There are two currencies in Cuba – national money, which is how Cubans are paid and with which they can buy just the very essentials, like basic food; and convertible pesos, which they need to buy everything else like decent food, telephone bills, cars and, frankly, anything worth having that makes life bearable. How do you get convertible pesos? You may well ask.
Everyone wants them and will do almost anything to get them from begging, to posing in costume for you to take your photograph with them, to playing music with varying degrees of skill for tips, dressing as living sculptures, selling all manner of consumables on the street and providing good service – that includes everyone from the chamber maid to the hotel manager; all are trying to earn a little extra. And what they do get, I am told they most likely spend on food. This is no surprise, if you poke your head into one of the local distribution centres.
All Cubans have a monthly ration book which enables them to buy staple foods at subsidised prices. These are rice, beans, sugar and coffee, and a few other things like oil and soap. They are sold in bulk, a whole month’s worth at a time, so you have to be strong to haul this lot home. The centres are Spartan in the extreme. Ask your parents or grandparents about war time rationing and you’ll have some idea of what this means.
Ask a Cuban and they’ll tell you things are good now compared to the Special Period between 1989 and 1994 when the disintegration of Soviet Union and the withdrawal of support to Cuba put the country on the brink of a humanitarian crisis. Cubans ate a lot of rice and beans, started to suffer from malnutrition, and when the soap ran out, which it did, washed themselves with such appalling detergents that they developed horrible skin conditions. Not good.
No wonder the borders were opened in response for a second wave of emigration. Anyone with family in the US or elsewhere was whisked away by boat; those without risked life and limb on flimsy rafts to get away. Remember those news stories about Cubans drowning in the Gulf of Mexico?
It’s astonishing then that in the twenty intervening years, and despite the organic huerta (community garden) movement, Cuba is still not self-sufficient in food. There is plenty of fertile land to be cultivated and a year round growing climate. Yet, even having natural resources like oil and gas, there is not enough diesel for farmers to plough the land. This doesn’t make much sense and leaves Cuba still at the mercy of its trading partners. Thus, sadly, the wheel turns.