Inventing Life in Cuba

When Ideology Is Used as a Vehicle of Control, Economic and Social Devastation Follows

Marc Olshan is a professor of sociology at Alfred University in Alfred, New York.

In the hills of the Sierra de Cubitas, Cuba, a rusted-out truck loaded with scavenged lumber creeps onto the broken pavement. The lumber sticks out well past the end of the flatbed and, lacking a piece of cloth, the driver has “invented” a warning flag. Tied to the tip of the longest piece of stained, weathered wood is a bouquet of brilliant red hibiscus.

Eight years after the disappearance of its Soviet backers, Cuba confounds the world with its continued survival. In some quarters, surprise has given way to admiration. The island’s unsought and unplanned culture of austerity is even being touted for the lessons it supposedly holds for the rest of the world. In the sharply reduced levels of consumption imposed on Cubans, some observers see the virtues of thrift, self-reliance, and ecological soundness. Others see Cuban policies as a model for our presumably inevitable transition to a world of scarcity. But a closer look yields different conclusions and different lessons.

Cubans have in fact been forced to dust off archaic technologies, substitute jury-rigged devices for imported goods, and engage in imaginative recycling in order to survive. But these creative responses to economic crisis are born in individual households and on the street, not in the offices of bureaucrats in Havana. The Cuban people survive not because of their government’s policies, but despite them.

The Case of Food

One measure of Cuba’s slide backward is the decline in agricultural production, as oxen replace tractors, fertilizer and pesticides become increasingly scarce, and equipment and facilities deteriorate for lack of maintenance. The highly subsidized government distribution system provides only about half of each month’s food needs. Coming up with the rest depends entirely on the ingenuity of each family. Cubans call it “inventing.” They “invent” food by raising chickens on the balconies of Havana high-rises. They fatten pigs on garbage or take them, on a leash, to forage in parks. Raising animals in urban areas is illegal, but enforcing the law would amount to declaring protein to be illegal, so the authorities look the other way.

Other urban families “invent” food by traveling into the countryside to buy directly from farmers, a practice that is outlawed as well. Enforcement is spotty since the police lack the resources to monitor movement effectively. But at checkpoints periodically set up on roads leading into cities, police search for contraband food. Those caught violating the law, by either buying or selling, face fines or prison sentences.

Meanwhile crops often rot in the field, either because there’s no incentive for local laborers to harvest more than they can use, or because the government is unable to mobilize the necessary transportation. In northern Camagüey province I saw expanses of orange trees loaded with ripe fruit dropping to the ground. Any individual initiative to salvage this crop by transporting it to a population center and selling it would be considered a criminal act. Such enterprise is inconsistent with an ideology that celebrates equality of condition above all else.

Fuel shortages and the near collapse of the island’s transportation system are handled with the same dogmatism. One government response has been to deploy a corps of clipboard-toting “inspectors.” Their job is to stand on the sides of roads throughout the island and stop passing vehicles to check for empty seats. They then assign those seats to a lucky few from the crowds of would-be travelers who gather daily on the edges of every city and town in the country. This exercise in command-and-control hitchhiking leaves people spending hours, sometimes the entire day, waiting for an assignment.

An alternative is the open-air trucks that have largely replaced a rapidly disintegrating fleet of intercity buses. The trucks are sometimes replaced by other “inventions” such as a bus chassis pulled by tractors or horse-powered wagons. In any case, it’s a long time between vehicles.

The wait is a lot shorter for illegal privately owned “taxis.” Occasionally shut down at the whimsy of the authorities, these taxis are usually tolerated as long as everyone subscribes to the fiction that drivers are doing favors for friends or relatives and no money is being exchanged. These vehicles, for the most part pre-revolutionary relics, are kept alive by the sheer ingenuity of their owner-operators.

On one occasion, after I squeezed into a 1948 Plymouth with several other travelers, the driver instructed me: “If we’re stopped by the police, tell them you’re my cousin.” We both knew that story wasn’t going to stand up to more than the mildest of scrutiny. But when we were stopped at a roadblock and the car was searched, the police only opted to give me and the driver’s other “relatives” a skeptical look before waving us on.

Another government response to transportation shortfalls was to turn to the bicycle. Photographs of healthy, smiling cyclists pedaling along the broad expanses of Havana’s Malecón Boulevard almost make the shortage of motorized transport seem like a godsend. But for Cuba’s undernourished citizenry—dodging the potholes and open ditches of dangerously deteriorated roads, carrying freight and family in tropical heat and rain, and negotiating the jumble of horse-drawn wagons, motorcycles, smoke-spewing trucks, swarms of other bicyclists, and the occasional speeding automobile—cycling is no idyll.

Bicycles have proven to be a partial substitute for more advanced transportation to the extent that they are creatively adapted by individual users. Attaching a child’s seat made from scrap wood to the crossbar and rigging a carrier over the rear wheel turns a one-person conveyance into transportation for a family of four. It’s not comfortable, it’s not safe, and it’s not easy to keep it moving, but it works.

Overcoming Political Obstacles

In endless small ways the inventiveness of the Cuban people covers for the mistakes of the central planners and the intransigence of their political leadership, allowing the country to continue to limp along. Housewives prepare for the frequent shutoffs of gas and electricity by cooking with an array of “inventions,” including recycled electric heating coils, makeshift kerosene burners, and homemade charcoal. Families “invent” additional bedrooms in already tiny apartments by putting up partitions with scraps of building materials. They supplement their income with micro-businesses, selling homemade pizzas, refilling disposable cigarette lighters, or operating a rudimentary beauty parlor from a table in the street.

“Inventing” has another, more picaresque side as well. It involves the theft of food, equipment, services, and supplies from the state. It also includes buying and selling in a black market, which is probably as large as the official economy of Cuba. For example, rationed items that are not used, such as rum or cigarettes, are sold at the much higher market price. Food that will be virtually given away in state “stores” in exchange for a ration coupon and a few centavos is sold for the going black-market price by anyone who has access to it before it reaches the shelf.

Even those families operating businesses on the government’s list of “authorized” activities are forced to buy raw materials stolen from the state. Wholesalers and middlemen are illegal. One member of the Communist Party, a decorated “Hero of the Revolution,” described how he and his wife sell candies from a window in their apartment. Since sugar is as stringently rationed as any other commodity, they must buy it on the black market. Ideology takes a back seat to survival.

Access to services is also “invented” by bribing state employees such as automobile mechanics, clerks who sell railway or airline tickets, or telephone repairmen. The state nominally offers such services for very modest charges, but in fact they are often not available because demand far exceeds the state’s ability to supply them.

“Inventing” can also mean joining the ranks of the jineteras (literally “horsewomen”) in the sex trade that has helped boost Cuban tourism to the nation’s largest source of foreign exchange after its sugar exports. Hani, a twenty-year-old jinetera working in Santiago, Cuba’s second largest city, explained it like this: “This is a very wearisome life, but well . . . you become a jinetera out of necessity. I have friends who do it, who’ll go anywhere, to a discotheque, to a restaurant, so that they can drink Coca-Cola or a Heineken beer or smoke a Marlboro or eat chocolate. Things they can’t do in their own homes.” As guests of foreigners with dollars to spend, these women can enter the tourist facilities that are otherwise closed to them.

Dollar Stores

With dollars everything is available. And although the government constantly invokes the American “blockade” of Cuba as an explanation for the island’s disastrous economic situation, American products are readily available in hotels and the state-run “dollar stores.” In the tourist industry, Cubans can earn tips in dollars. Waiters or tour guides may collect, in a single day, the equivalent of an engineer’s or professor’s monthly salary in pesos. Consequently, jobs in tourism, no matter how humble, command a great deal of status, as illustrated in the following joke:

First young lady: “So, how is it going with your new boyfriend?”

Second young lady: “I’m finished with that bum. It turns out he’s been lying to me all along.”

First young lady: “Oh, how is that?”

Second young lady: “He told me he was working as a bellboy at the new hotel. But I found out the other day that he’s really only a doctor.”

Dollars also come from relatives and friends outside the island. Cubans receive an estimated $500 to $800 million annually in foreign remittances. For a nation that earned only $1.2 billion in foreign exchange from sugar sales in 1995, such an amount represents an enormous subsidy. Any claim of “success” that doesn’t acknowledge this massive infusion of aid is meaningless.

But no amount of money could keep Cuba’s economy afloat without the resilience and endless inventiveness of its people. On the sidewalk in front of the Camagüey City public library, I came upon a librarian stirring a large cast-iron cauldron full of soup. The blackened pot was supported by a tripod over a roaring fire of books. The book-burning librarian, amused by my surprise, explained that these were discards being recycled one last time.

The pages of discarded books are also used to make the small paper cones in which street vendors sell peanuts. On one such cone the text began: “The unity of all the people that was an indispensable condition for the revolutionary triumph. . . .” Even Fidel’s speeches are being recycled.

Newspapers and magazines likewise do double duty—in the nation’s bathrooms. Toilet paper is a rarity, at least outside of tourist facilities. The first time I stayed in a Cuban home I naively asked where the toilet paper was. My hostess, with typical Cuban drollness, indicated a pile of what I had thought was reading material and said: “Look, we have plenty. Take your pick: ‘Rebel Youth,’ ‘Workers,’ or ‘Bohemia.’”

Cubans take stock of their bleak circumstances and still manage a bitter laugh. One joke that made the rounds tells of a man so depressed by years of shortages that he decides to commit suicide. He first sticks his head in the oven but the gas service has been interrupted. He then goes to fill the tub to drown himself but finds that the water is off again. He tries to electrocute himself, but there’s a power outage. Finally, he throws himself from his apartment window only to land on a huge mound of uncollected garbage in the street. He picks himself up and, out of desperation, limps to the nearest police station where he intends to provoke the police into shooting him by shouting antigovernment slogans. He walks in and screams “Down with Fidel!” but is frustrated once again when the man on duty enthusiastically shakes his hand and says “I’m with you, buddy, I’m with you.”

In one respect the Cuban police have it easy. Since violating the law is the only way to survive, anyone and everyone can be legally arrested at any time. And as if that did not give the state enough control, it can always fall back on the “Law of Dangerousness,” which allows the arrest of anyone who is even potentially “antisocial.” Little wonder then when I asked a pre-med student in Guantánamo province about the attitudes of his peers, he responded with a chillingly simple summary: “Cuban youth is afraid.”

In Havana a teenager described the “voluntary” labor expected of him and his fellow students: “We are supposed to do agricultural work in the country but no one wants to go. The heat is impossible; the food is awful. Your parents will go to a doctor to get a statement certifying that you aren’t fit for such work. Everyone tries to do that. If you end up going, the only benefit is that the boys’ and girls’ barracks are close together.”

State control is so pervasive that it represents the defining feature of Cuban life. At a university hostel where I was staying in Santiago, a maid approached me with one of my socks that she had found in the hall outside my room. I thanked her for bringing the sock to me. She laughed and said quite spontaneously, “Now it will have to be punished for leaving the room without authorization.”

The Cuban Spirit

Offering Cuba as a model for the rest of the world would strike most Cubans as a cruel joke. Whatever the redeeming features of poverty and regulation might be, they are not likely to be celebrated by the poor and the regulated. The real lesson from Cuba lies in the economic and social devastation that follows when ideology is used as a vehicle of control. Cuban government policies are “successful” only to the extent that they are circumvented by the creativity of the Cuban people, supplemented by the black market, and massively supported by remittances from abroad. The Cuban people are surviving. But to confuse their spirit and creativity with the bankrupt ideology that produced the very conditions under which they suffer is, most literally, to add insult to injury.

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