Observations From Cuba

Alex Sadler, Johns Hopkins University:

Notice: I am a senior at Johns Hopkins University spending my fall
semester studying in Havana, Cuba. The following article is based off
of my first five weeks living in Havana. The names and details of
those mentioned have been changed.

Boarding the plane for my 30-minute flight from Miami to Havana, I had – admittedly – little idea of what I was getting myself into. Friends who had gone to Cuba last semester told me that the food selection would be limited, the Wi-Fi would be rare, and that old cars would be everywhere. My first week in Cuba, the anecdotes I had learned all proved to be true. It’s been five weeks and there hasn’t been a day without rice and beans. The only places I use Wi-Fi are at the student center where I have class MondayThursday and a few hotels that charge by the hour. As for the cars, it’s the first thing many of us Americans think about when we think of Cuba. And it’s true, there are old cars everywhere. But they’re almost exclusively used as communal taxis known as almendrones. What most Americans don’t know is that there are also many modern cars and even luxury brands like Audi, BMW, and Mercedes Benz. The misconception extends further than just cars.

Upon arriving in Cuba, the biggest shock I found were the not-so-discrete signs of major financial inequalities in the country. With Cuba running on a socialist-based economy, I assumed that people would be – for the most part – on similar financial footing throughout the country. What I found shocked me.

I live in the Vedado neighborhood in a picturesque apartment right on the Malecón – a beautiful sea-side highway. My apartment is surrounded by shopping centers including stores like Nike and Puma where you can buy a pair of sneakers for three times the price of its American counterpart. In a state where the average monthly salary equates to USD30 a month, I had a hard time understanding who had the money to afford these prices. Soon, it became apparent.

Our living situation in Cuba is a bit complicated. The study abroad program rented out a three-bedroom apartment for the six of us. The family that rents out our apartment lives across the hall in their own cushy apartment. My first reaction was curiosity. How does a Cuban family making USD30 a month afford to maintain and furnish a second apartment?

While it is illegal for non-Cubans to own housing in Cuba, there is a loophole. My host-mom, a Spaniard named Juliana, was able to purchase her apartment and my apartment with her money. But on the title for both apartments, the owner is listed as her husband, Mario. I soon learned that this was not an uncommon practice. In my building I began to meet many couples like Juliana and Mario, a foreigner married to a local.

Renting out apartments in my neighborhood has become an incredibly profitable endeavor in the last decade. The standard going rate for one room in Vedado is USD40 a night. Juliana and Mario make more in one night than the average Cuban worker makes in a month. Juliana, a political scientist, and Mario, an engineer, no longer feel the need to work as they know they’ll be earning pennies to what they’re making now. Even workers who switched to the small, but growing private market continue to struggle financially.

Paula, the woman who cleans our apartment and does our laundry, is a certified accountant. But at 50 years old she has already spent more than 20 years working in the private maid service. She told me that yes, while being a housekeeper was more profitable than working as an accountant for the state, she still struggled tremendously to get by. As an example, she showed me her clothes. A red tank-top, jean shorts, and flip flops. An outfit she purchased for USD35. She bought her clothes six months ago. Today, she continues to pay off her outfit in monthly quotas. Compare that to my host-mom who is preparing for her bi-monthly weekend trip to Panama to buy electronics for her and her
family. The inequality is staggering.

There’s a reason why it is not uncommon to find doctors working as taxi drivers or lawyers selling street food. In the highly educated superpower that is Cuba, there are limited opportunities for economic growth. Although the growing private sector is changing the economic landscape, Cubans are quick to air their frustrations with the country’s financial struggles.

Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Cuba lost a key partner and trade supplier in the Soviet Union. This plunged the country into a deep, economic crisis known here as the “Special Period”. Many argue that the country is still embroiled in the period and that the country will never revert back to its successful times of the 1970’s and 80’s unless it can negotiate a beneficial trade deal with the United States. While many frustrations are directed at the Cuban government by Cuban citizens, the United States has undoubtedly played a big role. Havana is littered with cartels urging Cuba’s northern neighbors to stop “the longest genocide in history” and reverse the crippling embargo.

In the meantime, Cubans continue to make-do with what they have. While there are regular shortages of common items like eggs and paper, the country continues to provide a strong safety net for its people. Medical care is readily available, the homeless population is next to non-existent, and every child receives a strong, government-run education.

Fidel Castro celebrated his 90th birthday in August. And while he is still adored by most Cubans, the sentiment is not the same for his younger brother and current President, Raúl. The island nation is ready for a political change. That change begins with the United States. Everyone here is ready to welcome the U.S. back into the Cuban economy. The decision to end the embargo rests on Congress’s shoulders and the question remains, are Paul Ryan’s feelings mutual?


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