A changing Cuba

When choosing study abroad programs, I remember having one prerequisite for my experience: I wanted to step off the airplane and be in a country where everything was different. When I stumbled upon Burlington College’s semester abroad program in Havana, Cuba, I knew it was an experience I couldn’t pass up from. I’ve been here two months, and I must admit that I’m far from understanding all there is to know about Cuba. But I’d like to share some of the insights into Cuban life and culture I’ve gained so far.

Cuban economy

The Cuban economy is interesting because it has its roots in the social breakdown of the country. Cuban citizens make on average 600 Cuban pesos per month, which is less than $25. However, since Cuba is a hotbed for tourism from every country except the United States, there is an understanding among the Cuban government that there are millions of people coming to Cuba every year with a significantly higher income than Cubans. So, the Cuban government instituted a separate dollar system for tourists in November 2004 — the convertible peso — that is approximately the same value as the U.S. dollar. The government simultaneously began opening restaurants, hotels, music stores, nightclubs, and much more that operate under the convertible peso.

Though this alternate currency is tremendously helpful to the economy — imagine getting spaghetti at a restaurant and paying for half of the monthly salary for an average Cuban worker — it creates a fierce divide between foreigners and Cubans. Cubans almost never have the money to eat out, see a concert, etc. It also encourages Cubans to move away from jobs like doctors — where again the average monthly salary is around $20 — and toward jobs like private taxi drivers, where just one cab ride costs on average $5.

Even this taxi system is divided. There are the previously mentioned private cabs, which usually cost foreigners about $5, and then there are public cabs, known as maqinas (these are the old American cars that you see in postcards of Cuba).

Maqinas are by law prohibited from taking foreigners in their cabs because these foreigners presumably have the money to take the more expensive cabs. Instead, maqinas drive straight along the main streets in the city, picking Cubans up as they go. What’s interesting about these cabs is that the cab driver continues to pick people up after the first customer. In other words, when you get into a maqina taxi there will usually be three or four other Cubans already in the car. These rides cost 10 Cuban pesos, which is less than 50 cents.

The undercurrent of these divided economies is the fact that the government tries hard to separate tourists from having any substantial contact with Cuban people, which in turn stems from Cuba’s drive to make the country seem magnificent in the eyes of outsiders. Cubans are frequently not allowed inside major hotels, and if they are found walking around with foreigners, they are subject to police interrogation and identification.

Cuban people

Despite the economic separation between foreigners and Cubans, most locals will be happy to sit down and talk about anything and everything related to Cuba. Whether it’s over a beer or a game of dominoes — two big pastimes here — Cuban people are interested in what you have to say about America, what you like about Cuba, and even how you got here. They are equally happy to talk about their own opinions of the country, ideas about the future, and much more.

However, despite this generosity, the extreme poverty that has swept through Cuba has forced Cubans to concentrate more on surviving than on concepts that Americans frequently take for granted: career ambitions, traveling, even the Internet. On average, Cubans are happy making enough money being a waiter or janitor, as long it’s enough to feed themselves and their families.

As a result of this extreme necessity for survival comes both an admirable and frustrating attachment among Cuban families. Cuban families are fabulous in the sense that there is consistent and unconditional love for all members of the family, no matter the circumstance. However, because there is so little money, Cubans often live with their families their whole lives; it is not abnormal for older men and women to live in the same house in which they grew up in.

This extreme necessity for survival forces some Cubans into a life of hustling. Though most Cubans are easygoing with foreigners, some will try to sell them drugs, cigars, prostitutes, and more. Men will try to take foreign girls to clubs to do more than just sleep with them; the men will actually try to marry the women in hopes of leaving Cuba, getting married elsewhere, and getting a higher-paying job in this new country. Though these are extreme cases, foreigners always have to be on their toes and figure out who is being a genuine friend and who is trying to get into their wallets.

Cuban government

The severe poverty that sweeps through Cuba is, not surprisingly, a byproduct of Cuba’s government and its allocation of money. The first thing that many people say when they look at socialism in Cuba is, “Well, at least Cubans get free education and free health care.” This is undeniable, but if you look closer at the situation you begin to see flaws. In the education system, for example, teachers are frequently unqualified, and are often as young as 16 years old. Just a few weeks ago, a teacher threw a chair at a student; the chair missed the student, hit the kid sitting behind him in the head, and killed him.

With health care, though the state pays for many operations and hospital fees, there are once again many problems. Dozens of invalids are left daily to soak in their own urine, and others are left to die because of looming health problems.

Outside health and education, the Cuban government allocates money bizarrely. The government, for example, paid for the construction of several top-of-the-line recording studios in Havana, each one costing millions of dollars. It makes you wonder: Is this really where Cuban money needs to be going? Though one might argue that these recording studios are helping to advance Cuban culture, the counterargument would be that Cubans couldn’t actually afford the $15 that you’d have to spend on the CD. So, instead, it essentially becomes about the government trying to show the outside world how good Cuban music is.

This brings up an interesting problem, which is the Cuban government’s struggle to impress the outside world with its culture, even if it means putting its own people in an ideological stranglehold. Many Cubans say they feel two-faced: One part of them is forced to outwardly support the revolution, Castro’s regime, and socialism, while inside they can’t stand it. However, if you’re Cuban and you’re caught talking badly about the government, you run the risk of losing your job or even getting thrown in jail.

Since former Cuba, President Fidel Castro resigned in mid-February, Cuban citizens are predominantly optimistic that Raúl Castro — Fidel’s brother, who took over the presidency — will try to get more money into the hands of the Cuban people. But, everyone agrees that the process is slow and results will not be visible for some time. What was particularly interesting about the day of Castro’s resignation was how calm the streets were. It was hard to tell whether it was because people saw it coming or whether they were too afraid to talk publicly; but either way, there was neither celebrating nor grieving.

Cuban culture

Though Havana — and Cuba in general — has political and economic complications, it is culturally a breathtaking city. Most days and nights feature a fabulous cultural event at an equally fabulous venue. What is amazing about Havana is how frequently different components of the art world combine. Casa de la UNEAC, a hangout for Cuban writers, hosts a yearly event where the organizers bring French journalists to speak. This February, they brought a journalist who traveled through France and Spain to compare song lyrics written in the two countries.

Afterward, a Cuban writer read poetry that he had been working on in the last few weeks. Then, after a quick break, a Cuban salsa band played. It was a whirlwind of artistic styles that somehow worked beautifully together.

Another fabulous part of Havana is how well cultural events are integrated into the architecture and geography of the city. One of the cultural highlights in Havana is the yearly International Jazz Festival that began Feb. 14, a weekend when Cuban musicians rub shoulders with musicians from all over the world. If you wanted to catch a jazz show, you could do so at big theaters like the Teatro Mella and Teatro Karl Marx, or you could take a stroll through Old Havana and find jazz pouring out of patios and cafés.

Another great example of this was the International Book Fair beginning Feb. 13, a two-week festival when publishing companies came from around the world to sell books from their country. Though cheap books and free food was great enough, the festival took place in a castle that overlooked the city skyline. Visitors could grab a book for a dime, walk over to the ramparts of the castle, and watch the sun set over the city.

Traveling around Cuba

Though Havana has a lifetime’s worth of absorbable information, the rest of the country is equally filled with cultural and political substance.

Viñales, for example, is a small farming town three hours west of Havana by car. The center part of the town is almost entirely centered on tourism, but on the outskirts of town are farms essential to the economy of the country. Two of Cuba’s most important and profitable products that it makes domestically are tobacco and rice. Here in Viñales, farmers grow both of these. In fact, that’s pretty much all they can do. They are not allowed to produce more profitable products like steak; if a farmer is caught killing a cow, he risks being thrown in jail for 20 years. As a supplementary source of money, many farmers participate in weekly cockfights.

Trinidad is a small colonial town seven hours east of Havana. One of Cuba’s other important domestic goods is sugar, and at one point, more than 10 percent of the world’s sugar was manufactured in Trinidad. However, when technology began improving in other parts of the country, farmers left to make sugar elsewhere. Now, Trinidad is a calm, well-preserved town with beautifully colored and well maintained houses. Though art excels all over the island, the art in Trinidad is particularly breathtaking; here there is a concentration on abstract styles, as artists blend colors harmoniously, even better than the houses do.