Ringing in the New Year in Cuba

By Carlton Joseph


Season’s Greetings and all the best for 2018.  I decided to spend the New Year in Cuba. So I packed my bags and headed to this socialist country to experience the season in a country that is being punished by the United States for wanting to be a sovereign nation and not be a puppet of the US.   I decided to leave the land of plenty and experience the New Year in a land of scarcity.

My first surprise was that the plane was full to capacity with Americans wanting to experience the New Year in Cuba.  As the plane landed, there was clapping and hugging and everyone talking and experiencing the moment, a moment most Americans could not dream of before President Obama decided to open relations with this island nation.  In fact, I discovered, since my return, that many Americans still do not think they can visit Cuba.

When I arrived at  my hotel, I immediately started a conversation with a few Cubans I met.  What were their plans for the New Year?  Have there been significant changes since my last visit in 2010? How did the near normalization of US/Cuban relations impact on Cubans?

My Cuban friends intimated that they were disappointed with Trump but that their real problems were the Cuban Americans in Miami.  They could not comprehend how Cubans in America could have so much hate for their Cuban family and friends in Cuba, that they would prefer to see them suffer under embargoes because of decisions they made to leave the Island over 50 years ago.   They continued to explain that after the revolution Castro did not expel the rich Cubans.  These persons decided that they did not want to live under the revolution and left the island vowing never to return until Castro was removed from power.  Castro then decided to seize their homes.  These homes were then made into museums and government offices and some were given to the poor people who came into Havana from the countryside.

They decided to take me to the areas where the super rich had established their homes.  While touring the area, I remarked that I could understand why the rich were hostile to Castro, because these homes were mansions.  I also wondered: Why didn’t they remain and work with the revolution and help build the country.? These were just their summer homes; they spent approximately six or eight week out of the year in these mansions.

There have been significant changes in Cuba since my last visit to the country.  There are many small stores, open yard booth rental malls, restaurants and bed and breakfast opening up all over the island.  In fact, some of the best eating places are in the country areas where the owners of small farms have built family restaurants.  Serving homemade plantain chips, fish and bean broths and really tasty dishes.  The stores have new merchandise, not second hand merchandise.  There is some vibrancy in the retail sector.  Cuba is changing and you can see the progress.

However, I believe that change is too slow; the government needs to get out of some of the businesses and let the local entrepreneurs develop and establish businesses.  For example, here is an island surrounded by the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea and fish/seafood is not part of the local diet the main sources of protein were pork and chicken.  The locals explained that the fishermen had to sell all of the fish that they caught to the government. Then government sold the fish to the hotels, which are usually owned by the government.

Some of the fish needs to be sold to the public at prices that would give the fishermen extra income so that they could reinvest this money in boats and fishing gear.  The current situation is ridiculous and must be addressed.

The government has also invested in creating a very literate population and have produced highly skilled doctors and other professionals.  However, there are severe problems that must be addressed if the country is to move forward.  A few people explained that they were trained as professors in history, Industrial engineering and many other disciplines.  However, they worked in these positions for a couple of years and did not get the financial or material rewards they expected  after pursuing higher education. For example, a professor in history earns about 350 pesos per month and a waiter at the resort hotels earns 450 pesos per month plus tips.  These persons felt that getting an education was a waste of time. One of them left teaching and became a waiter because the monthly salary was higher   and she earned tips.

Other persons left teaching to become tour guides, because this profession had a base salary, plus tips and an opportunity to see the country through their own eyes and those of the tourists. Also, Cuban trained doctors were trying to obtain jobs outside of the country because the sacrifice made in getting an education did not give them the financial or material rewards they expected.   The government needs to address these discrepancies in salaries, and wage structures need to be developed that would reflect education, and other factors critical to the country’s development.  The current conditions are creating an internal brain drain, where the educated are not incentivized to work because there are no rewards associated with the work.

What about building restoration? Many of the beautiful buildings were being renovated but getting materials were a problem, especially with the US embargo.  They were very appreciative of Canada’s continued support and regarded Canadians and the Canadian government as friends.  Another major problem in this area, is that the people who were given the right to occupy these buildings did not want to be removed since they were living in prime property in downtown Havana.  However, these people are not maintaining these properties and if something is not done, these buildings would collapse.  The government is discussing the removal of  “squatters”, but must find alternate housing for them  if these properties are to be restored.  This is one area where the revolution’s good intentions turned out to be a real problem.

One person on the trip said that “Cuba definitely captured my imagination, it was very interesting and very different from any country I have visited.  Everyone is very friendly and I now consider it as one of my favorite countries, a country that promotes the arts. I’ve met some of the finest musicians, artists, and dancers and visited inspiring communities.   Just about every restaurant or bar had a live band and, most important, everyone was happy.  The Cuban people I met made this an unforgettable trip.”

The Trump administration needs to leave the Obama initiative in place.  As for  the embargo, it is only hurting the Cuban people, not the leaders of the country.  In talking to the people I have learnt that they are proud of the revolution and take pride in the knowledge that they have survived regardless of the embargo.