Cuba’s Most Pressing Problems / Eduardo Martinez

Trash overflowing and collecting around the available dumpsters at Aquila and Estrella Streets in Havana. Photo by Orlando Freire Santana

Primavera Digital, Eduardo Martínez Rodríguez El Cerro, Havana, 5 September 2017 — We list here the most pressing problems faced by average Cubans:

1-A greatly reduced ration book of subsidized foods. High prices in the markets. Very little on offer in the stores. Relatively cheap goods of horrendous quality. In an island surrounded by water there is no fish. Fishing is not permitted.

2-Total sustained inflation of 1000%. Constant reduction of the average Cuban’s buying power. continue reading

3-Almost total absence of locally produced or imported cosmetics and perfumes. Scarce, poor and expensive supply of clothing and shoes. Shortages of detergents, toilet paper, soaps, etc.

4-Terrible public transportation in a constant state of decay. Very expensive taxis. Private alternative drivers greatly harassed by police and inspectors who stringently enforce technical and aesthetic standards for which they provide no support.

5-Extremely high and burdensome taxes imposed on all private businesses, absence of incentives, no wholesale market, absence of low tariffs, barriers to importing, excessive and corrupt bureaucracy, great number of regulations and prohibitions that obstruct free enterprise, etc.

6-Abysmal state of the never-finished National Highway and of urban and rural roads throughout the country, where no work to reverse this situation can be seen. Advanced and irrecoverable (in terms of planning and current economic possibilities) deterioration of the housing stock and all urban infrastructure. Railway lines that are technologically backward, save those that have to do with access to the Port of Mariel.

7-Obsolete airports. New and more severe customs restrictions on the entry of merchandise and products when in fact the opposite should be the case, if the objective is to incentivize minimal but effective commerce. Impossibility of importation by private individuals or entities.

8-Dual monetary system*. When the Cuban Convertible Peso (CUC) is eliminated it will leave only the Cuban Peso (CUP) along with the exorbitantly high current prices. A median monthly salary consists of little more than 300 CUP monthly, while the cost of living for that same period is 2500 CUP.

9-High unemployment, not officially recognized.

10-The presence on the streets of a high number of uniformed police officers, members of State Security, and of inspectors who obstruct private enterprise and public life.

11-Exceedingly high emigration, especially of young and highly qualified professionals. Very low birth rate and very rapid aging of the population.

12-High housing deficit. Scarce and very expensive construction materials. Properties being bought-up by foreigners hiding behind national residents, incentivized by (for them) low real estate prices compared with those in their own countries.

13-Highly censored news media that don’t report on many matters of national and international interest. Scant possibility of accessing the Internet. Dreadful radio and television programming. Culture that is mediated and restricted by a Ministry that inhibits and prohibits more than it encourages, supports or represents.

14-Bad education with non-systematic improvisation of evaluative measures (such as oral exams for the 12th grade). Low expectations of students, indifference and apathy on their part for a future devoid of interest.

15-Bad medical and health services throughout the Island in light of the acute shortage of professionals for so many residents. Chronic absence of primary and secondary medications. An abusive black market in health care and products. The appalling state of public hospitals. Full waiting rooms but an extreme dearth of personnel given the exporting of the healthcare labor force to work in foreign countries in exchange for hard currency paid directly to the government.

16-Very little possibility of accessing recreation centers.

17-Violence, aggressiveness and widespread coarseness in the streets. High social indiscipline as a consequence of the sharp and sustained economic crisis in the country. The appearance of uncollected trash heaps around insufficient or very deteriorated garbage cans–founts of stink, mosquitoes and disease–on the corners of not very privileged or centrally located neighborhoods. The appearance of legions of dumpster divers (barehanded garbage pickers, usually old or chronically displaced persons) in search of recyclable aluminum cans, empty soda bottles that can be sold to private entrepreneurs, remains of edible food, anything that can be sold to unsuspecting buyers, etc. These ladies and gentlemen care little about order and hygiene, and they contribute to the nation’s urban disaster.

18-The ruling class is not interested in any type of aid from the North Americans, for they fear that–as will happen anyway, as is in fact already happening–their power will quickly slip through their fingers, and in six months time this country will become another Puerto Rico.

eduardo57@nauta.cu

Translator’s Notes:

*Cuba has two currencies: Cuban pesos (CUP), worth about 4 cents US, and Cuban Convertible pesos (CUC), each worth 25 Cuban pesos, or about one dollar US. It has been a longstanding, but as yet unfulfilled, promise of the government to move to a single currency.

Translated By:  Alicia Barraqué Ellison

How Does the Cuban Survive? / Eduardo Martínez

Primavera Digital, Eduardo Martínez Rodríguez, Havana, 31 July 2017 — In the 1960s and even the 70s, the legitimacy of the system–despite its continuous economic fiascos and failure to achieve an adequate and genuinely Cuban social system–was acceptable for the hopeful lower classes, while the middle and upper classes were fleeing to Miami.

Fifty-eight years after the triumph of the Revolution and still under the same regime, we ask ourselves the same questions, and many more besides.

The so-called Special Period began in 1990, a crisis from which, more than a quarter-century later, we have been unable to emerge. But the government obstinately insists on committing the same errors that produced the misfortunes of today. continue reading

This system appears equitable in theory, but in practice (the evaluative test of truth) it has proven to be dysfunctional.

The government attempts to improve and change the system, but in practice, nothing improves and nothing changes.

Of what use has been the enormous propaganda expounded around the Economic Guidelines and the last two Congresses of the Communist Party?  What changes have effectively improved the very precarious living standard of the Cuban people?

A foreigner might ask, “What is this man saying? What ‘very precarious living standard,’ when in fact they have government-guaranteed basic subsistence, free education, unbeatable social security, and enviable health care comparable to the best in the world?” He might think that I am a “mercenary on the imperialist payroll.” But whoever thinks this way does himself little favor. We shall speak of these matters…

The changes the government has made–to allow for a certain degree of self-employment in minute private businesses–improve the living standard of a few very determined entrepreneurs who, come hell or high water, are trying to earn incomes that will provide them a decent existence.

But these individuals are few and far between, and they have a difficult time of it, given the great number of erratic and disorganized regulations, the stress of inspectors and functionaries constantly hanging around demanding the expected and the unexpected, the high cost and difficulty of obtaining inputs, and the draconian taxes that must be paid to agencies that provide no type of security, facilities or guarantees for the work they supposedly regulate. And there is no wholesale market to lower prices and provide some assurance of supplies, preventing start-up merchants from snatching up all available materials needed by individuals.

Up until a few years ago, everything was guaranteed. You would work for the State until the age of 60, then retire with a little pension that would support you until death. Today, nothing is guaranteed. Nothing.

Of what use have been those vaunted “Guidelines”? We Cubans continue to live in poverty, on the lowest human scale.

The current situation of average Cubans–more than 90% of the population–is dire, literally unsustainable. The government knows this but does nothing to improve this situation, even though there exist the means and resources to do so, the methods and a trained labor force desirous of working for a suitable salary.

A redistribution of profits is needed, a clear and transparent accounting system, so that the citizens may know where every cent that we produce is invested: it is our right…

Readers will forgive the digression that follows, because regarding this subject, I find myself obligated to put forth concrete examples that could hurt the feelings of many.

One of my neighbors in Havana’s El Cerro neighborhood is an engineer who is now quite advanced in years. His wife was a professor. Both have been retired now for decades, with pensions of 200 Cuban pesos* (CUP) per month each. They have no children or other relatives. They were once faithful and honest functionaries, and members of the Cuban Communist Party (PCC).

The minimum cost of living is at about 2500 CUP (approx. 100 Cuban convertible pesos, CUC*) per month. With that sum one can acquire basic foodstuffs and medicines. Forget clothes and shoes, household appliances, home repairs, etc.

Both of these elderly people have to decide between what they will eat or what medicines they will buy when needed. In the not too distant future they will die and will not be counted in the national statistics as dead from starvation or lack of adequate medical care.

Last month, by way of the ration book, they bought the assigned amount of chicken, five eggs, and a half-pound of “soy ham” per person. This couple cannot acquire anything in CUC. Where is the protein in their diet? The fruits and vegetables they need?

In their prime, this aged couple were active members of this society and faithful followers of the PCC. Today, they do not officially exist. They will soon leave this earth and nobody will have done anything for them. They live in isolation, confined to their apartment during their last days.

This is how the majority of the aged survive. Many were faithful followers of Fidel who, at some point, renounced their emigrating relatives, took part in repudiation rallies and hurled eggs at those who were leaving, always applauded at the Plaza of the Revolution–even when their monthly ration of rice and sugar was reduced by a pound under the standard quota—and who trooped along in the Marches of the Combatant People, etc.

This permanent economic crisis and the astronomical inflation that the government maintains by force directly harms the elderly. There has been much official talk about helping them, taking care of them, but nothing has been done of any great scale. Old folks’ homes are extremely scarce. To enter one, you have to give up your pension to the State and, to get his or her attention, you have to give up your house to a functionary who decides if you will be admitted.

Lack of adequate medical care? How can that be?

My brother, generally healthy and very active, took ill a few days ago. He went to the doctor’s office on the second morning of a severe malaise, but on that day they were only seeing pregnant women. He was not seen. On the third day he returned to the office and the general practitioner, without so much as examining him, let alone taking his blood pressure or listening to his heart, among other basic check-ups, prescribed him analgesics. On the fourth day, still suffering the same complaints, but worsening, my brother visited the polyclinic and the doctor on duty was about to prescribe him something, without performing any examinations, blood work, urinalysis, etc. Nothing. My brother fled before the doctor could get a word out. He turned to a well-known cardiologist, who within in a nearby hospital discovered that he is a diabetic, and placed him under treatment.

Doctors find themselves constantly besieged everywhere by relatives, friends and acquaintances in search of at least basic medical attention, and this increases their workload tremendously, because desperate people are knocking on the doors of their homes at all hours.

It takes me a half hour to walk to the hospital where my wife works as a gynecologist. For her–who of course does not own a car–it takes two hours. She has to constantly stop to give street consultations to the persons who are impelled to seek her out because of the deficiencies of the health care system. She, with infinite patience, gives them her time and does the best she can.

Today, overburdened Cuban doctors are forced to economize, to employ a personal evaluative scale by observation before utilizing expendable or electronic resources that might be costly to the State. This is per training by the Ministry of Public Health. Where do they put the more than $8-billion earned by our foreign medical missions?

In the pharmacies, no antacids, anti-fungals, anti-allergens, potent analgesics, antibiotics, etc. can be found. There is practically nothing there except for medicinal syrups concocted from traditional herbal recipes. Even aspirin is scarce. Notwithstanding, many powerful medicines, some of Cuban manufacture, are sold on the black market at exorbitant prices.

In the poorly provisioned hospitals, to gain admittance is quite difficult, albeit free. For a surgical operation one needs a miracle or a friend.

When a patient is admitted, he or she must bring bedclothes, food, fans, drinking water, etc., and–in light of the devastating shortage of nurses–someone must remain with the patient to ensure the timely administration of treatment and medications. Upon release from the hospital, if the patient does not slip 10 CUC to the ambulance drivers, there is a wait of three days for the ambulance service from the hospital, or else one must rely on expensive private taxis.

Have we spoken of the enormous waiting lists for operations? The sick must wait weeks, months, years, and then die because the operating rooms are never available due to advanced deterioration, or lack of bedding, anesthesiologists, water or surgical sutures.

Is this the celebrated medical service?

Everything I refer to here is demonstrable. One only needs to visit a hospital as a patient.

But the rulers always have some luxury tour planned out for the gullible or those who want to believe.

Today in our society can be seen sharp differences between a rarefied group of enriched government bureaucrats (along with a few successful miscreants) and the overwhelming majority of the people.

There are excellent neighborhoods such as Nuevo Vedado, Miramar, Siboney, Atabey, and some other area along the periphery of Havana such as Fontanar, etc., where these personages somehow finagle (there is always something murky about these transactions) grand mansions, practically all built in the 1950s, as this is the only architectural era on which one can rely for elegance and style.

There is a law on the books, of which little is said, which imposes space limitations on permits for new construction. That law refers to modest dwellings of just a few square meters per inhabitant.

Near my house, a functionary who drives an enormous Mercedes has built a residence of nearly 1000 sq. ft., utilizing a private work force. With the blocks and cement they have used just on the surrounding wall, a modest apartment house could be built.

No argument here against big mansions. The problem is when its occupants sharply preach all that about “do as I say, not as I do.”

At this time, the government appears to be in a profound financial crisis. It hardly exports anything, tourism has not increased as predicted, and the price of petroleum is still low (thanks to Venezuela). All that’s left are the scarce products of our pharmaceutical manufacturing, biotechnology and the export of human capital to the detriment of our already precarious internal services.

There are shortages of supplies to the CUC stores, and delayed and even more scarce stocks of regular and subsidized foodstuffs.

What will low-income people, the aged, eat when there are no more provisions to be had through the ration book?

There are markets for fresh agricultural products and pork and lamb, but their prices continue to rise unabated. For example, at the peak of the harvest season, a pound of tomatoes or onions costs 10 to 15 Cuban pesos, which is more than a worker makes in one day, and let’s not even speak of pork, which costs 35 Cuban pesos per pound.

If the government is trying to gain access to the bank credits of major world markets to salvage at least one part of the socialist economy, it will find itself forced to cut back on all types of services to the population, and even if not, they will continue to deteriorate. And we are well past the times of Marches of the Combatant peoples, of military slogans and harangues.

Still, this government has nine lives. In the 1960s, the Soviets bailed it out. Later, Hugo Chávez came on the scene to rescue it. Today, as Chavismo is mired in problems, the help will come from whom we least expected it.

Will the regime accept the political and social cost of a massive infusion of North American investments? Hopefully it will, because I’m dying to eat a double Big Mac and wash it down with a liter of Coca-Cola on the corner of Malecon and 23rd.

Really, the Castros have never cared about the people’s calamitous situation. What they care about is the State, their State, the one they hope will survive them, so that they will not find themselves as defendants in a Cuban version of the Nuremberg Trials.

eduardo57@nauta.cu

Translator’s Notes:

*Cuba has two currencies: Cuban pesos, worth about 4 cents US, and Cuban Convertible pesos, each worth 25 Cuban pesos, or about one dollar US. It has been a longstanding, but as yet unfulfilled, promise of the government to move to a single currency.

Translated By:  Alicia Barraqué Ellison

 

Real Power / Eduardo Martínez Rodríguez

Cuban troops parading in Havana

Cuba Primera Digital, Eduardo Martinez, Rodriguez, El Cerro, Havana, 25 July 2017 –The Cuban people wish for, desire and silently demand changes that can lift us out of this sticky inertia wherein poverty resembles some plasticine or treacly substance that endlessly congeals in our hands.

The demand is silent because we lack access to communication media, although many of us would shout out certain truths.

We average citizens who make up 90 percent of the population—manual laborers and knowledge workers; service employees of all stripes; technicians, including engineers and architects working on projects related to their specialties; and more—we have no voice nor vote, we do not truly boast ownership of the means of production, nor of technical and technological resources. All we have to give is our labor force, our effort and sacrifice. Period. In general, we are treated as one more machine, dispensable and interchangeable, which when no longer serviceable, is traded for a functioning model, or else discarded, kicked aside. continue reading

The remainder of the population also tries to implement the needed changes of which Fidel spoke, and which Raúl knows are vitally important to saving the system.

Once upon a time, Raúl Castro said, “We cannot continue wobbling on the edge of the abyss. Either we change, or we perish.”

The octogenarian generation led by the obstinate Fidel Castro also includes delayed septuagenarians, but all of these together do not comprise even one percent of the total population of our country. They are the superstructure, the historic leaders–figureheads who appear to be running things, but in reality not so.

Between this layer of elders and rulers who are rapidly disappearing and the immense working class below lies another stratum of rich potentates who retain the true power in this nation, although for the moment they are keeping a low profile.

Beneath the veterans who can barely stand up anymore there operates, imperceptibly, a relatively large group of persons, ranging from the level of ministers to those functionaries charged with implementing their orders and directives, and including the military chiefs who command the armed services and the repressive structures of the Ministry of the Interior. These people are the ruling class that actually generates the high-level decisions, holds the reins of power, and runs the country behind the scenes.

One feels a little sorry for the ancient overlords with their greatly diminished capacities and ability to really call the shots. They should stay home and be enjoying a good rest, away from public life; instead, they remain apparently in control, when in fact they are no more than a sad semblance of power.

True power is in the hands of the much younger generals who direct regiments and battalions of armed and well-trained soldiers; the generals of the Ministry of the Interior who manage State Security, the police, and other agents of confrontation that are behind the always-possible and ever-imminent popular uprisings that can flare up at any given time; the generals and colonels who lead the corporations and enterprises in which great investments are made of national and international capital in the productive spheres and foreign tourism; the managers of joint ventures that raise high levels of hard currency; the corporate personnel of the Banco Metropolitano, which finances the army and dominates almost all monetary and financial activity; the ministers and directors of departments in all domains of national life, who determine and issue their own regulations parallel to the elastic and vaguely-defined laws published in the Gaceta de Cuba [Official Gazette of the Republic of Cuba], for which our inefficient National Assembly scarcely convenes a couple of times a year.

These highly privileged señores retain real power when it comes to deciding what can and cannot be done, who can approve what, and which changes to allow or not. They decide who will leave the country or be incarcerated, where shopping can be done and by whom, who escapes and who will be taught a lesson. This is a dark intermediate layer, highly corrupt and merciless, which could not care less about the common people below or the old geezers above.

These señores do not want—they will fight tooth and nail to prevent—change of any kind. Any. The feeble government of the octogenarians is no match for them, and the lower classes do not know what to do, or do not seem to know.

Were this to change, the señores who comprise this intermediate layer—a wall of contention immovable in the face of change—would have to give up their good state-owned vehicles; they would not be able to maintain their various private luxury cars; they would lose their special stipends for food and fuel; they would have to vacate their elegant and well-maintained residences in exclusive neighborhoods (generally built during the 1950s with the money of the millionaires back then) where new construction is not permitted, such as Siboney, Cubanacán, Atabey, Nuevo Vedado, Aldabó, etc. They would not be able to constantly travel abroad to make the expensive purchases on behalf of the State so that it can support the 11-million parasites that they say we have become. They would not be able to enjoy the many sweet, efficient and beautiful secretaries at their disposal everywhere. They would not be able carry out that vastly lucrative internal influence peddling that keeps the nation’s wheels turning, and which so much resembles embezzlement.

Were all this to change, these señores would have virtually nowhere to go, and they are well-accustomed by now to living well.

These señores are the ones who keep this country in a permanent state of bankruptcy, spending and squandering the little cash we generate, while they fatten their own bank accounts, hidden throughout the planet, on the backs of the people.

These same señores, on the day they come to realize that on the other side of change the universe looks more lucrative, will not hesitate to execute a coup d’état, will not hesitate to neutralize the octogenarian overlords, will not hesitate to order the troops to the streets to massacre the opposition. And it will be worse than in other places: in Cuba we are all soldiers.

They will become the nouveau riche, as has already happened in so many other nations that went through this process in Eastern Europe.

If you doubt it, take a look at how many ministers and other functionaries have fallen into disgrace in recent years, when the octogenarians tried to apply a few honest touches with what little authority and prestige they have left—as happened to the corrupt General Acevedo, or the previous Education Minister, who traveled abroad on the public dime more than 70 times in barely two years. This could be a long list…

Within that dark layer, subtly and silently, lies the real power. They are the ones who could trigger a sudden upset to our society, were they to consider it prudent or beneficial to do so, for they hold the means and resources in their hands, under their direct control. They have a lot of money and have become used to wielding unlimited power, good students as they are of the aged rulers who are on their way out. This bad seed will become our new opulent capitalists, cruel and merciless. For now, they are the ones who will set the status quo, the clamor for change from average citizens notwithstanding.

eduardom57@nauta.cu; Eduardo Maro

Translated by: Alicia Barraqué Ellison