It’s hard to imagine that you are only 90 miles away from the United States when you are standing on the Malecon in Havana, staring out at the ocean. Classic 1950s cars whiz by endlessly. Buildings hundreds of years old have so many coats of paint and layers of decay that it’s hard to imagine how beautiful they must have once been. Old men push carts full of fried treats for sale. Nobody is texting. Nobody is “checking in” on Facebook. Could I have woken up in 1950?
Tourists are flocking to Havana. In 2010, the city was visited by 1,176,627 international tourists. That number is rapidly growing and Americans are quickly adding to that figure. Everybody wants to see Cuba before it “changes.” The irony? The change is happening mostly for the benefit of the tourists. Most want to see Havana, but still want a nice hotel and restaurant to go to at the end of the day. They ask questions like, “What do you think of Castro?” and “Does the average Cuban really only make 20 dollars per month?” How is that possible?”
Better paying jobs in the tourism industry are starting to become available, but are hard to acquire and require some level of English to be spoken. English is rarely learned and the cost for English classes is prohibitive for most Cubans. Without access to tourists and hard currency in tips, it is all but impossible for the average Cuban to get ahead. Many a doctor or engineer will drive taxis at night to make ends meet. Almost all Cubans will have some secondary form of income, usually called a n egocio, to try to survive on. Many rely on family abroad to send remittances monthly.
Cuba has a dual currency system has made it all but impossible for the average Cuban to survive with only a normal career. (Cuba has 2 currencies. CUC which is par with the US Dollar and Peso Cubano or MN which is 25 to 1 CUC). All hard goods and services are paid for in CUC, while only food and some utilities are paid for in Peso Cubano. Most Cubans do not own a vehicle and tend to live rent free with family in small homes or apartments that have been handed down from generation to generation. Rations cover only about a quarter of monthly food needs. While recent changes in laws have allowed small businesses to operate and travel is legal, most of the population can not afford it. A lot of young Cubans have turned to prostitution, which is illegal, or hustling tourists to survive. Commonly known as jineteros/jineteras, they will troll the tourist areas and clubs looking for a way to make some extra money.
So what does like look like for an average Cuban?
Nyarkis was born in 1987 in the city of Camagüey, to a father who is a farmer and a housewife of 26. When she was 4, her mother moved to Havana to take care of her own ailing mother. Her father stayed behind. Nyarkis grew up to attend nursing school at age 15, the standard age in Cuba when students begin vocational training. Three years later, she was a licensed nurse, but she is only capable of earning the average national salary of 240 Peso Cubano per month. Like all Cubans, Nyarkis gets free healthcare and education, and monthly rations, called libreta, that include six pounds of rice, three pounds of meat, a half pound of beans, one small bread roll and eight ounces of cooking oil.
When she was 18, she married and a few years later became pregnant with their daughter. About a year after her daughter was born, her husband met a 40 year old Ecuadorian woman and abandoned his family. Since child support is set at 100 pesos a month, it is all too common for men to have multiple children from multiple partners. While condoms are readily available and generally inexpensive, most Cubans simply can
not afford them or see them as an unnecessary expense. Abortions are free and generally not frowned upon.
Nyarkis lives in what can only be considered a shack with her mother and daughter in a suburb 30 minutes outside of Havana called San Francisco. The area was made famous by Ernest Hemingway, who kept a house there. Shortly after finishing nursing school, Nyarkis realized that it was impossible to live on her monthly salary. She opted instead to clean rooms at a Casa Particular, a private rental bed and breakfast, in Havana. She generally works five to six days a week and, with salary and tips, earns about 60 to 80 CUC per month.
Nyarkis gets up around 6 a.m. and starts getting her 5 year old daughter ready for school. They eat a typical Cuban breakfast, which consists of toasted bread with butter, powdered milk and coffee. She then walks her daughter five blocks to her school, and then walks to the main avenue and awaits the municipal city bus, which costs half of a Peso Cubano or tries to rideshare in what is known as a collectivo for 10 pesos. The buses are severely overcrowded and seating is almost never available. The 25 minute car ride can take as long as two hours on the bus each way and there is no air conditioning. If she decides to take a collectivo, she will spend 10 Peso Cubano and share the vehicle with as many as 20 others. This takes about 45 minutes, as there are multiple stops before reaching a central location in Havana, where she walks about a mile to where she works.
Midday, she may stop work long enough for a light lunch of toast or some rice and beans, called congris, and vegetables if available. At 4 p.m., her daughter finishes school and is generally picked up by one of her grandmothers for afterschool care. Nyarkis usually finishes work around 5 p.m. and begins the same arduous journey home, where she attends to homework and preparing a standard dinner of rice and beans, salad and possibly Yuca or avocado. Meat is rarely affordable and might be consumed once per week. There is no Internet and even basic cable television is not affordable to the lower working class. They watch some over the air programming on a small, 15 year old television. There is no air conditioning or heat, and “N”, her daughter and her mother share a single room with two beds. The purchase of necessities, such as clothing, toiletries or school supplies is almost impossible. They survive on hand me downs and donated clothes left by tourists at the Casa Particulares. Going to a cinema or out to eat are rare treats; entertainment is generally conversing with neighbors and going for walks.
What does the future hold for Cuba? With tourism growing at a rapid pace and the dream of the U.S. embargo ending in their lifetimes, many Cubans see hope. Foreign investment is bringing new restaurants and hotels to Cuba. Resorts have long operated all over the country with new ones in the works. Internet and cell phones are starting to become more widely available, although still out of reach for most. For the country to truly thrive, some form of socialism/capitalism must be found. The dual currency system must end and more Cubans must be given an opportunity to earn a livable wage. How and when this will happen is a mystery. Initiatives by President Raul Castro have helped, and the loosening of laws to encourage foreign investment and development has begun to ease the economic stranglehold. Repairs and improvements to infrastructure, while slow, have begun to happen.
Raul Castro is slated to retire in 2018. Nobody seems to really know what the new regime will look like. Can Cuba regain its former prerevolution glory? Only time will tell …