The Challenge of Living Without Dollars in Cuba / Iván García

Woman buying food
Woman buying food. (Source: Panamerican World.)

Iván García, 19 September 2016 — Let’s get to know Osmel, born in Havana, in 1968. You can smell his body three yards away. He’s a carrier of HIV; he drinks alcohol and makes trouble seven days a week and doesn’t have any known residence.

He sleeps on top of some cartons in a building that threatens to fall down. He eats little and poorly and makes some money collecting old things in the dump at Calle 100, west of the capital.

His skin looks scorched, and every morning he tries to sell things on the outskirts of the Plaza Roja in La Vibora: a pair of used shoes, pieces of second-generation computers or a collection of old Bohemia magazines.

He says that Social Security “because of my advanced diabetes helps me with 140 pesos (7 dollars) a month, which more or less allows me to get what I need from the store and buy meat and medicine.”

Undoubtedly, Osmel would like to have a family, sleep in a bed and have a daily bath. “I dream about this all the time. To eat hot food, have a wife and watch television with my kids. But how can I get that if what I earn in a month by selling old junk or cutting stone doesn’t cover my needs?” he asks, and he answers himself:

“So that’s why I have to get drunk. The money left to me goes for that. Maybe it’s the fastest way to kill myself,” he says and takes a sip of murky alcohol from a plastic bottle, filtered with industrial carbon.

Like Osmel, hundreds of indigents wander through the streets of Havana, trying to survive in “the revolution of the humble, by the humble and for the humble,” as Fidel Castro once described it, which in practice has been transformed into an incipient military capitalism that benefits very few.

The Cuba of the Castro brothers happened to have a functional Social Security, sustained by the blank check that the Kremlin provided, for limited aid to retired and sick people, among others, who receive a handful of pesos that isn’t even enough to cover a third of what they need.

The big losers of the tepid economic reforms undertaken by General Raúl Castro are the old people and those at risk of social exclusion. Not all of them are beggars without a roof, like Osmel, but many are obligated to sell newspapers, nylon bags, single cigarettes and cones of peanuts in the streets, or become night watchmen for private companies or State businesses to earn some extra pesos.

The worst isn’t the present; it’s the future. Keep in mind this date: In 2025, more than 30 percent of the Cuban population will be over 60 years. With emigration soaring, finances in the red and a lack of coherent politics that offers net benefits to women and men of the third age [retired], it’s evident that Cuba will not be a good place for old people to live.

Although the old are the most affected by the new economic direction, according to Argelio, a sociologist, “almost 40 percent of the citizenry lives below the poverty line accepted by international agencies, which is measured by those who earn less than one dollar a day. For those in extreme poverty, the figure on the Island hovers around 15 percent.

Specialists consulted consider that there are many reasons for the steep fall in the level of life in Cuba. “The prolonged economic crisis, which now has lasted for 27 years, an economy with ineffective structures, sluggishness in applying efficient models of business management, the circulation of two monies, low salaries and a decrease in productive and export capacity. Except for the sale of services and tourism, in most indices, Cuba has gone backwards,” says Jorge, a professor of political economics.

Raisa, an economist, blames the disaster on “poor governmental management, the decapitalization of the country by the dual currency system and low salaries, which distorts transactions, real productivity and the buying power of the population. There are three or four types of monetary exchanges in the export business and non-agriculture cooperatives that affect economic performance. Raising salaries without a productive base is counter-productive, but earning poor salaries is even more so. The dual currency should be repealed now, although it brings with it associated short-term phenomena that could trigger social conflict.”

In October 2013, the Havana Regime announced the unification of the dual currency and put into play a group of measures that would progressively culminate with the withdrawal of the Cuban Convertible peso (CUC), leaving only the Cuban peso (CUP). But the slowness and the new state of austerity made the autocracy think twice before initiating an in-depth monetary reform.

With an average salary that doesn’t exceed 27 dollars/month, the average Cuban must get by as well as he can to have one or two hot meals a day, get soap, deodorant and detergent and buy clothing and shoes. To reach a decent standard of living, Cubans need the equivalent of 20 minimum salaries of 300 Cuban pesos a month, which would add up to the equivalent 280 dollars per capita.

And probably this isn’t enough, since the accumulation of material hardships and lack of maintenance in the homes triple these figures. Although the Government doesn’t talk about the camouflaged inflation that affects, above all, the State workers who earn in Cuban pesos, the prices in the hard-currency shops — that require Cuban Convertible pesos — reveal the real state of the situation.

Three examples: If a worker wants to buy a flat-screen television, he needs a  salary of a year and a half. To furnish his house, a salary of five years. And if he dreams of owning a modern car, at the present price in State agencies, he needs a salary of 180 years.

If this isn’t inflation, let someone show me otherwise.

Diario Las Américas, September 9, 2015.

Translated by Regina Anavy