A tobacco worker takes a break by a curing shed. Photo by Stephen Wescott
We have been back from Cuba for about a month and I am still sorting it out in my head. As I said before, it is a far more complicated place than I expected to find. My fellow adventurers continue to email new articles and books they are finding about Cuba, suggesting that they also are trying to reconcile what we experienced.
What do I mean? Well, for starters, this is a communist country, right? I am not a terribly political person, but my understanding of communism is that the state owns everything, and the state redistributes the wealth. People work for the state and the state provides for their needs. That might work IF there is wealth. But what if the country is not wealthy, has few lucrative exports, is relatively small, and has 11 million citizens? Then the wealth that is redistributed to the many citizens is insufficient to support their basic needs. Oh, but what if there is another communist country that is able to provide support, especially when the first country is strategically located near the second country’s greatest enemy? That can work! But then the first country relies on the second country, and when IT then experiences problems…the first country is last in line for the support. When the Soviet Union collapsed, that prop was gone and Cuba crashed into its “Special Period,” which is a strange way of labeling a time when people were starving. In more recent times, Venezuela and China have helped, but clearly this is not a sustainable solution.
Many people will cite the U.S. trade embargo on Cuba as the source of the problems. While that has certainly not helped the Cuban economy, they do have other trading partners and they do, actually, receive imports from the U.S. – one report claims that the U.S. is the 5th largest exporter to Cuba. One Cuban tourism professional we talked with said that the embargo should be lifted, but a lift of travel restrictions would do more to help the average Cuban.
A driver leans on his taxi. Photo by Stephen Wescott
The increase in tourism is helping. We found ourselves tipping everyone, including professionals such as architects and biologists for the park system. It felt strange to be tipping people I consider my peers, and it may have been strange for them to be accepting them, but it is survival. I have been told that professionals such as doctors and biologists are giving up their jobs to drive taxis, to enable them to get tips from tourists. The more recent ability to take in paying guests into homes, or open private restaurants is an acknowledgement that the state payments to their workers is insufficient to sustain them.
The Cubans we met were very friendly and happy to see Americans. Martha was greeted warmly by this cigar salesman. Photo courtesy of Martha Clatterbaugh
Despite their at least implicit acknowledgement that the current system does not work, the people we talked with about these subjects are very resistant to any sort of outside interference. After learning more about the Bay of Pigs incident, I can completely understand it. But without a free press, how do you know what is inside, and what is outside, interference? For instance, our guide, Frank, was very adamant that a well-known dissident blogger from Cuba was supported by Cuban exiles’ (so now American) money and therefore suspect. When I asked him how, without a free press, he could be sure of that, he sort of admitted that he couldn’t.