Cuban Time Travel

HAVANA – For a United States citizen, the short trip to Havana requires navigating an obstacle course, owing to the trade and travel embargo that the US maintains against Cuba. It also turns out to be a trip to the past – specifically, to 1959.

Signs of this time warp are instantly apparent: the American automotive behemoths of the 1950’s stand out among the few cars on the streets in Havana. Most, obviously maintained with loving care, run well and look magnificent.

Unfortunately, the rest of Cuba’s economy and infrastructure does not show the same concern. Cuba has one of the world’s longest-lasting dual-exchange-rate systems: the dollar’s market value is 25 times the official rate of nominal parity (one peso equals one dollar). This means that those hotel or restaurant workers who can retain dollar earnings have incomes that are 25 times higher than those who cannot.

Cuba long ago developed skilled services such as medicine and education. But doctors and professors earn far less than those who join the fledgling private economy. The latter includes 178 approved job types; by design, none – the choices include waiter, bathroom attendant, taxi driver, auto battery repairman, mule driver, and wheelbarrow operator – makes use of an educated person’s skills. And most people are still employed by the state.