by Ghazal Rahmanpanah
For an island located a mere 93 miles from The United States of America, Cuba is the topic of much romanticism, exaggerated by contrasting narratives of the Cuban history and legacy.For most Americans, very little is known of the Caribbean island. In a 2006 US Gallup poll, 82 percent of those surveyed had a negative opinion of Fidel Castro - he is either a communist revolutionary who took power in 1959, forcing out corporations and silencing the opposition or an ambitious revolutionary who led the overthrow of a corrupt dictatorship, removing a colonial stronghold to bring literacy, education, health care and equality to the people.
What is incredible about Cuba is that both of these perceptions hold true simultaneously, which only adds to the paradoxical nature of the country.
For six days, I spent roughly ten hours a day on an “academic tour” of Havana with a group of colleagues from the Monterey Institute of International Studies (MIIS). In various forms, the successes and triumphs of the socialist ideology were continuously put on display with the same sentiment expressed time and time again: “the Cuban system is the greatest in the world.”
To be fair, Castro’s Cuba truly had its utopic benefits, with an education system and health care policy often considered a model for the rest of the world. In addition, since the revolution in the 1950s, Cubans have embraced near-complete gender equality and consider women’s participation in both politics and the labor force to be integral to the country’s survival.
But before long on our journey many of my colleagues sensed something was not right. Everyday our bus drove down the same roads; Avenida 23 and Calle 12, where the buildings were well kept and the streets were bare. I thought aloud, where are the Cubans?
Many Cubans hesitate to speak to you once they know you are an American tourist. A young Cuban named Enrique tells me that for years tourist laws prevented Cubans from looking at foreigners, or yuma, leaving a lasting impression on their psyche. While today most anyone on the island will talk to you, some still fear the possible implications of being caught implying “Viva Cuba libre.”
Fortunately my whole life I have been mistaken for Colombian, even though I only speak enough Spanish to successfully navigate wait staff in a restaurant. (In fact, I too am from another sanctioned and pariah country, Iran.) Accompanied by my friend Jon, who is fluent in both Spanish and Brazilian Portuguese, each night we would venture into downtown Havana in search of the “real” Cuba. In the wee hours of the night we discovered the dark side to Castro’s Cuba, where the yuma enjoy capitalism and the Cubans enjoy socialism.
In order to truly grasp the state of today’s economy in present day Cuba, you must first understand their currencies – that is right, plural. Until the fall of the Soviet bloc in the 1990s, the Cuban national peso was pegged to the US Dollar. When the bloc came down, Cuba entered a recession, known as “the special period,” and was forced to consider the US Dollar legal tender in order to encourage the entry of “hard” currency into the economy. In 1994, the convertible Cuban peso (CUC) became the 2nd official currency of Cuba and was valued at $1 USD. By 2004, circulation of the US Dollar was halted completely for the national peso and CUC, with the CUC for goods and services of anything “foreign” – hotels, international transactions, souvenirs, etc.
While the CUC is pegged to the dollar, 1 CUC is equivalent to roughly 26 national Cuban pesos. According to Dr. Jorge Mario Sanchez Egozcue, Professor of Economics from the Universidad de La Habana, the average national salary in 2012 was between 250-900 national pesos per month. Ernesto, a cab driver who picks us up one evening from downtown, has his PhD in labor law and spent decades as a practicing lawyer. When his mother fell ill, he was forced to switch professions. “I drive because I need the money,” he says, rather matter-of-factly.
From my observations and conversations over the dual currency system, I see a divided young generation in Havana. For Eduardo, a 34-year old construction worker and underground surfer, the CUC is a blessing. He is one of the lucky young Cubans with family in Miami and access to the millions in remittances sent back. These remittances help him survive on his meager salary and Libreta (the Cuban rations system), with a little extra to enjoy Havana’s nightlife. For him, access to the CUC equates social freedoms that were once only available to the government and military. “We want to see the benefits reach everyone,” he says, “even if it means we have to give one of the pesos up.” New reforms, however, seem to point toward the diminishment of this hard currency, and not all Cubans will be happy to lose their strong purchasing power.
Gender equality in Cuba was born from the socialist ideologies and visions of the 1959 Revolution. In 1960, Vilma Espín established the Federation of Cuban Women (Federación de Mujeres Cubanas) and was the president until her death in 2007. Vilma, a chemical engineer, fought alongside Fidel and was married to his brother and current President of Cuba, Raul. Considered a beloved figure throughout Cuba, Vilma worked to bring women into the economy by providing equal opportunities and advocating for women’s participation in both politics and governmental administration. Her efforts paid off. In Cuba, women are truly viewed as equals, with statistics to prove it. According to the Global Gender Gap Report of 2013 from the World Economic Forum, women are 49.5 percent of higher education graduates, 62 percent of university students, approximately 45 percent of the parliament, 49 percent of judges and 47 percent of Supreme Court justices. Today, while there still exists machismo, Cuban women rarely tolerate sexism and aggressive men are culturally considered as outliers.
As a feminist, I was almost ashamed at how astounded I was at the equality within society among men and women. However, as is often the case, there is more than what meets the eye. Rampant alcoholism is one of the biggest health issues in Cuba – second to tobacco-related illnesses. Many believe this indirectly creates an epidemic of domestic violence, mostly in the rural areas of the country. Throughout downtown Havana, one sees large billboards advocating a stop to violence against women, reminding all of the role women played in the revolution.
Cuba is also a top sex tourist destination, especially for Canadians, Spaniards, and Italians. Thousands pour into the country each year to exploit the high supply of young prostitutes. Outside of a small nightclub down a narrow alley in downtown Havana, Talia, a young prostitute in a mini copper spandex dress, lights a cigarette as she waits for her date – an Italian businessman – to pull around his car. “I like pretty things, como su vestido,” says Talia, pulling on the tail of my skirt. Talia, like many other young girls in Cuba, is college educated but chooses a life of prostitution because it allows her luxuries she otherwise cannot access.
From my time in Cuba, one message of Havana and Cuba’s cultural identity is clear: Cuba has cultivated an identity that allows them to remain resilient in the most difficult of times as a nation and they will only continue to do so.
About the author: Ghazal Rahmanpanah is an Iranian-American, born in Tehran and raised in Maryland and Washington, DC. Currently in the final term of her MA in International Policy Studies and MBA in International Economics at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, she is passionate about gender equality and the role it plays in disarmament initiatives. When she's not channelling the spirits of history's greatest feminist and women leaders; she's busy either going to concerts or enjoying the beautiful sights offered by California's Central Coast.