Our friends the Geros invited us to join a group of about 20 for a ‘humanitarian’ trip to Cuba for a week.
Columbus is quoted as saying about the island “more beautiful than any I have ever seen”; many think this is Cuba’s first exaggeration. More than 50 years after the revolution, Cuba is an excellent example of what happens when we try to freeze time. Havana is simply falling apart save for a heroic effort by the City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler to restore Old Havana, a UNESCO heritage site.
We arrived within a few months of Fidel having declared the “Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore” and announcing 500,000 government employees were to be fired. The total population is 11 million with government employing 85% of workforce. Concurrently, 192 new positions were opened up for ‘self employment’. After a week of travels and discussions, we conclude this could mean nothing or everything….the country has raised several generations who have been denied incentives, it could be hustle or continued siesta.
The current economy is bifurcated by those with access to the convertible peso (CUC’s)..about 20% of the workforce and those without access. All government employees are paid in pesos that are only good for the vary basics, to get anything else like soap or toothpaste one needs CUC’s…the black market conversion is 24:1. Those with access to the CUC work in hospitality, sports and the arts. For an success artist with access to foreign markets, it’s a good life…free to travel, choice of housing, new car, etc. For doctors and teachers, it’s a disaster as they get paid in non-covertible pesos.
The tips for our guide and driver were equal to many months salary for a teacher. The inevitable draw of a better life will likely convert the best teachers into tour guides and soon leave their school system looking like ours. Enough editorial comment.
Tours of Havana, nice art galleries, student dance programs, dinning in paladors (restaurants in private homes) and looking at the great 1950’s cars. This was interrupted by a bus ride about 1/3 of the way down the island to Trinidad on the Caribbean side of the island where we stayed at an ‘all inclusive’ resort built for the european trade. While the country side is pretty, it has nothing on Puerto Rico where they speak the same language but have toilet paper.
We agreed that Cuba should get another look in 5-10 years, just to see how it plays out.