“We have to forever erase the notion that Cuba is the only country in the world where it is not necessary to work,” said President Raúl Castro. My Cuban friends shrug and say: “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.”
Free health care and free education at every level, plus a daily basic food ration does mean you don’t see the abject poverty of some other Caribbean islands. But younger people are not so passionate about the Revolution, seeing the sheer waste and inefficiency of the socialist system. With a population of 11 million people, the state once employed more than 90 per cent of workers and Castro, who took over from his brother Fidel in 2008, has since backed off that threat of job cutbacks.
Life in Cuba is a rollercoaster of shortages and the occasional glut. In an island world-famous for sugar, shops can even run out of that. Socialism promises to supply every need, but the reality is that everyone needs to bend the rules to survive. “Socialism has two problems,” my taxi driver tells me. “Lunch and dinner.” No wonder half the population seems to live off the black market, while the other half depends on it. It is a can-do society where any problem can be “resolved” as they euphemistically put it. Living off your wits, beating a system that seems designed to grind you down, has become a matter of pride.
Despite the large billboards passionately proclaiming the glories of the Revolution – Socialismo o Muerte! – and the iconic image of Che in his beret ironically adorning every imaginable piece of the abundant tourist tat, Cuba is all about raw capitalism. Everything is for sale, from knock-off boxes of cigars and bottles of rum, to the bodies of women and men. When the average Cuban earns the equivalent of around $20 a month, the urge to do business is hard to resist.