The Cuba Conundrum

Isolated for 37 years, Cubans are ambivalent about America.

May/June 1998

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The Cuba Conundrum

Courtesy Craig Heaps

Anthony Pereira spotted our camera crew in front of Havana's old capital building and hurried to catch up with us. As we walked along the bustling Paseo de Marti, Pereira described how tough life is for the average Cuban – even with subsidized housing and free health care. A 30-year-old hotel worker, Pereira wore casual slacks, the boxy, white, tieless shirt common in Latin America and a pair of off-brand cross-trainers badly in need of replacement. The shoes said it all.

"It would cost me 100 pesos or more for a new pair," he told me. "Being a worker making 200 pesos a month, I just don't have the luxury."

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba's main source of trade and aid dried up, shrinking the economy by more than a third. That exacerbated 30 years of economic woe brought about when the United States declared an embargo on trade with the island nation after Fidel Castro declared himself a Marxist in 1961.

As a reporter for KTVU, the Bay Area Fox affiliate, I wanted to bring viewers a rare glimpse inside Cuba and see for myself what had become of Fidel Castro's revolution. So it was that I spent a week there in October – walking the streets of Old Havana with its odd mix of colonial Spanish and '60s Soviet architecture; browsing through open-air markets; visiting the Partagas Cigar Factory; and pausing on every side street to admire 40-year-old Chevys, Hudsons and Fords kept alive by their proud owners' ingenuity.

Contradictions were everywhere. People were open and friendly, even after we told them we came from los Estados Unidos, whose embargo is considered by many to have compounded the daily economic struggle. We visited a neighborhood of crumbling mansions that had housed Cuba's elite during the reign of Castro's predecessor, Fulgencio Batista. Now, several families live in each of the big old houses, laundry hanging from lines stretched between the ornate columns.

We saw an indoor market where vendors were crowded together, all doing a brisk business selling citrus fruits, vegetables and rice. But at the other end of the building hung slabs of meat that cost 25 pesos a pound – one-tenth the average monthly salary. No crowds gathered there. In an open-air market, I met a preschool teacher trying to make ends meet by selling claves, the hardwood blocks used as a percussion instrument.

Nevertheless, life has improved in several ways. Cuba's literacy rate has gone from 75 percent to 95 percent during Castro's regime, and the infant mortality rate is comparable to that of the United States. The loss of Soviet bloc trade prompted economic reforms to encourage foreign investment. Despite U.S. congressional efforts to thwart such investment with the 1996 Helms-Burton Act, Cuba has one of the highest growth rates in the Americas.

Although the United States has shunned Cuba for 37 years, the U.S. dollar is no stranger. It was legalized in 1993 as part of a drive to reinvigorate Cuba's tourist industry and bring in hard currency. As a result, a second, dollar-based economy has sprung up, creating its own paradoxes. Busboys at resorts, collecting tips in U.S. dollars, can find themselves with more spending power than physicians or college professors. And there's more for them to spend it on: We were told that stores dealing only in pesos run short of such staples as soap, toothpaste and over-the-counter medications. However, shops trading in U.S. dollars are well-stocked, and we watched a steady stream of Cubans emerging from one of them, carting out everything from toilet paper to washing machines.

Tourism has supplanted sugar as the country's economic mainstay. Last year, more than a million vacationers visited Cuba, spending $1.3 billion. One day, we drove two and a half hours east from Havana to Varadero Beach, the country's main resort. There we met Diane Griffin, a Canadian from Newfoundland. She and her husband were having lunch at the edge of a beautiful white beach behind the Hotel Internacional. Griffin said they had spent $1,400 for a two-week package that included airfare from Toronto, their hotel room and two meals a day.

"I find this much nicer than Florida," she said. "It's less commercialized and more relaxing. The beaches are nicer."

While the Clinton administration recently proposed some relaxations in the embargo, the U.S. government still prohibits most Americans from visiting Cuba. This isolation from Americans has, predictably, engendered mixed feelings. Consider the encounter we had with a middle-aged woman outside a marketplace. First she lectured our crew about U.S. policy. "The embargo is simply an aggression against our country. We will burn the whole island before we let the Yankees into our country." In the next breath, she told us that Americans should come to Cuba and see the country for themselves. Cubans, she said, would welcome them warmly: "Tell Clinton to let them come here and see what goes on."

On our way back to Havana from Varadero Beach, we stopped to videotape an impromptu baseball game in a field full of ankle-high weeds: eight shirtless boys; three gloves; one baseball; and, instead of a bat, a two-by-two board about four feet long. One boy pitched as the others took turns hitting and fielding. They laughed, yelled, and encouraged each other. They didn't have much, but they had learned to make do with what they had. Cuba seems to have done the same.

Craig Heaps, '75, is a reporter and producer for KTVU in Oakland, Calif.

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