Friday, May 21, 2010

Cuba Diaries: Day 6 - Ration Books

Here's the seventh installment on my trip to Cuba to study their urban & suburban agriculture and agroecology. I will be posting these daily for the next several days so please check in regularly to hear about the entire trip. On the sixth day of the trip, our group had a free day. Many people went for a walking tour of Old Havana. Not me. All of the walking around farms in the heat resulted in an infected ingrown hair on my inner thigh that made it painful to walk. I stayed in bed ALL DAY (with the brief exception of a trip to the hotel pool). So instead of showing you pictures for this day's diary, I've got an explanation of Cuba's rationing system and a normal Cuban family's household economics. It's the exact opposite of America. Here we have cheap food but struggle to afford health care, college, and our homes. There, basic needs (including college) are covered but they have very little excess and they spend what they have on food and clothing. There are an awful lot of Cuban PhDs and Cuban doctors, but I don't think there are many Cubans who own iPods.

The average Cuban salary is 427 pesos per month, which equates to a little under $18. However, prices here are low and 427 pesos goes much further than $18 would in the U.S. Also, Cubans receive free health care, free educations, and monthly ration books with subsidized prices for select items. Many Cubans own their homes as well, although I do not know what a house costs or how one goes about paying for it. Another consideration is that, outside of basic necessities like food and clothing, there isn’t very much here to buy.

Still, many Cubans struggle to afford the basic necessities of life. I asked our guide about the ration books, and she gave me a list of what each person receives (at a low price) each month:

7 lbs rice
4 lbs sugar (3 white, 1 brown)
20 oz beans
1/2 lb cooking oil
1 package pasta
8 oz. coffee
1 lb chicken
10 eggs
11 oz fish when available (typically fish is unavailable, and they substitute chicken)

Each family also receives a bar of bathing soap every other month, laundry soap every other month, a bottle of dish soap every 4 months, and a monthly amount of toothpaste determined by the number of people in your family (a family with two adults and two children receives 1 tube per month).

Children under 13 years old receive 1 lb mince meat per month. Kids under 7 receive 1 kg dry milk every 10 days. Kids 7-13 receive soy yogurt instead of dairy. People with special dietary needs (like diabetes or HIV) receive extra rations based on their needs.

These rations do not fully cover anyone’s needs, and Cubans supplement their rations with food and other items purchased at full price. A large percentage of their income goes to pay for food. Food and other items are purchased using one of two currencies: “CUCs” and “local pesos.” A CUC (pronounced “kook”) is the convertible currency unit. That’s what tourists receive when they convert foreign money into Cuban pesos. One CUC is roughly equal to $1, although the Cuban government takes a cut of each American dollar converted so in reality one CUC gets you only about $.81.

Cubans earn their money in local pesos, and 24 local pesos equals one CUC. Some of the clothing I saw in stores was marked with prices (in CUCs) that would be normal or even cheap in the U.S. - $40 for jeans, $5 for a shirt - but quite expensive for a Cuban. In another store that accepted local pesos, a pair of pants was $250. That would be just over $10 for us, but it could be a Cuban's entire monthly salary.

Here are some prices (in local pesos) I recorded from an organiponico we visited in Eastern Havana:
Garlic paste: $6
Celery powder: $1
Oregano: $2
Basil: $2
Green beans: $5/lb
Beet: $5/lb
Coconut: $2
Lettuce: $3/lb
Pork ribs: $18/lb
Liver: $20/lb
Pork loin: $21/lb

Our guide Sara Daisy told us she saved up after each tour she led to buy six or seven bars of soap. I brought several bars of soap from the U.S. with me to donate to Cubans I met, so I offered her six bars of soap so she could use her money from this tour for something else. Still, when she needed to buy special medicated soap for her sons (who have skin problems), she told us she splurged by spending $1.40 CUCs each (equal to $33.60 each in local pesos) on two bars of soap.

Later, when I was talking to her and taking notes, my pen ran out of ink and she offered me hers. I remarked that I brought several pens and she asked if I could give them to her before leaving Cuba because she had to buy pens and it was expensive for her. As luck would have it, I had jokingly pocketed a handful of Wells Fargo pens a year ago at a conference (“taking back some of the bailout money”) and most were still in my suitcase pocket. I gladly distributed them to our guide and other Cuban friends.

Because clothing is so expensive for Cubans, I brought an entire suitcase of hand-me-down men's clothing from my boyfriend. I offered them to two of our guides and they asked if they could share them with the bus driver. I said yes, by all means. Take what you want, share what you want, and you can keep the suitcase too. They ended up splitting up the clothing and giving a pair of jeans to Sara Daisy as a gift for her son. For me as an American, these were old, extra, unwanted clothing, but the Cuban men I gave the clothes to were absolutely gushing with gratitude. I wished I could have brought more.

In Cuba, people ration their toilet paper and privately owned cars are rare. (In public restrooms, you pay an attendant for a little bit of toilet paper or you bring your own. At people’s houses, I rarely saw toilet paper. I asked if Cubans just drip dry and I was told that many use newspaper to wipe.) Those who receive money from relatives at the U.S. do better than those who don’t, and some of the most lucrative jobs are in hotels and restaurants where tourists go. Also, farmers can easily make double or triple (or more!) the average wage. Hitchhiking is accepted as a necessary means of transportation, and it’s not odd to see a blue truck driving along with a crowd of people and perhaps even a pig riding in its open back (all without seatbelts). Once I even saw a man riding a motorcycle with a freezer marked “Helados” (ice cream) in his sidecar.

In Cuba there are nearly no advertisements, but lots of government propaganda. Still, the occasional billboard quoting Che Guevara is a nice change from the bombardment of advertisements in the U.S. When I first arrived, I found Cuba to be a refreshing change from America’s nauseating commercialism and excess, but despite the beauty of Cuba’s agroecological, local food and its very low usage of oil, I don’t think I would trade my life in the U.S. for one in Cuba.

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