Havana, Cuba — The story of Fidel Castro, and his 56-year Communist rule in Cuba, is often told at macro-level, marked by headline events such as his overthrow of the Batista government in 1959, the U.S. embargo, the island nation’s post-Soviet decline, and Castro’s ongoing abuse of dissidents. Less told is whether his economic experiment has even worked for everyday citizens. Recently, I flew down to the capital city, Havana, to find out, and met a family who offered a granular view of the question.
I had already been living in Miami for several months after President Obama normalized relations with Cuba. The new policy entailed the ability for Americans to travel there if they met one of twelve narrow criteria. I fit one, as a journalist, and being only 200 miles away, thought I’d seize the opportunity. So in early June, I took a five-day trip organized by a travel service in Miami’s Little Havana neighborhood.
Havana before the revolution was one of the world’s most advanced cities, but today it is extremely poor and decayed. It’s like a denser, Caribbean version of Detroit.
But the most intimate look I got into any one household’s situation began my first night there. I was searching for somewhere to eat in the touristy Old Havana section when I saw a humble-looking black family congregating on the sidewalk. I stopped to ask them for suggestions, expecting that, like most people in Havana, they wouldn’t even know English.
Over cheap fare, Indira (whose middle and last name I’m concealing) described her family’s financial status. She began by explaining that her grandfather had been one of Castro’s original revolutionaries, identifying with the island’s oppressed black peasantry. Following the overthrow, the man was reimbursed with a house that for generations remained within his extended family. As the family grew, the house got cramped, with as many as ten people living there, so several years ago Indira moved with her mother and her mother’s boyfriend into a rented studio apartment in Old Havana.
It seemed odd to me that three working adults would live together like this, but it made sense when she explained the limited earning power in Cuba. As a government translator, Indira earned the U.S. equivalent of $20 a month — about average by Cuban standards — and was occasionally hired by a better-paying private company. Her mother washed tablecloths for restaurants, a job that kept her busy “morning to night,” said Indira. The boyfriend freelanced as a blue-collar worker, fixing homes and cars. Although work opportunities fluctuated, Indira estimated that the combined earnings of the three were $800 annually.
In addition, the family received “food cards,” which are a widely derided entitlement that enables Cubans to make strictly rationed food purchases. The family also enjoyed subsidized utilities for their apartment, paying only a few bucks monthly for water, gas, and electricity. And, of course, they received free schooling and health care, benefits that, though celebrated by media, are common in most advanced countries.
She began by leading me down a narrow alleyway, past several neighboring apartments, toward her one-story row house.
Glancing inside from the front door, I saw an extremely small space — maybe 300 square feet — dominated by a bed, several chairs, a table, a TV stand, and a refrigerator, leaving little walking room. Indira slept in the bed pushed up against the kitchen and kept her clothes underneath.
Because two more people could not have conceivably squeezed into this living space, the family took advantage of the building’s high ceiling by constructing a horizontal wooden floorboard halfway up the wall, supported below by metal pipe rafters.
They had built a staircase leading up. The floorboard served as the floor of an upper “room” for the couple. Because the mother couldn’t afford a separate work area, she ran her business from home, washing her tablecloths in the downstairs kitchen and hang-drying them upstairs.
The apartment suffered from various malfunctions. While tourist brochures advertise Cuba’s “clean” drinking water, the people consider it dirty and buy bottled water despite their budget constraints. Indira’s family also didn’t have access to hot water, and the bathroom shower spigot didn’t work, so the family took scrub baths. The toilet didn’t have a seat cover, and because it didn’t flush properly, they would dump buckets of water into it after using it.
The biggest problem, though, were the ceilings. The intermediate floorboard that the family constructed was flimsy, and Indira was afraid that it would one day collapse. This was believable, given that it was already sagging under the weight of the furniture — and the couple — residing above. And the building’s roof had begun crumbling several years ago, forcing the three to save collectively for over a year to pay $150 for repairs. But months after returning to Miami, Indira messaged to say that it was again crumbling and needed further repairs — for which I wired $50.
In fact, the need to pool together money for basic necessities or recreation was a common experience for the family. Most of their household goods had cost between $25 and $150 and required months, or even years, of savings. The pride of the household was a shiny new $50 rice steamer, which took six months to save up for.
But most of their household goods were dated by U.S. standards. Their electronics station included a DVD, VCR, radio, and television that would not have been found on mainstream retail shelves in the United States in the past 20 years.
The washing machine that the mother used for business was imported from the Soviet Union and dated to the 1970s, when the countries were united by Communism.
The most substantive thing that the family purchased with their food cards were eggs. Other products that Americans take for granted — cheese, milk, ice cream, and meat — are considered delicacies in Cuba, to be enjoyed once a week. None of the latter foods were present in Indira’s fridge.
Such was life in Cuba for a working-class family. Here were three employed adults, one of whom, as a trilingual translator, had a legitimate professional skill. Yet after combining incomes, they could afford to rent only an apartment smaller than a New York City micro-unit, featuring a barely functional bathroom, a deteriorating roof, a few dated appliances, and a refrigerator dominated by liquids more than by solid food.
As I spent more time with Indira, I discovered that conditions outside the apartment weren’t much better. Because she couldn’t hope to afford a motor scooter, much less a car, she got around on crowded, unreliable buses, and through a mass ride-sharing system more akin to hitchhiking than to Uber. Although she had saved to buy a dated smartphone, she could use it only for calls, as most Cubans can’t afford Internet access. And she had never patronized the various bars, restaurants, and coffee shops within walking distance, because their $2 lattes, $3 beers, and $5 main courses would have depleted her salary. She said that many of her friends endured similar conditions — for example, her boyfriend of several years, a 29-year-old carpenter, had lived his entire life with his parents in a similarly small apartment, because he couldn’t afford to rent one alone.
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The more I traversed Havana, however, the more I realized that Indira’s family situation was actually better than that of Cuba’s truly poor. Her family lived in a nicer tourist district. Those living in the slums suffered Third World conditions, deprived of food, soap, and toilet paper. Farmers there hauled equipment by horse carriage, large families lived in small shacks, kids played soccer barefoot on pavement, and — as I would discover firsthand — mothers offered their daughters to passing gringos.Even without background knowledge, it would have been easy for me to conclude that Castro’s Communist system has been a miserable failure. Yet this isn’t how everyone thinks. After becoming president, Fidel’s brother Raúl pursued some economic liberalizations, viewing them as an obvious step to boost living standards. But he has mostly maintained a system that illegalizes entrepreneurship while dispersing paltry benefits. Speaking out of either fear or conviction, many Cubans whom I met blamed their poverty (of which they were well aware) on the U.S. embargo rather than the Castros’ policies. Indira had hung her Che photograph inside the apartment because she appreciated the revolution’s intentions, though acknowledging that in practice it had flaws. Meanwhile, much of the left-wing international press either criticizes Cuba’s system only lightly or, in occasional bouts of revolting stupidity, celebrates it. For example, the Seattle-based environmental blog Grist.org recently lauded Cuba’s pre-modern “organic” agricultural system for its low-carbon footprint. Never mind that the resulting lack of food production causes shortages, forcing a tropical island with nutrient-rich soil to import 80 percent of its food.
Communism in Cuba has at least remained true to its roots, imposing, for more than half a century, a juvenile notion of egalitarianism on the masses. Rather than uplifting them, this has reinforced the lowest common denominator: Everyone is poor.
— Scott Beyer is traveling the U.S. to write a book on reviving cities. His work is found at BigCitySparkplug.com. All photos in this article are by Scott Beyer.