Meeting the People in Cuba
By Jonathan Le Vallois at Apr 18, 2008
I have just returned from Cuba which I visited with a Traidcraft "Meet the People" tour. Traidcraft being a fairtrade organisation in the UK and a founding member of the Fairtrade Foundation. We visited various parts of the island, meeting farmers, teachers, doctors and many other ordinary Cubans. I would like to share some of what we learned.
The first thing to note is that Cuba is in no sense a dictatorship. True it only has one political party, the Communist Party, but it's role is not the same as the political parties we are familiar with.
The Communist Party takes no part in the electoral process. The Cuban people vote for representatives from their communities. These are ordinary people not politicians and they are not allowed to campaign. They are voted for on the basis that they are known and trusted. The chances are that if a voter doesn't personally know the person they are voting for they know someone who does. There are currently 614 of these voted representatives.
It is these representatives who vote in the president, vice presidents and ministers. So how come they voted in the same president for so many years? It's simply because most of them believe in him. They recognise that he has led them through many difficult years and they don't think anyone else could do it better, even if they don't like all the rules they live under. They remember what a dictatorship is like. They lived under Batista, that friend of the US who made Cuba a playground for the rich and corrupt and had protestors gunned down in the streets. That is what the revolution has rescued them from and they are glad of it. The current political system bears no resemblance to a dictatorship. The fact that over 90% of the population voted in the last elections amply demonstrates their belief in it.
So where does the Communist Party fit in? They are involved in discussing policies and legislation. This we may consider as less than ideal since they are an unelected body. But let us not forget that our own governments (in the US and UK at least) are heavily influenced by unelected bodies. These are the lobbyists, who are principally representatives of corporations. Cuba has the Communist Party, we have the Capitalist Party. At least Cuba is honest about it.
Most of life in Cuba is community based. Education, healthcare, work as much as is possible and just about anything else you can think of. Everybody knows their neighbours and they support each other. It is principally the strength of community which enabled them to survive the hard years after the collapse of the Soviet Union. They call those years the "special period". In fact the "special period" probably further strengthened the community spirit because people had to support each other and because travel became so much harder.
Farming has changed a lot since the Soviet Union collapsed. Until then Cuba had gained 80% of its income from selling sugar to the Soviet block at a higher price than that of the global market. When the Soviet Union collapsed this market disappeared overnight. This coupled with a tightening of the USA's blockade against Cuba affected all aspects of life in Cuba, but perhaps the biggest changes occured in farming. It is the first few years of this period that are referred to as the "special period", but the affects are still felt now as Cuba is still isolated from much of the global market by the US blockade. Unable to import much food Cuba now had to grow its own or starve to death. A food rationing system was started to ensure everyone would survive. (The rationing system still operates, but now there is enough food available to supplement it by buying extra). Half the sugar mills were closed and the land turned to growing crops. Unfortunately much of the soil which now had to grow food crops had been damaged by the monoculture of growing sugar cane and by the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Such chemicals were no longer available, nor was there fuel for tractors, other machinery, or even for transport. Thus Cuba had to rebuild the soil, develop organic, non mechanised farming and increase farming near to population centres.
Now you see oxen being used to plough the land more often than tractors. Not only does this mean no fuel is needed, but unlike tractors, oxen don't compress the soil. The soil is being rebuilt using worm humus, which is made using vegetable matter and manure. Go to almost any farm and the farmer will proudly show you his worms! Mixed crops are planted to keep pests to a minimum without the use of pesticides. And many small farms have been created in and around cities. Cuban's are now very conscious of working with nature rather than against it. A few still use chemicals, most notably in the growth of tobacco, but those that have switched to organic farming wouldn't go back to using chemicals even if they could and they prefer their oxen to tractors. They point out that they are 50 years ahead of us, because when the oil runs out this is how we'll have to learn to farm.
At the start of every year each farm agrees with the state how much it will produce and the state undertakes to buy it all. There is no coercion here for the farmers to produce more than they can. And if for reasons such as blight or hurricane damage they fail to produce what they agreed to, the state will pay them anyway.
About half the farms are cooperatives where the farmers share the earnings of the farm. The rest are state owned farms where the workers are waged staff. In both cases earnings are high, farming being one of the best paid jobs in Cuba. Other benefits are good too, including 50-60% pay when sick and like the rest of the country, retirement at age 55 years for women and 60 years for men. After you retire you can continue to work if you wish, in which case you will receive your pension and your pay.
There is very little private enterprise as such. As already noted farms sell everything to the state. The state controls nearly all shops, which is why the prices are pretty much the same everywhere. The exceptions are some private cafes and people who rent out rooms to tourists. There are also some joint ventures between foreign companies and the state, with the state always owning the controlling share.
Only private businesses are taxed. No one else is taxed since the government gets its revenue from buying and selling everything. But the government is not unaccountable in this. Farmers for instance have their own representatives who check that what they are paid for their goods is fair. No one we spoke to thought the government was wasting the country's money.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba's primary source of foreign income has been tourism. About 2 million tourists visit Cuba each year. The largest amount come form Canada and most of the rest from Europe.
Although Cuba gains a lot of foreign income this way it does have a downside. This is that Cubans working in the tourist industry can make much more money than those with no access to tourist money. For instance a teacher might earn, say 350 Cuban Pesos a month, which is a good wage, but a cleaner in a hotel might get tipped 1 or 2 Convertable Pesos by every departing guest whose room she cleans. A Convertible Pesos is worth 24 Cuban Pesos, so it is possible to earn more as a hotel cleaner than a teacher. This kind of disparity gives rise to some discontent and is causing some people to leave vital professions like teaching to work in the tourist industry.
Most people can't afford cars or the fuel to put in them. And during the special period there was virtually no fuel available. Walking, bicycles, horses and hitch hiking became the norm and open trucks are used as buses. This continues, although there are a few new cars about now. At any junction you will see groups of people waiting for a ride to work, to school, to wherever. All this is perfectly safe. Unprovoked violence is unheard of in Cuba. Petty theft, born of poverty, is about the only crime we heard tell of. A woman can hitch hike alone, day or night in perfect safety.
In Cuba all education is free for everyone. The only obligation this entails is that if you go through degree level education you then have to spend 18 months doing what is called social service. This means being sent somewhere that needs the skills you have learned. For this you are paid an amount somewhat above the minimum wage. Everyone we spoke to thought this a fair system and many choose to remain where they were sent permanently.
The alternative to studying for a degree is vocational training. This too is free.
Most education is locally based so that pupils don't have to travel far, especially up to high school level, but there are boarding schools for cases where the travel is too lengthy. Don't forget that most people don't have cars so when I say lengthy I'm talking about time not distance.
Class sizes kept low. 1 teacher to 20 pupils at junior level and 1 teacher to 15 pupils at high school level. But it can be even lower than that. We encountered one school in a less accessible area which had only 2 pupils, but still boasted four part time teachers (they taught eleswhere as well), a PC, TV and video, powered by solar panels since the area was too remote for mains power.
This too is community based as much as possible and free, except for a small charge for medication received when not in hospital.
Health care is primarily preventative. It is much cheaper to prevent illness than to cure it. There is an average of 1 doctor and nurse team for every 120 families. This low number of patients means they visit them and keep track of any conditions they may have. They also visit well members of the community at least once a year, just to make sure they really are well. Anything they can't deal with is of course referred to a hospital or one of the specialists who visits the community regularly.
If you should need to go to hospital this too is free and of a very high standard.
All this combines to give Cuba very good health statistics, including a high life expectancy and low child mortality. Better in fact than most Western nations.
This is a problem in Cuba. 80% of homes are privately owned, but there simply aren't enough of them. It is common for 2 or 3 generations to live together in one small home, with only one room for each family unit. In the countryside you can build your own home on your land. (One of the first acts of the revolutionary government was to give land to those who worked it). In cities and towns it's not so easy. The most common way to move house is to swap with someone else. A chain of swaps can be set up, but this can take a months or years to complete. Houses can only be bought and sold through the government and you will wait a long time for a suitable house to become available by this method.
Few new houses are being built by the government because at the moment the primary concerns remain making sure there is enough food, education and healthcare.
There are other, lesser issues which are gradually being addressed. You will have heard that only recently were laws changed to allow Cubans to stay in hotels; to register their own mobiles and to buy PCs. Amongst the remaining issues are that you still can't get satellite TV, except on the black market and it takes a long time to get foreign travel authorised.
But these are minor issues compared with the progress they have made since the revolution began: free education and healthcare for everyone; owning your own land; having food to eat; strong and supportive communities and not being shot in the street for expressing discontent. Generally speaking this is the happiest and friendliest nation I have ever visited.