La Lucha

La Lucha

An examination of the underground economy in Cuba

The underground is a good measure of the progress and the health of nations. When much is wrong, much needs to be hidden.

-Eric Schlosser, Reefer Madness

In my liberal suburban hometown outside of Boston, Massachusetts, Cuba makes for good cocktail conversation. The cited pros and cons of Fidel Castro’s forty-five-year-old revolution are always the same: on one side, every Cuban has health care, education, and food; on the other, Castro is an unsavory dictator, commanding absolute control, repressing freedoms, and imposing severe punishments for dissidence.

However, there is much more to life in Cuba than free doctors and prison sentences for a handful of dissidents. Karl Marx asserted that human happiness and spiritual well-being are largely determined by one’s daily economic activity. Therefore, according to the namesake of Cuba’s experiment, understanding the Cuban experience under Castro necessitates an understanding of Cubans’ relationship to their daily work and consumption. This essay aims to explore that relationship in and around Havana.All of the names in this essay have been changed to protect those willing to speak about their lives.

The Cuban language is one of the most difficult Spanish dialects for non-native speakers. People mumble; letters and sometimes syllables go unpronounced. Cuba has developed an extensive slang. One such cubanism is the use of the verb luchar. If you ask a Cuban how he is doing, he may say, Allí, luchando (there, fighting).

La lucha, or the fight, is the daily struggle to get by, to pass, to succeed. A man might use it to describe his trials to win over a woman or pass a class in school. More often, la lucha is used to describe economic struggle. The Cuban state, theoretically the only employer, pays an average salary of 260 pesos, about $10 a month. A highly skilled worker such as a doctor, engineer, or university professor can make about $24. The cost of living is much lower in Cuba than in the United States. All Cubans have access to free health care, education, and food rations. Nevertheless, the salaries do not satisfy many of the needs of average Cubans. The food rations typically last about half the month and include very little meat. Most Cubans buy many products that would seem to be out of reach of such a low salary. Many of the small houses Habaneros inhabit have paintings, tapestries, and wall hangings; they have color television sets, stereos, tapes, and CDs. Television is more expensive in Cuba than in the United States; sets often sell for more than $300.

Because of the mismatch between salaries and goods consumed, money is always tight. La lucha is the fight to put food on the table, to have money for beer, to be able to go out on the weekend. The idea of “fighting” for these things connotes a degree of necessity in obtaining the des...