“System D” in Old Havana

For all the fuss about Fidel Castro resigning his post as Cuba’s “president” in favor of his brother Raúl, it all signifies very little when it comes to the hard realities of everyday Cuban life. (Indeed, many outside observers are of the opinion that the switch means very little difference in who is running the state, but that’s another subject entirely – let’s see if I can manage to pass along some of that commentary.) The US embargo and restrictions on travel there make it difficult for American sources to gain much background on conditions on the island, but this is a journalistic gap that Europeans are able and willing to step in and fill. Éric Landal of Libération does that today with an article, Havana: Capital of System D, and sub-titled “Cuba. Despite derisory salaries, people try to provide for their needs.”

What’s “System D”? It’s nowhere explained in the article’s text, but that really isn’t necessary. Any Frenchman will recognize that “D” for “se débrouiller,” French for “making do.” At an average monthly wage of the equivalent of $15 for an office-worker ($45 for a hospital director; $50 for the head of state, Raúl, himself), and with widespread shortages, every Cuban has to engage in a continuing struggle to “make do.” Take Marina, for example, an IT engineer, in Cuba not the best career choice: “Here, you wake up rubbing your computer so that some genie will give you an Internet connection. . . . It’s having to buy the obligatory white socks for a school uniform when there are no more to be found. The explosion of divorces from three generations having to live under the same roof because of the housing shortage. The permanent resort to healing yourself even when Cuba produces the greatest number of doctors per-capita, but exports them to the world, etc.”

So how do people cope? As you would expect: Everyone has to turn to the “informal sector” to make ends meet, doing an odd-job here, engaging in some barter there, whatever it takes, and especially if it means getting hands on some precious hard currency. Fortunately, some $800 million to $1 million-worth of that arrives each year from Cubans living abroad, somehow making it through the web of restrictions the American authorities have in place to try to throttle that sort of thing. Also, Hugo Chavez now provides the country with the equivalent of $5 billion annually – about the same as the old Soviet Union subsidy used to total – in exchange for Cuban doctors and other service-providers coming to Venezuela. You could even say that Cuba finds itself in its “Venezuelan era” where for almost thirty years it enjoyed a “Soviet era” – while during the in-between interval, termed the “special period,” the national economy dipped so low that some people actually starved.

The upshot is that Cuba could never make it on its own as a viable economy if left only to what hard-currency-producing products as it can offer: nickel, tourism, medicines, rum, and cigars. (Strange that sugar did not figure on that list.) For all their bombast, Cuban leaders will always be hopelessly dependent on some foreign big brother willing to pay to support the Revolution – and even then adjustments to the prevailing socialist orthodoxy will be necessary to keep other flows of hard currency coming, such as “très chic” boutique Landal describes in the middle of Old Town Havana – for dogs! Clearly not meant for the locals, then. Or that persistent rumor that won’t go away: When Fidel finally goes, Ronald McDonald will arrive to set up shop on Havana’s Revolution Square.

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