Summer Vacations in Cuba / Ivan Garcia

Photo: Two Brothers campsite in Viñales, Pinar del Río province, by Cuba-Junky.

Raudel and his family have already packed their bags for a six-night stay at a campsite in Mayabeque province near Havana.

They saved some of the money their relatives in Miami send them every month and rented an air-conditioned cabin in Los Cocos along the north shore of Havana.

“It costs us 106 CUC with breakfast. We bring our own food to save money. It’s the best option we could find given our budget,” says Raudel.

Depending on the currency and how much of it you have, there are a variety of vacation options available in Cuba this summer. Having convertible pesos (CUC) — popularly known as chavitos and used by the state to pay monthly bonuses of 10 to 35 CUC to employees in key economic sectors such as tourism, telecommunications and civil aviation — certainly makes a difference.

Others ways of obtaining chavitos include operating a small private business or receiving dollars, euros or other forms of hard currency from relatives overseas.

There is also a faction of corrupt bureaucrats and white-collar swindlers on the island who are experts at looting the public coffers. They carry red Communist Party membership cards in their wallets and parrot the harangues of the regime but use financial strategies to embezzle money, food and commodities.

Hugo (a pseudonym) is one of them. He works in a state grocery store and over the course of eighteen years has been careful to cover his tracks. He does not blow thousands of dollars on a quinceniera party or dine at fancy restaurants.

“I fly under the radar,” says Hugo. “There are three types of criminals in Cuba: the thieves who steal from people, the administrators who steal from the state and the consumer, and the high-level officials who through business dealings and illegal activity get hold of anywhere from hundreds of thousands of dollars to a couple of million. The closer they are to the seat of power, the faster the banknotes and the perks pile up. A government minister might spend two weeks at a Varadero resort without paying one cent. His position gives him access to food baskets, a cell phone and a free internet account. These people are the upper class. We — the directors, administrators and business managers — are the middle class,” he says with a straight face.

If you establish good relationships with people in power and are adept at not getting caught, it’s smooth sailing.

“It never pays to show off. But if you know how to walk a tightrope, you can buy a car, a house or a holiday in Cayo Coco or Varadero,” says Hugo.

This summer the wily storekeeper booked a week in a five star hotel. But in Cuba the heads of the “mafia cartels” which control the restaurant industry, foreign trade and tourism are the exceptions.

Much more common are families like Ruben’s, who works eight hours in an office and whose vacations are always more of the same. “A lot of television, a little beach time, dominoes and cheap rum with neighborhood friends,” he says as he cools off in front of a Chinese electric fan.

The military is probably the most privileged caste in Cuba. Joel (a pseudonym) is an official at the Ministry of the Interior. Every year he rents a cabin at a military villa. “I never spend more than a thousand pesos (40 dollars).”

In addition to having their Suzuki motorcycles and mobile phones provided by the state, the security agents who harass dissidents are able to buy clothes and food at modest prices and summer in military-owned villas scattered throughout the island.

While officials like Joel enjoy nice vacations, primary school teacher Elisa looks forward to payday so she can afford the 60 pesos it costs for two seats on the bus to take her eight-year-old daughter to the beach east of the capital.

“Every year a guy who works at a state-owned enterprise gets a bus so those of us from the neighborhood can go to the beach or the aquarium. It costs 30 pesos a person,” notes Elisa. “Teachers are essential to any society but in Cuba educators earn poverty-level wages and we cannot afford to rent a house on the beach or stay in a hotel.”

The problem with summer vacations in Cuba is not a lack of options. It is an issue of hierarchy, influence and hard currency.

Ivan Garcia

16 August 2014