Being from the United States, where the merits of capitalism are brainwashed into you and communism is denounced as the devil, it is quite interesting visiting communist countries.
Cuba is my third “communist” country in name but my first with an actually communist centrally planned economy.
Government rations are still very much a reality of life. Every citizen in Cuba receives monthly rations for various staples such as rice, coffee, flour, sugar, etc from a government store.
They also receive separate rations for fresh produce and meat.
The theory of this is that every citizen receives a basic minimum standard of living regardless of means or status. This has elevated many rural poor into a lower middle class (by Cuban standards) standard of living and virtually eliminated poverty.
There is also universal health and universal education. Cuba has one of the highest literacy rates in the world.
Opening To Capitalism
In recent years, the Cuban government has increasingly begun opening up to more private enterprise.
Paradores are private restaurants which can seat up to 40 customers at a time, usually have full bars and serve food at American prices. These cater almost exclusively to tourists because the average Cuban only earns around $50 USD per month in wages.
Previously, the government limited Paradores to only 10 people at a time, only allowed family members to work there and taxed them highly.
There are also Casa Particulares which are basically Bed and Breakfasts. Families rent out 2 or more rooms (with private bathrooms) in their homes to guests and provide them with breakfast. They charge around $30 per night for guests and occasionally supplement their incomes by offering optional (paid) dinner and alcoholic beverages.
The citizens fortunate enough to own these private enterprises are among the top of the economic spectrum – many of them earning the average American income.
In contrast, there are horse-drawn taxi drivers and machete grass cutter guys who are lucky to make $1 per day.
Government Run Institutions
One of the drawbacks to communism is the typical American analogy of “waiting in line for toilet paper”. Because free enterprise is so restricted, almost all goods are sold in government stores.
These stores have very limited hours, are never in a hurry for anything and do the least amount of work possible because they have no economic incentive to work harder. They can’t be fired (short of theft or something) and make a flat wage no matter what.
One example I personally dealt with was the government telecommunications company. Every town has a public square that is a wifi hotspot and they sell wifi cards only at the government telecom store ($2 / 1 hour). The government store has limited hours and even when they are open, have only one lady selling internet cards.
They only let in one person at a time. Everyone else has to wait on a stoop outside. There is no explanation why we were all waiting and my limited Spanish took me a while to ask the right questions to figure out what was going on. You’d think that handing a lady $2 and she handing you an Internet card would be a simple process. But apparently not in Cuba.
1.5 hours later I finally was let in. During my wait only 3-4 people had exited the office. What the Internet card lady was doing all this time, I have no idea. My whole transaction to buy 4 cards took about 2 minutes. I gave her my passport and money, she scanned my passport and the 4 cards, handed it all back to me and told me to have a nice day.
I can’t imagine having to deal with that kind of wait to do something so simple on a daily basis. What makes it even more complicated is the frequent power cuts which make many transactions impossible.
Communism has elevated the status of many citizens from what was essentially indentured servitude akin to the American share-cropper days, to a basic standard of living, an education, healthcare and electricity. But the inability to increase their income has made it difficult and time consuming to purchase the few luxuries that are available.