"Every Cuban is a criminal," my taxi driver told me as we maneuvered through the decaying streets of Havana. Passing by crumbling colonial-era buildings awash in soft pastel colors, the soft-spoken 41-year-old man turned the wheel of his 1948 Ford coupe with weathered hands covered in scars and fresh stitches. “Those who only work a legal job don't eat."
From the outside Cuba looks like a picturesque post card, but things look very different when you look just a little closer.
Although I am of Cuban descent I must admit I had no real idea of what was going on in the nation that sits just 90 miles below Florida. What I learned from my week traveling through the narrow, history-packed island is that Cuba is place of contrasts: beauty and destruction, celebration and sadness, poverty and generosity, each curiously coexisting throughout the country and all its inhabitants.
I felt many emotions while in my mother's homeland, mostly utter disbelief at how upbeat and resourceful the people are in the face of such a difficult economy and living conditions. The Cuban will tell you of his Sisyphean efforts to constantly work, slowly pushing himself up the hill of financial independence, just to roll back down and start over should he have the gall to desire a better home or even a new toilet.
A mix of national pride and frustration with their inability to move up in social class seems to exist in every Cuban I spoke with. Cubans love their country, they just want to be paid fairly for the work they do.
In Cuba, entrepreneurship takes on an entirely new meaning. What I mean to say is that Cubans have some serious hustle—to a point I've never before seen—and “illegal" side-gigs are really the only way to get by. For context: only jobs that are approved of and taxed by the government are considered legal. To wit, taxi drivers are also house remodelers, teachers are restaurateurs, grocers are mechanics, farmers are tour guides. I met a doctor who sold empanadas on the side. I met a nurse who told me it made more fiscal sense for her to do nails than work at the government-run hospital, so she stopped going.
Many Cubans feel their country does not support its own people. Not only is the "Cuban" currency worth less than a tourist's, but Cubans are also not allowed on the grounds of many hotels.
Even my hard-working taxi driver, who still lives in the very house he was born in, isn't just a driver. He's also a painter, a construction worker, an HVAC engineer, and an expert car detailer. When I asked this man how on earth he learned so many trades, he responded simply; “When you don't have money to fix your car, you play with the wires until something works," he said. “Eventually you figure it out."
People in Cuba are creative (think: "if I can't afford it, I'll just make it"), communal and deeply complex. They have understandably frustrated feelings about their country, tourists and especially about ex-Cubans who they say forget where they came from (often severing ties and refusing to visit) after just a few months on American soil. Like us, Cubans share dreams for better futures. But unlike us, becoming wealthy, or even just financially comfortable, through hard work alone is nearly impossible. In fact, a common Cuban concern is that despite breaking their backs they will never be able to rise out of their economic status, or give their children a better life.
To understand Cuba's complicated economic climate and the DIY-life culture that has emerged as a result, you must first understand that there are two accepted currencies in the country. The Cuban Convertible Peso, or CUC, is the money that can buy you just about everything most people are used to, from a snack to a car to a home. One CUC is roughly $1 Euro or Canadian dollar, or 90 cents US. This conversion may make sense for tourists, but it doesn't for Cubans, who are paid via an entirely different, much weaker tender—the Cuban Peso (25 of which will get a Cuban just one CUC). Pesos are used for some groceries and food items sold locally, and not much else.
Cubans with legal jobs told me that they earn approximately $500 Cuban Pesos a month, which is about $20 American dollars, or $18 CUC. Meanwhile, the prices of consumer goods in Cuba are on par with most modern countries, which means a full day's work will get you approximately half a can of Ciego Montenegro soda, that is if it's in stock (I heard a lot of “no hay" or “there is none" when looking for particular foods or products).
Thus, the side hustling.
From a Cuban's perspective, the prices of things in Cuba are simply staggering. My driver reported that his engine-less Roosevelt-era car—rusty, musty and barely whole—cost more than $14,000 US dollars. For those who were curious, his hands were defaced while getting his automotive antique working order, which of course he did successfully. Most Cuban homes, although dilapidated and without plumbing will go for between $10,000 and $100,000 US.
How on earth can a Cuban on $20 a month ever hope to make these big-scale purchases? My brain hurt contemplating how a Cuban can ever do anything other than simply live life as it is.
It must be said that both cars and homes in Cuba are expertly finagled. Chevys older than my grandparents feature hand-installed amenities like DVD players and brand new air conditioners. Like magicians, Cubans figure out ways to hardwire cable television into mold-eaten homes, take hot showers without plumbing, and eat deliciously with nearly empty refrigerators. Everywhere you look there is proof of Cuban invention and ingenuity, worth a pretty penny in any other land yet nothing in their own.
As a result of this climate of competency, Cubans rarely stress. They truly believe everything will be OK no matter what ("tranquila" or "be calm" was a phrase this anxiety-addled New Yorker heard multiple times throughout her trip) and have the unique ability to be fully present in the moment (no internet connectivity helped in this regard), laughing with friends and family. In addition, because of how long it takes to make money, Cubans possess inhuman amounts of patience.
Lines are everywhere in Cuba. Due to the lack of computerized systems and Internet availability, everything is done via pen and paper. Whether you are trying to buy groceries, make a reservation or get on a bus, prepare to wait. Also, bring toilet paper.
In fact, one such woman I met told me she has been saving for decades just to buy a room in a building to open a restaurant. Her business plan involves feeding Cubans delicious, healthy and affordable meals, and giving away food each day to the homeless and elderly. Getting her hands on the $5,000 she needs to make this happen, however, has proved to be nearly impossible even though she works five days a week, eight hour days just like any American who can eventually see her dream through. Most Cubans who do start a business do so only with help from non-Cuban family members, a luxury not everyone has access to.
Unlike the opinion some might have of Latin people, this woman does not want a hand out and she does not want to sit home. She simply wants to get a small amount of capital to turn something old and abandoned into something warm and inviting, a slight of hand at which all Cubans are expert. In short, she wants to be an entrepreneur, which she already is, at least in mindset.
Regardless of the many emotions expressed to me by Cubans during my trip, the most common was optimism. It's been a complicated 60 years in Cuba since its glorified revolution, yet everyone seems focused on the future rather than rehashing the difficulties of the past. Are they bitter? Not so much. Are they ready to work? Yes. Are they ready to become self-made? They've already done it. They just want more.
Dr. Victoria Bateman, an esteemed economist best known for her nude protests for gender equality, uses her body as a form of art that serves to challenge the stigma around women's bodies and women's rights, in the world of economics. In March 2018, Bateman attended the annual conference of the Royal Economic Society in Brighton stark naked with the word "respect" written across her chest and stomach. Unbashful in delivering her message, Bateman was determined to start a conversation.