Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about Life in Cuba

I anxiously awaited the arrival of my three pupils on the morning of October 31, loaded with lesson material and ready to get started. Shortly after 9 a.m. local time, they arrived: Juliette and Raino, both 19 years old, and Ricardo, an older gentleman of about 60. We broke the ice talking about hobbies, family, and friends, but I sensed from their responses that these topics did not resonate. Instead, my students spoke of the monotony and sadness of life in Cuba. I asked if I could interview them following the presentation, and they readily agreed to my request.

Juliette and Raino are dating, and have been living together with Raino_s family for a year and four months. Juliette_s mother works in a hotel, while her father does whatever he can to put food on the table. Raino_s father is a chauffeur for a Cuban government agency, and his mother works around the house. Ricardo is married with two children and two grandchildren.

Ricardo_s life story is moving. In 1981, he began a 10-year prison sentence for treason and attempted desertion. He said the typical sentence for these crimes in Cuba is three to four years, but he was tried three times for the same crime. Once in prison, life became unbearable, and Ricardo soon lost all sense of time. For 10 years he lived in complete darkness in a windowless cell. The door to his cell was only opened when guards tossed in his daily rations. When the time came for him to leave, the guards immediately exposed him to light, damaging his retina, and left him almost completely blind.

What is a typical day like in Havana?

Juliette: I have a daily routine that rarely varies. I get up and go to the Information Center where I work. Then I go to my house, shower, do some house work, and go to bed. That is what I do. It is my routine every day. My problem is that I left school in 10th grade, because I had to start earning money to help my family. I have started studying gastronomy now, and waitressing, and that takes up a lot of my time.

Raino: I wake up and take care of any chores that I have to do. I might go to a friend_s house, hang out for a bit, and the go back home__. Life in Cuba is very routine. Every day is almost always the same.

Ricardo: My days are a bit complicated. I wake up early and eat breakfast. Then I bring my wife to work and my grandson to school. I keep driving to the pet store where I work, and I_m almost always there until five or six in the evening. Then I head back home and confront the difficulties of everyday life. I might have to go search for bread or gasoline, or just run errands _ go find whatever I_m missing.

Where and how do you buy things on a daily basis?

Juliette: Let me give you an example. In Cuba, you can_t find toilet paper anywhere. If toilet paper appears, then perfume disappears. Then, suddenly, perfume has disappeared along with detergent. Same thing with the rugs and soap. Something is always missing. It goes without saying that we are always in need of something.

Ricardo: Believe it or not, these guys [Juliette and Raino] do not know what a supermarket is. Every supermarket in Cuba has closed. There are two or three big stores like Galer__as de Paseo, which is like a shopping center, but buying things becomes complicated with such a shortage of stores. You go out to get a soda and there is no soda. My wife just wrote to ask me to pick up a bottle of cologne, because it_s my brother-in-law_s birthday and there is nothing on the island we can give him as a gift.

Are there restrictions as to what you can bring into the country?

Juliette: You can only bring five articles of clothing, and all shirts must have long sleeves. You can bring in blazers, coats, and shirts. They now regulate the number of press-on nails you can bring in to a 24 pack. Look how far they go.

Ricardo: The problem is that the Cuban economy is very bad and very informal. People travel around the country with everything they need, which the regime does not permit because then people don_t buy things as they travel. Of course, the state sells everything at a higher price.

What is the relationship between the dollar and the Cuban peso (CUP)?

Raino: They will give you CUC$0.87 (Cuban convertible pesos) for US$1. The CUC is stronger than the US dollar. For CUC$1 they will give you CUP$24 (Cuban pesos), which is the national currency of Cuba. It_s a little complicated, if you_re not used to it.

Can you use any one of those currencies in Cuba?

Ricardo: Yes, but it_s difficult if you earn a normal salary of CUP$400 per month, which is equivalent to CUC$20, because the stores sell everything in CUC. What_s the problem? Well, a bottle of oil costs CUC$2.50 or CUP$60, so in one day you can spend nearly half of your monthly salary.

Do any of you have a car? How did you manage to buy it? Is it imported?

Juliette and Raino: No.

Ricardo: Yes. A friend of mine sold it to me cheap, because it was too expensive for him to maintain. It_s an old Soviet model. Only the government can import cars to Cuba, nobody else. They get cars that are out of circulation in France, refurbish them, and the Cuban government buys them for cheap. Then, they put them up for rent for tourists or Cubans who can afford it.

They now allow Cubans to rent cars. Once the car is no longer in circulation, the government will fix them up a little and sell them to Cubans for US$50,000 or US$60,000. These are old clunkers that are ready to fall apart, and that_s what is being sold to Cubans. A used car on the island costs the same as two new ones outside the country.

Juliette: It_s a joke. You_re making US$20 a month. How long would you would have to work in order to buy a car? You_ll die trying.

If you guys like Argentina and wanted to stay and live here, could you do it?

Ricardo: Well, yes, you could come here and stay. The problem is that Argentina would have to grant you asylum. Cristina [Kirchner] is not granting asylum to any Cuban, I_ve been told.

What was your first impression after leaving Cuba for the first time? How did you feel when you arrived in Argentina?

Juliette: The first thing I thought was, _Where are we living?_ As soon as I got here, I saw every flavor of ice cream, perfume, all kinds of different clothing.__ It_s impressive. I can_t believe that outside of that place [Cuba], all of this exists, and yet that_s how we live.

Raino: So many things bring up questions like: _Is this real? This exists?_ From the way people interact with one another, to all the different things, it_s completely different. To have never seen any of this _ it_s stunning. Well, maybe you have seen it; there are people who have cable, and you can watch Telemundo and Univisi__n. These are illegal channels. So, to leave the country and see all of this in front of you, you don_t believe it, because you_ve only seen it on television. It_s hard to believe it_s real, and that we can_t have this.

You can connect to the internet everyday without an issue. You can discuss whatever you want, whenever you want. It really shocks you. Even today, we spoke softly as we walked down the street.

Juliette: Over there, we can_t say _under Fidel._ You can_t say the word _Fidel._ We were talking about the government, saying something critical, and I said to him [Raino], _Why are we talking so quietly, if we aren_t in Cuba? We can speak in a normal voice._

Raino: There are other things too, but riding the subway is really impressive. I didn_t know how to enter when I went to buy the ticket. The guy that worked there had to help me.

A few months ago, the World Health Organization released a statement saying the Cuban health care system is an example the rest of the world should follow. Do you think that_s accurate?

Raino: That_s a lie. Go to a children_s hospital with a newborn baby, with any type of illness, and there will be a single doctor for an entire town. And this doctor will be a Venezuelan, Bolivian, or Peruvian medical student, not a Cuban.

It_s true that there are good doctors in Cuba, but they are not the ones that treat you. The doctors in the hospitals work in horrible conditions. The hospitals are dirty. The bathrooms are covered in urine and vomit. Many times they will tell you they can_t treat you because they don_t have gloves.

If you need to be admitted to the hospital, you have to move there. Clothes, food, sheets, towels, you have to bring everything. You enter the hospital and you see elderly people lying on stretchers like bags of trash. They don_t care about anything.

When you arrive, there will probably be an endless line of other people seeking medical attention. So, to be seen quickly, you may have to give the doctor a gift, like a snack, so they treat you better.

Juliette: All of the things we are telling you, this is why I don_t want to have children in Cuba. I can_t bring a child into the world knowing what awaits him. He_ll have to start working hard as a child, just to die of hunger as an adult.


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