Arriving at the Present Moment

This post is an edited transcript of an interview with Lilia Nunez Moreno conducted by Cray Novick in Havana, Cuba January 2018. Translated from Spanish by Luca Higonnet Faithful. Edited by Cray Novick and Lilia Nunez Moreno.

Lilia Nuñez Moreno, Cred: Cray Novick

Biography

You can’t understand a society completely unless you first understand how it arrived at the present moment, and that is what is in Cuba today

If I had to describe Cuba to someone who has never been, I would tell them that Cuba is not only a beautiful place, also a beautiful society. It’s a very unique place, having gotten where it is today through a process of drastic and contradictory transformations. This process has sparked both worry and intrigue for those who pay attention.

Students I work with have always been very impressed and interested in Cuban history. Cuba has gone through many changes, there was a Cuba before 1959 and a Cuba after 1959, and also a Cuba before and after the 1990s. These transformations cannot be fully understood without understanding how our society formed before them and how the results are still impacting Cuba today.

Still from RE-EVOLUTION Episode 1

Many people think of two separate Cubas, before and after the revolution. Before the revolution, the economy was shaped by a system where wealth was distributed unequally. Now, more or less, people are economically unified. This change was clearly marked in 1959 after the triumph of the revolution when the socialist reform took shape. A series of policies were instituted that changed the structure of Cuban life and initiated a process of social de-stratification, making wealth more equally balanced in the population. The extreme social inequalities that existed before the revolution were eliminated.

Castro (far left), Che Guevara (center), and other leading revolutionaries marching through the streets in protest at the La Coubre explosion, 5 March 1960. Credit: Wikipedia.

For me, the most important part of improving at photography has been sharing it. Sign up for an Exposure account, or post regularly to Tumblr, or both. Tell people you’re trying to get better at photography. Talk about it. When you talk about it, other people get excited about it. They’ll come on photo walks with you. They’ll pose for portraits. They’ll buy your prints, zines, whatever.

The social composition of a place can serve an indicator of the types of relationships that make up that society. By eliminating large private property owners and private businesses, you transition to a society where the entire population is on a level playing field. That type of change in structure also signals a qualitative change in the relationships between people, business, and national identity.

After the revolution, new social policies expanded equality to where it didn’t exist previously. Before the revolution, the wealthiest people, those with the best living conditions, education and health had an advantage over the rest of society. The core principles of a socialist society are equality and social justice regardless of race, sex and other identities. These principles guided all social policies those first few years after the revolution.

These policies also had some negative effects. Creating absolute equality leads to a decrease in production. The difference between maximum salary and a minimum wage for the majority of workers in the state sector was 4 pesos, so even if you were a higher ranking official you wouldn’t have a much bigger salary. Previously, the elite class had been the front runners of the consumer society until the redistribution of national resources created more equality. The lack of higher wages made it harder for people to get ahead economically since, in the end, we would all practically have the same amount of money. Equal redistribution was reinforced regardless of the place where we worked or the work we did.

 

The start of the 1990s marked the beginning of the Special Period in Cuba. The Special Period was an economic crisis brought on by external factors such as the fall of the Socialist Bloc. Cuba had been benefiting from favorable economic relations with other socialist countries, especially the Soviet Union. The crisis occurred when the United States enforced the trade and travel embargo with Cuba.

Of course, there were internal factors that lead to the crisis as well. In 1986, an analysis was done of the socialist system which revealed many inefficiencies, mistakes, and difficulties in Cuba’s social composition. At this time, the economy began to transition to a similar but more informal economic structure to deal with the social troubles. On one hand, Cuban companies provided formal work for citizens. However, the salaries were so low that workers had to fill shortages in their salary with work in the black market.

This underground economy provided a way to generate income, and this system has continued to develop to the present day. The two economies grew alongside each other in different ways. There were people who could claim to only do work in the state sector but nevertheless did other jobs on the black market. That underground economy put them in a higher social position.

Still from RE-EVOLUTION Episode 1

The Special Period also caused a series of economic reforms inside the state. New policies were passed in an attempt to mitigate the crisis and handle the economic situation. This type of economic readjustment is very unique to Cuba compared to other countries of Latin America. We felt these changes in every aspect of life, including everyday customs and traditions.

Restructuring the role of state power caught many Cubans by surprise, and no one knew how to react. Until the 1990s, the state had provided the Cuban population with absolutely everything. When the crisis occurred, the state did not have the resources to maintain that level of control.

Since then, Cubans have undergone unbelievable adaptations to survive in the face of great challenges and prosper when it seems unthinkable. There were many different strategies to survive the crisis, from reselling products given to citizens in the state socialist package, to more rebellious strategies. For example, emigration became very popular during the time, as did marrying foreigners to gain more economic freedom and opportunity.

Still from RE-EVOLUTION Episode 1

Prostitution also developed as a means for economic gain, and it had one of the biggest impacts on Cuban society after being harshly punished after the revolution. It was a strategy many families used that took different forms. Some people would do it to earn an income, others would use it to access higher class lifestyles with foreigners and go to places where most young Cubans couldn’t go. People would dress up and go to nightclubs to interact with people in different classes. It was a way to experience another side of life.

The reforms of the 1990s focused fundamentally on the legalization of currency that hadn’t previously existed. It also marked the beginning of private business development with certain limitations. This created a process of social re-stratification that was necessary for facing the crises but also caused social inequality to expand. The reforms were only meant to be in place for a limited time to supplant the government deficits, but the policies were extended. Although the economy began to bounce back, the global economic crisis of 2009 created difficult economic conditions in Cuba yet again. In 2011, the government began to discuss updating its socialist model to eliminate problems with social and economic development. These new measures were much broader and more radical, covering legal fields as well as employment.

Horse transport in Cuba. Taken in 1994 near Varadero. Credit: Wikipedia.

These policies are different from those instituted in the 1990s. There had never been a really broad change to the way the Revolutionary government worked until that point. Though these policies made the process of working in private business more consistent, they have also made it so today’s society is vastly different from Cuban society in the 1990s, and people are astonished by the level of social inequality. There are considerable class differences in terms of economic stability that have existed since the Special Period. We say that this is a period of tension, as we try to find a way to balance the equality of a socialist model and inequality of the need for private business. It is all about the tension between equality and inequality.

Secretary of State John Kerry, and other dignitaries watch as U.S. Marines raise the U.S. flag over the newly reopened embassy in Havana. Cuba and U.S. officially restored diplomatic relations July 20, 2015, as part of efforts to normalize ties between the former Cold War foes. (Martinez Monsivais/AP)

In 2015, there was a reinstatement of relations between the United States and Cuba, leading to the re-negotiation of our relationship with the European Union. From here, a new era will emerge. It is still too early to predict how this new stage will be defined since there have been no official policy changes yet, but based on what has happened, one could foresee that it’s going to be a period where inequalities will grow. With all due respect to the United States, what has been proposed will benefit, above all, those in the private sector who already control more of society than all other segments.

In 2016, the Congress of the Communist Party passed measures that could deepen social inequities if they are not taken into account like they were at the beginning of the Cuban Revolution. The Cubans did a good job handling inequalities at the beginning of the Revolution, and we learned that the government can make those costs less considerable. We believe that they could carry out similarly successful policies based on that experience. If the suggestions proposed by social scientists are applied, the essence of socialism won’t be lost.

Social science is challenging, it’s difficult to make a social policy strategy that correlates with economic policy changes. One problem that specialists point out is that there has been no correspondence between economic and social policy. Social policies have been prioritized thus far, but eventually, there will come a time when those social policies cannot be maintained, especially if officials consider past mistakes and the need for more democratic participation.

Democracy is not only necessary in mobilizing, but it’s also something many Cuban people want, including diverse social groups that play important roles in shaping society. I think it would be a challenge, but I believe these reforms could be carried out.

Tourism was an important part of the 1990s reforms. Cuba was mainly devoted to the production of sugarcane until the fall of the Socialist Bloc, when its economic strategy shifted and started to focus more on tourism, biotechnology, and extraction of oil. This allowed us to enter the international economy. From an economic point of view, the effects of tourism were positive as they brought in important foreign capital, but there were also negative elements. As I mentioned, prostitution, growth of the drug market, and that level of inequality persisted. People assume that the increase of tourism means that the re-establishment of relations with the U.S. is going well, but the increase is not because of the Americans coming here, it’s because of people from other parts of the world want to see how Cuba is doing before re-establishing relations.

Despite changes in policy, strong relations between the U.S. and Cuba will always continue to exist. Many Cuban families have relatives who live in the United States. Cuban cultural influences have always existed because of how many Cubans there are in the United States. The relationship will broaden now, and become more intense. Many of my foreign friends tell me that they want to come to Cuba before this relationship begins to affect Cuba in a more visible way. It’s curiosity, that’s why Cuban tourism is so popular right now. People want to come now because they won’t want to see it after the influence of the United States becomes more noticeable. They think Cuba will lose its unique identity, the authenticity that it has maintained.

Tourism is obviously important, as it is economically beneficial. However, we have to make sure this invasion doesn’t crush or eliminate our identity or nationality. I think this will be difficult, but some institutions do really focus on maintaining the essence of Cuban-ness. We have to make sure to incorporate the Cuban identity so it won’t be lost. Many artists focus on maintaining our uniqueness, as it distinguishes us. Many people have preconceived notions about Cuba, and some artists try to gain attention by focusing their work on what they think foreigners or tourists like about it. Many tourists, though, come here to enjoy a more authentic Cuban cultural experience. It will always be a mixture, but I think the Cuban-ness will always shine through.

Still from RE-EVOLUTION Episode 1

There have been many changes over the past few years. For example, the state sector has shrunk. They decided it would be more efficient to remove workers from the state sector whose jobs weren’t necessary. There are public and private economic sectors, and now a cooperative sector that is starting to develop that was not previously been approved by the Cuban government. Although the economy is still not working as well as it could be, these businesses are still managing to develop. It’s a positive change because they’re collective, they’re not as focused on the individual as private businesses are.

Hopefully, the cooperative sector can work to complement the state sector. It’s obvious that the state sector needs this support, and needs to function cooperatively with these new forms of business, both co-op and private. They need to work together to gain foreign capital because that income is necessary for investing in programs to help development on the island.

The private sector is more diverse now than ever before. I think the government needs a plan to control these new, developing markets so that they don’t exist independently and we don’t run into the same problems that happened in the 1990s when separate sectors were not interrelated. I think it would be best to focus on local development and allow these different systems to combine.

The difference in socioeconomic status was most clearly marked by access to foreign currency. Receiving remittances from family overseas created a considerable difference in wealth. Eventually, currency exchange centers were built where, in theory, all Cubans have access to foreign currency. You can go in with Cuban Pesos and convert them to CUCs (Cuban Convertible Pesos) which are similar to dollars. But it’s not the same as receiving remittances. When you get a dollar, that means you have 24 Cuban Pesos, it’s not the same as needing to make 24 Cuban Pesos to get a CUC. Although technically everyone has access to foreign capital, the differences in the amount of access are staggering between different parts of society.

Still from RE-EVOLUTION Episode 1

The amount of foreign money Cubans receive from friends or family has always been based on race. Less so now, but it’s still true. White people were the ones who were able to leave because of their higher economic status, and they receive much more money from relatives overseas since more of their relatives live abroad than those of Afro-Cuban decent. It’s a historic problem. In theory, we have equal access, but we are unequal in terms of ability to access that currency.

What is the Cuban dream? I think we need to study that deeply. There are diverse dreams.

Some Cubans dream of the potential for change in Cuban society, an equal society, a just society, a society that allows for development, both economically and intellectually, a society that allows for spiritual and intellectual liberty.

There are other Cubans who follow the American Dream. Though those people have always existed, I think there are more now than ever. People who dream of another lifestyle. I think the people who have emigrated, based on conversations I’ve had, would want to come back to Cuba if they had the possibility to improve their lifestyle here.

There is no one dream, it is heterogeneous. No two people want exactly the same thing. The majority hope for a safe society, a relaxed society where they can have access to basic necessities and basic rights. They also have other aspirations, but I think overall the people hope for better conditions in Cuba.

Join the conversation with #CubaDreams and follow along to create and uncover more threads of a story we are creating together.

Related Posts