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OPINION | The real Cuba is a land of extreme deprivation

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I’VE been to Cuba twice with my church, which has been organizing trips for almost 20 years. It’s astonishing some people still cling to a romanticized version of Cuban life under communism. It bears no resemblance to reality.

On these visits, in 2006 and 2007, my fellow travelers and I brought two suitcases, one for our clothes and another for the things we gave away to Cuban churches and our translators. We loaded up on basic medications, especially prenatal vitamins and children’s Tylenol, which Cuban children would otherwise go without.

We bought dozens of pairs of inexpensive reading glasses — the kind Americans can find at the pharmacy for a couple of dollars. Older Cubans sometimes cried when I gave them these glasses, which restored their ability to read.

I can’t say I conducted a study of the Cuban health-care system, but I’ll go out on limb and suggest that people who don’t have children’s Tylenol and cheap reading glasses probably aren’t getting world-class medical care.

Another striking feature of Cuba is the pervasive idleness. Everywhere you look, people are standing around. They aren’t working, because they get paid almost nothing. The old Soviet joke “They pretend to pay us and we pretend to work” sums it up. Most people have informal jobs to supplement their incomes, but this is still strictly limited by the government and thus kept underground.

Cuba is famous for the 1950s cars still on the road, but few Cubans can afford them. On our trips from Havana to Pinar del Rio in Chinesemade minivans, the highways were virtually empty except for the people waiting near overpasses hoping to catch a ride on a flatbed truck. A ticket for a two-hour bus ride is well beyond the means of a typical Cuban. Even the buildings a few blocks from the seat of government in Havana are crumbling. It’s obvious to a visitor that Cubans live in abject poverty.

And none of this is a secret. A quick Google search reveals the average income in Cuba is $25 to $30 a month. Based on my observations and conversations with our translators, there are three classes of people in Cuba. The governmental elite live in gated communities and enjoy what Americans would regard as middle-class living standards. The average person who relies on his own income lives in desperate Third World conditions. In between are people with generous relatives in the U.S. They have more disposable income, but their living conditions are comparable to those of the poorest Americans.

Income inequality is so extreme that Cuba has two currencies, one for tourists and senior government officials — and one for everyone else. Ordinary Cubans use the national peso, valued at 25 to the U.S. dollar. Tourists and the elite use the convertible peso, which converts one-to one with the dollar (after surcharges to the Cuban government). A soft drink or ice cream costs in convertible pesos what it would cost in small-town America. Given the average wage in Cuba, a trip to the equivalent of a 7-Eleven is a luxury most people can’t afford.

A group from my church returned from Cuba a couple of months ago. Little has changed. We’re still bringing the same basic necessities, and circumstances are still desperate. Conditions in Cuba may be deteriorating further thanks to the collapse of Venezuela, itself a socialist basket case where people are starving and go without basic medicine. Cuba used to receive oil and cash from Venezuela in exchange for what amounts to slave labor performed by Cuban physicians. But those flows have slowed.

One surprise was how many people in Cuba were openly critical of the government. Cuba is not as totalitarian as it was in the early days after the revolution, when the government sent critics of the regime (as well as pastors, priests, artists and others) to labor camps. Exercising basic political rights will get you thrown in prison, but the government has lost the will to punish people merely for complaining. It seems almost everyone in Cuba gets the joke. If only American professors, college students and politicians did.

Here’s a proposal for a government program that would almost certainly pay for itself many times over: free trips to Cuba (and perhaps Venezuela and other socialist paradises), so Americans can see the sobering truth with their own eyes.

Visitors from the U.S. will find that the people of Cuba are warm and friendly, despite their bleak circumstances. Almost all of them would open their homes to a stranger and offer a cup of coffee. Our translators were some of the loveliest people I have ever met. They deserve better. So do future generations of Americans.

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