Letter from Yanqui Turista


There’s a street in downtown Havana where the taxis drop off the tourists. It’s right across from the Capitolio building and down the street from the Hotel Inglaterra. It’s a place for hawkers, beggars, and those people who want to draw your caricature.

“Pretty lady, you need a guide? I’ll show you Havana. Ten pesos, no problem.”

“Five pesos, and I’ll show you the real Havana. Beautiful eyes. Qué linda.”

The scene isn’t that different from the touristy part of any major city—but as with many things in Cuba, it also isn’t exactly what you’d think it is. The caricature artist could have a day job as a doctor. The hourly pay he earns for drawing a French student holding a Daiquiri can exceed what he would get for giving her a heart transplant, if she leaves a tip. And your taxi driver? He has one of the highest paying jobs in the city.

My Cuban friend, Ruben, tried to explain it to me. He’s 23 and works long hours as an electrician. He said he needed to support his family instead of going to college. Though Ruben’s mother has been a practicing dentist for over 20 years, her monthly state salary barely covers basic necessities. He would have gotten an engineering degree, but it’s no use; university education is free, but a job designing bridges won’t necessarily pay the bills. Like many other Cubans, he’d likely be forced to make ham and cheese sandwiches on stolen bread and sell them out his kitchen window, for a pittance and some good conversation.

“It doesn’t make sense,” Ruben said. “Everything is al revés”—turned upside down.

Still, especially compared to many other Latin Americans—or to Cubans during the 1990s—today’s Cubans have a high standard of living. The state provides universal healthcare and education, as it has since the 1959 revolution. But those who are doing the best are Cubans who have access to dollars, be it through remittances from abroad, or more commonly, through tourism. Taxi drivers, waiters at tourist restaurants, and those who rent out their homes to visitors as “casas particulares” can earn a comparatively high salary.

This is partly because there are two currencies in circulation in Cuba: first, there’s the weaker, national currency, the Cuban Peso (also called the CUP or “Moneda Nacional”). Then there’s the CUC, or “Cuban Convertible Peso,” which is linked to the dollar. Average state salary is $20 per month. Some professionals might make $30, and many people make only $10. In 2011, a university professor earned an average 300 to 560 Cuban pesos a month ($12 to $22), while a family renting rooms to foreigners could earn between $250 and $4,000 per month. Inequalities are creeping into a system that was born to eliminate them.

“If what they were shooting for was an egalitarian society, no social classes, then the dual economy and the tourism have kind of just wrecked that completely,” said Carolina Caballero, professor of Latin American Studies at Tulane University. Dollars were illegal up until 1993, when that ban was lifted in a last-ditch attempt to save a dying economy. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba was on the verge of collapse, having relied for years on Soviet aid. Legalizing dollars was a practical necessity—they were already being traded in the unregulated and booming black market, and the government needed the revenue. In a speech before the National Assembly, Fidel Castro affrmed that the legalization of the dollar wasn’t a concession to capitalism, saying, “The illusion that capitalism is going to solve our problems is an absurd and crazy chimera for which the masses will pay dearly.”

But it was an ideological blow. Much of Cuba’s revolutionary thinking is based on a philosophy against imperialism, and a reliance on U.S. currency was, in some ways, a defeat. Cuba managed to pull itself out of the economic depths, despite pressures from an outdated U.S. embargo. In 2004, Raúl Castro introduced the CUC, or “Cuban Convertible Peso,” to replace the dollar, in an attempt to keep revenue in the country. In Cuba’s centrally planned economy, the CUC is artificially linked to the dollar, but always a little bit stronger (about 87 cents to one CUC). It’s also not an internationally traded currency, so all CUC revenue stays in Cuba. Hotels are in on the game: tourists can’t exchange dollars or Euros for Moneda Nacional in any of the marble-floored Havana lobbies. On my first day in the country, an attendant in a white skirt told our crowded tour bus that we’d never touch the Moneda Nacional.

“You can get some coins if you want a little trinket, a souvenir to remember Cuba,” she said. “But, for the most part, you will be using CUCs.”

That’s true if you never want to ride a bus, take a Cuban-owned taxi, or eat at a family owned restaurant. Tourist separation has been enforced by custom and by law. Until January 2012, it was illegal for Cuban maquinas to pick up non-Cubans. These are the old American cars, the same Chevys and Thunderbirds that show up in Hollywood’s version of Havana and in Grease’s version of the American 1950s. They drive a fixed route, and drop you anywhere along it for a set price of 10 CUP (about 50 cents). The state-owned “bumblebee” taxis change their rates by distance, so they’ll cost somewhere around 5 CUC (about $6), depending on where you’re going.

In front of the Capitolio in downtown Havana, travelers from London and France (and a very few from the United States) get into their bumblebees, while Cuban families pack the maquinas and head out on their way. Cuba has almost always been under the influence of a foreign power, be it through direct occupation by the Spanish or the British, geopolitical domination via the US’s Platt Amendment (the primary legacy of which is the United States’ naval base in Guantanamo Bay), or economic dependence on the Soviet Union. When the country opened up to joint-venture hotels, the first taker was a Spanish company— ironic, given that Spain was also Cuba’s first imperial conqueror.

Now, as dollars and Euros are increasingly necessary for survival, many Cubans find themselves once again reliant on the whims of foreign partners in their own land. This is anathema to the revolution, which was couched in nationalist and separatist terms. José Martí, an anti-imperialist Cuban thinker who influenced Fidel, famously said, “The wine is made from plantain, but even if it turns sour, it is our wine.”

Martí’s face can be found, in white-plaster-bust form, on every street corner in Havana. The airport is named after him, as are many of the schools, streets, museums, and plazas. But Cubans are not producing much these days, not even plantain wine. And, as revolutionaries may have feared, the creeping influence of the dollar has broken down some of their most cherished values. Even stolid party members have been drawn under its power, speaking to tourists on the now-legal “people to people” trips from the United States.

“They go to see the same people every time,” Caballero said of these trips, which are intended to give U.S. tourists and Cuban nationals a chance to interact, but end up offering a fairly superficial and manicured view of the country. “How does a revolutionary justify taking $100 for a 30-minute speech to a foreign crowd?”

Perhaps because it’s increasingly difficult to survive without dollars. One Sunday night my friends and I got lost on our way to the hate Bar Dos Hermanos. We met a guard, a friendly guy named Augustín who led us past rows of crumbling houses and out into an open plaza that abutted the waterfront. There, a plaque assured us that Ernest Hemingway had drunk a mojito on this very spot, and we invited the guard for a celebratory drink. Augustín sucked the alcohol off his mint sprig as he chatted with us about the Chicago Bulls. He was thin beneath his clean uniform, and it suddenly occurred to me to wonder how much these calories might mean to him. It was the end of the month, after all. Rations were drying up. About a half an hour later, he started to drop some hints about food.

“Are you guys hungry? I know a place near here. You’re not going to believe this, but it serves lobster.” When we got there a few minutes later, we were the only people in the place. I wasn’t really hungry, and didn’t want to spend more money that night; the waiter got to me and I said “nada, gracias.”

Augustín raised his eyes from his menu. “Then nothing for me, either,” he said. I groped for the right words. I didn’t want to offend him, but I didn’t want him to leave hungry.

“Are you sure? Go ahead! No problem. Go ahead.”

“No,” Augustine said. “Nothing.”

As the lobster disappeared from the plates, we started asking more pointed questions about Cuba.

“What do you like about it? What do you hate about it? Is it a good place to live?”

Augustín sat straight-backed at the end of the table. His voice was welcoming and full of warmth.

“I love Cuba,” he said. “I love living in Cuba. Here, there are no internal problems. All the problems come from the embargo, from the global context.”

The outdated embargo policy certainly doesn’t help, but it’s not the whole story. Cuba has almost no exports and has struggled with economic self-sufficiencyfor generations. Yet, it’s true that as Cuba opens up to globalization, its grand experiment in erasing social class seems increasingly doomed for failure. And, when I left a tip in the lobster restaurant that night, I left a little trail of increasing inequality in my wake. If the US continues to ease its travel restrictions, more and more tourists will be forced to weigh the trade-offs: rising inequality in Cuba will attend any trip we take to taste the (formerly) forbidden fruit. Like me, I think that many will still choose to travel. Even without U.S. tourism, I’m not optimistic that Castro’s solution will erase inequalities that have far-reaching global roots. I think that addressing such inequality is this generation’s global challenge, and I hope there is another way. For now, I am still part of the problem.

Sally Helm ’14 is an English major in Berkeley College. Contact her at sally.helm@yale.edu.