Cubans have a lot of benefits we don't have, so it is really hard to compare. Housing is free or very inexpensive, as are utilities. Healthcare is free. Education, including college, is free. There are no property taxes, or taxes on their basic salaries. And each Cuban household is given a ration book entitling them to a certain amount of very inexpensive food. That said, I spoke with one woman who said she had to spend about 80% of her basic salary to supplement the food she gets through rationing. Things aren't cheap here. More and more, people are planting their own gardens; small gardens in their courtyards, and large urban gardens. About 80% of the food eaten in Havanna is grown within 5 kms. of the city. And people supplement their basic salaries in any ways they can. The woman I spoke with earned extra money doing translations.
Times are improving. Back in the early to mid '90s things were really difficult, during a time the Cubans call the special period. This was when the Soviet Union fell apart and could no longer afford to provide economic aid to Cuba. I'm told the average Cuban lost 20 pounds during this time. It was during this crisis that the government decided to open Cuba up to tourism. Companies from countries like Canada and Germany started building luxury hotels. The Cuban government owns 51% of all these businesses.
Some services are now being provided by private businesses. For example, there are private barbershops. People have opened paladars, or restaurants in private homes. There are also private day care centers to make up for the lack of more government run centers. In some cases, these private business people can earn more than the government paid professionals. And perhaps the most upside down phenomena are the maids and waitresses in the resorts serving foreign tourists, who make much more in tips than their professional compatriots earn.
People don't spend a lot of time shopping in Cuba because there aren't a lot of consumer goods to buy. People have learned to make do, or do without. They have become experts at both these things. For example, they had to learn to do without pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilizers, so their gardens are organic. Cuba was having problems with blackouts because they didn't have enough power. So the army went door to door and changed out all incandescent light bulbs with CFLs. The government also provided each household with an electric pressure cooker and rice cooker. Each household is provided with basic electricity for very little cost, but if they go over a certain level, it becomes quite expensive.
Toilet seats seem to be one item many people have learned to do without. For whatever reason, they are hard to get and very expensive. We went to the DuPont house bar one evening to see how the tourists lived. A beautiful place, with live sax music. But no toilet seat. I asked the maid about it, and she said it had broken and they were having a hard time getting a replacement.
The streets are clean and quiet, and felt very safe. I didn't see anyone drunk or drugged, and I did go out at night several times in Havanna. I only saw one person begging. (Unlike Albuquerque where there is one on every street corner.) i saw very few police, or any people in uniform. I was told people tend to stay in and watch television in the evening with their family and friends. Telenovelas and baseball seem to be the most popular. I also saw men playing dominoes in the street. And of course, making music seems to be a very popular past time, as is dancing.
Unemployment is very low in Cuba, so most people spend a lot of their day working. Families are small, probably because things are so expensive. Most families have just one child. Children are truly seen as the future of the country, and seem to be treated very well. I didn't see a single screaming child or parent. In fact, the interactions I did see were very tender and respectful.
All in all, my impression is that Cubans are rich in spirit and culture, even though they are economically poor.
The DuPont Resort sits right on the ocean. There's a golf course here too!
Every day started with good strong coffee. Cubans like their coffee as much as I do!
Meals were simple but tasty. Lunches and dinners always included beans and rice, and usually meat - pork or chicken or fish. We also had fresh vegetables, often raw beets, lettuce, cucumbers, cabbage. A soup was often included, as was dessert. Fresh guava or pineapple juice were favorite beverages. I gained three pounds in ten days!