HAVANA – Alejandro Pos Morena, a 30-year-old Cuban wearing a white shirt and red bowtie swings the restaurant door open wide with a smile. He got his job as the restaurant's host because he speaks English – a rare skill in Havana.
Morena leads us to a table, where we make some small talk. I ask him how he knows English so well and he explains he has a degree in English Literature from the University of Havana and his real profession is teaching high school English.
So why is he working in a restaurant? He says he couldn’t survive on a teacher's salary and had to find another job.
How much did he make? $25 a month, he says.
What about now? Still $25 a month, he says, but he also gets tips, and that's what he lives on.
After answering this last question, he looks around nervously and returns to his position at the front of the restaurant. Unable to help myself, I follow him after a couple minutes.
Dressing for success
Under my continued questioning, he reveals that he commutes and hour and a half to the restaurant every day. Upon arriving, he changes clothes and works until 9 P.M. – spending the entire shift on his feet. After work, he changes clothes again and makes the trip back home.
"I get home, take a shower and collapse into bed from exhaustion and back pain," he says.
How does he live on his salary?
"That's the real problem faced by all Cubans. That's why we're so angry about the low salaries. It's true the state gives us vouchers to buy cheap staples, but it's such a pitiful, depressing amount and not nearly enough," says Morena. "I have no chance an apartment. I live with my parents."
He continues, "I also don't have a chance of getting married because no one will agree to marry someone who doesn't have any money."
But no one has any money, right?
"Not exactly: There are those who have, because everything here works on wheeling and dealing. The problem is for those who don't have an insider connection," Morena says. "Do you know how much a pair of American jeans costs here? $40. That's more than a month's salary. If you have relatives who live abroad they send a couple pairs of jeans and you sell them here on the black market. You make good money and you can even keep a pair of jeans for yourself."
What's so great about foreign jeans?
"If I walk around in locally made jeans then I really won't have a chance of finding a girl," Alejandro says with a sad smile. "Not a single girl will look at me because wearing locally made jeans is a clear statement that you aren't successful."
I learn more about getting by in Cuba at our hotel, Casa Particolare – a rented room in a local family's apartment. We paid $30 a day, compared to $140 a day at a hotel and ate a free breakfast with the family that owns the apartment every morning. Our conversations offered a glimpse into the way people live in the Island country.
The landlord is a gynecologist, but he only goes to the local hospital occasionally. His salary is $35 per month, and most of his income comes from renting three rooms in his house. This side business earns him more in a day than he would make in three months at his day job. Other Cubans would love to have this option but most live in tiny two-room apartments.
To keep his neighbors happy, the doctor provides work to the entire neighborhood. One neighbor makes breakfast, one cleans the rooms, one does the laundry and one makes sure the guests' cars don't suddenly disappear.
A neighbor tells us she quit her job as an X-ray nurse, where she made $20 a day, to work as a house maid. Another neighbor says she longs to visit her family in Guantanamo, but a roundtrip ticket for the bumpy bus ride costs as much as her monthly salary, so she hasn't seen her loved ones in five years.
The Communist system has succeeded in reducing the people who live on the island of Cuba to a state of abject poverty, with incredibly low wages, a sky-high number of underemployed workers and a depressingly low GDP. It's funny to hear the impressions of tourists who return from Cuba with stories of happy people salsa dancing in the streets. This is not the reality. Maybe they saw a couple drunks drowning their sorrows in the cheap government-provided rum, which serves as an opiate for the masses. Cuba is really a country of downtrodden people who live in a frightening police state, never knowing if their neighbor is also a police informer.
Every day they're hustling
Things haven’t always been this bad in Cuba. The country once received generous funding from the Soviet Union, which went toward large highways, hospitals and ugly housing projects. But when the Communist bloc suddenly collapsed in 1990, aid from the Soviet Union evaporated and Cuba's foreign trade and GDP plummeted.
With most of its GDP coming from agriculture, namely sugar cane, bananas and coffee, the country appears doomed to poverty for the foreseeable future.
Cubans don't go to their jobs to work, but to steal things. The doctor is pilfering medicines. The bartender is pouring half glasses for customers and selling the rest on the black market. The gas-station attendant is rigging the meter and the gas-station owner is mixing tourist fuel with the local variety. The club bouncer isn’t tearing tickets, but returning them to the box office to be reused. The government official is taking bribes. The traffic cop is extorting drivers. Women are selling knockoff perfume outside a run-down department store. Housewives are baking cookies and selling them on the curb or hawking soft drinks and omelet sandwiches from their windows. In the daily struggle to survive, no one has a moment to breathe.
The most astonishing spectacle unfolds at the government-run stores, which sell staple goods. Citizens make purchases with stamps handed out by the state, similar to the system in Israel during the austerity period of the early 1950s. There are no disposable shopping bags, so customers bring bottles and bags from home to have them filled with low-quality cooking oil, rice, flour and bars of soap. The process is a wretched reminder of how frightened and abject the Cuban government has made its good people.
An Israeli friend of mine told me he once rented a car in Cuba and stopped at a police checkpoint. The police officer on duty approached the driver's window and asked for his driver's license.
"You exceeded the maximum permitted speed," the police officer told him. "You are allowed to drive only up to 50 kmh along the bridge."
"But there isn't a sign," my friend protested.
"It doesn't matter. That's the law," said the police officer, taking his driver's license.
The situation was finally resolved with a $50 bribe – twice the officer's monthly salary.
In destroying Cuba, Fidel Castro committed a horrible crime against his people. But he did the world a favor, allowing us to see where Communism leads: poverty, humiliation, backwardness, fear of government and corruption. There is a massive gap between the government insiders, bribe-takers and wheeler-dealers and the other 90 percent of the population that lives in poverty.
Strangely, Cuba also offers a glimpse of the world 60 years ago, with large 1950s American cars, crumbling old homes, potholed highways and ancient factories.
When will this deck of cards collapse? When will a revolution topple the Communist regime? Will it happen when Raul Castro dies? He is 81 years old. Will it happen when his brother, Fidel, dies? He is 86 years old and sick. Perhaps it will happen before either of them die, in the same unexpected way communism fell in Eastern Europe 20 years ago.
Want to enjoy 'Zen' reading - with no ads and just the article? Subscribe todaySubscribe now