Two economies in one country. It seems impossible, yet it is exactly what Cuba has been doing for the last decade. Having travelled here for over a week now, I have experienced first hand what modern Apartheid looks like. Using my common sense, it tells me that this situation will not last. It is a certain recipe for trouble.
With the collapse of the Berlin wall, Cuba lost its main source of income, the Soviet subsidies. I was told that the crisis was so huge in the early nineties, that the people ate anything they could lay their hands on, even the birds that fly around me in the park at this very moment, wouldn’t haven been safe back then.
The tourism dollar seemed the only solution, so a decade ago the country reluctantly opened its doors for a bit. Now foreigners (even some rebellious US-travellers who get here via a third country) are a major source of income. Cubans are allowed to own dollars next to their own pesos. Things have not changed much for the majority of the population.
There is still the old peso economy. The peso used for paying salaries and pensions. The peso that is the backbone of the economy, a tourist can change his dollars for pesos, but has hardly any opportunity to use it. Most places he goes to will not accept pesos at all, or not from foreign hands otherwise. The ordinary tourist might as well not bother and stick to the dollar.
The division has spread within the Cuban society as well. Doctors, lawyers and engineers, important and rich in most other countries in the world, rich or poor, still have to make do with the old peso, netting something between 300 and 600 pesos, the equivalent of 10-20 dollars. In the meantime those who work within the tourism industry sometimes make that amount within one day. True socialism means everybody is equal. In Cuba the baggage handler (unqualified) in the bus terminal (`don’t forget to tip me´, he points at the pile of dollars next to my backpack, before attaching a label to it) makes more than a dentist. Much more.
This situation can not and will not last much longer. Already teachers give up their job to become tourist guides, doctors give up their job to rent out rooms from their home. University graduates choose to become waiters in tourist resorts. All illogical choices, yet economic necessarily. Many products can only be bought in so-called dollar shops. The average Cuban family can not afford meat on its menu more than once a month. Shoes are also too expensive; transport takes ages, if you happen to depend on pesos.
Having travelled a bit during the last decade I have never felt so weird while travelling through a country. I felt ignored in Haiti. I have encountered the typical cold Swiss welcome. I have been attacked in Nicaragua. Yet I knew what I was up to. In Cuba I never know what will happen next.
As a traveller I am really enjoying myself. I love strolling through some of the old cities. I visit museums more than in any other country, but most of all I love to sit in the park and talk to all those lovely Cubans I have met.
But as a person, I hate it here. As for every nice Cuban, there is another one that doesn’t see me as a person, but as an opportunity to score dollars. I am a walking wallet. The beautiful 19 year old certainly does not just want to stare in my blue eyes, I am not that naïve. The house owner of the Casa Particular I am staying at is a great host, but his main interest is the 20 dollars a night I pay him. Every taxi driver on the corner of the street ignores Cubans, one tourist a day gains him more than driving locals around for a whole day. Even the beggar, who seemed asleep when hundreds of Cubans walk passed him, suddenly awakes and holds his hand out when I happen to walk by.
I do not know how to cope with this. I can’t stand the two-facedness, I want to know what I’m up to. Cuba could be one of the most interesting and beautiful tourism destinations in the world, though at the moment I would be surprised if I’m the only foreigner thinking it isn’t. If things do not change, it might even affect the industry. This does not affect the tourists that stay in the all-inclusive resorts in Varadero or Guardalavaca. They could have been in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic as well, without them even knowing it.
Talking about the Dominican Republic, I see an interesting comparison. The two biggest countries in the Caribbean have a lot in common. Both more or less discovered at the same time by Columbus. The Spanish made sure that the original population on both isles disappeared soon. Their current population is a mixture of Spanish and African ancestors. Both countries struggled for independence in the second half of the 19th century. Until the middle of the 20th century both had a right wing dictator. Both countries have plenty of culture on offer next to amazing nature and the obvious beaches.
Only the last 40 years they have gone different directions. Cuba has some advantages. The best health care system and the best educational system of the whole continent, combined with a better infrastructure. Yet I’d much rather travel through the Dominican Republic. The streets are worse; apparently the crime rate is higher (though nothing ever happened to me there). In the Dominican Republic I can buy a cold drink at every street corner and I know the price in advance, it’s in pesos. I can stand on the side of the road and know that it will not take five minutes before the next bus will appear. But most of all I meet people that are interested in me. Unlike in Cuba where after the obvious first question (where you from?) the conversation usually goes into a money making opportunity for my conversation partner. In the Dominican Republic ask me genuinely why I am there, why I travel alone, how my family is doing, what I think of their country and I can talk to people for half an hour without having to think ´What is he/she after?´
Off course the Dominican Republic has problems as well. There is poverty, hence there are beggars. I deliberately pay above the rate at the shoe polish boys, even though I had them polished the day before already. I buy a drink for a school child if he promises to go to school the next day (perhaps it is none of my business, yet I just hope that one day one kid will think I’m right), as I do not like to give money to kids. I cope with every day life (lack of water, lack of electricity) like the Dominicans do. With a smile.
Some Cubans forget that smile (read well, I say some). They have forgotten that they live in a country where the sun shines every day. They have been blinded by the luxury their cousins seem to have in Miami (the Miami-mafia I read in a paper here). The differences between the peso and the dollar affect their every day life, it should not though.
I am not sure about a solution. In Florida they seem to wait until he-with-the-beard (several people refuse to use his name) dies. Others have lost hope, I heard someone say that all former Spanish colonies are in shambles, the English at least left their colonies behind properly. I am sure that the embargo does more harm to the people than to its leaders, therefore missing their aim. I am afraid that another revolution could set the country back even further. My only hope would be a gradual change, helped by the rest of the world, in which one currency gives equal opportunities to all. Equal opportunities, like in capitalism. Everybody is equal, like in socialism.
One day I will drink a Cuba libre and will not have to wish for it to come true anymore. I hope I will live to see that day.