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Ivan garcia, 26 January 2016 — In the large commercial centers of Havana, whether Carlos III, Galerias Paseo or the at Avenida Boyeros and Camagüey Street, you will not find families like Yesenia and Sergio.
In these ’shoppings’ or hard currency stores, a no-name plasma TV costs 399 CUC, or 10,000 Cuban pesos at the exchange rate of one Convertible peso (CUC) for twenty Cuban pesos (CUP). A juicer costs 219 CUC, or 5,475 Cuban pesos, and a food processor 118 CUC, which is 2,900 Cuban pesos in the devalued national currency.
Between them, Yesenia and Sergio earn 1,800 Cuban pesos a month, about 43 CUC. That amount of money does not allow them to buy modern appliances or a third generation computer. They can’t even sit in a state-run bar and have a beer together.
Six years ago they married, and in 2015 she gave birth to a boy, now about to celebrate his first birthday. This is not about two lazy people subsidized by the State, or people with no skills.
Sergio is a civil engineer and Yesenia graduated in art history. They live in a two-bedroom apartment in La Vibora neighborhood, in the southern part of Havana. At their respective jobs, neither has resorted to “inventing” (that is stealing State resources). Nor do they have family in Miami sending them 100 dollars every month.
How do they manage to make ends meet? Let’s look at this couple’s daily life.
Sergio gets paid on the 10th and Yesenia on the 22nd. Meanwhile, on the national television news the presenters describe in detail statistics and production figures for an economy that never stops growing, but the couple doesn’t even notice. They are two busy doing their accounts on a Chinese-made calculator.
“We have a budget of 250 Cuban pesos a week. And 80 pesos for incidentals. We pay 60-80 pesos a month for electricity. The home appliances we have are a Chinese-made Panda TV (ancient, with cathode tubes), two fans, a fridge, blender, rice cooker, iron and an old Russian washing machine,” says Sergio.
He explains that to save electricity, “we only use the rice cooker once a day — it uses a lot of electricity. I’m always at my wife not to leave the lights on. What we use the most is the TV, because there are not many opportunities for recreation, we are always glued to the TV.”
According to the National Bureau of Statistics and Information (ONEI), the average monthly salary in 2014 was 584 Cuban pesos, 197 pesos more than 2006, when it was 387. In 2015 it “grew” to 600 Cuban pesos.
But the nominal growth of government wages hasn’t kept up with the purchasing power of this income, because prices have risen over the same period. ONEI statistics include interesting data about the wage distribution in Cuba.
In 8 of the 16 provinces, the workers have an average salary below the national average: Isla de la Juventud (530), Santiago de Cuba (540), Guantánamo (548), Artemisa (551), Mayabeque (553), Granma (565), Camagüey (566) y Holguín (575).
The sectors with the lowest salaries are Hotels and Restaurants (377 Cuban pesos, which is why the employees steal so much), Public Administration, Defense and Social Security (485), Culture and Sports (486). The best salaries are in the Sugar Industry (963), Mining and Quarrying (819), and Science and Technological Innovation (811)
Those who earn the most are paid 40 percent more than the lowest average salary. Those depressed wages drown families like Sergio and Yesenia.
“It is impossible to live on your salary alone. The food from the ration book only costs 35 pesos a month for three people, but with what you get in the ’basic basket’ you can’t live, much less if you have a baby. For fruits, vegetables, rice, chicken and pork we spend close to 900 pesos a month. With the hundred-odd pesos left over after paying the light bill, we have to pay for gas, water and transport. When our son is sick or some appliance breaks, we have to dip into our reserve or the extra money we keep in the cupboard,” says Sergio.
How can they get extra money? “I tutor elementary and high school students in math. This way, under the table, I get about 40 chavitos (CUC), more or less two people’s salary. This hard currency goes to buying oil, toiletries, cereal, jam and juice for the boy. All in all we lead a very hard life,” he confesses.
Despite living 85 miles from Varadero, they don’t know “the most beautiful beach in the world,” according to the government’s tourism ads. They can’t even dream of a weekend in a three-star all-inclusive hotel.
What are Yesenia and Sergio’s future plans. The couple takes some minutes to respond.
“In Cuba the future is the next day. Clearly we want our son to grow up healthy and well-fed, to buy him clothes, shoes and toys, to sleep in a room with air conditioning, to get a car, visit another country, and when we go to the Havana International Book Fair to be able to buy as many books as we want, we are passionate readers. But right now we are denied all this. I want to be optimistic and think that things will change. The question is when,” says Yesenia.
Have they thought of leaving Cuba? “We don’t have family abroad, nor the money to pay for the risky journey through Central America. We don’t have any choice but to endure the storm on the island. For people like us, the miracle is to be alive.”
Iván García, 30 January 2016 — After the American Airlines pilot made a perfect landing with the Boeing 767 on the Terminal Two runway at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, the passengers broke out into applause.
Gisela Mirantes could not contain her tears. “I haven’t come to Cuba for ten years. I am from Pinar del Río and live in New Jersey. I have heard that things have changed for the better here”, she said, before going down the steps to the customs area.
That’s when the tragedy began. Lacking any information, Mirantes had brought three televisions and the same number of PCs. And dozens of presents, domestic appliances and clothes for her poor family in Vueltabajo, all in bulky packages.
“Things are just the same, or worse. Those people in customs are shameless. They charged me $250 for excess baggage, in spite of the fact that in Miami I had already paid this charge to the airline. Then I had to pay $1,200 for bringing a third 42 inch television, because they only allow two televisions and one computer”, she told me angrily, while she was waiting for a taxi on a platform, more like a railway station than an airport.
Raise your hands, any traveller who has not been subject to harassment at the Cuban customs. You are hardly ever received with a smile. They go over your baggage like police frisking a criminal.
The air terminal workers openly offer travellers, arriving or departing from Cuba, to buy or sell dollars in a parallel market. After taking your money and charging an extortionate amount in duties, you get to a window where they exchange your money.
It is a legal casino. Cuba is the only poor third world country where, in spite of having two currencies which don’t float in the foreign exchange markets, they artificially value the Cuban convertible peso (CUC) higher than the US dollar.
“It’s daylight robbery. I came with my wife and children to spend a vacation and they gave me 2,690 convertible pesos for $3,000. Before I have even bought an ice cream I have already had to pay tax”, I was told by a Puerto Rican living in Tampa.
The ridiculous measures taken by Cuban General Customs, who impose duties on things you bring in and have to be paid in foreign currency if you travel more than once a year, make Cubans angry.
Even medical volunteers working in remote locations in the Brazilian Amazon don’t escape. “The government doesn’t even take into consideration that we doctors are the ones that contribute the most foreign currency to the economy. Not satisfied with grabbing more than half of our salaries, every time we return to Cuba we have to leave a large part of our money with Cuban customs”, complained Obdulio, a doctor going to Brazil.
In order to write this report, I tried to talk to a customs official so that he could explain to me why the Cuban state levies such extortionate duties on articles or goods that people bring here to improve the quality of life of the people.
“We don’t give quotes to counter-revolutionary journalists”, someone blurted out at me before hanging up the phone.
The problem is that these measures don’t just affect the “counter-revolutionaries”. Ernesto belongs to a unit of the Communist Party in Old Havana.
Twice a month, his daughter sends him parcels from Canada. “The post only accepts a kilo and a half free of duty. Just think, this weight is equivalent to a pair of mens’ shoes. My daughter sends things to the whole family. For any weight over a kilo and a half she has to pay 20 CUC per extra half kilo. Once she had to pay 80 CUC for one box”.
Camilo, an economist, considers that maintaining these stupid policies on duties and exchange is inappropriate in relation to the newly-revived relationship with the United States.
“Above all, it affects Cubans. Apart from medicines, the customs levies duties on everything over a kilo and a half, including on goods brought by Cubans who travel twice a year. If they want more American tourists to visit Cuba, they should change the dollar-convertible peso exchange rate. It’s a joke that the chavito (CUC) is valued higher than the dollar. This puts a brake on what tourists spend”, Camilo adds.
Apart from the high duties, there is the theft of articles in the airport and the stores where they keep the postal parcels. “And the inadequate handling. They broke the screen of my television by moving it carelessly. Neither the customs nor any other department paid for the damage”, Vilma, a Cuban American, told me.
Right now, three items of news raise the hopes of people on both sides of the water. It is hoped that this summer there will be regular American flights to the island, it is rumoured that the cost of a plane ticket will drop by 30%, and you won’t pay the arbitrary $422 for a return trip of 45 minutes, and that a ferry will start between Havana and Florida.
But, up to now, the Cuban authorities are not considering any reduction in duties, in the landing fees, or any other measures which could help bring down the cost of travel to Cuba. Although the ferry would allow passengers to carry up to 200 pounds each, it seems that the duties will remain as they are.
It is the Castro regime’s silent and effective “blockade*” on its own people.
*Translator’s note: The Cuban government calls the American embargo against Cuba “the blockade” even though it is, technically, an embargo.
Translated by GH