It is hard to get the full story, a story, or could you even imagine – the same story more than once, from the Cuban people. I do not think they are averse to telling me, but I do think they themselves aren’t entirely sure.
Is it $5 per night a casa owner gives to the government on my stay in their home? Or is it 15% of what I’m paying them? Or, could it actually be 40-50% or even more? I’ve heard all those answers and then some yet I still have no idea what the truth is, except that it is for certain that the money I spend goes directly, in large proportions, into the pockets of the government. I am supporting the Cuban people, if only financially, but I am also supporting their crap government, that is an unavoidable truth of this country.
My Spanish teacher in Havana was a university professor before she became a teacher at the small and new private school for foreigners I was attending. As a university professor, she earned 35 CUC per month (that’s basically $35). The head of her department, in possession of a masters, a doctorate, and years of teaching experience, earned 40. They had both studied tirelessly and had been in their positions for a number of years, they both earned hardly enough to live on.
Except it is more than enough to live on, rations ensure that. The approximate equivalent of 1 CUC (but paid in the devalued local currency CUP) got one person a smattering of goods from the dimly lit ration shop. The list included several pounds of rice, vegetable oil, some chicken, juice for youngsters, powdered milk for babies, a few other bonus bits for pregnant mothers, and probably one or two things I’m forgetting, because who doesn’t forget something on their shopping list? It is more than enough to live on, the government ensures that.
If you plan to live on scarcity from day to day, if you plan to live only to work and to eat. If you are a country recovering from the trauma of a war, a revolution. It is not enough to live on today, decades after a country has regained its stability. It is not enough to connect regularly to the internet, which costs 1 CUC per hour and is painfully slow, but can provide information about what is enough in the rest of the world. It is not enough.
“Y ahora?” I asked her.
She shook her head.
“Esto, no.” She replied.
Now that I, along with my classmates, each handed 150 CUC per week for 20 hours of Spanish lessons over to her employer, she was thankfully making more. An exact number I never did get but whispers said that around 8 CUC hourly at a school like the one I was attending would be a reasonable number, if that were true she would be earning a whopping 600+CUC per month. Those whispers also presumed the government did not know all that changed hands behind those doors. A tale as old as time.
Scarcity had not always been the name of the game in this city of hers. ‘Grand’ I searched for the word I was looking for, explaining no ‘grande’was not what I meant. Magnificent, beautiful, impressive, all synonymous. Switch the placement of the adjective. Not ‘es un ciudad grande‘ (pero, si!) ‘es un grande ciudad‘. She knew what I meant. Just minutes before the conversation we’d been jostling our way along the pieces of sidewalk pavement which protruded up at various angles beneath precarious balconies lining the streets of Havana. Balconies of art deco design with intricate wrought iron adornments. Balconies which regularly crumbled to the ground and those of which were still standing were often held up on flimsy wooden stilts, balconies which would put the likes of Park Avenue to shame.
‘Makeup’ is the word she used to describe the bright colors which had been painted atop the buildings that had not been remodeled, restored, refurbished, or even checked for safety in decades. Makeup was not what she hoped for the future of her country. ‘Hope’though, was not what I meant, I clarified, when I asked the question, ‘que tu piensas es la futura de Havana?’ those are two distinctly different things in a land where how much rice you get to eat each month is pre-determined for you.
She loves her country. But worries about what will happen to the economy and thus the future of a place where your university friends become waiters and taxi drivers because the pay is better than sticking with careers in medicine, law, or engineering. But she says only so many words out loud. She does not say the words which flow freely from my mouth about my government or hers.
Days later my next casa host would tell me how she had yet to visit her brothers and their families in Miami (though they often come back to visit her in Cuba) because the United States continuously denies her visa. ‘But why?’ She mused, ‘my life is here, my kids, my grandchildren, my house, this is my home, I don’t want to stay there in the U.S. They think I will go and I will get a job and I will never leave. But here, it is safe, the people are good. There is no crime, you’ she pointed at me ‘can walk in the streets at night, no problem. The problem is not with the people, the problem’ she pointed upwards ‘is with them, the problem is the government.’
‘Yes’ I agreed ‘en el toto mundo.’
*Edit: I eventually got some numbers from a pretty reputable source in regards to taxes on casa owners: according to him, a casa owner pays $100/month/room for rent regardless of the business they have. On top of that, at the end of each year they pay 10% of their total income on the rooms. Plus, if you can believe it, a 5% tax for any person they employ to help them with the casa. There was also something about a payment to do with the breakfast many casa owners offer for 5 CUC but I didn’t fully understand what that was about.
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