On the first day here, Sarah Daisy, our guide, asked us to hold off until the end of the week before we drew any conclusions about her country. I will. For the time being, here are some of the facts that have come to light for me, which I will use to form my opinion:
1. Every single person in this country is given a ration of food. Today I was able to sneak a look at a ration book. Among other things, each person in a household receives 2 pounds of chicken and 7 pounds of rice per person. Other foods include cooking oil, flour, eggs, pasta, juice, beans, etc. If they want to trade their ration at the store for something else, the grocer will generally allow it. If they want other foods, it comes from their paychecks.
2. Everybody is guaranteed housing, and they pay 10% of their paycheck for their homes. Just recently the government passed a law that residents are allowed to sell their houses. However, there is a major housing shortage, and so if somebody wishes to move, they need to find somebody else who is willing to swap homes with them at the right price. This makes moving into a nicer home or a bigger home difficult, because it is rare to find somebody in a nice, large home who is willing to trade for a smaller, dilapidated home. And there are many of those, because the government decides when you can refurbish or repaint homes. In the 90s, during the Special Period, the economy was particularly bad for Cuba, and then in 2005 the island was hit by numerous hurricanes. This has left many buildings uninhabitable and in disrepair.
3. Cuba has the second highest literacy rate in the world. They have some of the best doctors in the world, and their infant mortality rates and average lifespan rival first world countries. This is because when Castro came into power, he focused on healthcare and education. I find this fascinating, because for any country to rise from poverty and become empowered, those basic needs must be met. In countries like Sudan, you see efforts focusing on healthcare and education. Because of this, when you walk around Havana, you see healthy people, and most of the people we have encountered here are well educated. These are priorities.
4. Because the government pays for all jobs, people who work in the tourist industry and receive tips sometimes make more money than doctors or teachers. One of our cab drivers was a teacher, but decided to become a driver because he makes more money that way.
5. The embargo makes getting simple supplies expensive and this creates great hardships. With a bit of digging and talking to people who were finally willing to share, we heard that hospitals don’t have enough supplies. They have amazing doctors, but no supplies. People don’t have enough food. They are guaranteed a certain amount, but it is not enough, and their salary is so low (one man told one of us he didn’t even make $200 last year) that they have a hard time paying for food. While we have been shown beautiful schools, we have passed other schools that are in shambles. We have heard that there are not enough books for children. They are allotted 2 pencils per month per child. One man in the streets begged me for pens for his nephews.
6. The government subsidizes the publishing houses, and because so many book publishers are tied with American publishers, it is difficult to get outside authors published in Cuba. Four hundred copies of every book that is published are placed in libraries around the country. According to the director of the Cuban Book Institute, they are not interested in publishing the likes of Dan Brown, because he is not literature. Any kind of writing that would encourage violence will not be published. The government has the final say in what kinds of literature the people will read.
7. For a Cuban to travel, he or she must receive a written invitation from the person he or she would be visiting. Even if this occurs, it is difficult to save enough money to visit other countries. The United States is supposed to give 20,000 Visas a year for Cubans to visit, but last year only allowed 400. Sarah Daisy saves Euros and American dollars in the hopes that someday she will have enough money to save to travel. If she could go anywhere in the world, she would choose Canada.
8. Under Batista, there was legalized segregation. Fidel Castro integrated buses, schools, and workplaces. With slavery as their backdrop of history, Cubans are highly aware of race relations. And while racism still occurs, interracial marriages are more common, and the general public, especially in Havana, is fairly tolerant.