Behind the Aluminium Curtain

Behind the Aluminium Curtain

(Castro’s Changing Cuba)

                                          – by Joshua Blanchard Lewis

 

“Corruption is a part of the system. We all have to participate, even if we would prefer to be honest; otherwise we don’t eat”, Daniel tells me, his hand on my arm as his big eyes stare earnestly into mine. “In Cuba money does not talk; it shouts.”

 

Daniel is a local garbage collection supervisor, and a reluctant member of the CDR, the local branches of the Party which maintain a permanent vigil on their neighbours. I am conscious that he is attempting to engage me so that he can persuade me to give him some money. He is not unique: every Cuban knows that one chance encounter with a generous, wealthy European could obtain them money for months.

 

This is however but one of the unfortunate side consequences of Fidel Castro’s decisions during the time known as the Special Period which immediately followed the collapse of the Soviet Union. The U.S.S.R. was for many years Cuba’s main trading ally and partner in maintaining authoritarian Socialism, and when its regime fell apart so did their favourable deals with the Caribbean island state. The years that followed are well-documented and are a testament to the strength of the Cuban people. Everything and anything at their disposal was used and reused to shore up their dearth of equipment and fragile agricultural infrastructure.

 

It soon became apparent to Castro and his close advisors that this position was unsustainable, so the decision was taken to open up the country to tourists and other foreigners; in turn providing a new source of income to supplement sales of rum, cigars and money sent back from Cubans abroad (the third largest source of national income). A dual economy was established with convertible pesos (CUC) making the exchange rate far more favourable to the local economy, and a new branch of police was created to watch over the new visitors. Apart from a few minor problems, most notably the tourist-targeting conmen whose rise was so swift and prominent that they even carry a specific name – jineteros – it was possible that this could have worked.

 

However, Castro at this point made a huge mistake. Although he had allowed for the construction of hotels, part-owned by foreign agencies (but by law at least 51% Cuban ownership), this did not cover the demand that soon followed as foreigners flocked in. As a result, new legislation had to be introduced which allowed Cubans to host tourists in their houses. Even with limitations in place, such as an upper limit of two rooms used for the purpose, and frequent and strict checks by authorities, the income generated by these rooms proved to be dramatically more than a typical wage. For comparison, a typical room costs a tourist around 25 CUC per night, while a standard wage for a professional falls in the range of 20-22 CUC per month. Even with a 100 CUC tax per room per month, it rapidly becomes obvious that renting out rooms can be disproportionately more lucrative.

 

The consequences of this disparity among fellow socialists is clear: all officials can be bribed, particularly because of their own lack of pecuniary strength, from medical personnel to police, and more food supplies can be bought by offering shopkeepers enough cash in stead of ration booklets. As the money piles in, the budding entrepreneur can even persuade others to exchange houses in their favour (permissible) but with a financial incentive (technically illegal). A better house, perhaps a more central one or with better facilities, draws more tourists and the cycle cements.

 

Ultimately what Cuba has been experiencing in the last decade is a rapidly expanding divide in personal finance and an effective creation of a nouveau riche bourgeoisie. This situation has only been aggravated by new commander–in–chief Raul Castro’s decision to allow Cubans to use formerly tourist–exclusive hotels and own mobile phones, since for obvious reasons only the very wealthy can afford these.

 

The ordinary Cuban on the street is not stupid, however; disgruntled comments and more and more outspokenness are frequent, in a country traditionally shackled by the watchfulness of a notorious secret police. The party continues to pass votes of confidence, but these are not by secret ballot and any dissenters mysteriously find themselves arbitrarily losing their licenses and jobs – which is hardly surprising. Following the recent spate of hurricanes, which have destroyed most of the country’s cigar crop for the year and which have driven food prices up to triple and even quadruple than what they were before the summer, tensions are high. Although the slogans of the revolution are ubiquitous in proclaiming their Socialist principles, one cannot help but wonder whether Cuba is really seeking a new Revolution, one brought about not by bloodshed or military intelligence, but rather one which is internationally driven.

 

With an increasingly capitalist awareness and hints of a freer society exuding from the fact that foreign Cubans are writing home with money packets, it would be extremely interesting to observe the ramifications of, say, a change in the U.S. policy on Cuba, in particular the trade embargo which has stood since the 1960’s. It may be that following the recent elections such a move may take place, and an influx of merchandise undoubtedly would send shock waves through the fabric of this supposedly Socialist society.

 

 

 

The writer is a student of Modern and Medieval Languages at Cambridge.

 

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