If someone told you would receive a monthly salary of 350 pesos, the equivalent of $15, for a job as a nighttime security guard at a dilapidated school in a country where credit does not exist and that you would need hard currency — currency in which the state does not pay you — to buy beef, fish and powdered milk, or that a home appliance would cost you six month’s salary, you would probably think he was a compulsive liar, a charlatan or was just trying to find out how people in financial distress make ends meet.
Well, there is such a country. It is called Cuba, a country which for better or worse has been idealized. Some people worship Fidel Castro just for thumbing his nose at the United States.
They tout the government’s favorable statistics (which are fewer and fewer) and like trained parrots repeatedly point to achievements such as universal health coverage and education.
Certainly no one in Cuba asks whether you are a dissident or a revolutionary when it comes to receiving medical care, but differences do exist. While government ministers and generals have access to hospitals comparable to private clinics in advanced countries, most people must rise early and get in line to see a specialist at a hospital badly in need of repair and where equipment and drugs are in short supply.
Education is a controversial subject. Every Cuban knows how to read, write and do basic math. But education comes with a large ideological component. In addition to rules of etiquette such as how to say “buenos días,” high school students quickly learn how to disarm an AK 47 rifle.
Pursuing a university education means learning how to hide what you think. It is virtually impossible for a known dissident to study journalism or international relations, fields in which ideology and loyalty to the regime are essential.
But after pointing to achievements in health, education, sports and culture as well as to the tenacity of having stood up to “Yankee imperialism” ninety miles from Cuban shores, Castro’s sycophants are left without solid arguments.
Are political rights not important? Why can we not go on strike to demand better pay? Or to force the government to implement its single currency policy? Or to lower the prices of gasoline, home appliances and cars?
These questions are thorns in the sides of the regime’s defenders. But back to our original topic, let’s try to describe to a clueless foreigner how Cubans make ends meet.
Reinier is a custodian at a high school in the Havana neighborhood of La Vibora. He works every other night as a security guard there and is paid 352 Cuban pesos a month. [Roughly equivalent to $14-$15 US]
In reality his job is just a cover. “It’s because of the section chief (of the neighborhood police) who’s over me that I got this job. I had already received two citations for petty crimes. If these add up, they can sentence you to two years in prison. I became a custodian to keep a low profile,” says Reinier.
He talks about sleeping on the job. “I have to make sure they don’t steal the televisions, light bulbs or some old computers. If there weren’t security guards here, the place would be robbed. I also have to make sure that couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, don’t break in and make love in the school courtyard. After a few incidents like this at two in the morning, I started sleeping on a table all night,” he confesses.
“How do you make it to the end of the month on your salary?” I ask.
“Salaries in Cuba are a joke,” he says. “I get by because I work as a bookie for the ’bolita’ (illegal lottery). I make the rounds twice daily. I make between 250 and 400 Cuban pesos a day.”
You might think Renier is an exception but, if you ask most Cubans, 90% would say they make extra money in shady deals and under-the-table transactions.
Yolanda, an engineer, sells coffee and fruit juice at her workplace and is thinking of expanding her business. “I am going to start offering lunches and candies. My salary is 512 Cuban pesos a month ($21). I make triple that selling juice and coffee.”
Reinier and Yolanda do not pay taxes on their earnings. To live comfortably, others dip their hands into the state safe or steal anything of value within arm’s reach.
Sixto is a business economist whose main job is to provide cover for his bosses’ embezzlement. “The books have to add up in case there is an audit. Accounting tricks and financial manipulation are routinely used to hide theft. They pay me between 5 and 10 convertible pesos a day (about $5 to $10) for my labors. I also get a basket of food whenever I need it,” he says.
Rogelio, a city bus driver, says the only way he can make ends meet “is to take 200 to 300 Cuban pesos a day from the fare box. Some take more, others less, but all the drivers do it,” he notes.
This is how Cuba works. With unwritten rules. With theft, fraud and embezzlement from state enterprises. Just below a layer of sanctimoniousness lies the reality. People eat, relax and shop thanks to hard currency remittances sent by relatives from overseas. Or they help themselves to state resources.
That anonymous mass of Cubans — with their schemes for surviving in a country where the average wage is $20, a plasma screen TV costs $800 and a Peugeot 508 goes for $300,000 — is waiting for a New York Times editorial that acknowledges them. Now that Cuba is fashionable.
Photo: In Sagua la Grande, a section of Villa Clara about 185 miles east of Havana, a local resident ekes out a living selling produce on the street from a converted tricycle. NBC News.
*Translator’s note: In October and November of 2014 the New York Times published a series of editorials critical of American policies and actions towards Cuba and praising Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West Africa.
3 December 2014