After reviewing various online articles about Cuba this morning, I’m reminded that you can pick and chose anything you want to “prove” what a wonderful or dispicable place it is. I must say that I find it fascinating that so many Americans claim to be experts about the country when they have never even been there. We often have a variety of political types on our expeditions. We only ask that everybody be civil and respect the opinions of others, including when we are in the company of locals.
It is important to separate facts from opinions and interpretations. One thing I am sure of is that it is very rare to find somebody who has visited Cuba who did not have a very enjoyable trip. (Of course this wouldn’t necessarily be true for Cuban-Americans returning to their homeland. Their circumstances might have been quite different than for a first-time visitor.) The idea of Cuba being a “communist” country economically is an outdated concept. It has been clear for many years that a pure socialist economy could never sustain itself under such dire circumstances, including an economic embargo, top-down tight-fisted bureaucratic control, and misguided interventions by the U.S. to purposely screw things up over the last half century. So what keeps things going in Cuba? First, money from abroad–billions of dollars annually are sent or taken to Cuban by relatives in Miami and elsewhere in the U.S. (By the way, polls have clearly shown that the majority of Cuban-Americans in south Florida would like an immediate end to the embargo—this fact often surprises those who haven’t been paying attention.)
Second, tips from tourists. This is such an important factor that you will often find some of Cuba’s most highly educated professionals working as bartenders, maids, taxi drivers, and travel guides. This is tied directly into the third factor: the black market. All of this cash circulates around and around and really drives the economy. Many articles about Cuba say that the average Cuban physician makes the equivalent of $20-30 a month. But they rarely explain that nobody can possibly get by on this amount. A physician earning $25 a month may have access to extra supplies at his hospital. He may be seeing cash-paying patients on the side. His wife may be a tour guide or operate a casa particular—a bed-and-breakfast inn. The money this family earns legally and semi-legally circulates around to numerous other families in similar circumstances. The black market is powerful, dynamic, and amazing. It contributes to social stability as much as anything in Cuba.
There are also billions of dollars from foreign individuals and governments who invest in Cuba. The Cuban government keeps most of the money and pays workers their equivalent of $20-30 a month. This way the government can pay for hard-money items from abroad—everything from medical supplies to construction cranes to tourist buses. This also provides ways that various equipment and supplies can be diverted into the black market, where they circulate along with the cash.
The vast majority of Cubans are involved in some way in the black market, which makes them technically criminals. Cuba is also a very safe country for foreign visitors. One of the many ironies of Cuba is that it is a country full of criminals, but they love Americans, and they exert much effort to ensure that it continues to be one of the safest countries in the world for us to visit.