After the “Special Period”

Against the Current, No. 89, November/ December 2000

U.S. activists interview Cuban student

IN JULY, SOLIDARITY supporters Tim Marshall, Rachel Quinn and Sara Abraham had the opportunity to take classes at the University of Havana as a part of the Language and Culture program sponsored by Global Exchange. We met many people willing to share their opinions on the political and economic situation of the country. Everyone talked about how difficult the “special period” (early 1990s) was but felt that Cuba was emerging from this critical time.

The emergence, especially the legalization of the dollar economy, is full of contradictions, but one thing seemed perfectly clear: Things had changed in Cuba from when it depended on the Soviet Union, and this change would continue.

We were fortunate enough to meet Omar, a politically minded student, unafraid to speak his mind or raise criticisms of the government, yet dedicated to the Cuban revolution. We interviewed him (in English) over lunch at a paladar (a restaurant run in a private home) near the University. His opinions were echoed by many of those whom we met in our short time and reflect, we think, the sensibility of a people with renewed optimism. –Rachel Quinn

Q: What are the most important social problems in Cuba today?

Omar: There are the problems of transportation, of food, and that all the major products are sold in dollars. The salaries range from 200 to 300 pesos, which is the equivalent of fifteen dollars per month. Most professional people are moving into private business and tourism to get access to dollars.

In the `80s we had 80,000 transportation rides a day. There were lots of buses; but since the Special Period it came down to 10,000. A lot of routes disappeared.

We used to have a bus to everywhere. Suddenly, we have only “camels” (the massive, two-humped buses pulled by tractor trailers down the main streets in Havana), so people like me have to walk everywhere.

You can see how full the camels are and we have to wait more than half an hour … Some people take two to three hours to get home every day. That’s a problem.

At the beginning of the Special Period there was a revolution of bicycles. School students got bicycles. But imagine going twenty to twenty-five miles on a bicycle. My brother had to ride twenty miles to technical school. Those were hard times.

The problem with food is that you can’t get all that you need. In the United States many people don’t eat meat but in Cuba we eat pork, fish, all kinds of meat. Meat is only sold in Cuba at dollar stores.

The same thing with eggs. We fry a lot of things. We need butter. All those things are only sold in dollars. You cannot afford a lot of oil.

Q: So what do people do?

Omar: They just don’t get it. Some people have access to dollars and then there are remittances (money sent to Cubans by their relatives in the United States). Only twenty-five percent of people have a comfortable life and I’m not talking about vacations or eating well.

Q: What about the rations?

Omar: The rations are basically rice, sugar and beans. There are some products like eggs, which you get seven per person per month. One small round of bread per day per person. If you eat it for breakfast you don’t have it for dinner.

You get a bottle of oil for a family every three months. Soap is the same thing as oil, only one litre every three months.

Q: What about fresh food?

Omar: The salvation for people was the farmers’ market. In 1993 when the dollar was liberated there was a famous opening. During the 1980s the farmers’ market was open but many farmers were becoming rich. The government decided to close that market.

Over the next few years it was hard. In 1993 they realized that the farmers’ market was the only way to bring food to the people. That became the main source of food. They sell only pork, vegetables, rice, beans and oil.

If you are going to wait for the state to give you that you will die. What they give you on rations is not enough even to starve. The rice they give you on the rations will only last twelve to fifteen days. I can deal with that because my brother is not here — so we use his rations.

Some people, like I have a friend who lives with his family and his girlfriend; she lives in another province but she studies here. They have to use the rations of five people for six. The government is very concerned about this. They all agree that the farmers’ market is the only way.

Now there are other products that come to the people through state markets. Every last Sunday of the month they have an open market at the Plaza of the Revolution. They bring all the products there cheaply. You have a lot of people trying to get the same products. At least there’s some good stuff at this market.

Q: Do farmers own or lease their land?

Omar: The state owns it but the farmers have the right to the goods produced there.

Q: How are young people responding to the situation of expanding commercialization and changes in the economy?

Omar: There has been incredible change. Big hotels are being constructed. A lot of stores have opened only in dollars and young people like to have a good time, dress well, go to nice places. They don’t think enough. They just want to have dollars — whatever it takes to get it. There’s a decline in moral values; they are not concerned with the right ways to earn dollars.

Q: What are the “right” ways?

Omar: Well, tourism, places like this one (the paladar, or private restaurant where we are doing the interview). There is an increase in prostitution and use of drugs. Those problems we didn’t have.

After the beginning of the dollar economy, prostitution has gone through the roof. Men go mainly into being pimps and hustling. We don’t have hard drugs but the use of marijuana has grown a lot.

Another hard issue is that the youth don’t care about the history and culture of Cuba. Their minds are on money. There is a problem of the education system in the role of school forming values. Capitalist propaganda is what is forming values. If we want to go on with the revolution we have to ensure the young generation.

Q: Is that what the Communist Party is saying as well?

Omar: Yes.

Q: How does the government try to solve these problems?

Omar: The government is concerned about housing and other issues we’ve talked about. I wouldn’t say they aren’t. But they haven’t totally realized the depth of the problem with the youth.

Q: When you think about how to solve these problems, do you think there’s any way to make your voice heard outside of the Party?

Omar: I don’t know of any way. I think you have to enter the Party to be heard. You cannot just have an idea and take it to the whole people. There are activities going on in some schools and some neighborhoods, but you cannot take it to the whole country.

Q: Why are you not a member of the Communist Party?

Omar: I consider that I don’t need to be a member to help the revolution and do what it needs. I don’t personally agree with all the procedures they follow.

For example, I have a very different idea of recruitment process. They try to get everyone. It happens in the army and at school.

They have a time of the year when they just decide to recruit. They offer membership, knowing that you have some privileges with that.

If you go to get a tourism job, they will look at your files to see if you are a member. It might not be a strong influence, but they consider it. In our school if you are selected to work for the government, they will look to see if you are in the Party.

Q: So it seems like if you have some good ideas there is no place for you to share them?

Omar: That’s what I say. I consider the FEU (Federation of University Students) much better than the UJC (Young Communist Union, which has members from seventeen to thirty years of age). It is more open.

There are a lot of students wanting to help. They don’t agree with many policies of the UJC. But they don’t have a place to say that.

FEU has a lot of good activities in support of the revolution. But at the same time they are ruled by the UJC because in the FEU elections you better be a member if you want to be elected to the student congress of the executive offices. And that’s not right.

Q: What are the ways that people with different ideas express them?

Omar: I don’t think we have the means at the moment to express them. Some people just don’t want to talk about politics. You know they have different ideas and yet they say “I don’t have anything to say,” and yet you know they do. There are no other newspapers (other than the Communist Party’s youth paper Rebelde and Granma).

That’s why a lot of people leave Cuba. These are the main two reasons — economics and the impossibility of expressing your ideas.

Q: What about the local level of discussion and decision making, like the neighborhood CDRs (Committees in Defense of the Revolution)? Is there debate at the local level?

Omar: Debate is not forbidden but people know that when they talk, it will not go anywhere.

Q: What would happen if there were a public demonstration that denounced the dollar economy, saying it was dividing the people?

Omar: There would not be a problem with that kind of statement because they know it is true and they would not take it as a threat. But people are tired being heard and getting no answers.

Q: Is there visibility of women in the FEU?

Omar: There is no discrimination. Sondra (a student in the same university program) was president of the FEU last year.

Q: What kinds of activities do the students do to support the revolution?

Omar: Mostly volunteer to help in any kind of work. On the 23rd, we are going to do agricultural work to bring food to the people (to be sold at the state farmers market). I think the main role is political work. They talk to younger students and people in factories about some of the fears of society. Like we are taken to talk about Elián, well, not anymore … about the blockade, about the Cuba Adjustment Act.

Q: Do you become a worker when you come out of the university?

Omar: When you finish, the university gives you a job in the state. Everyone is guaranteed a job.

Q: Will the work you do make you a worker like a factory worker?

Omar: At my school it’s different. We will never go to a factory, we are more trained for schools and government — to interpret, to work in tourism — but there are also a lot of university students, chemists, for example, who work in factories.

Q: Who does manual labor?

Omar: In our educational system, when you finish high school, boys have to go to the army. After that the students have to take a couple of entrance exams for university. If you pass, you go to the army for just one year. Otherwise, it’s two. You can go to technical school, university or work.

Q: What to you are the greatest benefits of the revolution?

Omar: Well, of course, education is totally free from the time you are six years old and the time you graduate from the university. You pay not one cent. Students from other provinces do not pay housing or food or transportation to Havana.

The health care is totally free, whatever treatment, even plastic surgery. There are family doctors who live in buildings on the top floor. The first floor is the office. There is one who lives every two blocks.

Another benefit is sports. Sports schools are free. The revolution gives a lot of money to help sports. They build stadiums and as you know there have been wonderful results after the revolution.

Also, there are lots of countries that have to thank the Cuban revolution. Angola, Vietnam, Nicaragua — we have helped people. We still have 500 doctors in Honduras and a lot of teachers in Nicaragua.

Q: What about race relations?

Omar: During the Batista government Black people were separated from white people. They (white people) had their own places, their own beaches and clubs. Now none of that exists. Blacks and women have important positions in the government and economic fields.

Relations between people are okay. You cannot be absolute, but the main part of racism is in the mind of the older people from before the revolution. There is a generation of older people that have racism in their heads. Somehow they’ll have to get used to the changes.

Young people don’t care. At the university you can see lots of black and white couples. My stepfather is a black person. My grandma, who is an old person, was surprised, but now she’s okay.

The police sometimes will stop black people more. Some of my friends in the university who are black have had problems with the police.

Q: Has support for the revolution wavered during the Special Period?

Omar: I think there is a feeling supporting the Revolution still in the minds of the Cuban people. But the idea of keeping alive, of eating, takes up the whole time of the people. I would say we are still eighty-eight percent in support of the revolution.

Sometimes, there are things to like the Elián rallies that are really important but the people don’t treat them as important as they really are, but that’s where ideas come from and if you don’t have refined ideas you are nothing.

If the government calls 500 people to harvest food, 1000 will come. But if they call for 200 at the Elián rally, 100 will come. That has been the role of the PCC (Communist Party of Cuba), to emphasize that ideas are as important as any other kinds of work.

Q: What can people in the United States do to best support the Cuban people?

Omar: The most important thing is to spread the voice and the main purpose of this is to lift the blockade. The problem is that there is a lot of misinformation about the Cuban revolution and Fidel. And most North Americans can’t imagine our lives. But I have to say, don’t waste your time with the Miami people.

Q: Will the revolution survive beyond Castro?

Omar: Yes.

Q: Why?

Omar: The people are prepared to make the revolution survive. We have a younger generation better prepared than the ones running this country now, with different methods. Somehow we will adapt our system. We will stay in socialism. We will have to adapt.

The world is very different but I think the Cuban people will adapt. The new, young government will adapt socialism to a new world system and they will follow Fidel’s ideas.

ATC 89, November-December 2000