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Letter from Cuba

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 18, 2010 -  (This article reflects on the trip my wife and I took to Cuba earlier this month during which we delivered medical supplies. I am not an expert, so the following simply draws on what we saw, heard and learned. )

With my impending trip to Cuba creating excitement, I discovered an article about a particularly good Havana restaurant that really whetted my appetite. I packed a copy and, once in Havana, we made reservations there for lunch.

I was especially curious because Fidel had allowed private homes to be converted into private restaurants (called paladars). This experiment departed from the norm of almost everything being owned by the government. And it proved too successful. These paladars began taking business away from government restaurants, so Fidel created a new rule: Plaladars could only have 12 seats.

Fast forward to our lunch that, in contrast to our other meals in Cuba, was fabulous. But there were 50 chairs and 25 diners in the restaurant -- a seeming violation of the 12-chair rule. Because I had brought the article, we were invited to meet the owners; and I asked, carefully, how they dealt with the 12-chair rule. With a dead pan, the owner said, "I only see 12 chairs."

That was our first lesson in Cuban survival.

During a visit to the largest cigar factory in Cuba, the guide explained that, in addition to smoking as many cigars as they wished during the work day, workers received three free cigars each day. When asked if they could sell the cigars, he responded with a familiar dead pan, "that would be illegal." Lesson reinforced.

Survival skills are reflected in other aspects of Cuban life. Housing is owned by the government. Large beautiful colonial houses once owned by wealthy Cubans are occupied by multiple families. Even more people have been accommodated by gerry-rigging lofts in rooms with high ceilings. The housing stock is in bad repair; and money and resources to make those repairs are in very short supply, driving many to the black market. The exception to this decay is the center of Old Havana, which benefits from the limited rehab the government can afford.

Government control of virtually everything was hard for some on our trip to internalize. Who owns the grocery stores? The government. Yes, but who employs the baseball players? The government. Yes, but who employs those jugglers on the corner? The government.

Eighty-five percent of adults are employed by the government, resulting in some people being paid for doing very little and the government being very over extended in its ability to pay. (It reminded me of the comment on the Russian economy: You pretend to work and we will pretend to pay you.)

Often the historical sights we visited were badly overstaffed. Some people were sitting around with nothing to do. The government announced recently that it will cut 500,000 people from the payroll and encourage them to start private enterprises, which would be taxed. The big questions becomes, What will the "rules of engagement" be? Will they discourage (i.e., the 12-chair rule) or encourage private business. Stay tuned.

All Cubans receive subsistence food through a monthly government ration card. This provides such staples as rice, beans, bread, milk, eggs, chicken (when available). No one goes hungry, but the array of foods is very limited. For example, vegetables and fruit are not readily available and shellfish is only available for export and tourist hotels unless you have access to the black market.

There are two currencies in Cuba. Cubans use pesos. Tourists use a convertible currency (CUC) pronounced "kook." At peso stores, only Cubans can purchase goods. Merchandise is cheap but very, very limited. We were told that a simple shirt would cost about 10-15 pesos (equivalent to 40-60 cents), which is within the range of a typical monthly income of 200-700 pesos. Anyone can shop in a CUC store where there is a great diversity of expensive merchandise. My "guayabera" shirt (for formal occasions) cost 12 CUCs (the equivalent of $12 or 300 pesos, cheap for me but impossibly expensive for most Cubans).

All Cubans are provided basic medical care; neighborhood clinics with a doctor and nurse provide care for about 120 people. Medication is available through community pharmacies; but our group (and others like it) provide thousands of pounds of medicines each year, suggesting a serious shortfall. What happens if the pharmacies can't fill the prescription? I was told the people would have to try the black market or a CUC store, if they can afford it.

As the economy worsens, resources and services provided by the government get stretched and diluted. Cubans then need to be increasingly creative in their daily lives.

Despite the dire economic situation, the Cuban people are friendly, passionate and surrounded by music. The streets, promenades and parks in Cuba (absent commercial advertising and, contrary to expectations, largely absent of political advertising) are filled with people having fun -- kids playing catch or roller skating and adults playing chess or strolling.

We were welcomed warmly despite the American embargo, which is exacerbating Cuba's economic stress. One taxi driver wondered whether we would be in trouble when we returned home. We answered no, because our trip was designated "humanitarian" by the U.S. State Department by virtue of the 10-15 pounds of medical supplies that each of us brought for the Sisters of Charity. Travel from the U.S., in fact, is not rare. We were on one of 10 daily charter flights from Miami directly to Havana.

The streets are filled with 1950s American cars that are beautifully maintained -- although we were advised that, when crossing the streets, we should not assume they can stop. Members of our group were constantly stopping to gawk at a 1950s Studebaker or some other antique marvel.

One of my favorite experiences was approaching kids on the streets and asking, "le gusta beisbol?" (Do you like baseball?) The inevitable smile reflected the Cuban passion for baseball. I would then offer each kid a baseball and a Cardinals hat I had brought with me. The response was usually impassive, but as I turned my back and walked away, my wife often saw the kids run to show off their new possessions.

That passion was on display and magnified in Havana's Parque Central opposite our hotel where several benches have been named Escina Caliente (the hot corner) where Cubans hotly debate baseball -- and I mean hotly. On several occasions, I was concerned that a few in this crowd of 20-30 would come to blows. I asked the concierge what was so controversial. He told me they were discussing the choices for the Cuban Pan American team.

Cubans' passion for life and difficult economic circumstances balanced by their creative survival skills are among the strongest reflections of our trip.

Ben Senturia is retired from working with nonprofit groups.

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