Cuba: The Revolutionary Life

Twenty years after the Castro revolution, Cuba is a country of the young (65 percent of the population under 25), of hard work and meager material rewards. Conditions for the many have surely improved, and Fidel Castro’s charisma still holds strong sway. “He delivers had news— and everybody claps.”

Life in the revolution is strenuous and austere. Cuba today is a passionately work-centered society. The constitution of 1976 states the principle unequivocally: “Work in a socialist country is a right and a duty and a source of pride for every citizen.” Everybody works—even prisoners (usually employed in construction) and first-graders, who water flowers and feed fish. Half the University of Havana’s 145,000 students hold full-time jobs. Since Cuba has no mandatory retirement age, a lot of old people are employed in hotels and factories.

Castro frequently cites among the revolution’s accomplishments the disappearance of a “dead season,” when agricultural laborers were forced into idleness. Now, he says, “new work opportunities have sprung up everywhere.” To be sure, some of these jobs are obvious make-work. In the Hotel Havana Libre’s ladies’ room, one woman is occupied full time folding toilet paper. The dining room has so many waiters that one brings rolls and another butter. The building’s Otis elevators are automatic, but someone is always stationed there to press buttons and call out floors.

The official work week is five and a half days; Castro is promising that schools may soon be kept open all day Saturday, thereby promoting student progress and freeing mothers for longer hours on the job. For many citizens, Sunday is not a day of rest but a day of volunteer activity in construction or cleanup. Workers get a month’s paid vacation, which most elect to spend at Varadero beach or in Havana’s luary hotels. “All July and August,” a end told me, “the hotel elevators are full of couples clinging passionately to each other. Holiday’s the only privacy they get. Walk down the corridors at 2 P.M., you’ll hear radios playing ‘Besame mucho’ and see a DO NOT DISTURB sign on every door.”

Even this indulgence may be limited by revolutionary rigors. Castro announced that with the expansion of tourism, summer vacations for locals could be a thing of the past. Cubans, who love the heat, must resign themselves to the chillier waters of December, when hotels have more vacancies.

But they are used to sacrifice, accepting it with grace and a sense of high purpose. Since the revolution’s main thrust has gone into education and industrial development, consumer goods are scarce. Also, apart from the occasional Volvo or Fiat (probably a diplomat’s), what one sees on Havana streets is an extraordinary collection of lovingly polished antiques—pre-1959 U.S. cars constantly rebuilt because no new parts are available.

Tinned meat, frozen fish

Gas is severely rationed, as are most commodities: meat (3/4 lb. per person every nine days), coffee (1/2 oz. weekly), milk (scarce and expensive except for the very young and the very old). Many food items are simply not to be found. Even eating in hotels, I never saw a tomato in Havana, or an onion; peas were canned, fish (inexplicably, on this fishing island) usually frozen. Supermercados contain a bleak assortment of staples—rice, sugar, soda crackers, beans, bread, Russian or Bulgarian tinned meat, catsup, mustard. In December the only fresh produce seemed to be bananas and a root vegetable called malenga. Friends claim that at times the selection is better. Vodka and rum are abundant, but, beyond the minuscule weekly ration, expensive— about $17 a bottle. Most people eat better than the rationing suggests: children get free meals at school, workers can buy lunch (with meat) for 50¢. And restaurants are everywhere. Cubans have so little to spend money on that eating out is a common indulgence.

Not money, but goods

Clothing is costly, of poor quality, and, again, rationed—how tightly is suggested by an underground joke. Castro, the story goes, asks Sherlock Holmes to prove his powers. Holmes looks out the window. “That man,” he says, “has no underpants.” The man is brought in, stripped. Sure enough: no underpants. “How did you know?” Castro asks. “Simple,” says Holmes. “He had a handkerchief in his pocket.”

The joke here is that the annual clothing ration allows for only three major items of apparel. Since the man had a jacket, trousers, and a handkerchief, how could he possibly own anything else? Like all jokes about shortages (“Before the revolution, the poor hadn’t enough to eat. Now nobody has enough”), this one is unfair. The clothing allowance can, legitimately, be circumvented. Girls sew, exchange garments, collect a grandmother’s allotment, receive gifts from U.S. relatives, or buy extras on the “parallel market,” where scarce items can sometimes be had at high prices. And women still wear the miniskirt, a fashion hard on the typical Cuban figure but easy on yardage. A bride gets a special ration bonus (a nightgown, in addition to bedspread and sheets); so does a pregnant woman.

Cubans don’t care much about money. They don’t save. Banks pay no interest, the idea of money earning money being abhorrent in a communist country. What adds to the quality of life is not money but goods. An American friend, spotting a Cuban street photographer with an ancient daguerreotype camera, offered roughly twenty times the camera’s value and was turned down: “What good would the money do me if I can’t buy another camera?” Electrical appliances are hard to come by. A shipment of blenders or electric fans creates a mob scene in department stores. Radios, TVs, washing machines, refrigerators, are distributed through the trade unions on the basis of merit and need. (When I asked a Cuban friend if she found rationing difficult, she said, “In the U.S., you have a version of rationing based on money. If you can’t pay, you don’t get. Our system is fairer.”)

The available pleasures include cheap movies (often prints pirated from the United States); restaurants and nightclubs such as the Tropicana, still featuring a curious display of legs, breasts, and feathery costumes; ice cream parlors, inexpensive and often marvelous; and bookstores. Books in Cuba are handsomely produced and inexpensive, but the range is limited. I saw only one honest-to-goodness children’s book, but plenty of instructive little volumes about the revolution. History, mathematics, science, and engineering dominate the shelves. Havana’s largest bookstore, when I visited, had only two works in English: Castro’s History Will Absolve Me, his epic defense against a 1953 charge of sedition, and Education in Cuba, containing photographs with excerpts from Castro’s speeches.

Phonograph records are costly except at the special tourist-only stores, where they’re bought for pesos that have been purchased with hard currency. (These “diplomatic” stores, or “diplos,” located in hotels, provide Cubans with another source of scarce goods. Citizens can’t shop here, but visiting friends from the mainland can buy for them coffee, jam, rum at less than the outside price, and other goods—transistors, stereos, TVs—not available at any price outside.)


Housing remains in critically short supply. True, thousands of fine homes were abandoned when Castro’s enemies fled to the United States in 1969, and some have been converted into workers’ apartments where ragged laundry flaps on lines strung between Corinthian pillars. But the most spacious buildings have been converted into government offices, clinics, day nurseries, schools.

In 1971, faced with over half a million substandard shacks and slum dwellings, Castro launched the micro-brigade program, an arrangement whereby workers build their own homes while drawing their usual salary—or one even higher if they do highly skilled construction work. It operates this way: A sugar plant or a translation office decides to put up a block of thirty apartments. Thirty volunteers are called for. These workers will put in longer hours than usual—ten hours daily except for Sunday, a half holiday—for perhaps two years. The state provides materials and supervision. Meanwhile, back at the plant, fellow workers take over their responsibilities—the translator who used to do five pages a day undertakes to do seven. When the building is completed, a meeting of all the sponsoring company workers votes to allocate the apartments. One is always reserved for a refugee family—from Chile, say.

An entire new town has been created in this fashion: Alamar, a model community just outside Havana, which houses over 3000 workers. It has its own schools, day-care centers, theaters, polyclinics, stadiums, and department stores—even factories for furniture, clothing, toys. The plan aims at accommodating 130,000 by 1980. The goal is not likely to be reached, and in any case even this number of new units would be a drop in the Cuban bucket. Most young married couples expect to live with the bride’s parents, an arrangement which helps explain the popularity of posadas, inns where couples, married or unmarried, can rent a room by the hour. Two classes of posadas are available: moderately expensive ones which serve food and drink, and real cheapies.

A family with two children can hope for the kind of apartment to which a Cuban friend invited me: tiny living room with a refrigerator, chrome table, and four chairs; a curtained-off cooking space; a “patio,” roughly three feet by ten, for washing and hanging clothes; a bedroom just large enough to accommodate a chest of drawers, the marital bed, and, jammed against it, bunk beds for the two little girls. I asked my host whether, if he should have more children, the state would provide more room. The notion astonished him. Pinched living accommodations probably have a good deal to do with Cuba’s declining birth rate. No official family planning program is in effect. “For a couple to decide how many children they want is an elementary human right,” says the head of the Cuban Women’s Federation (FMC). But with contraceptives and early abortion freely available, an educated population increasingly chooses not to have more children than can be provided for conveniently.

M.D. shortage

Medicine in Cuba today is both less and more than before the revolution. Services have been vastly extended, and are free. “Before, people died in the streets if they couldn’t pay,” a taxi driver says. “Now everybody gets doctors, hospital, medicines.” Dentistry is generally agreed to be excellent. But a foreign diplomat tells me that medical facilities in outlying provinces are poor, and the level of competence decidedly lower than it was twenty years ago. When Castro reached Havana in 1959, he says, thousands of Cuba’s besttrained physicians fled to Miami, Atlanta, New York. Those who remained were mostly either very old, too old to face uprooting, or young and inexperienced.

Today most doctors are under thirty, trained very rapidly, and —because Cuba has for years been isolated—without the benefit of modern knowledge and technology. Medical education is comparable to what passed in U.S. or Canadian medical schools around 1960. Crucial equipment either doesn’t exist or has broken down and can’t be rehabilitated with the parts available. In radiology, for example, x-ray machines become inoperative or begin leaking radiation. Furthermore, medical personnel are not chosen, as they would be in most Western countries, on the basis of strict academic qualifications; attitude and character count heavily. So a team of medical students sent to Ontario, say, for hematology training, will include some members with the equivalent of an M.S. in microbiology and some with a sixth-grade education.

Christmas in July

The question of religion is not as simple as it appears. A casual traveler will see no sign of the country’s once active Catholicism or the scattering of Protestant sects which had some importance in pre-revolutionary Cuba— Baptists, Methodists, Jehovah’s Witnesses. In the capital city, come December, no jingle bells ring, no Santas stand on street corners, and no one invites you to give or to buy. Christmas was phased out gradually after Castro took power. First came the shortages— of toys, candies, rationed goods—then the transformation of greeting cards from Feliz Navidad to wishes for a hardworking socialist Christmas. Finally, in December 1969, Castro announced that, in view of the seasonal need for attention to a heavy sugar harvest, festivities would be postponed until the following July. Christmas has been neither restored nor officially mentioned since.

Walk the streets in Havana any Sunday and you’ll see no sign of churchgoing or prayer. Children fly homemade kites—long-tailed marvels of rag and feathers. Members of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR) busily rake garbage and wash down sidewalks. Women scrub clothes in the overgrown front yards of once grand villas whose paint is now peeling. Young men, bent over a 1954 Ford manual (in English), dismantle an ancient car. An ice cream truck clanks down the street, its raucous bell calling the faithful. As far as one can see, the pronouncement of one government official is true: “Our people do not care anymore for religion. We are materialist.”

A member of the diplomatic community tells me, however, that churches were full on Easter Sunday. And last December, the little village of El Rincon, site of a leper colony, became once more, as it was for centuries, the focus of a passionate religious pilgrimage. Thousands of Cubans crawled, on knees or stomachs, toward the shrine of St. Lazarus. Aged pilgrims walked barefoot the twenty-five kilometers from Havana. One young couple, parents of a leukemic child, beat themselves with thorny branches as they crept along the stony road, their child sweeping the ground before them. “Some people are not reasonable,” my taxi driver said when I asked him about this extraordinary display.

It is probably only the very old or the very desperate who are “unreasonable.” Young people—and Cuba is a young country, 65 percent of its population being under twenty-five—are products of the secular state. How should they care about priests and santos? “Religion is subtly but systematically discouraged in the schools,” an American resident says. “And of course the new apartments and TVs go to party members and loyal citizens.”

Art for whose sake?

How do the arts fare in a society where service to the state constitutes a prime goal? About as one would expect. Dance is flourishing and free—Alicia Alonso’s National Ballet is still one of the world’s great companies. Theater, like painting, is committed to social realism. When I asked a representative of the Ministry of Culture whether art as self-expression or beauty for its own sake was allowed in Cuba, she said, “But of course. We encourage the people to make their own dramas. In Escambray, now, peasant groups put on plays about community problems—a man dies and relatives fight over his possessions, or somebody moves to the city and has trouble adjusting—all problems of the new type of living. Selfexpression, certainly.”

Castro himself has been clearer on this matter. Asked recently whether literature must concern itself with revolutionary matters, he replied, “Artistic creativity is free as long as its content is not contrary to the revolution. For instance, a man wants to write a simple poem of affection for his aunt. Fine. Within the revolution, everything. Against it, nothing.” This augurs ill for literature.

Ultimately the graphic arts too are likely to suffer. When I visited the studio of Freméz, a lithographer with a European reputation, I was struck by the energy and skill of his work—and by its disappointingly narrow range. Fremez has two subjects—revolutionary heroes (Ché Guevara with beret and beard) and the corrupt decadence of the Western bourgeoisie. Dozens of drawings contrast imperialist-capitalist indulgence with Third World deprivation. A semi-naked tourist torso stretches across the page (bikini, sunglasses, bulging purse) while, naked in a corner, African children crouch, their bellies swollen by malnutrition. It’s strong stuff, this, and effective. But I find myself wondering what Fremez would do if his instinct for satire ever registered disturbing discrepancies in the new society. Will he, twenty years from now, be beating the same drum?

Head and hand together

The arts in Cuba are an instrument of revolution; education is the revolution, a transformation of daily life and the prospects of every Cuban. In Cuba today, no child under sixteen can hold a job of any sort. Every child is in school. There he works, not only at studies but at production for the state. The alliance of head and hand is central to Castro’s concept of education. “The person who does only manual work becomes brutalized; the person who does only intellectual work becomes deformed—and to a certain extent also brutalized.” At boarding schools in the country, from Monday to Saturday, junior high school students study, play, engage in various sports—and put in several hours daily in the citrus groves or tobacco fields, whatever needs doing. (Saturdays they leave, as Castro says, “to create a little nuisance at home.”) Tuition, books, meals, room, uniforms, are all free.

The area around Giron (beyond Varadero beach) has 125 such modern schools; more are planned. In Havana, the huge Lenin high school trains boys and girls gifted in math, engineering, and the sciences; as part of their work, students assemble batteries and radios for the state. These are the showplaces, impressive. But probably the truest image of Cuban education today is to be found, not on escorted visits to the latest secundaria, but in a typical city school operating under makeshift conditions. Renato Guitart is such a primary school in the heart of Havana; it’s located in what was once a large private house. Passing it one day, I heard shouts and laughter, saw red-and-white uniformed children running about the yard, and approached the supervising teacher. Might I see the school? Of course, of course.

By American standards, the physical plant is appallingly inadequate. The building appears to have been neither renovated nor well maintained over the past twenty years. Incongruous chandeliers illuminate dingy, crowded rooms; mantles support blackboards. The front porch has become a dining area. On the day I visited, children were served a lunch heavy on starch but more than ample: fried chicken, potatoes, rice, soda biscuits, butter, more rice (with milk and sugar) for dessert, a glass of milk. Workers in pre-revolutionary Cuba would seldom have seen that much food in a day. My guide, a darkskinned, warm-spirited young woman named Xiomara Jimenez, led me into the sixth-grade classroom where a literature lesson was in progress, its text an anthology containing selections adapted from the classics, bits of Jack London and Mark Twain, poems of the nineteenth-century Cuban independence fighter Martí, speeches of Ché, little essays on painting and music.

Drilling and dancing

Teaching methods in Cuba recall the style of North American classrooms some twenty-five years ago: rapid question and answer (“Who is the hero of the Odyssey?” and so on) down through the “thought questions”: “What is the character of Odysseus?” But if the style is old-fashioned, the response is fresh: enthusiastic, respectful, burning to achieve. (Cuban teachers speak of emulation, not competition.) At each new question, many hands rise, eagerly pumping. When, at lesson’s end, I presented my good wishes for peace and friendship between Cuba and my country, Canada, the class burst into song: “Todos los niños del mundo/Vamos un ruido hacer/Y en mil lenguas cantaremos/En paz queremos crecer!” (“All the world’s children will raise a great shout in a thousand tongues; we wish to grow in peace!”)

The school day is long—from 8:00 in the morning until 4:20 in the afternoon, with a break for lunch. Time is set aside in the late afternoon for music, painting, and dance. At Renato Guitart, where facilities are limited, dancing takes place in the small cleared area in front of the blackboard. The teacher cranks up an ancient phonograph, couples form and sway in a free imitation of American disco dances. When, at the end of the visit, my male companion swept up Xiomara for a little spin about the room, joy erupted. Everyone wanted to dance with the visitors, to be hugged and kissed. As we left, one of the children called down the corridor: “Greet your country for us!”

Women of the revolution

Women, unquestionably, are well ahead of any position they previously occupied in Cuban society. The revolution has its heroines: Tamara, Ché’s companion; Haidée, sister of Abel Santamaria, a leader in the Moncada assault. Both Santamarias were imprisoned. Jailers appeared before Haidée with a freshly bleeding human eye which they claimed was her brother’s, gouged out when he refused to give information about rebel forces. Unless she cooperated, the young woman was told, they would gouge out the other eye. Every Cuban schoolchild knows her reply: “If you tore out his eye and he still did not speak, do you think I will?”

The women of Cuba have fought alongside the men in every important sense, and their victories are considerable. Read the new Family Code, discussed and debated at local levels— trade unions, youth groups, the CDRs— before it became law: “Both husband and wife must care for the family they have created and each must cooperate with the other in the education, upbringing, and guidance of the children according to the principles of socialist morality. They must participate to the extent of their capacity or possibilities in the running of the home.” The language here is quiet; the message, in a traditionally macho society, astonishing. Castro doesn’t exaggerate when he says, “In regard to women, we’ve had a revolution within a revolution.”

Women have the same educational opportunities as men. They study architecture, engineering, agriculture, and law; of the country’s doctors, 52 percent are women. In the model community of Alamar, women hold top positions in dentistry, factory production, and construction. (They also mix cement and operate winches.) Though no women hold positions at the State Council or ministerial level, they constitute 22 percent of the National Assembly. In their personal lives, they enjoy freedom to have or not have children, to marry or not (no stigma is attached to unwed motherhood), and to divorce. A pregnant woman gets four and a half months of maternity leave with full pay. When her baby is three months old, she can arrange for day care and return to her old job; if she chooses to stay home with the child for as long as a year, the job is held open for her.

Not all women wish to take advantage of this freedom to work in what used to be a man’s world (30 percent of the working force consists of women, compared with 11 percent before 1959). For those who prefer a more traditional role, the powerful FMC works to elevate women’s dignity in their own eyes and in the eyes of society. Women who don’t care to learn tractor driving or the techniques for sex determination of chicks (both taught by the FMC) can learn sewing, knitting, embroidery, home decoration, and handicrafts. They can take basic gymnastics or civil defense training—learning, for example, how to evacuate neighborhoods and clear rubble. Most women belong to a local CDR or to the Combative Mothers for Education, a group charged with encouraging school attendance and punctuality.

Whatever changes have occurred in the practical and legal position of Cuban women, some fundamental changes in attitude are not likely to be completed within one generation. Aleida Legón of the FMC admits that older Cubans have difficulty taking women seriously as world-shakers rather than baby-and-tortilla-makers. So do some young Cubans. A twenty-six-year-old Havana University professor sighed heavily, talking of the Family Code: “We must try to enforce it, but I believe women are specially made for the home chores.” A young contributor to a child’s history of the revolution, As We See Moncada, observes casually, “There are not going to be any more illiterate people in Cuba, and men students are being educated to become leaders in the future.”

But Aleida Legón is surely right in feeling that time is on the side of the New Woman. This generation’s boys and girls work and study together. In day-care centers, boys play at cooking and girls play at carpentry. Junior high school students in the country plant trees, pick grapefruit, operate farm machinery, without regard to sex. “At school boys clean dormitories, serve in the dining room, do dishes,” Legon says. “Now maybe they go home and Grandmother says, Boys don’t do that. But the lesson is there, for the future.”

Looking forward

Cuba is an overwhelmingly futureoriented society. Americans find this hard to understand. “How does Castro do it?” a tourist asked me. “He delivers bad news—and everybody claps.” The reference was to the announcement that the coffee ration would have to be cut from 2 oz. to 1/2 oz. a week, and that rents must be raised. Fidel had promised only that “the coming years will be marked by effort and hard work,” and yes, everybody clapped. This generation of Cubans does not expect a chicken in every pot, let alone a car in every garage; what they confidently look forward to is an educated, industrialized, self-sufficient nation. When I asked a young Cuban if she wasn’t bothered by the daily struggles of shortages and transportation problems, she said, “We have the luck to live in a moment when we can be a decisive force in the future of our country. What you see as problems—those things are unimportant.”