Life after Fidel Castro’s revolution: a long fall from red dawn to black market
December 30, 2008
Life after Fidel Castro's revolution: a long fall from red dawn to black
The Cuban press was having a lot of fun at capitalism's expense. The
lead story in the eight-page Granma – named after the yacht that brought
the young Fidel back to Cuba to begin his revolution in 1956 – usually
concerns the anniversary of an historic action on the part of the
Castros, Che Guevara or even more antique heroes. But the second story,
on this occasion, encompassed a piece of credit crunch schadenfreude:
the number of suicides in the US was growing, according to the
Samaritans; in Italy there were 16 million people living in poverty; and
The cartoons showed Uncle Sam, an overweight old man with an anxious,
miser's frown, suffering an indignity. In one, he was on a raft in the
sea (an image humiliatingly associated with Cubans fleeing to the US)
asking for help from a socialist Cuba, represented by a doctor on an
island. In another, President Bush was attempting to reinflate a
patched-up balloon of an Uncle Sam.
The message to the Cuban people could not have been clearer: capitalism
is in crisis, just like we always told you it would be, and if you think
things can be difficult here, you should look at what's coming over there.
The theme seemed particularly appropriate, because Havana is not an easy
place for people to live in. This is not just because of the constant
hucksterism, prostitution and begging that has gone on in Cuba since the
time of the buccaneers, and which is described in Graham Greene's
pre-revolutionary Our Man in Havana.
In central Havana, a physiotherapist I'll call Eduardo explained the
problem: "Everything is depressed. The people are down. There's not
enough food since Hurricane Gustav." Already in short supply, fresh
fruit and vegetables had become very difficult to find. He felt he was
working every hour he could, using every resource he had, and getting
Adding to his problems was the inevitable police crackdown on the
rampant black market. "You see them everywhere now," Eduardo complained.
"Many police, always stopping you, always asking for your papers, asking
what you are doing." He then invoked the ultimate in Cuban pessimism:
"It's nearly as low as during the Special Period."
For 30 years the socialist Cuban economy was subsidised by the Soviet
Union and its allies in the Eastern bloc economic organisation, Comecon.
Cuban sugar was bought at high prices or exchanged for Eastern European
plant and transport. Then, abruptly, amid the collapse of communism, the
subsidies ended. Cuba could no longer afford to import food, people lost
their jobs, and the indices of wellbeing – from daily calorie
consumption to infant mortality – rapidly worsened.
Inevitably, crime and smuggling rose and the State cracked down on
activities condemned as profiteering or antisocial. A Cuban invokes the
Special Period in the same way that old people in the West used to speak
about the Depression.
This autumn the police presence in central Havana was almost
overwhelming. On a short walk along the Malecón – Havana's promenade –
we saw several people, including two schoolgirls, stopped by police and
asked for their papers.
In Cuba they seem to have Castro cycles like the West has trade cycles.
When times are good there is minor liberalisation, maybe a reform or
two, the police presence is reduced, life seems tolerable. Then the
country runs out of money, there are shortages, the tolerance stops and
the space for people to exist seems to constrict.
Underlying these cycles is the central fact that Cuba runs an economic
system – almost total state ownership and central planning – that has
been judged a failure in just about every other country in which it has
been tried, and yet it persists.
At the street level, Cuba is famously quaint. It is full of old
buildings, often in an advanced state of dilapidation, its few cars are
ancient and picturesque, there is little neon, the schoolchildren are
smart and neat in their identical uniforms. For spoilt Westerners this
decaying simplicity can seem a relief from our consumerist cornucopia,
with its attendant anxieties and fantastic waste.
To peer through a factory window in a Cuban town is to experience a
camera obscura of the 1940s or 1950s. In the city of Santa Clara, not
far from the centre, is a famous cigar-making plant. Inside a large
room, sitting in rows behind wooden worktops, rolling cigars by hand –
political posters on the wall and Seventies pop music on the radio – sit
nearly 150 people, mostly women.
Away from the tourist areas the shops that Cubans can afford to use are
a mix of the primitive and the understocked. A real supermarket will
boast an eclectic mix of almost random products, with one brand of each:
inner tubes, buckets, crude ladles, the one type of crash helmet, a
small range of poorly made clothes. One large, modern food store in
Santa Clara was full of cooking oil, and just about nothing else. At any
time of day people were sitting around on the pavements or outside their
On the autopista, the unlined, largely unused main highway, men cleared
the endless grass verges with sickles. These are the sure signs of that
malaise of the planned economy: chronic underemployment. Or, as the old
Soviet joke went: "We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us." The
average wage for a Cuban is about 340 pesos a month, or £10, with
pensions set at 205 pesos. The purchasing power of this pitifully small
amount is boosted by the provision of free education and healthcare,
subsidised electricity, and by the supply of staple food rations at
However, just how little Cubans can buy is brought home to them every
day by the operation of a dual monetary system. The Cuban convertible
peso (or CUC, pronounced "cook"), pegged to the dollar, is worth 24
times more than the "national money", and is the unit of exchange for
tourists and Cubans wishing to buy certain products. William, a
middle-aged quality-control manager in the local rum factory, was on a
higher wage of 700 ordinary pesos, but with three children in Cuba
(another had gone to work in Spain), he was continually calculating the
mathematics of shortage. "A T-shirt, that is 10 CUC, jeans 25 CUC,
shoes…" he shook his head "…shoes 60 CUC. Half my money for one
month, gone! My children, they want to make something! They can't make
Although there are restrictions on foreign travel, it is possible to
leave Cuba – every year thousands of citizens take that option, adding
to the numbers who have fled over the decades. More than a million
Cubans now live in the US and Europe, many of them sending remittances
back to their families at home.
Since there is a commitment to egalitarianism, wages for skilled
occupations are not that much greater than for unskilled ones. I met one
agronomist who had been bringing in 350 pesos a month. She told me how
she had given up work to grow her own vegetables and sell them from a
street stall – in the process nearly doubling her earnings. The
Government recently admitted to a shortage of 8,000 teachers, many of
whom had simply changed occupations to try to find something vaguely
The main way, however, that Cubans manage to make life tolerable is on
the black market. Since the State runs and owns almost everything, the
market largely exists by stealing from a government enterprise and
reselling. "We make the mercado negro, or we don't have anything," said
one middle-class Santa Clareno. "Mostly we steal from work. If it's a
shoe factory, then we take something to make shoes at home and sell
them. If it's building, then we steal cement. We carry what we can; the
poor man on his back, the rich man in his truck."
He had been involved in renovating public buildings, only to discover
that a third of the materials he was supplied with were being pilfered
from the sites. In Havana I bought cigars on the street (near the Museum
of the Revolution, ironically) from a middle manager at a cigar factory
who had stolen them that morning from the store. And there's bribery. At
the famous Coppelia ice-cream parlour in the Vedado district of Havana,
a policeman hoicked us off the Cuban queue and walked us over to the
tourist section, where the ice-cream costs 20 times as much. There was a
quick flash of silver as the man behind the counter paid the policeman off.
Cuba was the legendary island of sugar. In the 1990s the lumbering
industry was replaced by tourism as the main earner of foreign exchange.
Last year tourism constituted a full 43 per cent of the island's GDP,
with more than two million visitors sampling Cuba's many beaches and
resorts. Wages for Cubans working in foreign-owned concerns are paid to
the Government, and a proportion is passed on to the workers. But, with
the disparity between the Cuban peso and the convertible peso, the
possible earnings from a holidaymaker's tips makes working in tourism a
passage out of poverty. A 5 CUC tip to the chamber-maid is equivalent to
a fortnight's earnings.
I met hotel workers who would hitchhike for several hours each day to
their jobs. Jorge, a receptionist in Pinar del Río, told me that a day
earlier he had finished his 24-hour shift and set out on his ten-mile
journey home at 9am; he finally arrived at 1.15pm. "It's normal," he
To add to the difficulties of Cubans, the transport infrastructure is
woeful. The railways are unreliable and much of the stock is
pensioned-off Eastern European stuff, like the brown, rusty Romanian
carriages that stood in the dilapidated station at Santa Clara. In that
city – the size of Sheffield – the principal public transport is
provided by small, horse-drawn carriages, into which up to eight people
will often squeeze. "We were promised buses in March – but where are
they?" grumbled one local man.
"We walk a knife edge", answered Eduardo when I asked him to describe
his life. Then he pointed to my copy of Granma. "But you also have your
troubles," he said.
1959 Fidel Castro overthrows the dictator Fulgencio Batista
1960 US businesses nationalised without compensation. US breaks off
1961 Cuban exiles backed by the CIA try unsuccessfully to invade at the
Bay of Pigs. Castro declares Cuba a communist state, allied to the
1962 Cuban missile crisis sparked by the deployment of Soviet missiles
on the island
1991 Collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's biggest benefactor. Cuba
forced to open up to foreign tourists to keep economy afloat
2002 US military begins to use Guantánamo Bay for the interrogation of
2006 Castro undergoes gastric surgery. Temporarily hands control of the
Government to his brother, Raúl
2008 Castro announces permanent retirement. Raúl Castro takes over as