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As the world wakes up to hear the generational cries of the Cuban people, many are shocked to see what life is really like on the tropical oasis frozen in time. Beyond white hot sand and wide smiles, there is the devastating reality of how Cubans have been living for 62 years. And everyday, it seems to get a little worse. All the parts of our day that become simple routines for those of us blessed to live in freedom are obstacles for Cubans. They are not allowed the luxury of falling into a routine because there can’t be one when you decline further into extreme poverty as the days progress.
Waking up in Cuba everyday is waking up to the same question: What in the world am I going to have to do today to feed my family? You will hear a lot of propaganda circulating in baseless twitter threads, and subreddits written by people who’ve probably never met a Cuban — much less been to Cuba. They tell heroic fairy tales speak of how the revolution in the country has offered all citizens free food, healthcare, education, and housing. But, all of these promises have fallen short. The “free” food given to the people by the government is a monthly ration. In Cuba, it’s called “ la libreta.” Every year, less and less food is given to people. In theory, rations are in place to grant you the basic dietary needs for your family. In 2021, they include rice and sugar. You get five pounds of rice and five pounds of sugar to feed your family for 30 days. Often times, that’s not even available, but they’re the two things you can rely on arriving the most. Cubans are also granted one piece of bread a day. This obviously isn’t enough to keep the people alive and well nourished, so every morning, Cubans wake up and they do what they know best: improvise.
Many times, they find something extra to bring home on the streets. This is done by trading on the black market. Whatever people can get their hands on is then traded for more food. They’ll trade anything from tobacco to ice cream. And many times, these items used for trading, which in Cuba is called “Resolver,” are sourced from people’s own jobs. The people who work in a cigar factory will take X amount of cigars home everyday to trade. Same goes for the ones who work with rum and any other tradable good. This also isn’t done behind anyone’s back, but the government’s. Employers are fully aware of this and actually let you know what it is that you are allowed to take on the daily. Salaries are so low that letting the people essentially steal from the work place is the only incentive for people to actually show up and do the job. It’s all an internal operation with a system. It’s the people’s way of all looking for each other and their families. And don’t think just anybody can get one of these jobs. You’re hired through connections. Many people opt for becoming police officers because they actually receive food and some US dollars.
Sounds a little strange, right? People in a communist country being paid in US dollars? What’s even more strange is that while there’s barely food for the people, there are supermarkets on the island with decent amounts of food. But, the catch is they only accept American money while the people who work on the island get paid in Cuban pesos. The government does this because the Cuban currency is devalued and practically worthless. But, the regime knows that a lot of Cubans, especially in major cities, have family members in the US. Exiled Cubans can only send their families money as they wait and hope to someday be reunited. The regime preys on this. They understand Cubans in the diaspora aren’t going to let their loved ones starve. So, even if the Cuban government inflates the price of food immensely and decides to only accept American dollars, the people don’t have a choice. And they do this to ensure a flow of valuable currency right into their pockets. Especially when tourism on the island becomes scarce.
And while a lot of the food in Cuba is imported, the countryside also does some farming. But, you can’t just independently start growing crops. That’s a crime against the state. It’s all monitored by the government, and they decide what and when you can grow. All harvested crops are collected by the government and, in theory, are supposed to be redistributed to the people. But, they just go to the families of government officials. And sometimes, the government doesn’t show up in time to collect the crops, so the Cuban people can only sit and watch them go bad as their families go hungry at home. Because if they were to collect them on their own, they would be immediately sent to jail.
Another issue Cubans face everyday is their commute work. There is no fuel for public transportation. Walking and biking to work in the Caribbean becomes excruciating especially when you’re malnourished. There is also no fuel for homes. That’s why, at this point, every day the government shuts the power off on the island for 10 to 12 hours. And it goes beyond a scarcity for fuel. The power plants on the island are falling apart and there’s no replacement pieces to repair them. To make matters worse, the buildings are in terrible condition. Not too long ago, three girls ages 11 and 12 died because a balcony fell on top of them. These same vintage buildings that tourists love to pose in front of are crumbling on the people they’re supposed to house.
The incredible free education granted to the Cuban people has also declined immensely since the beginning of the revolution 60 years ago. For generations now, many classrooms don’t even have teachers to begin with. Teachers are so underpaid that no one want to fill those positions anymore. Many classes consist of students and a tv screen that transmits the lesson.
To touch on probably the most catastrophic failure of the regime on the island as of late — and what played a great role in triggering the countrywide protests that are flooding your feeds right now — the Cuban health care system, another part of the revolution that has been celebrated internationally. The healthcare system has been deplorable since before I was born. The condition hospitals are in brings tears to my eyes. If a person needs to go to the hospital, they should first figure out their transportation there. Due to the lack of fuel, an ambulance won’t be easy to find and many die just waiting for them to arrive. They also must make sure to pack sheets and food, as there are neither in these hospitals. Also, while they’re at it, they should consider packing medicine since medications have become harder and harder to find. Maybe just skip the hospital altogether and go buy overpriced aspirin in the black market because it’s the only place you will find it. And since Cuba’s going through a surge of COVID-19 cases right now, the chances of actually getting medical attention are critically low. Hospitals are packed and sometimes understaffed. Disturbing images of people waiting for medical care while lying in the hallways of the hospitals float on social media. Many have died because they were not able to seek medical attention in time and as my people drop like flies, the regime denies foreign aid.
So, when the Cuban people have no food, no power, and no medicine in the middle of a pandemic, is it a surprise to anyone that these protests are going on? For many years, Cubans have been scared to openly oppose the government as this is incredibly illegal. The people on the island holding mass protests was unthinkable in our community until right now. It’s something I was convinced I would not even see in my lifetime. But, citizens have lost their freedom, their loved ones and, now, their fear. All they have left are their lives. And what would they have to gain? A country. From the Spanish colonizers to Batista to the Castros, they’ve never tasted freedom. But today, it sits heavy in the air, and it’s sweet like sugarcane.