At Least There’s Sunshine in Havana: A Day in Socialist Cuba

A street in downtown Havana. For comparison: If this were Paris, this street would be a few hundred meters from the Eiffel Tower.Times of Pol – by James Stemfield

This article is based on actual first hand impressions of the author, who has travelled to Cuba by himself. The pictures were taken during the trip.

Early morning in socialist Cuba. Year 56 of the Revolution, elsewhere known as 2014. You wake up in your government-issued housing unit and you’re all covered in sweat, because not even the crappy fan that has been blowing on you all night can counter the exhausting combination of heat and humidity that prevents your sweat from evaporating. You’re a sticky mess, and the day hasn’t even started. An air conditioning machine would be a great idea, if it didn’t cost you about a year’s worth of wage. And even if you can get your hands on one, you wouldn’t be able to pay the monthly costs, since the state-owned monopolist electricity company’s rate rises exponentially when using more, because remember – a real socialist doesn’t waste.  

But you’re used to the heat, after all, you’ve never been able to get a permit to leave the country, so you lived within this climate since you can remember.

A common scene on Cuban roads.
A common scene on Cuban roads.

You have a decade-old alarm clock that has been passed down from a friend to a friend to a friend to you, but that is not necessary because the few cars that drive on the streets are older than your grandmother, and in the 1950s nobody cared about motor noise control. They will wake you up.

People are happy if their car only breaks down once when traveling between cities, and refilling water for the engine every half an hour or so is mandatory. Since cars are so scarce, an official hitchhiking system was introduced after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the following near-humanitarian crisis on the island, which theoretically obliges drivers of state-owned cars to stop and pick up anybody waiting for a ride, but, like with Marxism-Leninism, theory and practice may sometimes differ.

State-issued food rationing booklet.

You grab your state-issued food rationing book, and walk down the stairs. The elevator isn’t currently working, and probably won’t for the next few months, because it’s your housing unit’s turn to get a new elevator. You’d think this is some kind of luxury, if it weren’t for the fact that the old one was installed before the Socialist Revolution that happened over a half a century ago.

A man purchasing coffee from a private person in Cuba.
A man purchasing coffee from a private person in Cuba.

You head outside. If you weren’t used to everything being closed, you’d think it’s a national holiday today. But it’s not, there are simply no businesses, only a few state-run establishments like currency exchange offices that enforce an arbitrary 10% penalty for exchanging US-dollars because fuck capitalism, or the lucky comrade that got a permit to sell coffee from his living room through metal bars.

Crowd in line at a food rationing store.
Crowd in line at a food rationing store.

You approach the food rationing store assigned to you and sit down in line. Today, you were supposed to get chicken. You read the stores bulletin. “No chicken, fish instead”. Oh well. But you don’t care, all you’re thinking about is that today is that day of the week where you will get some other food besides the usual piece of white bread and two eggs, combined with your daily ration of a few drops of vegetable oil.

You walk back. You pass the same banner that has been there for at least a few years, a large advertisement with a badly drawn cartoon face of comandante Che, saying “one of the most noble ways to serve the Homeland is to dedicate oneself to WORK”.

Political advertisements are a common sight in Cuba.
Political advertisements are a common sight in Cuba.

And because you’re a noble Patriot dedicated to serving your Homeland, you head to work. Your job is to stand for 12 hours a day inside the Old City of Havana and wave advertisements at passing tourists, inviting them to state-run overpriced restaurants. There, the food is bad and the staff is unfriendly, because no competition means no incentive to actually care about the customer. You know this, but you have to work. If you don’t work, the state will throw you in prison.

unidad y eficiencia
unidad y eficiencia

Your brother is luckier, because he’s not working for the state. In recent years, the government finally admitted that planning everything in advance and forcing everybody to work for the state is a clusterfuck of inefficiency, and maybe introducing some amounts of totally-not-capitalism would improve the situation. So the government fired a few hundred thousand people, simultaneously releasing huge amounts of permits for various kinds of self-employed jobs. In this country, you need a permit for everything. Your brother has one for “tourist services”. He does tours for tourists. Tourists pay with tourist money, and are thus the only legal way in this country to earn a little more than your fellow comrade on the government’s dime, allowing you easier access to such luxury goods like soap or pasta. After all, everybody is technically allowed to go into a government-run tourist supermarket and buy whatever little is on the shelves, but that might be a bad budgeting decision as a bottle of soda would leave the average Cuban fasting for a day and a half. So you work with what you have, and mix some boiled tap water with lemon juice and put them into the freezer. In a few hours, you’ll have a refreshment drink.

The government-run "luxury" goods stores are not within financial reach of the average Cuban.
The government-run “luxury” goods stores are not within financial reach of the average Cuban.

Meanwhile, your brother is waiting at the bus station to go meet the tourists. The state-run bus company finally disposed of the pre-historical buses and bought slightly less old Chinese tourism buses with the “Welcome to China” advertisements still on the back of every seat. The bus arrives. The doors open, but it makes no difference, because the bus is bursting at the seams with fellow comrades. Your brother carefully places one foot between somebody’s legs inside the bus, and hangs onto the door. He’s effectively riding the bus from the outside.

"Unity and efficiency for our socialism".
“Unity and efficiency for our socialism”.

Somehow, he arrives at the city center unscathed and only has a mild coughing attack from the unfiltered exhaust fumes smogging the streets. Today’s tourists are Europeans. They’re taking awkward selfies in front of banners with Fidel Castro. Your brother talks to them in their native languages, because the only thing that actually seems to work in this country is education. And healthcare, and a low crime rate, but that’s either because there is nothing to steal, or because you actually live in a totalitarian police state that will lock you up for life as crime is a product of capitalist thoughts.

Suddenly, the tourists pop the question. “Do you actually support your government and communism?” Your brother will vehemently nod at first. Then, depending on how comfortable he feels with the current group, he might actually tell the truth. That he thinks that all this talk about socialism is a lie, and that the only thing he wants is to leave the country. You can ask anybody under 50, and they’ll answer the same. This is because anybody significantly older will be on the government’s pension, ex-military, think that Batista was worse, or actually believe in Marxism-Leninism, and the last thing they’ll want is a violent revolution backed by capitalists overthrowing the current government.

An excerpt from Cuba's largest daily "Granma", where 56% constitute an "immense majority".
An excerpt from Cuba’s largest daily “Granma”, where 56% constitute an “immense majority”.

Even though he wants to leave the country, your brother will add that he’d miss the people, and he’ll be right in saying they’re very warm and hospitable human beings, as long as they’re not in reality trying to get you to marry them so they can flee the country. This is because marriage is the most realistic way for a Cuban to ever see anything from another country, apart from watching state-owned and controlled media stations or reading the daily newspaper of the Communist Party of Cuba. Internet is de facto non-existent, and chances are that you haven’t had access to an Internet connected machine in your entire life. Access is reserved to tourists in hotels, and a few professions that require Internet access such as journalists or diplomats. However, Internet, while heavily blocked, is technically not banned for the private person, and you could ask the government to lay out a cable to your house, but as usual, save for a few high-level government workers, nobody can afford the price asked by the monopolist state-run national telecommunications company. Similarly, if you have a phone, it’s quite possible that you’re sharing the line with your neighbour.

The tourists will listen to your brother’s rants, and at the end of the tour, he will leave them at a tourist-only restaurant, that will charge them a Cuban’s two-week wage for a sub-par meal. Your brother will sit besides them, without eating, and will sigh when the tourists talk about “how cheap everything is here”.

A few days later, the tourists are heading back to their country. Your uncle, a government-employed taxi driver, is giving them a lift to the airport, which he has never seen from the inside, like every hotel, where no Cubans are allowed to enter. The tourists are looking forward to going back. A week without fast-food, Facebook and Family Guy has left them sick. Quite literally, because as there is nothing to buy in stores, the food in the country is genuinely made from fresh ingredients, and this sudden change has upset their stomachs. The driver asks about the weather in Europe. It’s often raining, they answer. Your uncle smiles. At least there’s sunshine in Havana.

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