locked away. No trial, just complete preference for the tourist. The state wants the tourists’ money and doesn’t really care that the average Cuban has trouble feeding his family. Some Cubans, like himself, get up and don’t know where their next meal will be, but they stay happy (at least in front of tourists), and dance, and play music, in order to forget the present; and in the end they don’t have hope for the future, neither short- nor long-term.
We also learned from Julio that teachers make about $25/month and policemen slightly more. Doctors only make about $30 a month. I can’t say I disagree with teachers making almost as much as doctors, but I dislike that neither salary is a living wage. We also learned that medical care is free and top notch. And education is free and relatively good. People receive rations for their households — rice, beans, soap, bath soap, toothpaste, jam, cooking oil and some other things are on the list, though some months certain items just don’t come. “And then, where’s the chicken, or meat?” asked Julio, “it’s in the stores for $2/lb.” You could go outside Havana to buy directly from a farmer but it’s illegal and also would require transportation.
Hiring a taxi here is not cheap. So if you are a Cuban with a nice classic car, you are a taxi driver, and as such you can make $40 a day pretty easily. Old cars need a lot of work though, and gas costs 1 CUC/liter, which is more expensive than in some parts of the US. Classic cars from the 50’s don’t get great mileage, either.
A Spanish soccer game was on TV in the cafe. Julio mentioned that when soccer games are on TV the state will switch it off for a few seconds if the announcers start talking about how much money the players or coaches make. Obviously its not an effective way of censoring information because the people need only ask a tourist, but still, it’s interesting to note.
After chatting with Julio in the cafe, he invited us around the corner to see his home. We accepted, and the video below (low-quality, I apologize) shows a typical Cuban home in Havana. I learned later that it was risky for Julio to take us into his home and talk openly with us because if the police witnessed it, they would take his information and hold him responsible if something were to happen to us during the remainder of our vacation.
Our list of things not to take for granted multiplied during this trip. Let me finish by simply stating that we were relative millionaires in Cuba and it was a difficult thing. We were generous with tips and outright gifts, but not as generous as I know deep down we should have been. And that’s where the crux of the difficulty is, I suppose.