The Social Repercussions of the Crisis

September 25, 2007


Being a loyal revolutionary who worked within the system used to have its rewards. In today's Cuba, by contrast, those who get ahead seem to be the hustler, the people with generous relatives in Miami, and the new managers of the joint ventures with foreign capital.

By Deidre McFadyen

A joke was making the rounds in Havana this spring: Boasting that he's a waiter from Varadero, Cuba's premier beach resort, a guy at a bar offers to buy a round of drinks for all the patrons in the house. When the time comes to pay up, it turns out that he doesn't have any money. The bar owner calls the police, who arrest the fellow and throw him in jail. His wife arrives and pleads with the police to let her husband go. "Señores," she begs, "my husband loses his head when he drinks. He doesn't have the money to be buying drinks for everyone. He's only a brain surgeon. "

The joke captures the contradictions that have emerged in Cuba–and in Havana in particular–in the wake of the country's partial embrace of capitalism. A waiter at a beach resort earns many times more money than a university professor or surgeon. Such a reversal of the social pyramid is a particular affront in a country which has striven to provide educational opportunities for its citizens. Today, those who do more skilled and valuable work earn less because their income is in Cuban pesos, not U.S. dollars. "It's completely unjust, from any point of view and in any economy," says Cuban writer and poet Guillermo Rodríguez. "It's craziness, but it's happening."

Economic crises by their very nature have a ripple effect in the social and political spheres of life. The Cuban economic crisis, however, has had distinctive social repercussions because it is experienced by a population steeped in the beliefs, memories and aspirations born of 36 years of revolutionary socialism. The values that the Cuban revolution has inculcated–from esteeming social equality and basic social rights, to a belief in state responsibility for social well being–have proven more enduring than the economic structures upon which they were based. The contradictions that have emerged as a consequence of the govemment's uneven application of free-market remedies are, however, chipping away at those very values.

Life in Cuba today is rife with paradox. The country has opened its doors to foreign capital, yet only grudgingly has the government begun to permit self-employment and small Cuban-owned businesses. "Everyone," the complaint goes, "can be a capitalist in Cuba except Cubans." Cubans earn pesos, the national currency, but Havana's new restaurants and stores sell consumer items in dollars. A man who refills cigarette lighters on a street comer makes 15 times more money than a teacher. A pound of pork in the new farmers' markets costs 35 pesos, one-third of the monthly salary of a laborer earning the minimum wage (the equivalent, say, of a $200 hamburger).

These paradoxes have their root in the dual economy that emerged in the early 1990s, when severe shortages in the state-owned stores gave rise to a flourishing black market of items siphoned off from the state sector. This clandestine trade was conducted in dollars, which Cubans were forbidden to possess. In September, 1993, after a long, hot summer of frequent black-outs and brewing discontent, the government decriminalized the possession of dollars by Cubans–a step that temporarily relieved pent-up social tensions, but released other powerful economic and social forces.

Today, while daily life for most Cubans is onerous, business is booming in the capitalist pockets of Havana. New music stores with the latest CDs by Silvio Rodríguez and Jerry Rivera are opening up. Ensconced in the well-to-do neighborhood of Miramar is a vast, modern supermarket with shelves stocked with such precious commodities as cooking oil, rib steak and laundry detergent. Aché, a glitzy discotheque in the high-rise Spanish luxury hotel Cohíba, was the talk of Havana this spring. The entry fee is ten U.S. dollars. Young Cuban women, dressed in sexy outfits, hang out near the entrance, hopeful that a tourist seeking companionship will take them in. While the average Cuban still wages a daily battle to put food on the table, a Cuban with dollars can dine on grilled swordfish at a luxury Chinese restaurant on Calle 23, or a hot-dog and french fries at the fast-food joint El Pollito.

Not only are unmet needs greater than they were in the past, but this need exists side-by-side with private abundance. While tourism may be the primary culprit, it is not only foreigners who are partaking of the "good life." The legalization of the dollar has created a situation where the 85% of Cubans without regular access to dollars now look on with envy at the minority who can enjoy the fruits of the dollar economy. "I am struck by the quantity of purchases in dollars that for me are superfluous: hot dogs, Coca-Colas, beer," says Arturo Arango, the editor of La Gaceta, a literary periodical published by the Cuban writers' union UNEAC. "The cafes are always full of people consuming, which means that many people have dollars or a few people have a lot of money. But these are things that aren't clear to anyone. It seems difficult to maintain social equality won by the revolution in a place where the economy is so chaotic."

All Cubans are still guaranteed a baseline standard of living, and free access to health care and education. That baseline in the post-1989 "special period," however, is much lower than before, and the quality of social services is declining. While such hardships as black-outs are remarkably democratic–wiping out power in whole neighborhoods except for houses which happen to share an electricity line with a tourist hotel–the Cuban population is becoming less economically homogeneous. A Cuban's standard of living is now largely determined by his or her access to the dollar economy.

The most common source of dollars is remittances from relatives abroad, a fact which has significant political implications. Up until the late 1980s, regular contact with one's family in exile would disqualify a Cuban from being a militant of the Communist Party or a mass organization such as the Union of Communist Youth. Now loyal revolutionaries who cut ties with their relatives abroad have been left holding the short end of the stick. People who maintained relations or reforged them when the crisis hit are living most comfortably.

Many of those without a pipeline to Miami are inventing ways to earn dollars by hook or by crook. There is tremendous pressure on the labor force to emigrate from the traditional sector of the economy–where the vast majority of people work–to the newly emerging dollar sector. Not only does this chase for dollars distort the economy, but it represents the encroachment of the capitalist jungle of "every man for himself" on the socialist ethic of "from each according to his ability, to each according to his need."

On a stroll one evening near the Malecón waterfront, a friend and I were approached by over 25 men offering us taxi services (with their own unlicensed cars), and half a dozen selling rum (which they were reselling from state quotas). The need for hard currency also explains why a marine biologist stopped working at his laboratory for two weeks in order to drive me around Havana in his old Lada for twenty dollars a day. Other schemes are cooked up daily. A small business selling dishes improvised from tin cans, for instance, sprouted up outside an ice-cream parlor short on serving dishes. A handyman set up a table on the sidewalk, offering to fix pots and pans for a couple of dollars.

Those at the very bottom of the scale–the baseline survivors–have no access whatsoever to dollars. Cubans say that the easiest way to distinguish this sector of the population is by their smell. Since the stateowned stores have not been able to provide very much soap, people with only pesos do not bathe frequently enough. In a society as conscious of cleanliness as Cuba, body odor carries a significant social stigma.

From its birth in 1959, the Cuban revolution has drawn its legitimacy from two basic sources: it restored a sense of national sovereignty, and it offered equitable social development. While hostile U.S. policy still serves to buttress Fidel Castro's role as defender of the nation, changing historical circumstances have eroded the structures of social equity, including the government's ability to maintain its generous social-welfare policies. Because for decades the state was the primary benefactor of goods and services, it is understandable that it has become, rightly or wrongly, a popular target of blame. "I think that the people who express frustration are, above all, the people who grew accustomed to the paternalism of the state," says Arturo Arango, the La Gaceta editor. "They expected the state to resolve everything, and now feel betrayed."

Cubans are less likely than, say, their Bolivian or Guatemalan counterparts to passively accept their plight because they had grown accustomed to a certain standard of living, and remember how it was before. Around the dinner table of the family with whom I stayed in Havana, when talk turned to how hard life had become, Inna, a housewife in her 50s, would rattle off to me the litany of products that she used to buy in years past. "There was yogurt, oranges, chicken, cheese, spaghetti," she would begin, her eyes widening with the memory. "What generates social instability is not poverty, but impoverishment," explains Gerardo González, a researcher at the Center for the Study of the Americas (CEA).

Beyond generating discontent, the economic crisis has shot arrows at the pride that Cubans have in their nation. Through its cultural industries, all of which are now on the ropes, the revolution represented itself and engaged in an on-going process of self-criticism and redefinition. Cuba produced ten new films a year on average in the early 1980s: today it is lucky if it produces two, often as coproductions with European studios (as was the case with Strawberry and Chocolate). The country’s respected publishing industry has significantly reduced its output, and Havana's prestigious bookstores have closed their doors or converted to dollar sales. In a telling metaphor of an arts industry under siege, I stayed in the home of a Cuban actor away in Colombia working on a soap opera. Rather than scarce toilet paper, the family provided me with a stack of old play scripts.

In smaller ways too, Cubans feel their personal dignity challenged. Ordinary Cubans are rebuffed by hotel doormen if they try to enter the lobby of the Havana Libre, a symbol of the revolution's triumph and a marker of the city skyline. One woman told me how incensed she was that a new chain of restaurants had taken the name "EI Cubanito," despite the fact that they don't accept pesos. Even the physical currency has lost its luster. When I tried to repay the bus fare I had borrowed from a young Cuban friend, he turned his nose up at the proffered pesos, telling me to keep them.

"What it means to be Cuban is in crisis," says Cuban writer Ambrosio Fornet, summing up the tumultuous feelings that the crisis has provoked. "There is a joke that for me is the most cruel that I have ever heard. A Cuban child, when asked what she wants to be when she grows up, responds: ‘a foreigner.’”

Because of its significant social, cultural and scientific achievements and because of the United States' persistent hostility, the Cuban revolution has built up a large reserve of good will in the majority of the population. A December, 1994 Miami Herald survey found, for example, that 48% of Cubans identified themselves as "revolutionaries," and only three percent considered politics the country's most scrious, problem.

Nevertheless, the economic crisis and the contradictions of contemporary life are taking their toll. Until recently, being a loyal revolutionary and working within the system had its rewards: a good job, food on the table, and the pride of being a citizen of a country successfully pursuing a socialist path of development. In today's Cuba, by contrast, those who get ahead seem to be the hustlers, the people with generous relatives in Miami, and the new managers of the joint ventures between the Cuban state and foreign capital. For the average Cuban, playing by the rules no longer pays off. Indeed, what exactly the rules are is unclear and keeps changing, while their rationale is a mystery to many. The present conjuncture has stimulated the creative juices of the island's intelligentsia, prompting them to rethink the meaning of socialism and to seek avenues out of the present crisis. For the average Cuban, however, the last five years have been merely difficult and confusing.

Deidre McFadyen is associate editor of NACLA Report on the Americas.

Tags: Cuba, special period, currency, black market, free markets

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