Editor’s Note: Cedar County News publishers Rob Dump and Peggy Year took part in a “People to People” tour of Cuba March 4-12 along with several other newspaper publishers from across the Midwest. This is the first of several reports from that trip.
HAVANA, Cuba — While Cuba is only 90 miles south of the United States, most Americans know little about this island nation of 11.2 million people.
Americans have many misconceptions of this Caribbean paradise where brilliant white beaches are sandwiched between the Atlantic Ocean and the brilliant blue Caribbean Sea.
We recently spent a week in Cuba touring factories, schools, art studios and historical sites.
We spent much of that time visiting with and learning about the people and culture of this country, which was described by the locals as an “underdeveloped country,” but described by others as a “third world country,” or “Communist bloc,” country.
In talking with tour guides, regular people on the street and other tourists from around the world, we discovered all three descriptions could be considered accurate.
Our tour guide, a 35-year-old former teacher, gave his American tour group a microwaveable TV dinner version of the Fidel Castro-led revolution to overthrow the Cuban government in 1959.
“Fidel didn’t like the way the Cuban people were being treated. He wanted everyone to be equal and with Batista running the government, that was not the case,” said Liban Diaz, who has spent the past eight years guiding tours.
Besides kicking foreign business and entrepreneurs out of the country and “nationalizing” all of the industries, business, farm lands, schools and hospitals, the new regime also put all worker’s salaries on the same level — a pre-1960s level.
Today, that means all workers make the equivalent of about 25 U.S. dollars per month.
Professionals such as doctors, lawyers and teachers make roughly the same wages as store clerks and sanitation workers in Cuba.
One tourism industry worker, Jose Morales, said the Cuban people realize the pay structure is out of step in today’s world.
“The government pretends to pay them, so they pretend to work,” Morales quipped.
Liban Diaz agreed that wages are a problem, but the ever-resourceful Cuban people don’t let that stop them, he said.
“The Cuban people are hard working people,” he said “You can’t make it on what the government pays you. That’s why you see so many people working in the tourism industry.”
The tourism industry caters to visitors who are willing to tip for good service, Diaz said.
“With tips, people can make in one day, what the government pays them in one month,” Morales said.
The tourism industry is one of Cuba’s few concessions to capitalism.
Tourism saved Cuba from the brink of collapse after the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991. Prior to that, Cuba had been dependent on the USSR for trade and for an economic shot in the arm.
With the collapse of the USSR, Castro had to look elsewhere to find ways to keep the Cuban economy afloat in the midst of U.S. embargo.
He soon discovered that European and Canadian tourists would be more than willing to flock to his homeland if they knew they would be safe and well taken care of in Cuba.
In 2016, tourism brought over three million visitors to Cuba, dumping over $2.4 billion into the Cuban economy.
With the easing of U.S. restrictions on travel, and the return of U.S. cruise ships to the Caribbean island and regular commercial flights between the two countries, that number is only expected to increase.
“The government needs to put more into hotels. They want people to visit here, then they need more rooms to stay in,” Diaz said.
Part of that visitor housing need is being filled by another concession to capitalism — bed and breakfasts, known as casa particulares.
The industrious Cuban home owner can make a year’s worth of government wages by renting out a room or two for a week.
Education, the arts and the Cuban culture were also on full display during this week-long tour. Those subjects will be examined more closely next week.