Circles Robinson Online

My Photo
Location: Havana, Cuba

is a blog to give a fresh angle on a fascinating and beautiful Caribbean Island country that, despite being relatively small and with only 11 million people, has been a major player in American and world politics for a half century. I also suggest you try

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Notes on Cuba’s Atypical Economy

By Circles Robinson

Cuba’s economy is not easy to understand, especially for those that have never lived under a similar system where government plays a lead role. To begin with, it doesn’t go by the usual market codes of supply and demand and corporate profit isn’t its driving force.

Coming from North America or Europe to a typical Cuban urban neighborhood, the visitor’s first impression might be one of poverty: crumbling or poorly maintained buildings, pot-holed streets, ancient cars, homes where there are few “extras” etc.

On the other hand, if you arrive from Latin America or another developing country, other aspects of Cuban life might get your attention: no street kids, no malnourished faces, no beggars and people walking the streets at night with almost no fear.

In fact, in the more than six years living in Havana, I have yet to see ONE working child, an astounding contrast to other Latin American countries where I witnessed the daily parade of hungry kids scrambling to shine shoes or hawk a host of products at markets and traffic lights, in parks and door-to-door. Many are glue snuffers before they become teenagers.

Simply speaking, that doesn’t happen in Cuba, and that difference alone should make anyone think twice before buying into the corporate media’s image of Cuba as a country of acutely deprived people.

Yet, technically speaking, the foreign news stories are correct when they talk about salaries in that are the equivalent of US $10-30 a month.

Rich in some ways, poor in others, Cuba has insisted in running its economy on a different model.


The biggest distinguishing factor of the Cuban economy over the last half century has been an unswerving commitment to feed, educate and protect its citizens.

This is no small feat for an under-developed country. Even more so when you consider that Washington’s relentless blockade keeps it from exporting to the US market where the neighboring Dominican Republic sends 75 percent of its exports.

It involves very careful central planning to provide a supply of foodstuffs, highly subsidized public transportation and utilities, universally free education at all levels and even a complicated surgery at no charge.

The government has continued to do this through good times and bad, and with obvious ups and downs, especially in the 90s with the collapse of support from the Soviet Union.

Today, the national budget receives revenue from diverse sources: profits from tourism, from the nickel mines, from agricultural exports such as sugar, tobacco, fish, citrus, and coffee. Another source is hard currency sales of products imported and sold by the State that absorb a good share of the family remittances from abroad that are also a factor in the Cuban economy.

The revenue is not indirect through taxation, but comes directly through public ownership. The earnings go into the national budget to finance productive investments and subsidize products, services and social security to the population.

Cuba has shown a knack for survival, in spite of a cumbersome bureaucracy that sometimes seems to run counter to the government’s objectives.

Nonetheless, in the post-Soviet years the purchasing power of salaries drastically decreased. While improving slightly, there are still severe limitations, creating many difficulties for Cuban families.


In Cuba an average family of two working adults and one child, has a combined income of US $20 to $60.

Many special benefits help stretch this amount far more than it would ever go in another country. The parents get a hot lunch at work, paying $1 or less for the entire month. The child’s lunch at school costs $0.30 a month. Transportation costs are minor: 100 bus rides for the family (kids under 12 don’t pay) costs $1.65, and some workplaces have their own free transportation.

Cooking gas costs pennies, and the average family pays under $2 a month for electricity and under $1 for local telephone service. Most people live in apartments or homes that they or their relatives or spouses own. The small percentage paying rent by law pay no more than 10 percent of their salary.

While not enough to meet all needs, a supply of staple foods and a few other basic products is available to every Cuban citizen for around $1 a month. Available medicines are priced at pennies and all educational and health care services are free. .

Books, which are out of reach for the poor in developing countries are considered a basic need in Cuba and are heavily subsidized. A book that would cost US $10 to $25 in most countries costs between $0.30 and $0.80 in Cuba.

On the entertainment side, for the equivalent of $0.75 two people can go to the movies complete with popcorn, have an ice cream cone afterwards and pay their round trip bus fare.

Sounds great so far, but not all is roses.

The regular Cuban peso, in which people receive their salaries, exchanges at 20 to one US dollar and has little value outside the subsidized economy. The other money that circulates is called the Cuban Convertible Peso or CUC, (the country’s hard currency equal to about US $1.20) needed to buy imported products like cooking oil, powdered milk or higher grade detergents, soaps and shampoos.

Cubans without family remittances, bonuses, tourism-related employment, or some illegal scheme find themselves with a very limited purchasing power. Most have a tough time making ends meet with clothes and shoes. Even local food and produce sold in regular Cuban pesos can be too expensive if you don’t possess the CUCs to exchange.


Given this situation, it’s not surprising that many Cubans resort to illegal “scams” of one kind or another to get by. Many of these involve stealing from the workplace. Relatively unknown during the more prosperous 80s, the practice mushroomed in the 90s when the government could no longer provide workers with the variety or quantity of consumer goods they were used to. A sort of pragmatism about workplace stealing wormed its way into the national conscious. Doing what you have to get by even merited its own verb: “resolver.”

State-owned industries, business inventories, office supplies, restaurants and worker kitchens, construction sites etc., became fair game. A huge percentage of the population has been drawn into the practice —either by taking regularly from their own workplace or by purchasing things in both currencies they know are stolen or illegally sold. Some of the theft is extremely small scale and individual, while some is well organized and involves larger sums and a chain of people.

An astounding but highly representative example came in a widely watched speech by Fidel Castro back in 2005. He stunned his national audience by openly stating that an investigation had shown that around half of the country’s gasoline and diesel, all imported and sold by the State, was being detoured to the black market.

The big loser is the State, which means nobody or everybody depending on how you look at it.

Is it possible to educate a general population to favor the common good over the individual or family interest, especially in hard times?

With new openness, Cuba’s leaders have encouraged the local media to explore such topics, not long ago taboo. A letter to the editor in Granma daily newspaper on Friday, April 25 from a Havana resident described how the younger members of the family went to the new Isla de los Cocos amusement park and came home saying they had bought discounted tickets to go on the rides.

“It turns out that the tickets the "vendor" collects [for the rides] are not properly torn and he then resells them… at a good savings to the young students, who want to go on more and more of the rides,” noted L. E. Rodriguez Reyes, concluding: “How sad that our young people play the game of the dishonest without analyzing it!”

For parents like L. E. Rodriguez, who gave their best for a brighter future for all, such practices are painful and highly undesirable. But for the younger generations, workplace theft of one kind or another is a fact of life.

Widespread complicity has led to a general tolerance. Few citizens are willing to denounce such activity and risk being called a snitch over something “normal.”

The situation has produced a mutated economy and impacted the values of the Cuban population.

If five Cubans sat around a table to talk about the subject, the discussion could go on all night.

Some believe the problem is too big to tackle as long as salaries don’t meet basic needs. Others think that it’s never too late to begin to address the corrosive ill, as long as the right strategies and tactics are used.


Cubans are discussing their problems more openly than at any time since I have lived here. Listening to them, I find that most people want to maintain the benefits of their subsidized products and services, but also want to be able to purchase things their salary won’t permit.

The strategy of President Raul Castro to gradually increase salaries and make the peso go further promises greater pay for increased farm and industrial production; maintaining the concerted effort to conserve energy and other key resources, and a streamlining of the government bureaucracy.

Thus, the direction of the Cuban economy points to a system that provides equal opportunities but with greater incentives, asking for the contribution of “each according to their ability,” and rewarding “each according to their work.”

While the government and labor note that hard work is crucial to a rise in the living standard, the battle to return to the “poor, but honest” maxim is also seen as vital for the future of a revolution that takes pride in, and is admired around the world for its fairness, solidarity and ethics.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Cuba’s “New Freedoms”

By Circles Robinson

The arrival of some previously unavailable electronic items on Cuba’s store shelves, together with the new access to cell phones and tourist hotels is hot news these days in the foreign press. In a constant barrage of news articles most reporters sadly bemoan the fact that Cubans lack the money to take advantage of their new “freedoms.”

Cubans make around US $20 a month, but consider free health care for all a right. Most can’t afford DVD players or PCs but with free education at all levels their sons or daughters can become doctors, scientists or engineers if they have the vocation.

“Cubans can now book a room in 5-star tourist hotels but who can afford it?” chorus the foreign press in articles with titles such as: “Some Cubans can’t afford new reforms” and “Changes in Cuba spark frustration and hope.”

One article focuses on a man named Ernesto who “makes just over $12 dollars a month” but owns a car and his home. He laments that he would have to save up a year’s salary to stay a night in a fancy hotel or purchase a cell phone and line.

Cuba is recognized internationally for having exemplary social programs for a developing country but across the board low salaries keep most people’s purchases to the basics.


Cuba is not a wealthy, developed nation, and the choices the government (which controls imports) must make are dictated by a strict set of parameters regarding what is a luxury and what is a necessity. Finding a way to meet the basic needs of its 11.2 million inhabitants and have an educated, healthy population are the top priorities. Assisting other underdeveloped nations is a close second.

Those choices will never be very attractive to the mainstream foreign media because corporations and the market aren’t the main actors determining where investment should be made.

The reporter didn’t ask Ernesto if he would prefer a night at a hotel to the low-priced public utilities that he and his family receive year round. If he had been asked, he probably would have said he deserves both. Such an attitude has an explanation.

Cuba was never a consumer society with an abundance of products. However, journalist Orlando Oramas reminds us that with their salaries “in the 1980s Cubans could occasionally check in for a weekend at the posh Havana Libre Hotel or take a tour of the island with their families.”

Times were different back then, as Oramas notes. During the 1960s, 70s and 80s Cuba exchanged its sugar at highly favorable rates for oil, manufactured goods, machinery and industrial raw materials from the Soviet Union and Socialist Bloc.

That trade system collapsed with the fall of the Soviet Union, and Cuba’s economy hit rock bottom in the early 1990s. While today it is on the upturn with expanded trade with Venezuela and several other Latin American countries and China, it is clearly still in the recovery stage. President Raul Castro has announced a concerted effort to gradually restore the buying power of devalued salaries as well as providing greater incentives for increased production.

While some professionals, workers and farmers earn bonuses they could use for luxury items, most prefer to spend their money first on additional basic food and hygiene products that the state is unable to provide at the heavily subsidized neighborhood stores. Their second choice would probably be clothing or shoes. Many who receive small amounts of family remittances or tips in the tourist industry do the same.

Nonetheless, it is each person’s choice whether they wish to tighten the belt in order to save up for more expense items. For now, the new opportunities will be most accessible to those families who receive sizeable amounts from relatives abroad, people working for international firms located in Cuba, as well as doctors and a smaller number of other professionals working in government-sponsored missions in other countries.


As the foreign reporters concentrate on Cubans’ new “freedom to consume” they miss the story on more important events gradually taking place in the lives of normal Cubans. There’s no magic wand, but major government investments appear to be paying off.

Less than three years ago the country’s electric generating system had virtually collapsed. Daily blackouts were commonplace, affecting normal family living and wreaking havoc at workplaces, offices and industries.

The blackouts coincided with the near collapse of the country’s public transportation network. The inconvenience was the butt of constant criticism and jokes, endless frustration and discontent, as well as damaging to the economy.

Then the government announced a nationwide energy revolution. In short, the effort meant obtaining savings at homes and workplaces with more efficient lighting and appliances, combined with massive investment in a more decentralized and fuel-efficient generating strategy. Upgrading of the distribution system was another component of the plan.

The effect so far has been a giant success. So much so that in this era of US $100 a barrel oil, other countries of the region have sought Cuba’s help to try and do the same.

For several years my family and I were constantly recharging a pair of battery-powered florescent lamps and buying replacement bulbs. Now, with the blackouts a thing of the past, the lamps are around only in case of hurricane winds, when the power is cut as a safety precaution.


In 2006, Cuba’s leaders began a program of major investments in new buses and trains. At this time they predicted that public transport would gradually improve over the following 3 or 4 years. Many people were skeptical since the problem had existed for nearly two decades and was getting worse.

Today, Cubans are finally seeing major improvements in their public transportation. Much of the fleet of long distance buses between provinces has been renovated and urban transport is improving fast in Havana. Similar improvements are programmed for other cities as well. In the capital, bus trips that used to take 1 1/2 to 3 hours, including the wait, often now take an hour or less. Better yet, instead of being mercilessly squashed many commuters now find their buses are only moderately crowded. Sometimes I even find myself a seat!

The much greater frequency of many of the bus routes is startling. Other parts of the capital yet to benefit will receive the same improved service once their streets are repaired and enough drivers can be trained.

Another area where large-scale change has begun is food security. There is a new, high-priority focus on farm efficiency and production to reduce costly food imports. The plan involves higher prices to private farmers, more land to those who need it and greater access to farm supplies, especially geared to benefit both family farmers and coops.

The goal is a sharp increase in harvests and livestock production in the not-too-distant future, thus increasing the supply of affordable food products and adding needed variety to the population’s diet. Such an accomplishment would go way beyond electronics and hotels in improving the lives of average Cubans. We can only hope that the foreign media will stick around to report it.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Religion in Cuba: Not What You Think

By Circles Robinson

My wife and I walked into the Nuestra Senora del Carmen Church located on Infanta Street in Central Havana, Cuba just as the 6:00 p.m. Mass on Easter Sunday was beginning on March 23rd.

Unlike what some people might imagine, the atmosphere was similar to that in any other Latin American Catholic Church. The doors were open, there were no police in sight and the worshippers of mixed age were relaxed and at ease. I greeted a former news agency co-worker who was in one of the back rows.

There was one important difference, though. Instead of a packed congregation in predominantly Catholic countries, the church was no more than 75 percent full.

We took a good look around the beautifully adorned baroque church inaugurated in 1927 with its main and side altars and attractive art work including the painted tiles, mosaics, ceiling and wall murals, and the spectacularly decorated hard wood pulpit.

At the beginning of the Mass, the officiating priest, whose accent seemed to be from Spain, spoke of the festive nature of the anniversary, remembering the resurrection of Christ as, “the most important day on the Catholic calendar.” He also reminded people that their contributions would go to projects “in the hands” of Cardinal Ortega, mainly to make repairs on churches in the different parishes.

Neither my wife nor I practice a religion but it was not the first time we’ve walked into a place of worship in Cuba to observe the atmosphere. We have also gone to ceremonies of the Afro-Cuban “Santeria” religions (originating out of a blend of West African religion with Roman Catholicism so as to make it appear back then to their Catholic slave owners that they were converted to their master’s religion).

The Afro-Cuban religious influence is readily visible on the streets in dress and accoutrements. People initiating into the religion wear all white from head to toe for three months or longer. Different colored necklaces and bracelets as well as scarves, hats, umbrellas etc. also have their significance. Driving percussion music that often spills out into the streets sometimes accompanies religious ceremonies along with sensual, improvisational dance.

Our neighbors and co-workers belong to a mixed bag of religions. Others are agnostics or atheists.

A look at the 2007-8 telephone book white pages for Havana shows 129 “Churches and Places of Worship” listed. These include: Catholics, Baptists, Adventists, Methodists, Episcopalians and Pentecostals. Santeria, mostly conducted out of homes, has many followers while there are small numbers of Jews and Muslims.

We also have friends and acquaintances participating in programs of ecumenical faith based civic organizations that work along with local government institutions to confront social problems such as alcoholism, drugs and domestic violence with an emphasis on raising awareness and consciousness among the population.


In many Catholic countries, the separation of Church and State is still merely nominal. The Church still has its hand in every pot.

The Evangelical groups —often with a lifeline in the US—, also try to dictate how everybody should live based on fear of the devil and his associates.

Things are different in today’s Cuba.

While the church doors are open to anyone wanting to attend, the omnipresence of religion in all aspects of life is clearly not the case.

You don’t feel invaded by religious messages on loud speakers, on buses or on the radio and television which occurs in several Latin American countries and in parts of North America as well. Religions in Cuba do not have access to the media.

While some people —usually middle aged or above— habitually use the phrase “gracias a Dios” (Thank God) in relation to something positive that has occurred, the phrase, “Si Dios quiere” (if it’s God’s will) —very common in Central America and Mexico— is rarely heard in Cuba as a substitute for human action or as a sign of resignation.

Catholic holidays go virtually unnoticed by the majority of the population, especially by the more recent generations. Just before Easter week I conducted a quick poll among acquaintances, revealing that most had no idea when the holiday fell this year. Religious holidays don’t appear on calendars and rate only an occasional mention on the international TV news. Some people working in the tourism industry are aware of it only because the holiday week brings many planeloads of vacationers to Cuba.


The zero influence of religion on Cuba’s health care and educational systems as well as politics is clearly one of the most significant changes instituted by the Cuban revolution since its onset.

The Constitution does not permit religious education in public schools or the operation of private schools, except for some international schools for the children of diplomats.

With religion out of the way, reproductive health issues like birth control, or sexually transmitted diseases are treated as scientific and not moral problems. Sex education is heavily stressed in the grade schools and birth control is available on demand. Full information and treatment for STDs are also available to teenagers and adults on demand.

Condoms are touted on television as part of the ministry of health’s AIDS prevention campaign. In contrast, in countries where the Catholic Church or other conservative religions dominate political power, young people are denied information and told that abstinence is the answer.

The topic of abortion, one of the perennial political battlegrounds in the United States and other countries, is in no way taboo in Cuba. Abortions are available through the country’s public health system, and Cubans consider that the decision to carry out or terminate a pregnancy belongs to each woman. Those who believe abortion is wrong are free not to use the service.

The result is that most women prefer to finish their education and begin their careers before having kids. Further, most choose to limit their families to one or two children, rarely more.

Without the taboos propagated by religious conservatives, people in general are more open about sex and sexuality than in most other Latin American countries.


While some researchers say Catholicism was never as rooted in Cuba as some other Latin American countries, official stats show pre-revolutionary Cuba as over 85 percent Catholic. Other studies put the percentage of “devout” Catholics at below 50 percent even before the revolution. Most analysts agree that the Catholic Church was strongest among the upper and middle classes because of Cuba’s Spanish colonial past.

The Church hierarchy, allied to the wealthy, lived hand in hand with the Batista dictatorship. So it was no surprise that shortly after Batista fled Cuba the majority of the Catholic priests —mostly foreigners— also left the country. Others were expelled for collaborating with the counterrevolution.

While not prohibited, during the 1970s and 80s religion was frowned upon. Those practicing were considered to have divided loyalties and thus could not be candidates for membership in the Communist Party or positions of any importance. Then in 1992, a constitutional amendment made Cuba a secular instead of an atheist state, thus opening the door for people who practice a religion to be members of the Party. One’s private religious beliefs were no longer seen as an obstacle to participation in the revolutionary process.

Since the 90s the Catholic Church has increased its visibility slightly, but not its influence. Today a limited amount of foreign priests and nuns are allowed residency. Christmas was restored as an official day off in 1998. However, the Church steers clear of politics and has no place in government policy.

Santeria —which many people believe rivals the Catholic Church in followers—has reached greater recognition in society under the revolution, treated by the government on a par with all other religions.


Relations between the Cuban government and the Vatican are cordial and frank. They actually coincide on several international issues including opposition to wars of aggression like the US invasion and occupation of Iraq, and the importance of fighting poverty around the globe.

Vatican Secretary of State Tarcisio Bertone recently visited Cuba and stressed the Holy See’s opposition to the US blockade on the island. When Pope John Paul II visited the island 10 years earlier he met with Cuban leader Fidel Castro.

Cardinal Bertone expressed the Catholic Church’s desire to play a greater role in education and have access to the media. To date the government has not acquiesced. The fact that it hasn’t keeps Cuba different from its Latin American neighbors.

While respecting others right to worship any or no religion, what I most appreciate about Cuba is the lack of religious fanaticism and the fact that the education and health care systems are strictly non-religious.

Business Logo design
Hit Counter