By Charlene Wirtz
When Francis and Mavis Weber first visited Cuba in 2002, Fidel Castro was still in power, and business and production were federally owned and state controlled.
The Webers, who live in Wadena, have been back twice since then, most recently in early 2014 with Vic and Cecily Althouse of Kelvington. They noticed many changes in Cuba since their first trip, and the transfer of power from Fidel Castro to Raul Castro in 2006.
The fire hall in Matanzas in 2002 had no roof, and the equipment was not just vintage; some of it was antique. An old horse-drawn steam pump was kept at the hall, and a circa 1940 Russian fire truck was housed in a building with no roof.
“Now,” Francis explained, “the government took it over. They have ultramodern fire trucks and turnout gear, but you are not allowed to take a picture anymore.”
In Cuba, vehicles can be a curious mixture of old and new. Importing old vehicles is cheaper, or using vehicles from the pre-embargo era. Cubans are inventive when it comes to restoring the vehicles and keeping them going.
“We visited the Bellamar Cave and when you come out, you have to climb 375 steps. You need to rehydrate after that climb, and while everyone was doing that, we saw this fellow with a restored truck.” The truck was around 60 years old, and the owner had restored it and converted it from gas to diesel.
“The doors on this truck worked like it was brand new,” Francis said. “He had to shave the tires to get them to fit on the old rims because they cannot get Russian parts anymore.”
The Webers went to many areas in Cuba during their trips, and met people at many different economic levels while observing Cuban culture and life.
In 2002 they visited a school and got to go inside and meet some of the students. All students wore uniforms, of a colour according to their grade. Girls wore skirts and boys wore short pants.
“They lined up to go back into the school, and they filled up the desks row by row, and the boys sat on one side, the girls on the other.”
When the Webers returned in 2014 they wanted to visit the school again, but the driver misunderstood and took them to what Cuba calls a “’disadvantaged” school. This is a school for mentally and physically disabled children, and the name of the school comes from how these children are viewed in Cuban culture.
“They are unable to work and support a family, but instead must be supported by their family, so to have such a child is considered a disadvantage,” Francis concluded.
There is no pension; upon retirement, people are assigned to easier jobs such as security guard, tour guide or hotel porter. Several generations typically live together, with defined roles within the family, and with more than one generation contributing to the family finances. A non-contributing family member can be a burden.
Cuba recently turned over some agricultural land to ownership by the farmers, and the Webers visited with one such farmer. He had inherited the land from his uncle and, even though he was trained as a homeopathic cook, he was running the farm and market gardening.
The farm was barely larger than a typical farmyard here, but he had fields he worked with oxen and an old Farmall tractor he was trying to get parts for. The house was a small four-room house that had plumbing, with the pipes running above ground and solar heating for the raised water tank. The bathroom boasted a flush toilet and a large homemade sunken bathtub. A beehive provided pollination for his crops and banana trees gave shade and food.
In 2002 the Webers visited the ecological preserve and, being farmers, were naturally interested in the different plants and their uses. When Mavis and Francis tried to return in 2014, however, they were told by their tour guide that it was not possible.
On a visit to the Santa Cruz area, the Webers were also shown the old Hershey’s sugar factory. It was pointed out as an example of how the U.S. embargo on Cuba has, since it began in 1958, affected the Cuban economy. Some research into the history of the factory shows that it was built in 1918 by Milton Hershey, sold in 1946 after his death, renamed in 1959 following the Cuban Revolution, and shut down in 2002 due to declining sugar exports, which relied on trade with the Soviet Union. Several other sugar factories on the island were shut down as sugar exports dropped.
Despite the lost jobs, Cubans are still provided with employment, and government wages include a food ration mainly for rice, sugar and milk.
“They are not malnourished; even the kids look healthy. Now and then you even see an overweight Cuban. Twelve years ago we didn’t see that at all,” Francis pointed out.
The Cuban government has a research farm where breeding cattle are developed for dairy production, and their resistance to local diseases is enhanced. Dairy herds are much more common than beef, and breeding cattle from the research farm are distributed to farmers to improve their stock.
Other improvements are in progress. On their first visit, the Webers noticed that electric lighting seemed confined to the cities. Now, at night the farms are lit up, nearly everyone has television, and many have air-conditioning units.
Public transportation is improving too. The usual bus used to be a “camel,” something like an old single-deck cattle transport, where men and women were segregated. Most of those have disappeared, although rural transports may be limited to a canopied truck. One bus they saw had been painted and modified to look like a train engine, pulling passenger cars.
The people seem happy and healthy, and are eager to welcome Canadian visitors.
“Cubans love Canadians,” Francis said. “Canada helped keep them from starving when the U.S. embargo came into effect.” The embargo started in 1962 in an effort to stimulate democracy in Cuba, which had just aligned itself with the Soviet Union.
Francis and Mavis have enjoyed all their trips to Cuba, and recommend it to anyone with the urge to travel. If you are thinking of going to Cuba, the Webers have a few pieces of advice.
The private taxis will take you just about anywhere you want to go. It is best to deal through the hotel porter, however, to avoid trouble and get the best deals.
Military areas are restricted.
Cuba has a very low tolerance for drinking and driving. The legal blood alcohol limit is 0.00 – 0.01 per cent (compared to our 0.08) so it is best not to drink at all if you are planning to drive.
Bus drivers at the airport in Cuba are often tipped in Canadian money, but they are not allowed to keep it. They will sometimes exchange for convertible pesos, or cuc.
Economics in Cuba
Entrepreneurs have the opportunity to make many times more than the government wages, but many Cubans still work for the state, at around 400 Cuban pesos per month – less than $20. The rationing system allows Cubans to buy some food at about 12 per cent of cost, but not enough to last the full month.
Cubans can now exchange (not sell) houses but they must pay a tax of 15 per cent of the house’s worth.
Imported used cars can cost $60,000 or more, a price that many Cubans will not be able to afford in their lifetime. In addition, a tax of 15 per cent of the value is applied to car sales.
Public transportation is free and so is most medical care, but patients must pay for prescriptions.
Starting next year, government-run restaurants will be privatized, with employees having the option to form a cooperative or bloc to buy them.