There is an evolution underway in Cuba. Banners are borne by weary multitudes waving computer-science degrees and wearing stethoscopes.
Today the ordinary Cuban demands his due in the global economy. With the growing potential sanctioned by the government, floodgates are opening.
Cuba is one of the most complicated and invigorating countries I have visited in Latin America. It is complicated by tensions that compel communism to sit at the same table as capitalism, invigorating because the national character is so full of life.
A skipper of a catamaran that takes tourists on snorkeling outings probably has an advanced degree in computer science; a dentist might operate a B&B
Cubans are a hardworking people who desire, as one young person said, the wherewithal “to make a plan.” He added: “Asi es la vida” (that’s life).
No other issue informs the Cuban zeitgeist better than the desire to gain entry into the 21st century; they are a people fueled by a pent-up demand for a more hospitable life.
In Cuba, there is a two-tier currency system, one for foreigners called CUCs (pronounced kook) and the other for Cubans, called nationals. Street vendors selling bootlegged copies of U.S. music, rickshaw bicycle drivers, bakeries and other businesses prefer to use nationals. In small, outlying towns, nationals find a slightly better reception.
This is an entirely cash society, no credit cards. ATMs appear at some banks but not for use by foreigners. Forget about taking a Visa. You can use it, but it will cost you an extra 13 per cent, Cuba’s way of telling the U.S.—which maintains its embargo against the country—where they can go with their credit card system.
Many find it difficult to comprehend a life where the state circumscribes almost every aspect of your daily life. Citizens are not allowed access to the Internet.
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In Cuba, capitalism collides with socialism, and while the people take pride in the generosity of a system that provides a comprehensive social safety net—free education through university and a medical system that succors its citizens from the cradle to the grave, they are paying a high price for a bureaucracy that supports employment over incentive.
At 99.8 per cent, Cuba has a higher literacy rate than Canada’s (at an even 99 per cent, according to the CIA World Book). Cuba’s life expectancy rate is 78.5 years; it is 80.8 in Canada.
Esperanza, a middle-aged tour guide who makes her living showing Ernest Hemingway’s bedroom and typewriter at the Hotel Amos Mundos in Havana Vieja, has a university degree in history. In December, she was hospitalized for four weeks, receiving blood transfusions daily to combat a bout of dengue.
Despite this protection afforded by the state, there is a palpable demand by its citizens for greater economic reform. Attracting private investments from abroad for tourism can boost income to unimaginable levels for the average citizen. But there is also a concern with what accompanies such growth.
“We want change,” Esperanza said, “but slowly and on our terms.”
Cubans are loyal, respectful and proud of their country and of the founding fathers who extricated them from a Mafia-dominated fiefdom. Fidel Castro is one of the few “generalissimos” of the 20th century who will be revered by his people when his time has come, despite his paternalistic and autocratic policies.
There is a longing among Cubans for a sweeter life, where luxury goods surpass the cheap dollar-store variety and where necessities sold at exorbitant prices become reasonable.
As a driver of an unlicensed taxi said: “You see things from the eyes of a tourist. You don’t know what is to live with 10 people in a small apartment.”