Cuba – Behind the Facade
AS THE U.S. NEARS THE END OF THE ECONOMIC BLOCKADE, ONE CUBAN FAMILY
FINDS THAT NO AMOUNT OF EDUCATION AND HARD WORK CAN END THEIR STRUGGLE
Reporting: J. Brady McCollough | Photography: Michael Henninger
Every Monday night, at 8:30 sharp, the Cuban government dispenses a
much-needed morsel to its people. They are used to waiting for treats,
so they are grateful to change the TV channel to Cubavision, eager to be
fed something that is not overtly political.
That is just one irony of the wildly popular “Vivir del Cuento,” the
half-hour-long satire of Cuban life today, 57 years after the
revolution: To take a real look at the country’s problems, the Cuban
people still must depend on the government, which has always allowed
some type of fun to be poked at its expense. After all, laughter at
one’s situation sure beats anger.
“Vivir del Cuento,” or “Live the Story,” pushes the boundaries further
than ever before. On this warm Havana night, inside a small house tucked
away in a barrio well outside the famed central part of the city, a
family gathers in the living room to watch.
Isabel, the mother, sits on the floor, leaning against a pillow, as her
4-year-old, Mateo, rests his head on her lap with his eyes closed.
Isabel is a doctor who makes the equivalent of about $75 a month, and it
has been another long day of helping her patients.
Javier, her husband, looks on from the sofa. He studied the sciences in
college and now works for the government. He makes about $30 a month.
Javier believes that Isabel’s surprise pregnancy with Mateo was the best
thing that ever happened to him, even though it was hard enough feeding
the family when it was only their 14-year-old, Emilio, and Isabel’s mother.
Fearing repercussions from the government, Javier and Isabel have agreed
to describe their life in communist Cuba, as long as they are not
identified by their real names.
Javier and Isabel love their country. They never wanted to leave as so
many of their peers have throughout the years. Their life is here. But
they can’t deny the desire for more — the same thing “Panfilo,” the
frail, elderly protagonist of “Vivir del Cuento,” strives for each episode.
“I don’t want to be a millionaire,” Javier says.
In this week’s show, Panfilo and his friend, “Checkbook,” receive an
invitation to travel to Australia. They pay the $160 — more than a
year’s salary for the average Cuban — to get the passport and complete
the embassy interview, but eventually it is revealed that they don’t
have money for the plane tickets. Realizing that they just threw it all
away, they decide that their only option is to swim.
Javier chuckles heartily throughout. The humor hits close to home. He is
nearing 60, and he has never left Cuba. He can barely afford to take his
family to Old Havana’s tourist sites. When Javier brings Mateo there, he
has to save up for ice cream.
“I have no way to explain why he can’t have one,” Javier says. “It’s
In another episode of “Vivir del Cuento,” Panfilo has a broken water
pipe and bribes the city repair worker for quicker service by offering
her a bottle of shampoo.
Isabel knows that truth all too well. A bottle of Head & Shoulders would
cost her about a fifth of her monthly income. She is able to find humor
in the show, too, but she feels conflicted.
“Many times,” she says, “I do not want to see it because it depresses me
to see on TV the problems of the reality that we have every day, and
that they give us some laughs.”
Improved diplomatic relations with the United States, starting with
President Barack Obama’s speech in December, provide the family some
hope. Maybe the 55-year-old trade embargo, or “el bloqueo,” will finally
go up in flames, opening Cubans to a new world of goods and services
that is now reserved for tourists and those who cater to their whims.
But for now, pessimism reigns, and a divide remains. It is one that Che
Guevara and Fidel Castro, back when they were just young idealists
carrying guns in the mountains, could not have fathomed.
The socialist dream has died. There are haves and have-nots in Castro’s
Cuba, and for one family, as the credits roll on another week’s TV
comedy and a light rain begins to fall, there is nothing to do but wait.
Cuba challenges your eyes. There is beauty here, some of it real, some
of it contrived, and what you choose to see can say a lot about you.
What do you see?
Do you see the bread line stretching down a side street near the Parque
Central, filled with Cubans wanting their daily allotted square piece,
or the high-end shopping area directly across the street featuring top
Do you see the grand colonial Spanish architecture that surrounds the
park on all sides, or the investments from foreign capitalists that
turned those majestic buildings into four- and five-star hotels?
Do you see the 1940s- and ’50s-era Chevrolets that could color the
rainbow, manned by taxi drivers asking a third of a monthly Cuban salary
per ride, or the lack of other cars on the road in a city of more than 2
Havana is a city of old facades that die hard. Its many blemishes blur
and smudge like an Impressionist painting, as if it were divined to be
this way. It’s all a big trick, of course, because in Cuba, what’s on
the inside is supposed to count the most. All these hollowed-out
buildings, some in disrepair for more than six decades and beautiful now
only in their decay, house a resilient population that is continually
being restored by a collective spirit of survival.
There is Javier, on a hot June afternoon, stopping to buy three
half-liter cartons of ice cream for 75 pesos — about a 10th of his
monthly income — that he knows will be eaten by his children within a
few days. Then, there is Javier leaving the store and being hassled for
money by a man wearing a Minnie Mouse backpack, and Javier digging into
the pocket of his denim shorts, giving the man a couple of coins.
The state-run economy, combined with the lasting impact of the U.S.
trade embargo, has created desperation. No, Javier did not beg for help
from an American friend to provide his family with the non-necessities —
new clothes, shoes, toys, electronics — but he also wasn’t going to turn
it down when the boxes started coming a decade ago. There is no room in
the budget for pride. His and Isabel’s salaries go toward extra food
beyond the government rations.
In one glimpse of Javier, you see the success and failure of communism
in Cuba. A child born into the revolution, he was the first person in
his family to attend a university, the government providing him an
education that would have been unthinkable under the previous regime.
But, by the time he met Isabel in 1993, the Berlin Wall had crumbled,
the Soviet Union had fallen and the aid it was providing to Cuba —
accounting for about a third of its economy — had gone with it. The
Cubans were standing alone, squeezed by the American blockade, leading
to the “special period” of the revolution. It was special, the way the
Cuban people banded together, sharing what little they had.
But something had to change, and Javier watched as the government turned
to tourism, as it created a new currency out of thin air, for use only
by tourists and the industry the tourists created. It would be called
the CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso, pronounced “kook”), and it would hold
the same value as the American dollar, while at the same time taxing
tourists who carry dollars by 10 to 15 percent. (To change $100, you
receive 87 CUC). The CUC, which equals 25 Cuban pesos, can be used only
in Cuba. It is just a piece of paper anywhere else, but it dictates
Over time, the CUC formed parallel worlds. There are those who operate
in CUC, those who operate in pesos, and everybody knows who is on top.
“People migrate today through the economy, not politics,” Javier says.
“Many live better because they are private businesses such as
restaurants, cafeterias. They receive CUC.”
Javier and his family do not eat in restaurants, stay in hotels or buy
alcohol and tobacco, but they are constantly confronted with the
silhouettes of people living a better life that is just beyond their
There are the fishermen standing along the wall that separates the sea
from the Malecon, Havana’s main coastal artery, hoping to sell each
small fish they catch for 2-3 CUC, because there is a high demand for
saltwater fish. (Javier can only afford fish raised in an artificial
lake, and there is a noticeable difference in flavor.) On a good day,
the fishermen can make 18-20 CUC, more than the average Cuban makes monthly.
Ask Javier why he hasn’t learned to fish, and he laughs defeatedly.
Sure, he could save up for a rod, or he could become a waiter at a
Havana restaurant so he could be paid in CUC, but he is not willing to
give up on the idea that his own expertise has some worth.
The Cubans who do give up on the traditional educational path often gain
access to CUC while losing part of themselves.
Another silhouette: The European man who visits Havana often to sleep
with prostitutes aged from 18 to 22. Go to the discos late at night, he
advises, and you can pick whichever one you want, and they will give you
their bodies for 60-80 CUC per night. It feels like charity, he says.
The next day, they visit the best shops and spread his money around to
their friends and family, a sordid social welfare system at play. The
girls love you, he says. Their families, too.
The man doesn’t feel appreciated in this way back home with his wife in
Slovakia. He hopes to open a restaurant on the Malecon, gaming the
system twice over, because he has lived the truth of Cuba today:
Foreigners can do whatever they please.
There are social classes now in Cuba, and folks like Javier look up at
the tourists and the Cubans who work with the tourists and down at their
countrymen who are unemployed and living off the state minimums. He
wants to move up, but he won’t do it at any cost.
“I know that money is important,” Javier says. “I cannot say money isn’t
important. But it is not most important. You work because you need
money. You work for some kind of special purpose, too. You have to do
something for humanity.”
So Javier returns home with those three containers of ice cream, and
little Mateo asks his father, “We are going to share this ice cream
Javier laughs hard. Yes, they are going to share it.
Outside, in the distance, as if openly mocking Javier, the nostalgic
melody of an ice cream truck can be heard humming its way through the
barrio. Mateo hears it.
“Can we go get ice cream?” the boy asks brightly.
Javier laughs again. Clearly, there will never be enough.
For Javier’s mother, Rosetta, Cuba remains easy to see. Come up to her
two-bedroom apartment, where the windows are open and the ocean air
dances about. She is happy to let you in, to tell her story from this
view she has always appreciated.
Rosetta is in good health at 80 years old, living in the same space that
she and her husband moved into around the time of the revolution. He
worked at a restaurant — long before there was ever a CUC to be earned —
and she worked at a library, and they received enough state help that
they could live a few blocks from the Malecon.
One day, Javier will live here, because housing stays in the family —
just one more guarantee that still exists from the thrilling early days
when Fidel and friends would give their fiery speeches just a block or
so from the United States Embassy.
The man who ran the island before the Castros, Fulgencio Batista, was
viewed as a puppet for American interests. Sugar cane was plentiful
then, and those who owned the land profited from the labor of those who
did not. There was no safety net for a family like Rosetta’s, which
lived about 50 miles from the capital. Her father was a bus driver, and
he could not afford to pay for school uniforms, pencils and notebooks,
so Rosetta worked in the house.
“At the time of Batista, there was nowhere to work or study,” Rosetta
says. “People working for the government were the only beneficiaries.
They had homes, cars, properties.”
Within her sheltered life, the revolution happened out of the blue.
There was this man named Fidel Castro, a rebel from the upper class who
was railing against the establishment in the Sierra Maestra mountains,
and many young men from her town were joining his cause. When they won,
for tens of thousands of poor Cubans, something was stirred inside of them.
Many of the landowners as well as other wealthy and educated Cubans fled
for Florida, trying to maintain as much of their fortunes and American
connections as possible. U.S. politicians were unwilling to find common
ground with Castro, and they felt that if they just applied a little
economic pressure, the revolution would crumble. In 1960, in retaliation
for the Cubans nationalizing three American-owned oil refineries, the
U.S. enacted its first trade embargo against Cuba. In 1962, as the Cuban
Missile Crisis unfolded with the Soviet Union and a generation of
American children knelt under their school desks as a part of regular
safety drills, it became ingrained in the U.S. that the Cubans had
chosen the wrong friends and therefore were now enemies.
To Rosetta, politics were secondary. Her life had improved. Social
mobility for the uneducated mass of Cubans was here, and they would
always remember who gave it to them.
“After the triumph of the revolution, wages rose,” Rosetta says. “It was
free education and medical care as well. Without the revolution, I would
have remained a housewife and nothing else.”
Javier would go off to a university, study an impressive subject and
marry an ambitious doctor. This has been as good a life as Rosetta could
have imagined as a young woman.
Today, she doesn’t mind supplementing her small retirement stipend by
working a few days a week cleaning at a government business for about
$14 a month. Every so often, she and some of her friends save money and
pool it to make a fun outing.
But Rosetta also sees her son struggling. She would like the embargo to
be lifted soon.
“People who are better educated should earn more money,” she says.
“Doctors, engineers. If you sacrifice more, you’re entitled.”
It is late afternoon now, time for Javier to pick up his wife from the
hospital. Rosetta walks to the kitchen to retrieve Javier’s chicken
ration for the month. It is about the size of his hand and
freezer-burned, and in a few hours, back at home, it will be tonight’s
Made in the USA. Every once in a while, Javier and Isabel will notice a
product stamped with those words. To them, the logo carries with it a
certain higher standard. When those goods make their way to Cuba, they
have done so through the third-party countries that are willing to trade
with the island. They are nice to see in stores, but Javier and Isabel
still can’t buy them.
On this night, at the dining room table that sits against the wall of
their narrow kitchen, Isabel’s mother has whipped up a meal from the
usual assortment of rice, beans, chicken and pork that she gets from the
state shop with her ration notebook. Javier and Isabel like to
supplement the basics with fresh fruit like pineapple if they can, and
this time they share a corn-and-cucumber salad and fried potatoes.
“Other people prefer a smoke or a drink,” Isabel says. “We can’t do
that. We have two kids.”
Isabel knew from the time she was little that she wanted to be a doctor.
Now, in her 40s, she considers herself one of the leaders in her
speciality. Isabel says that the quality of health care in Cuba remains
high, and the numbers back her up: Cubans and Americans both are living
to an average of 78 years. Cuba accomplishes this even though the
government has to drastically overpay faraway countries for many
medicines that are easily available in the U.S.
“It is true,” Isabel says, “that when a drug or product is needed to
save a life, even for one person, the state seeks it at any price anywhere.”
She recently worked an overtime night shift and was paid just a few
pesos per hour extra. Isabel has been disappointed to see some of her
colleagues lose their passion for work, but it’s the product of the
system as it stands today.
“It’s false,” Javier says. “It’s a mistake. The quality goes down.”
Isabel has watched it happen right here in their barrio. It’s painful
“I’ve lived here a lifetime,” she says. “Before, I liked the
neighborhood, but people have changed. Many residents do not work, do
not strive to improve, put their music on at dawn sometimes. We try to
improve. We return tired on the weekends, looking to rest, and the
neighbors are in the same place with no desire to evolve. We do not know
how you can live without working. I think for them food must not be a
In the past, the people liked to say that as Cubans they were always
fighting, fighting, fighting, as if stepping into the ring itself was an
honor. The rules of the fight have changed, though, and some families
are more stubborn than others about adhering to the old customs.
Javier and Isabel’s oldest child, Emilio, is in high school. His life
could go in so many directions. But as of now, he thinks he’d like to
become a doctor, too.
The month of June means final exams, and here, more than any country in
Latin America, the results are scrutinized. The success of
state-supported education has long been the pride of Castro’s Cuba, even
more than the universal health care, because good doctors simply don’t
exist without good teachers.
Javier and Isabel are anxious about Emilio’s literature test. He had the
option of writing an essay about “Romeo and Juliet” or about the
900-page “Don Quixote,” and he chose Don Quixote, the Spanish classic.
“How was the test?” Javier asks when Emilio enters the room.
“OK. I don’t know,” Emilio says, speaking the international language of
With books now on the brain, Javier wants to show you one of his
favorites. You may have heard of it — “El Principito,” or “The Little
Prince,” written by French author Antoine de Saint-Exupery in 1943. It
is one of the favorites of the revolution, a dependable part of the
curriculum for Cuban children, but Javier loves it because it can be
enjoyed just as well by adults. It is all a matter of perspective.
“One sees clearly only with the heart. What is essential is invisible to
the eyes,” Javier says, explaining the moral of the book, which is told
through the observations of a young alien prince who has fallen to Earth.
Javier gives an example: Say you present a child with a picture of a
house. The child will comment on the pretty color of the paint or some
characteristic of the wall. Maybe there are flowers. The adult looks at
the picture and thinks about how much this house might cost him.
“He says, ‘This is very expensive,’ ” Javier says.
The analogy is fitting, because every day Javier looks at his own house
and sees a miracle.
“Wherever you put your eyes,” he says.
Emilio and Mateo may only see that their house grew from one story to
two a few years back, that they suddenly got to sleep in their own room
upstairs, or that the former bedroom where the whole family slept is now
a living room with a TV and DVD player. Javier sees the $5,000 gift it
took from his dear friend in the United States to pay for the addition,
the way the Louisiana woman gave it from the endless well of her heart
even though she had never met him or his family.
Born and raised in Cuba, this woman escaped to the U.S. after the
revolution. All it took was one connection to Javier, through a mutual
friend, for her to become his guardian angel.
“If God exists,” he says, “we will meet her.”
And maybe that will happen someday. Powerful people on each side are
opening their eyes to the damage that has been done by the embargo, and
this month the U.S. and Cuba announced they will open embassies on each
other’s soil once more.
America is coming, and nobody really knows how it will look when the
politicians stop talking about building bridges and actually make one
America is coming, and Javier and Isabel can look to their children to
fight the foreboding feeling that real change isn’t possible.
Emilio may have been told his entire life — in school, in the newspaper,
on TV — that the United States is the epitome of evil. But he also can
see what the generosity of an American woman has done for his family.
Then there’s the perfect innocence of Mateo, who would just like a
future of unlimited ice cream like any little boy.
“We hope that everything is better,” Isabel says. “We deserve it.”
Source: Cuba: Behind The Facade | Pittsburgh Post-Gazette –