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Greetings from Cuba

One of the most obvious signs of Cuba’s economic distress is on the roads: It has become a nation of hitchhikers. The Financial Times’ Richard Lapper spent 10 days behind the wheel, hearing their stories.
/ Source: Financial Times

When the Soviet Union stopped being able to support its client states, most of them abandoned socialism. Cuba didn’t. One of the most obvious signs of this is on the roads: Cuba has become a nation of hitchhikers.

Moscow once guaranteed the cheap oil that kept fleets of buses on the move and powered the aging rail network. Now the country can’t get enough fuel to run its buses or enough credit to replace those beyond repair. In Havana, huge, converted articulated trucks called cammelos [camels] carry as many as 300 crushed and sweating passengers at a time. Travelling between cities is even worse.

There are few inter-city buses and in the countryside the converted trucks sometimes carry animals at the same time. The diesel trains that wend their way slowly across the island don’t help much. Carriages are crowded and there are frequent delays. So Cubans from all walks of life hitchhike.

As if daily life was not hard enough, it has been a particularly bad year. The economy has deteriorated further and the country has witnessed its worst political repression since the 1960s.

In March, Cuban police rounded up 75 human-rights workers, independent journalists and activists who had set up alternative libraries. Many had been involved in the Varela project, a campaign for peaceful and constitutional change. Those arrested included moderate critics such as Raul Rivero — a journalist, writer and poet — and Oscar Espinosa Chepe, an economist.

Other prominent dissidents sentenced included Marta Beatriz Roque, director of the Cuban Institute of Independent Economists, and Hector Palacios Ruiz, one of the leaders of the Varela Project. All were accused of having conspired with the US to destabilize Cuba, and in April were sentenced to prison sentences of up to 28 years under national security legislation.

A few days later three young Cubans who had attempted to hijack a ferry were executed by firing squad. Yet Fidel Castro remains a hero figure among romantic anti-globalization demonstrators. Che Guevara’s image is still used to brand Cuba to younger tourists.

How do ordinary people cope with this? What do they think of the lack of freedom and the Castro cult? To find out, I decided to become part of Cuba’s transport system. One typically hot and humid morning in July, my Brazilian wife Fatima and I hire a red Hyundai from the Presidente Hotel in Havana.

We set off on a 10-day trip during which we would meet doctors and nurses, teachers and students, sugar workers and agricultural scientists, legions of traders and even two senior officers at the ministry of the interior (in effect, political policemen).

Talking to hitchhikers seemed a good way to see how things are outside the capital, where support for the regime is generally thought to be firmer and discontent less widespread. Crime levels in Cuba are much lower than in other Latin American countries, so offering lifts to strangers is pretty safe.

The trip offers an opportunity to talk to Cubans unencumbered by fears that we might be overheard or that our conversation might be reported to the authorities. The dense network of Revolutionary Defense Committees — Cuba’s steelier version of Neighborhood Watch — is one reason there isn’t much crime but it also helps ensure political orthodoxy. When we talked about political issues before we left Havana, many people refused to speak. Others resorted to miming, or referred to Castro simply by stroking an imaginary beard.

Heading out from Havana
So, posing as foreign tourists, we take to the road. We stuff most of our luggage into the hatchback’s boot and perch a suitcase on its side on the back seat, leaving just enough room for a passenger or — at a stretch — two. We fill up with petrol, paying in dollars, and set off to find the Autopista Nacional, the eight-lane highway that will take us east into deepest Cuba.

We take a little time finding the motorway, negotiating our way between the 1950s Chevrolets and Pontiacs that drift through Havana’s suburbs. But no sooner do we encounter the slip road than we have our first passenger — a friendly 19-year-old economics student, whom I shall call Jose.

(For their own safety, I have changed the names of all the people we picked up.)

Jose was on holiday from Havana University and making his way to the beach. He thought Castro a “marvelous man”, but we are soon to find out that everyone else is focused on the one thing the government least likes: what Cubans variously call inventando, resolviendo or just plain “bisness.”

With Jose safely headed for the beach, we push on. Clusters of people are waiting patiently under each motorway bridge, shading themselves from the intense sun. Some brave, perhaps desperate, souls stand unprotected from the heat at road junctions. As one passenger climbs out we beckon replacements towards the car, brushing aside their proffered pesos. Foreign tourists don’t usually offer lifts, so our passengers are sometimes surprised. But they are almost always polite and friendly.

In less than two hours we give lifts to five Cubans, and the picture they are painting of Fidel Castro’s Cuba is not attractive. While the ubiquitous roadside slogans urge sacrifice to defend the revolution, Castro seems to be losing the battle of ideas.

Dolores, a hyperactive and very angry woman of 22, heaps almost as much venom on the government of the Cuban leader as on the unfaithful husband who had left her for Miami. Five months ago, he escaped the island in a speedboat, leaving Dolores with a newborn baby and a living to make.

That’s why she is on the road now, coming back from Havana with a shopping bag containing several packets of black-market spaghetti, bought from what Cubans call an amistad (a term covering any relationship ranging from a contact to a friend) in a factory. She will sell it in her home town for double the price.

Dolores makes the 50-mile round-trip every day, because the bigger her illegal bundle the more likely it is that she might be stopped by police and accused of “hoarding.” She is desperate to leave Cuba. There is “nothing for young people to do but get up, eat and have sex.”

Doing 'bisness'
The “bisness” that people are forced to get up to varies. David works in a citrus-fruit plant, but repairs houses for a living and is about to start learning English in Havana, a skill he reckons will make it easier to earn dollars. Attending classes will involve a 75-mile hitchhike from his home in Jaguey Grande three times a week. To have any hope of making the class he will need to leave home at 5:30 a.m. His wife, a ballerina with a folklore group that dances for tourists at Varadero, Cuba’s biggest tourist resort, is pregnant with the couple’s second child. Juan works in one of the government’s “computer clubs” but makes his money buying and selling black-market cigars to tourists. “The people who manage the factories only earn 200 pesos a month [about $8]. They are very happy to sell some cigars to me,” he explains. Even an evangelical pastor we pick up near Guines says he used to masquerade as a music teacher.

A few days before we left Havana, Castro, who turned 77 in August, had launched a vigorous defense of his country’s achievements and its socialist economic system. A decade ago, many people thought that it was just a matter of time before Cuba’s brand of stateist socialism would go the way of the rest of them. At best, argued the pundits, Cuba would be like China or Vietnam, with the ruling Communist Party preserving control over the state and political system, but allowing a private sector to play a much bigger role in the economy.

InsertArt(2045666)Everything pointed to an imminent liberalization. Possession of the U.S. dollar was legalized in 1993. Foreign companies were invited to develop tourist resorts such as Varadero. The number of foreign tourists shot up. After thousands of Cubans fled the island on fragile homemade rafts in 1994, the government negotiated agreements with Washington to allow more than 20,000 people to settle in the U.S. each year.

Those already there are now allowed to send more money home. Western Union, which handles money transfers, has opened 105 offices in Cuba since 1999. As much as $1 billion a year enters Cuba in this way, so the country earns more from these payments than it does from exports such as sugar, nickel and tobacco. In the mid-1990s Cubans were allowed to set up their own businesses to increase the county’s capacity to receive tourists.

But in the past three to four years Castro has become more belligerent in defending Cuba’s state-planning model.

Castro cracks down
Wary of growing inequalities, the authorities have been reining in businesses. Regulations governing guesthouses, small restaurants and other small businesses have been steadily tightened. Tax rates are punitive. Irregularities are punished harshly. The financial crises of Brazil, Argentina and Mexico have convinced Castro that what he calls “neo-liberalism” offers no future for Latin America. He has developed a close relationship with Hugo Chavez, the radical nationalist leader of Venezuela, whose government has been supplying Cuba with much-needed oil.

He has continually criticized Soviet and east-European communists for abandoning power at the end of the 1980s. In a speech in July he condemned the democratic revolutionaries of eastern Europe as “opportunists” who were “full of hatred towards Cuba, which they have left on its own and cannot forgive for having endured and proven that socialism is capable of achieving a society a thousand times more just and humane than the rotten system they have adopted.”

On the road it never feels that way. While billboards boast that “the Revolution is equality and complete freedom,” most of our passengers are concerned about the practicalities of survival. While Castro claims Cuba is on course to achieve full employment, the truth is that wage levels are so low that most Cubans have to work in the informal sector to supplement their income. Cuban wages generally range from about 100 pesos a month, for the most unskilled jobs, to 800 pesos a month for select personnel at the interior ministry. (When we were in Cuba the U.S. dollar was worth between 26 and 27 pesos.)

The government argues that citing the dollar equivalent of these wages is irrelevant for several reasons. Cubans — unlike North Americans — enjoy free healthcare. They rarely pay rent. Electricity, gas, telephone and water services are very cheap.

Cubans buy basic rationed foods such as beans and rice in state-operated grocery stores, known as bodegas, at controlled prices. During the day, workers typically eat free of charge at their workplaces. However, even the government admits the ration would cover only about a fortnight (many of our passengers claimed it covered barely a week), so most families must buy substantial quantities of basic foods, as well as fruit, vegetables and protein, on the free market, where prices are more than 10 times as high.

The dollar economy
As a result, most Cubans are — in the words of Alfonso, who we pick up outside Santa Clara — “obliged to invent.” Alfonso, a government administrator who once played football for Cuba’s national team, says matters have been made worse by sharp increases in prices in the markets where Cubans with pesos can buy ham, sausage and bacon. Like many Cubans we meet in Havana, he remembers fondly the days when the bodegas sold Soviet bottled gherkins, Polish canned ham and Bulgarian jam.

The inadequacies of peso wages paid by the state are even greater because more and more consumer products are only available for dollars. Dollars are needed not just to buy imported butter, cheese, ham, wine and toiletries, but also for many standard Cuban-made goods such as cola soft drinks or Cristal beer. As part of the government’s efforts to “recuperate” the dollars entering the country as remittances, Cimex, a state-owned Cuban company that runs dollar supermarkets, sells “food modules” — including such basics as canned ham and sardines, stock cubes, tomato puree, mayonnaise and oil — for dollars.

On the Autopista Nacional, service stations sell petrol, bottled water, espresso coffee, bags of crisps and toffees, CDs and Che Guevara T-shirts, all for dollars. The government pays some of its workers, mainly in so-called “productive” sectors such as telecommunications, bonuses in dollars.

Carmelo Mesa-Lago, a Cuban economist based in the US, estimates that when remittances and earnings in the informal economy are taken into account, 62 per cent of Cubans had access to dollars in 2000, compared to less than 50 per cent three years previously. All this seems to produce some incredible distortions. The rewards in the informal economy appear to make working for the state most unattractive.

After a night in a guesthouse in Playa Giron — better known as the Bay of Pigs and site of the defeat in 1961 of a US-backed invasion force — we begin our second day on the road by picking up Lola. She is an immensely cheerful 49-year-old who has been standing next to a large blue billboard that reads “Bay of Pigs, first defeat for Yanqui imperialism in Latin America.” Lola is travelling to pick up large seeds — found only in the swampland of southern Matanzas — that she will use to make belts to sell to tourists. She tells us she will make a dollar or two for each and the journey, a 75-mile round trip that she makes at least once a month, is worthwhile.

Later we come across Tania, a determined woman in her early 30s. She is with her daughter and niece; they are on their way to buy 150 pesos of black-market cream that Tania will make into balls of sweet fudge and then sell — illegally — through a street vendor. She says she makes the journey three times a week and on each consignment expects to make a profit of about 50 pesos. We calculate this will give her a monthly income of 600 pesos.

By now we are heading steadily east again. The obsession with the dollar and the dream of escape to the U.S. is giving way to a more resigned attitude. Our passengers are becoming progressively more parochial and more instinctively loyal to the government. Many recite a stock defense of free health and education. Outside Havana access to land and food grown at home is easing some of the austerity.

On the road to Santa Clara we meet our first Fidelista. An army reservist who served in Angola, Sergio works for the state railway company and does odd jobs in the countryside. He is travelling with his nephew, an 18-year-old ready to start an agricultural science course at university, and a small pig, which they have acquired from a farm.

After wedging the sack containing the squealing animal between his legs, Sergio tells us about the different tax rates for the self-employed, practices the fragments of Portuguese and Russian he picked up in Angola, and lambastes the quality of the beer sold for pesos in state-owned bars. But as we approach the city — the site of Che Guevara’s greatest guerrilla action in war when, in 1958, he attacked and derailed a train taking many prisoners — Sergio leaves us in no doubt where he stands. Despite all the hardship, he is prepared to defend the Revolution with his life. “Attack this island and this Revolution and they will have to kill me,” he says.

Back in time?
Where the road from the west leads into Santa Clara, squads of youths on Chinese bicycles are waiting for tourist cars at the roundabout. They are competing to guide us towards a guesthouse, their enthusiasm fuelled, we later discover, by the 30 percent commission they will earn if they succeed.

When we wake the next morning, we find a quiet, tranquil town, its streets filled with goat carts and horse buses. On the way to visit the monument marking Guevara’s famous attack, we are given a handful of limes by two sleepy looking peasants, a bunch of mariposas (jasmine) by a flower seller, and free coffee by a retired auditor who has converted the front room of his house into an ice-cream parlor.

From Santa Clara we drive south in the direction of the colonial town of Trinidad, crossing the Escambray mountain range that was the scene of Cuba’s counter-revolutionary war in the early 1960s. Manicaragua, the biggest town, was then the center of the government’s military operations and still advertises itself on roadside hoardings as the “bulwark of socialism.”

Now, far from the autopista, conversations become shorter. It takes some effort to discover that Calisto drove a lorry and also fought in Angola. But, when a puncture slows our progress, Cuban holidaymakers enjoying a campsite in the mountain rush to help us change the tire. Alberto, drunk on afternoon rum, is excited by the new building at the school he administers, and is keen to challenge even the mildest criticism of the system.

Trinidad, a colonial town popular among tourists, is obsessed by dollars. But as we drive eastwards along secondary roads — on our fourth day of travel — we again meet quieter folk. Near Sancti Spiritus we pick up Angelita, a quiet but friendly woman of 39 who is making the short journey home after leaving her daughter with her estranged husband. She earns 150 pesos a month from her job as a shop assistant but lives with her parents; the family is able to supplement its diet with home-grown fruit and vegetables. “Some people who know a different life might be frustrated, but I know that here at least my child will be educated and looked after if she goes to hospital.”

In “Journey Back to the Source,” Alejo Carpentier, the country’s most famous novelist, captures the eerie feeling of going back in time: “The candles lengthened slowly, gradually guttering less and less. When they reached their full size, the nun extinguished them and took away their light. The wicks whitened, throwing off red sparks... Marcial had the strange sensation that all the clocks in the room were striking five, then half-past four, then half-past three ... ”

It sometimes seems as if ideological purity has been preserved by driving Cuba back through time, as if Fidel Castro was trying to put into practice the historical regression described by Carpentier. It is all very well to rely on horses, bicycles and lorries for transport but, on top of material shortages, surely it is making life almost intolerably difficult for ordinary Cubans?

'Programmed to slowness'
When we were still in Havana, Miriam Leiva, a former diplomat and government opponent whose husband is seriously ill in prison, described the grim day-to-day pain of it all. “You get up. You don’t have any milk. You have a piece of bread, but maybe you have eaten it the night before. You go out. You could be two hours or more waiting for transport. You arrive tired at work. You are programmed to slowness. You have to aguantar — to put up with it.” On the road, many people are obviously aguantando. Tired with blank faces, waiting hopefully under motorway bridges or at crossroads. As we begin the long haul back from Santiago to Havana we pick up a sugar worker who needs to wake at 4:30 a.m. to be cutting sugar cane by 7 a.m. Teachers wax lyrical about plans to reduce class sizes to just 15 students, but Teresa, a 21-year-old teacher who has hitched from her home to buy a pair of jeans in Bayamo, says she occasionally misses her morning class because she can’t get a lift in time.

Everyone, it seems, eventually gets to where they are going. Many of our passengers waited several hours for a lift, but no one we met spent a night under the stars. And most people seem extraordinarily good-natured about it all. We are shocked to learn that David, a surgeon and the owner of a guest-house we stay in, is catching a bus at 4 a.m. the next morning to operate in a city 100 miles away. The next day, returning to pick up our bags, we discover that he made the journey, only to find that the hospital didn’t have the necessary anesthetics. He cheerfully hitchhiked back. “It was my fault. I should have called to check.”

There are a few signs that this kind of goodwill is slowly being eroded, however. Rosa is a genial senior doctor whom we also pick up near Bayamo, offering a six-mile lift to the intensive care unit where she works. “It’s complete frustration,” she says. Apart from the tiny salary — 525 pesos a month — what most galls her is that “people with no training whatsoever can earn more than me by doing anything: getting a tip from a tourist, selling fruit at the side of the road.”

No one — not one of the several dozen people we give lifts to — has volunteered views about the opposition and human rights movement whose repression seized the headlines back in April. On our way back to Havana we stop again in Camaguey, and call on Ramon Armas, one of a handful of independent journalists still in business after the crackdown, to see if he can offer any explanation. Ramon, who has been visited twice by the political police, has so far escaped unscathed. From a small, simple house in the Guernica district of Camaguey, he, his wife Dolores and two teenage sons produce a small monthly newsletter covering day-to-day events in their city, that is distributed through Ramon’s contacts with the Catholic Church and Masonic Lodge. But they earn money from sales of baby clothes, designed by Ramon and put together by Dolores on a sewing machine. I ask Ramon why Cubans don’t protest more. “People are frightened to say things. They fear reprisals,” says Ramon. “They are dependent on the government for jobs. It is a problem we have.”

Shifting roads
What Cubans call doble moral — double standards — figure large in Ramon’s explanations. Cubans habitually think one thing but say another. There is more evidence of this the next day. East from Camaguey we cram two doctors, returning from a day’s work in a local hospital, into the Hyundai. One left home at 5 a.m., the other only a little later, and now, late in the afternoon, they are hitching home. What do they feel about it? Together they are inclined to put the best possible face on things. “Well, the problem is we have this embargo, that’s why things are so tough,” says Tomas. After Tomas has left the car, however, his colleague Carlos opens up a little. Tomas is too generous. Carlos trained for 13 years. His seven-year old son has never seen the sea. The situation is depressing and many of his other colleagues grumble constantly.

We have some difficulties driving back to Havana. At one point, on the two-lane carretera central that stretches across the east of Cuba, I fail to stop at one of the many railway lines, that, unannounced, cross the main road. As far as the eye could see there was neither traffic nor trains — but a stern policeman has pulled me over and fined me $30 for breaching Article 86 of the traffic code. A few hours later another policeman stops us for no apparent reason, only to quickly wave us on.

Tomas and Carlos have told us graphically about the dangers of driving, especially at night. “You have to watch for lorries without lights. Horses and cattle frequently stray across the stretches of long empty road.” It is one of the main causes of casualties at their hospital, they cheerfully tell us.

By late afternoon we are still some 70 miles or so west of Santa Clara. I am dwelling on the complexities of signs and double standards, when suddenly, without warning, the two-lane carretera central on which we have been travelling merges into an eight-lane stretch of motorway. “You have to move over now,” shouts our passenger, a grim-faced woman heaped down with bags. A few miles further, some lanes just as mysteriously fade out and we veer erratically over to what is now a four-lane road. As I plough across the rough unmarked surface that would — at some point — become a central reservation, our passenger is losing patience. “You must pay more attention.”

At the next motorway bridge she leaves us to the vagaries of Cuban road signs. No sooner have we started again than the road widens out to become a motorway. A few hundred yards later it narrows back to four lanes. By now it is raining heavily and dusk is falling. Again I miss the signs. As the unfinished motorway peters out into a potholed building site our car shudders to a halt. In the gloom, I vaguely make out yet another fading party slogan on a roadside billboard. “Firmness and dignity,” it reads.

Richard Lapper is the FT’s Latin America editor.