At first, the second phrase in Santiago’s slogan — hospitalaria hoy — doesn’t seem to fit into a discussion on Cuban politics.
Yet as we discover more and more of Cuba’s skewed, seemingly backwards economy, it becomes clear that Communism isn’t always to blame, but rather an ‘ism’ that we are actually much more familiar with: tourism.
Let me explain: one of the assumptions that people have about Cuba, which has turned out to be very true according to nearly every Cuban we’ve spoken to on the subject, is that professionals will often quit their jobs in order to find better-paying work in the tourist industry. We’ve read about multiple casas where both the husband and wife are doctors, yet their main source of income is the rooms that they rent out to travelers. We made friends with a young woman who had greatly enjoyed her brief teaching career, but had switched to cleaning rooms at a hostel because it paid better. This seems to be the one grievance that Cubans are pretty unanimous about.
Yolis and I had some good conversations about teaching (her favourite unit to teach was ‘marxismo-leninismo’!), though she now works at a hostel for better pay. Her husband, Felix, took us to a friend’s place for some of the freshest lobster we could ever taste!
So who or what is to blame for this ‘brain drain’ of talented individuals from necessary professions to seemingly mundane jobs? Communism is the quick answer, but I strongly believe it’s not the right one. Tourism is a real industry in Cuba, on which entire cities and sub-industries can be built. There’s money in tourism, and public sector jobs like medicine and education are going to struggle to compete, regardless of whether it’s a communist dictatorship or a socialist democracy.
It’s hard to fathom this, coming from a place like Manitoba (where our biggest effort in the realm of tourism is putting the word ‘friendly’ on our license plates), but it makes a little more sense if we substitute a different money-maker into the equation. When I was teaching in Gillam, for instance, it was a real challenge to get students to see value in post-secondary education when Manitoba Hydro was right there, offering them very well-paying jobs straight out of high school. Though cleaning rooms in a hostel seems much more servile than working as an electrician for Hydro, the principle is the same: teaching, nursing, and doctor(ing?) don’t actually generate any new wealth, therefore industries like hydro (in Manitoba) or tourism (in Cuba) are always going to be luring people away. This isn’t to condemn these industries — they bring much-needed capital to their respective communities, after all — but rather to make sure we’re pointing fingers in the right direction.
Casas particulares (‘private houses’, which makes more sense when contrasted with nearly every other business in Cuba, which are public) have become an insanely popular way for Cubans to make some extra money. While they are technically a capitalist business venture, Castro and Marx can still approve of them because the means of production (i.e.: the bedrooms and kitchen) are still owned by the workers, thus avoiding a bourgeois-proletariat relationship. Ulises, our Sierra Maestras casa owner is a great example of this system’s success.
(Of course, saying that a profession like medicine doesn’t generate new wealth is only true in countries with public health care. In an unfortunately-not-so-hypothetical developed country where health care is still private, doctors would never leave the profession because they can charge whatever they want for their services. But then, that’s the reason this whole Communism thing has been so tempting for so many countries in the first place, isn’t it? 😉 )
The challenge, then, is for the governments of these countries to invest money in the professions where talented people are needed. The Canadian government, for instance, pays its doctors much more than it otherwise would in order to keep them from disappearing to the States where they could make more. Likewise, the Cuban government needs to start paying its doctors/nurses/social workers/teachers more than it otherwise would in order to keep them from disappearing to the tourist industry where they could make more. The problem is not one of ideology, but rather of maintaining the delicate balance between industry (where money is made) and public services (where money is used to create healthy and just societies).
This point was made abundantly clear to us during a conversation with a Cuban shop owner. “I make more money selling trinkets to tourists in one week than a doctor makes in a month. That’s not right!” To which we nodded in agreement.
Then she continued: “In Canada, you could just open your own private clinic and charge whatever you want.” To which we emphatically shook our heads in disagreement.
“No,” said Sara, “the government pays doctors more, but it’s still a public system, so it’s free.”
The lady paused in confusion. “But…Canada is a developed country, isn’t it? Like the United States?”
“Public health care is part of being a developed country,” we explained. “The United States is developed in some ways, but many of its people can’t even afford things like healthy childbirth or necessary surgeries.”
The conversation meandered in other directions after that, but it was good for all three of us to see and deconstruct this spectrum that many perceive to be true: communist Cuba at one end, capitalist America at the other, and progress moving definitively in the direction of the latter. Especially as walls are brought down between these two neighbouring nations, it is essential that Cuba see this spectrum for what it is: a myth.
Lemons into lemonade: because of America’s embargo against Cuba, the only American cars in the country are from the 1950s). Not only have they, through sheer ingenuity, kept these cars running for over half a century, they’ve turned them into a major tourist attraction. Thanks, Yeridan, for hooking us up!