Letter from Cuba

Letter from Cuba

After working as a journalist in Vietnam for two years, the author made her first trip to Cuba in January 2000. She described her impressions to colleagues and friends in the following letter.—Eds.



Of course I had heard how repressive Fidel Castro’s regime is, and we all know how badly central planning works. Yet I was amazed at how poorly things seem to be going in Cuba and how unreconstructed the country still is. In terms of economic reform it lags fifteen years behind China and probably five years behind Vietnam. For example, agricultural reform seems to have begun in Cuba only after the collapse of the former Soviet Union, and the country set up a central bank just a few years ago; Vietnam launched its version of perestroika, Doi Moi, in the mid-1980s and set up the State Bank of Vietnam in the early 1990s.

The closed nature of the economy is evident in the lack of business activity on the streets; it is very rare to find anyone even selling food from carts. I think Cuba is the first developing country I have ever been to where no one sells juice or fruit from a stand—let alone a substantial meal such as pho, the delicious noodle soup with chicken or beef sold all over Vietnam. Local taxis drivers commented that it was illegal for them to carry us (I was traveling with Sheri Prasso, an American journalist who’s lived in Cambodia) because Cubans need a license to do private business with tourists. The drivers were afraid of getting caught and having to pay a fine. Licensing charges in the tourist industry are very high; to drive a taxi or rent rooms to foreigners, you must pay U.S. $200 to $250 a month in taxes–even if you don’t have any business that month. Many people are afraid to risk setting up businesses and, as you can imagine, they are furious about the limitation.

Technically, Cuba has no shortages. There’s lots of stuff to buy but only in the dollar shops or on the black market where fuel is available. Many Cubans seem to live off remittances from relatives in the United States. (we were told that U.S. $50 a month was adequate) or from dollars they get working in the tourist business. People who can’t get dollars are pretty much screwed because the government-provided rations are tiny. We went to a state-run bakery and looked at some customers’ ration books while they were waiting for bread. People are allocated a small amount of bread every day; some rice, eggs, and meat each month; children get milk until the age of seven. Yet it was clear from the books that some goods, such as tomato paste, are simply not available in the ration system and have not been for months. The state employees at the bakery had set up a private business and were selling cut flowers outside, presumably to supplement their salaries.

I went to some of the downtown department stores in Havana, and there was little to buy: some old-fashio...