Thursday, November 19, 2015

Cuba - part 4 (talk with sociologist)


We made it back to the hotel in time for our talk by a sociologist. Later I was told by a runner a companion told him (did you follow all that?) only two people enjoyed the talk. I think it was at least three of us 17, but I loved her talk and wished I could learn more from her. 
The student/reporter in me cannot listen to a lecture without taking notes. I was so glad I brought a small notebook with me and will add that to my suitcases in the future.

he main topic was the Issue of Inequality, but like all interesting lectures, we got off topic. While at the lecture I heard someone at their voice lesson and thought of my little girl.

On December 17, 2014 there was an announcement about the change of relations (see part 1). To many Americans it was probably a non-event (at least it was to me, sorry for the honesty). To many Cubans it meant hope. Nearly a year later, they recognize it is a slow process. There has been talk of going from two currencies to one. Cubans currently use the CUCs in most transactions with foreigners, but use the Cuban Peso in day to day living. The CUCs are also called "Kooks." The long-term plan is to only use the CUCs. The bigger question is how and at what rate? After more than 50 years it is hard to build trust.

She told us about a concert happening that night in the Palaca St. Franciso.  

She asked us to study the inequality of people while on our walking tour. Two days is not enough time to absorb it all or understand much of it. As I looked up at steeples, I did not see the people begging. After a day and a half I was becoming adjusted to the beauty behind the decaying buildings (I love following Abandoned America on Facebook), but it was not enough time to change my focus to the people. That is one of my regrets with the trip being so short.
Clearly tourists
She mentioned (I'm sorry I did not note her name) that bicycles in Cuba are a symbol of the 1990s -- the "Special Period" that began with the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was a time of major economic crisis and a change of values. Many had never lived without Communism in their lives. She recommended a film The Elephant on the Bike by Fernando Perez. It is hard to have a bicycle in a tropical city without elevators. You sweat when you ride a bike. It is hard to get it into the apartment. It does not have the same meaning as owning a bicycle has in other parts of the world (such as in the Netherlands). 

Bicycle police -- strong police presence overall

In 2008 there was a change of leadership. Fidel transferred power to his brother Raul. Fidel is currently 89 years old. Raul is 84. Fidel had been in power for over 50 years. She equated him to "an old uncle -- someone who skipped death. He was superman! Suddenly he disappeared." There were rumors he was dead. Then he came back in January 2009 and there were discussions about whether or not he should be shown in public because he looked so old.

Raul has a different approach to leadership. Whereas Fidel made long grandiose speeches, Raul's were shorter he talked about social responsibility versus being taken care of by the government in the former paternalistic society.

Some changes that have come about include Cubans being able to own cell phones. It seems like such a basic right, but they only recently received that ability. Cubans could not buy or sell cars or homes or stay in hotels. Travel is still next to impossible for them. Even taking out the exorbitant expense, they need to have someone sponsor them from the country they want to visit. Imagine if I needed to find a Cuban to say he or she would take responsibility for me before I boarded the plane, by the time I jumped through the political hoops it would not have happened in time for this trip. There is a 150 CUC (1 CUC=$1) fee (the average monthly salary of a professional is 40 CUC, and that is not enough to live on based on what I saw). Other countries fear Cubans once in their country will want to stay.

Old people will sell peanuts and desserts on the street to make money, or (if they are lucky) earn extra money as cab drivers. Younger people have pedicab businesses. Tipping is a huge part of the economy. Whether it is the bathroom lady or our tour guide they need the money much more than we do. They need the extra income to eat. Martha and I each spent about an average Cuban income dining at a paladar and we still walked out of there feeling as if we received a bargain.

Cars to them are seen as huge status symbols. Martha's taxi driver said his circa 1950s car was $16,000, but a newer Kia was $100,000. On $40 a month, how is it possible to own either? Part of the answer is that family members send money from the States. Then there is the issue that Cubans cannot purchase their own cars. For as many problems as we have in the United States, I still cannot wrap my head around the problems faced by most Cubans.

They have access to food, but the food is expensive. If you are earning $40 a month, it is hard to justify spending $1 on a pineapple, even though you are living on a tropical island and a pineapple should be a locally grown food.

There is rampant gender and racial discrimination. Pensioners receive 200 pesos a month -- about $8 (25 peso = 1 CUC = $1). We were given basic tipping guidelines -- 1-2 CUC each day to housekeeping, 1-2 CUC to musicians (or better yet, buy their CD), more for our guides and drivers.

We then had a 20 minute break to refresh and head out for a two hour walking tour of Havana, plus lunch, and a tour of the museum. Of course Martha and I made a dash back to the post office (still closed) and took a bunch more pictures.

All pictures can be found HERE

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