Below, Andrew Stuttaford notes Michael Totten’s City Journal article from earlier this year about the tragic realities of life in the Castros’ Cuba. One absurdity Totten mentions: Cuba, years ahead of Gawker, has long had a maximum wage, of late about $20 a month.
The reality is a bit complicated — people are mostly paid another wage, in non-convertible pesos, etc. — but that’s essentially the deal: Cubans, no matter what profession they do, aren’t officially paid more than a pittance of hard currency (i.e., currency other people will actually accept).
There are lots of ways Cubans unofficially try to get around it — but not many of them get to do so with part of a fat U.S.-taxpayer-provided salary. Several years ago, I got to know two Cuban doctors who were getting by doing just that.
Cuba, as apologists for the Castro regime make well known, churns out an incredible number of doctors, and sends many of them abroad to purchase foreign-policy leverage. Two of them were stationed in the same town where I lived for one summer in rural Namibia, a country that has a historically friendly relationship with Cuba. They weren’t even the only doctors in the town of a few thousand: There were two Zimbabwean doctors whose salary was being paid by the U.S. government, thanks to President Bush’s huge (and hugely successful) anti-AIDS campaign, PEPFAR. There was also a Congolese doctor who supervised them, which is a good reminder that exporting doctors isn’t exactly the best sign of a country’s health.
The consensus was that the Zimbabweans were vastly more skilled (they got their training before Robert Mugabe turned Zimbabwe’s medical system into a patronage machine), and the Cubans could barely speak English. But that still wouldn’t justify the fact that the Cubans were getting paid the same hard-currency wage — about 20 dollars a month — that Cubans back home, who could spend the government’s fake currency, got subsidized food, etc., also lived on. So the Zimbabwean doctors, who made a handsome enough living from their U.S.-government salaries and private work that one of them drove a new white Mercedes C180 around town, paid for the Cubans’ food, beers, cell phones, and more. It was that summer that Cubans back home, apparently, were finally permitted to buy cell phones — the Cubans in Namibia, for a change, were on the right side of history.
It was an oddly efficient arrangement. And if you were wondering, yes, they did trade jibes about whose dictator was worse.