Carta de Cuba, la escritura de la libertad




(or "Life in Red")


Raul Rivero

Independent Cuban Journalist

(Published by Le Monde, Paris, France, on January 2, 1999)



There is not only one Cuba. There are several. One for the ruling class and another for tourists, diplomats and other foreign visitors. These two are very similar. However, there is another country for those who do not receive any of the $800 million dollars sent yearly to the island by Miami-based exiles, and who do not have relatives working in foreign corporations or mixed-capital enterprises. Those who are forced to live, along with their families, solely with national currency, with no access to dollar-based stores. This text concerns such people. Because there are other Cubas, smaller and forgotten. 

Habana.- When the head of a household gets up at dawn in present-day Cuba, he or she only faces two problems: lunch and dinner.

This somewhat bitter joke circulated in multiple sectors of the population in the early 1990's. Now, 1999 is about to begin, and the joke no longer seems funny. Conditions do not change, and the spark of cleverness has turned into a simmering fire.

Ordinary Cubans, who have no relatives in the United States, do not work in a foreign company or have no friends in a corporation, those Cubans who ride bicycles and get paid in national currency- the vast majority of the population- have to recur to three verbs which raise suspicion: "Inventar, resolver y escapar": To invent, to solve and to escape.

This is the formula. "Invento (I invent) because my cousin brings me hams from the countryside, and I sell them to my neighbors and my friends. The salary I make as a teacher lasts me the first ten days of the month, just like the products which I can buy under the ration card [libreta de abastecimientos]." So says Fernando, 38, married with two children, 11 and 6. Elia, his wife, works in a factory cafeteria, and can always bring something home, besides her monthly salary of 118 pesos (1).

"Clothing and shoes for the children are a tragedy. I do not know how, but I invent something, I have to invent"

Fernando's moonlighting makes him a criminal, because it is against Cuban law to engage in this type of commerce. The teacher does and is against the law, so he is careful; he feels at fault with society. Such a person cannot confront authority to claim his rights or demand respect. Thousands of Cubans, forced to engage in illegal work, such as Fernando, are effectively neutralized as citizens.

There is still a more complex category, linked to the verb resolver (to solve). "Guards from the factory steal ingredients. I make the paint in the back yard of a friend, and solve my problem. I make about a thousand pesos a month. It is risky. My freedom hangs from a thread [en un hilo], but I solve my family's problem and still have some money left to have a beer once in a while." Joel says that he is not interested in politics. He is 30, and feels well. Uneasy, but well.

To escape is something else.

Rolando Alvarez, almost 70, wrote. for three decades many praises of socialist society. He still loves journalism, although has retired, and receives 169 pesos a month.  "I do not regret anything I wrote. When I did, I believed in the project, and I still think it has many beautiful things that have transformed our society. Now, individually, in my old age, I escape, because I help in a "paladar"-private restaurant-. I wash dishes, wait on tables, whatever. And, at the end of the day, I take home something to eat or a few pesos, for my wife and me", speaking in his little apartment of downtown Havana. AAnd to be able to prepare a meal of rice and beans, just that, no vegetables or meat, I invest almost half my salary. A pound of black beans costs 20 pesos. A head of garlic 4. A bunch of peppers another 4. Onions are 10 a bunch and rice 5 a pound. I need oil and have to buy it from the store where they sell in dollars. Then I go there and change 50 pesos, because a bottle is $2.40 dollars. This is ready. From 80 to 85 pesos for a meal for two people. But we are calm. We have ours. I am satisfied." 


Socialism, who loves uniformity, has had to become flexible in this day and age. Transportation in Cuba begins with bicycles, continues with some native [criollos] tricycle called "bicitaxis" and includes huge trucks with bus cabins, called "camellos" (camels), to finish at high levels with Mercedes-Benz taxis.

In automotive matters, Cubans can reach up to a Russian Lada. Occasionally, a Cuban may get to ride in French Peugeots, because Cuban police has recently acquired, particularly in Havana, a modern fleet of these cars. Bus routes have eliminated over 50% of their trips, and cars, old and broken by the rigors of climate and poor condition in the streets, are being substituted, one by one, by donated vehicles from Spain, although one can see cars from Holland, Norway, Sweden as well as large Russian trucks, that pass as buses, and provide transportation to factories and work centers.

In 1996 American cars from the 1940's and 50's reappeared on the scene, now grafted with diesel engines [motores de petróleo]. These special taxis cover important routes within the Capital, and can carry up to six passengers. Fare is 10 Cuban pesos. It is now commonplace to see one of the old luxurious Cadillacs imported by local bourgeoisie, limping along an avenue, and contributing to pollution by emitting a large column of black smoke from its exhaust.

In rural areas, old trucks have been adapted to carry passengers, and travel between provincial capitals, municipalities and small towns.


"Had I dedicated the time I have lost waiting for a guagua (bus), or something else in which to transport myself, I would be a Doctor of Science or an intellectual. The wait extends for hours and hours, but at the end one reaches the destination." commented veterinarian Alfredo Vargas.

Tourists, foreign visitors, and the small number of Islanders who have money can use at least three different types of taxicabs. From the ever-aggressive Mercedes Benz, to the simpler oil-burning Citroen, less expensive and slower. Cuba has also, both in dollars or in their equivalent in national currency, the most cultured cabdrivers in Latin America. A wave of hundreds of retired professionals, or those who simply resigned from their jobs in the government, can take you anywhere in the city. This is why a tourist can ride along Havana's Malecón submerged in a thick debate about philosophy, art or economics. Or receiving a lesson of orthopedics, Marxism or cybernetics.

Ciro Trueba drives his Russian Moskvich along downtown's 23rd Avenue, in the zone of El Vedado. "I graduated as an architect 27 years ago. My salary is 340 pesos a month. I am forced to work two or three hours a day as a cabdriver. A pair of shoes costs 250 and an avocado 10."


In Cuba, with the exception of some owners of small twelve seat restaurants and of minimal coffee, pizza and candy stores, the only employer is the State. Now, it is said, only half-jokingly, that when a Cuban gets offered a job, he does not ask how much is the salary, but how much he can steal.

Society has been taken over by the Robin Hood syndrome: the rogues who steal something from their workplace every day, those who resuelven, are seen with sympathy. Their crime, their sin, their actions, are not perceived by the community as a fault, but rather as a form of struggling for survival. This is why such people are known in all of Cuba as "luchadores", rogues in the most orthodox Spanish tradition. Simple and good people who have been forced to enter the shady side of life "because of the American blockade", according to government sympathizers. "Because of the Government's blockade, the draconian penal code, the eagerness to control everything, even the adjacent seas and the air we breathe", says Felix Velázquez, a 50 year old, unemployed, human rights activist, who lives "from my family's charity". In a scene full of misery and anguish, many forms of stealing, of crime in general, are accepted.

In November, a group of food service workers in Camaguey, held up a bank and took away the safe, which contained over 100 thousand pesos, and, in the same week , it was known that the provincial governor was fired from his post due to improperly managing several thousand dollars. Corruption, mischief, invention, the struggle, have left Cuban society, 40 years after the triumph of the legendary guerrillas from Sierra Maestra, in a quagmire. In a trap.

From day to day, the worst of the poor, Third World capitalism, which has been imported to the Island, advances. And the conquests of real socialism have dissolved in the inefficiency of the system. Meager production, an agriculture incapable of working, and the government's refusal to allow the people to take off the yoke of the state, have not allowed the start of a process of individual sovereignty

Education is free, but with a clear hue of indoctrination. A grade-school manual, distributed in the 1998 academic year, asks "Who builds the círculos infantiles (nurseries), schools and hospitals?" Carlos M. 32, government employee, asks: "What happened in Cuba before 1958? I am not religious, but I do not want my children to be educated under any dogmatic beliefs. In this day and age, that is a crime. Give them education, pure education, and let them choose their political color later . No more Lenin, Marx or any other imposed idea. Children must go to school to prepare for a profession, not to serve anyone or any ideology."

There is, there always has been in the last decades, a desire of the authorities to offer adequate public health services to the population. A health service network covers the island, which has one physician for every 400 persons. However, economic crisis, the disappearance of the Socialist bloc, and also, according to government officials, the American embargo, have left the system in ruins. Havana and other major cities have suffered periodic outbreaks of scabies and lice. Several diseases, such as tuberculosis and dengue, have been reborn, and several epidemics have produced victims among the general population. "I prefer to cure myself using home remedies, without leaving my room. To enter a hospital is torture. You have to bring your own towels and sheets, soap and food, and then call somebody abroad so that they can send medicine. Physicians are good, but paramedical service is a disaster. They get paid very little. There is a general lack of cleanliness and poor attention. The special clinic for foreigners and government officials is a different story. But I don't fit in there." Eliecer, railroad worker, 52.

The islands of cheap capitalism brought suddenly to the country, particularly to the so-called tourist poles, have resulted in an outbreak of a legion of young, beautiful, prostitutes, with a degree of education. With them, came the usual complement of pimps, panderers, employees of low-life hotels and clandestine bars. Also, private homes illegally rent rooms to facilitate the contact between local women and tourists. In 1996 women who charge in national currency arrived on the scene. A night runs from 50 to 100 pesos, in poorer houses and more dangerous bars, where there is no export-grade rum, but where plenty of homemade drinks, made with alcohol and sugar by-products, are available, such as those called "Chispa de tren" ("train sparks"), "Espérame en el suelo"("meet  me on the floor"), "Hueso de tigre" ("tiger bone") and "Salvése quien pueda" ("every man for himself").

Recently, the famous "jineteras" have been joined by a growing gang of boys waiting for homosexual tourists from all over the world, in zones which are already very popular, as well as a growing number of transvestite nightclubs which operate in this capital.

To this crude landscape, one must add the fact that most of the population lives without information. "Granma", a little daily paper published by the Communist party, sets editorial guidelines for the two television stations which start to broadcast at 6:00 PM, and for the radio network. Cubans who do not have access to a shortwave radio have a partial, "amputated" version of world events; every incident receives the appropriate ideological treatment in the laboratories of the Department of Revolutionary Orientation (DOR).

Since the State, as has been said here, owns everything, in Cuba one lives in what has been called "double morality". This means that you think one thing and say another or nothing at all, because a clash of opinions may, for common people, result in difficulties at work, problems with the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CFR) and the loss of the mediocre tranquillity in your life.. "I do things my way. I don't get involved in politics. I have enough problems trying to get food. I am quiet, at home, seeing everything, but silent". Pedro Aguirre, guard at a warehouse, 29.



The darkest zone of this trap at the end of the century is that which should have been drawn by the future. People have lost their faith. But they have lost it while working, serving guard duty, chanting slogans in support of a project which has now removed the ladder and left them hanging from the paintbrush.

It is known that one can live 20 days without food, but not a single one without faith. Cuba has begun to return to God. To several gods. The Catholic Church and the Afrocuban religions are those which have received the greatest number of believers in the past five years. There is a wait of several months long to baptize a child. Sects such as the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Rosicrucians grow, spiritualist centers overflow, in the same way as the nuclei of Bahai's and other denominations from India and Ceylon.

People look for individual solutions because they do not see a way out for society. The only escape comes through the 20,000 visas granted yearly by the United States, or from religious faith, which allows people to see somewhat beyond present-day problems. A present, reached from a past which many would rather not remember, and where the future is only a black hole, or a blurred and ambiguous landscape.


Forty years are but a brief and diffuse time in the history of a nation. More than three generations of Cubans have been born in this time. From the dreams of human redemption sung by the bearded victors of 1959 and which- if they did not shake the whole world, at least were transmitted to millions of humans- nothing, not even ashes or dust, remains.

Trapped in their contradictions, in a limitless Utopia, delirious and mindless, the largest of the Antilles arrives at the end of the Millennium shoeless, homeless, dressed in rags and with a bellyful of great hunger. Little is left of the real socialism which, only ten years ago, still boasted about development, the future, quality of life and other such rhetorical concepts.

What is left is the daily nightmare of children, women, men and senior citizens, all trapped, with no link to an universe which is more and more unreachable for all of us who live in this Island. All ways seem to be closed. And the skies of our motherland are not brightened by the dose of rationality and sanity which could be expected from a ruling team who knows, better than anyone, the terrifying crisis they face and in which they are sinking, and dragging with them the Island, from one end to the other.

Forty years after, Cuba- fragmented, broken, lonely and going from one nightmare to another- can only wait for a miracle, and not precisely one of the Spring, even though miracles have lost all their prestige in this day and age, particularly in the fields of History, Politics and Social Sciences.

Havana, December, 1998.


Note 1: A dollar is equivalent to 21 Cuban Pesos. Note 2: The average salary in Cuba is 210 pesos a month.



Distribution of food and other products under the Rationing Card {libreta de racionamiento} in Havana:



Monthly, per person:


6 pounds of rice

3 pounds of brown sugar

3 pounds of refined sugar

20 ounces of beans (green peas or lentils)

12 ounces of coffee

Half a liter of oil (every two or three months)

10 ounces of salt

One quarter pound of ground beef/soy mixture

Half a pound of mortadella (every two months)

1 pound of fish

6 eggs

1 bar of laundry soap (every two months)

1 bar of bath soap (every two months)

1, 80-gram, loaf of soft bread, (daily)

1 tube of toothpaste (every two months for three people)



Distribution of food and other products under the Rationing Card {libreta de racionamiento} in the provinces:



Monthly, per person:


5 pounds of rice

3 pounds of brown sugar

3 pounds of refined sugar

16 ounces of beans (green peas or lentils)

4 ounces of coffee

Half a liter of oil (twice a year)

6 ounces of salt

One quarter pound of ground beef/soy mixture or of luncheon meat

8 eggs a month


2 pound of fish (every two months)


2 bar of laundry soap (every three months)


2 bar of bath soap (every three months)

1,60-gram, loaf of soft bread, (daily, in the capitals of provinces and municipalities)

1 tube of toothpaste (every two months for three people)





Raul Rivero was born in Moron, Cuba in 1947. He is one of the founders of Caimán Barbudo magazine, served as personal secretary to Nicolás Guillén (the official poet laureate of Cuba); was Moscow correspondent for Prensa Latina news agency; received the Cuban National Poetry Award, and was one of the signers of the protest document titled the Carta-Ruptura de los Diez, in 1991. In 1995, he founded the independent press agency Cuba Press, which he still directs. He also serves as correspondent for El Nuevo Herald of Miami, and as the Cuba-based editor for Carta de Cuba magazine, of which he was one of the first collaborators. Mr. Rivero has been elected regional vice president of the Committee on Freedom of the Press of the Interamerican Press Society; was awarded the 1997 prize from the France Foundations and Reportieres Sans Frontieres; is the author of the book of poems Firmado en La Habana (published in France by Maspero Publishing in 1998), and collaborates with Radio Martí, CubaNet, Ediciones Cibi and Cuba Free Press. The author has suffered arrests and acts of rejection, and has not been allowed to travel to Paris to receive his prize, nor to accept invitations from other capitals in Europe and America.

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