Prostitution in Cuba
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    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
    David Aaronovitch

    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
    so on.

    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
    subsidised prices.

    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
    something here."

    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
    diplomatic relations

    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
    Soviet Union

    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
    al-Qaeda suspects

    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

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