How Cubans Make Ends Meet: What New York Times Editorials Miss* / Ivan
Posted on December 6, 2014
If someone told you would receive a monthly salary of 350 pesos, the
equivalent of $15, for a job as a nighttime security guard at a
dilapidated school in a country where credit does not exist and that you
would need hard currency — currency in which the state does not pay you
— to buy beef, fish and powdered milk, or that a home appliance would
cost you six month’s salary, you would probably think he was a
compulsive liar, a charlatan or was just trying to find out how people
in financial distress make ends meet.
Well, there is such a country. It is called Cuba, a country which for
better or worse has been idealized. Some people worship Fidel Castro
just for thumbing his nose at the United States.
They tout the government’s favorable statistics (which are fewer and
fewer) and like trained parrots repeatedly point to achievements such as
universal health coverage and education.
Certainly no one in Cuba asks whether you are a dissident or a
revolutionary when it comes to receiving medical care, but differences
do exist. While government ministers and generals have access to
hospitals comparable to private clinics in advanced countries, most
people must rise early and get in line to see a specialist at a hospital
badly in need of repair and where equipment and drugs are in short supply.
Education is a controversial subject. Every Cuban knows how to read,
write and do basic math. But education comes with a large ideological
component. In addition to rules of etiquette such as how to say “buenos
días,” high school students quickly learn how to disarm an AK 47 rifle.
Pursuing a university education means learning how to hide what you
think. It is virtually impossible for a known dissident to study
journalism or international relations, fields in which ideology and
loyalty to the regime are essential.
But after pointing to achievements in health, education, sports and
culture as well as to the tenacity of having stood up to “Yankee
imperialism” ninety miles from Cuban shores, Castro’s sycophants are
left without solid arguments.
Are political rights not important? Why can we not go on strike to
demand better pay? Or to force the government to implement its single
currency policy? Or to lower the prices of gasoline, home appliances and
These questions are thorns in the sides of the regime’s defenders. But
back to our original topic, let’s try to describe to a clueless
foreigner how Cubans make ends meet.
Reinier is a custodian at a high school in the Havana neighborhood of La
Vibora. He works every other night as a security guard there and is paid
352 Cuban pesos a month. [Roughly equivalent to $14-$15 US]
In reality his job is just a cover. “It’s because of the section chief
(of the neighborhood police) who’s over me that I got this job. I had
already received two citations for petty crimes. If these add up, they
can sentence you to two years in prison. I became a custodian to keep a
low profile,” says Reinier.
He talks about sleeping on the job. “I have to make sure they don’t
steal the televisions, light bulbs or some old computers. If there
weren’t security guards here, the place would be robbed. I also have to
make sure that couples, both heterosexual and homosexual, don’t break in
and make love in the school courtyard. After a few incidents like this
at two in the morning, I started sleeping on a table all night,” he
“How do you make it to the end of the month on your salary?” I ask.
“Salaries in Cuba are a joke,” he says. “I get by because I work as a
bookie for the ’bolita’ (illegal lottery). I make the rounds twice
daily. I make between 250 and 400 Cuban pesos a day.”
You might think Renier is an exception but, if you ask most Cubans, 90%
would say they make extra money in shady deals and under-the-table
Yolanda, an engineer, sells coffee and fruit juice at her workplace and
is thinking of expanding her business. “I am going to start offering
lunches and candies. My salary is 512 Cuban pesos a month ($21). I make
triple that selling juice and coffee.”
Reinier and Yolanda do not pay taxes on their earnings. To live
comfortably, others dip their hands into the state safe or steal
anything of value within arm’s reach.
Sixto is a business economist whose main job is to provide cover for his
bosses’ embezzlement. “The books have to add up in case there is an
audit. Accounting tricks and financial manipulation are routinely used
to hide theft. They pay me between 5 and 10 convertible pesos a
day (about $5 to $10) for my labors. I also get a basket of food
whenever I need it,” he says.
Rogelio, a city bus driver, says the only way he can make ends meet “is
to take 200 to 300 Cuban pesos a day from the fare box. Some take more,
others less, but all the drivers do it,” he notes.
This is how Cuba works. With unwritten rules. With theft, fraud and
embezzlement from state enterprises. Just below a layer of
sanctimoniousness lies the reality. People eat, relax and shop thanks to
hard currency remittances sent by relatives from overseas. Or they help
themselves to state resources.
That anonymous mass of Cubans — with their schemes for surviving in a
country where the average wage is $20, a plasma screen TV costs $800 and
a Peugeot 508 goes for $300,000 — is waiting for a New York Times
editorial that acknowledges them. Now that Cuba is fashionable.
Photo: In Sagua la Grande, a section of Villa Clara about 185 miles east
of Havana, a local resident ekes out a living selling produce on the
street from a converted tricycle. NBC News.
*Translator’s note: In October and November of 2014 the New York Times
published a series of editorials critical of American policies and
actions towards Cuba and praising Cuba’s efforts to combat Ebola in West
3 December 2014
Source: How Cubans Make Ends Meet: What New York Times Editorials Miss*
/ Ivan Garcia | Translating Cuba –