Cuba's Age of Invention

Cubans have a knack for pithy descriptions, particularly when referring to economic problems.

So, resolver, or “to resolve” or “to make do” refers to the adaptation one makes to get around shortages or other life hurdles. Indeed, shortages, standing in line and rationing cards have been the only reliable staples during the 54 years since the revolution. Recipes are tinkered with by housewives to get around the lack of some ingredients. Neighbors may barter with each other; urbanites cop a rare chicken or a pork loin by dealing with a friend-of-friend who lives out in the countryside. Much of life is an improvisation.

After the thunderous collapse in 1991 of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s most generous protector and subsidizer (Cubans use the less technical description la teta rusa or “the Russian teat”), the country’s economy experienced a depression that left some people starving. Lack of oil led to daily blackouts as long as twelve hours; even the most basic food staples disappeared from the market. Whatever money people had didn’t buy them anything.

Desperate Cubans then shifted from resolver to inventar, from “making do” to “inventing.”

Here’s one image: One of my cousins, an engineer trained in Bulgaria and at that time a Communist Party faithful, had to pick lemons from the tree in her front yard in Havana and sell them on the street to help her family survive. Every Cuban who lived through the crisis has their own personal horror story.

But please don’t call it “horror story” or “economic catastrophe,” for the government quickly coined its own euphemism: El Período Especial  or “The Special Period.”

So especial the situation became that the government was forced to embrace tourism as a source of foreign earnings, something it had shunned for fear that a flood of foreigners might upset Cuba’s ideological Petri dish.

It also reinvented the country’s currency to include a Cuban peso (CuP, pronounced “coop”) and a  Convertible Cuban peso (CuC or “kook”). Even the U.S. dollar became legal tender for a while as the government opened up “dollar only” stores stocked with such extravagances as cooking oil and toilet paper. The dollars would come mainly from tourists or remittances from Cuban exiles in the U.S.

American dollars are no longer accepted as tender and must be converted into CuC’s, but alas, you get only eighty-seven Cuban cents for every dollar. For one thing, government change houses impose a ten percent “penalty” on the sale of dollars, plus a conversion fee. Don’t complain: Not long ago the penalty was twenty percent.

I never got a definitive explanation of this novel currency system. I read that the government felt it fair to penalize dollar exchanges as a tit-for-tat for the American embargo. Or that according to government financial wizards the dollar had fallen in value because the euro had increased.

Bottom line: Since neither CuC’s nor CuP’s are worth anything outside of Cuba, much less traded in international currency markets, the CuC is worth whatever the government says. Any further research on this point and you’re wasting your breath and needlessly overheating your brain cells.

But as the government has invented currency policies, rank-and-file Cubans have come up with their own inventions to survive.

See, a Cuban peso is worth practically nothing–there are twenty-four CuP’s to every CuC–yet the government pays its employees in CuPs. And given this is a centralized Communist economy, most everyone works for the government and gets paid in CuP’s.

So my cousin Alfredo, the head of a pathology lab at a local hospital, earns about one thousand Cuban pesos a month or the equivalent of forty-one CuC’s. Divide that by the dollar exchange rate invented by the government and it comes out to thirty-five dollars a month. Another cousin used to teach high school Chemistry for a monthly salary of seventeen dollars.

The government makes some allowances to soften the blow of such pitiful salaries. Everyone still gets a monthly food basket, though the quantities, quality and amounts of the items doled out are almost as absurd as the salaries. Health care is free, and so is all education. Some government-owned restaurants serve terrific meals at ridiculously low prices.

Yet the most notable and effective invention by the government, beginning about fifteen years ago, was to allow–oh, ever so grudgingly–little pockets of free enterprise where Cubans can earn valuable CuC’s instead of worthless CuP’s.

The government now permits people to rent a few rooms and serve food in their homes to tourists. My cousin the Chemistry teacher abandoned his job in favor of running a B&B for visiting foreigners. The guy who drove us around in Cuba, who has a college degree in telecommunications, has embraced taxi driving as a full-time career. Many young girls in Havana, mostly gorgeous mulatas, get their CuC’s by romancing visiting Italians.

The slowly emerging private sector is hardly a capitalist orgy but a great leap forward from the communist monasticism the government imposed during the 1960s, when even the slightest trace of private enterprise was banned, down to shoe-shiners or independent plumbers. If caught, they’d be fined and the tools of their trade confiscated.

I’m happy to report that during our two-week stay in Cuba almost all of our penalized dollars went to private entrepreneurs–B&B’s, family-owned restaurants, trinket salesmen and most of all our driver. It made for a relatively inexpensive vacation with some complete meals for as little as four dollars, and air-conditioned accommodations in private homes running between twenty and thirty-five dollars a night.

Then there’s a cavernous black market where Cubans do their more seriously inventive dealing. One of my relatives heard there were shoes for sale at some address and when he arrived found a medical doctor who had become shoe salesman on the side to supplement his CuP’s. Government-employed veterinarians will make house calls to treat your dachshund (for some reason one of Cuba’s favorite breeds) but their fees are all payable in convertible pesos. In fact, most things are available as long as you bring CuC’s.

The flow of merchandise falling off the back of government supply trucks also must be torrential. Lobsters, medicines, Calvin Klein underwear, cheap watches, spare parts for all your ancient appliances.

The monthly earnings of folks who for example rent rooms can add up to a rather comfortable living. But the millions living in the countryside, with no rooms to rent, meals to serve or bootleg merchandise to fence, don’t enjoy such survival safety valves.

In effect, a class of haves and have-nots has emerged, apart from the top-level government bureaucrats and officials who had always been more equal than others.

Recently, the government acknowledged that the dual-currency system has turned into a macabre joke and promised to make reforms and corrections.

But in the meantime the germ of private enterprise is spreading rapidly among the ever-inventive Cubans. The government can snuff it at any time, of course, though that may not be in its favor: Entrepreneurs are bringing in dollars, euros and other real money from foreigners, and creating a lively niche within the otherwise catatonic socialist economy.

If allowed to continue, however, it might present the aging leadership with a real existential dilemma: Should it allow more private enterprise to encourage economic activity and defuse discontent, even at the risk of undermining the communist system that took so many years and blood to build?

Our B&B in the colonial town of Trinidad.

B&B in Santa Clara.

Havana flower vendor. 

Selling straw bags in Trinidad.

Shoe repairman waiting for shoes.

Bike taxi in Old Havana. 

On the street, cake for sale on one hand, CuC’s on the other. 

“El Lobo,” or “The Wolf”, owner of a restaurant/music
 club in Cienfuegos. He was quite fond of his alleged
 resemblance to Mick Jagger. 

Four-table private restaurant in Trinidad. 

A hat maker. 

A baker. 

Mangoes awaiting customers.

Living-room pizzeria open for business.

A terrifically good and inexpensive private
restaurant in the countryside, near Cienfuegos. 

The living room of our B&B in Santa Clara.
Famous last words, seen at the Museum of the Revolution in Havana:
“Centralized planning is the way of life of the socialist society, its
 defining characteristic, and the point at which the conscience of
 man manages, at last, to synthesize and direct the
economy toward its goal, the full liberation of human
beings within the frame of a communist society.”

Ernesto Ché Guevara

7 thoughts on “Cuba's Age of Invention

  1. As always, a well-written essay. And an incredibly clever final photograph. How does the cliche go? Success has a thousand fathers, failure is just irony waiting for a second act?


  2. When revolutionary fervor was at fever pitch in Cuba in the early 60s, all the excitement had disappeared from Communist Czechoslovakia like the air from tires with a slow leak. Things got pretty peppy in Czechoslavakia in 1967 and 1968 when the possibility of change occurred.So Cuba has entered the late Czecho period of acclaim for Communism. They are waiting for what's next. In Russia they had Brezhnev then Andropov, then Chernenko and finally Gorbachev. I'd say Raul is Andropov. Two to go. Bill


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