Cuba: A Trip Back to 1959

I recently visited Cuba for the first time, to participate in scholarly meetings. For an American citizen this short voyage requires a leap through hyperspace. It was my third attempt over ten years to get there. Obstacles had included both the US government and the Cuban government.

This was a trip back in time, to 1959. For one thing, a majority of the (few) autos on the street in Havana are large American cars from the 1950s. Most are beautiful. One hears about the cars, but I had thought the reports must be exaggerated.

Cuba’s economic system is out of Alice in Wonderland. It has one of the world’s longest lasting dual exchange rate systems. Currently the cost of dollars in the market is 25 times higher than the official rate of one peso per one dollar. This means that a worker in the hotel sector or restaurant sector who is able to keep dollar earnings has an income 25 times higher than one who must turn them in to the government.

The island long ago developed an advantage in skilled services such as medicine and education. But doctors and professors earn far less than those who join the fledgling private economy. The latter features 178 possible approved jobs. The possible choices on the list by design make no use of an educated person’s skills. They include waiter, bathroom attendant, taxi driver, automobile battery repairman, mule driver, and wheel barrow operator. Most people are still employed by the state, however.