Thursday, August 29, 2013

Scenes from Havana and Viñales

 Ferry to Regla
 Fishing on the Malecón
 And relaxing on the Malecón

Classic old cars, of every style and color



Academic exchange and U.S.- Cuba relations

There is tremendous potential in academic and cultural exchange to aid in improving relations between the U.S. and Cuba. People to people exchange builds mutual understanding, breaks barriers of ignorance and fear, and builds trusting relationships between the people of differing cultures and nations. This potential, has been recognized by the U.S. and Cuban governments and scholarly communities alike, yet it is not embraced to the extent necessary to enact real change in this area. Acts such as travel bans and the freeze on academic travel to Cuba during as well as the denial of visas for Cuban scholars to attend the LASA annual conference, add further tension to the relationship between the two nations. Academic exchange activist and Professor at the University of Havana, Milagros Martinez Reinosa, commented to Granma newspaper in July 2013 that, "Although technological advances allow us to share research, ideas and theoretical debates in other ways, I believe that the intensity of face-to-face conversations, animated debates in workshops and on panels remain vital for our collective work”[1]. Throughout the many years of inertia with regard to US-Cuba relations, “it is scholars and scientists in the two countries who have maintained intellectual and academic relations” [2]. Although the political policies, economic sanctions, blockade and travel bans have made progress difficult if not impossible between the U.S. and Cuba, there is still hope for improvement in the form of academic and cultural exchange.

In 2011, after 8 years of travel ban, President Obama relaxed the travel restrictions for US citizens to Cuba and allowed for certain types of travel including academic, research and cultural ‘people-to-people’ visits. [3]

For those interested in learning more about legal travel to Cuba, the ‘Comprehensive Guidelines for License Applications for Travel-relatedTransactions Involving Cuba’ can be found at the U.S. Department of the Treasury website. [4]  

From my own experience on our academic exchange trip to Cuba, I know that I never would have begun to understand the reality of the Cuban situation without witnessing and experiencing Cuba first hand. From my short 2 week visit, I cannot say that I was able to comprehend all the complexities of Cuban reality, yet I am better equipped, with this first-hand experience, to understand Cuba, its people, culture and history, and the transformations the country is experiencing today and share those realities with others back home. Maybe more people will be able and interested enough to take their own cultural exchange visit to Cuba, and experience the amazement of the island for themselves.

[1] GONZÁLEZ DELGADO, DALIA. " - LASA: Cuba-United States Academic Forum." - LASA: Cuba-United States Academic Forum. Granma, 5 July 2013. Web. Aug. 2013.
[2] Alzugaray, Carlos, et al. "Retreat From Reason: U.S.-Cuban Academic Relations and the Bush Administration." The Latin America Working Group Education Fund (September 2006): Web. Jul 2013.[3] Martinez Reinosa, Milagros. "Cuba and the United States: New Opportunities for Academic Diplomacy." LASA Forum Spring XLII.2 (2011): 4-6. Web.[4] "COMPREHENSIVE GUIDELINES FOR LICENSE APPLICATIONS TO ENGAGE IN TRAVEL-RELATED TRANSACTIONS INVOLVING CUBA." OFFICE OF FOREIGN ASSETS CONTROL U.S. DEPARTMENT OF THE TREASURY, 10 May 2012. Web. Aug. 2013.

Todo aqui es de Fidel. Everything here belongs to Fidel.
My Brief Run-in with the Cuban Black Market

It was my second night in Cuba, and I had clearly been marked as a tourist.  I walked the Havana streets in jeans and a t-shirt, and I was of a blindingly white complexion.  A Cuban in his forties caught up to me, and, after welcoming me to his country, began a sales pitch. He "knew" the lady that ran the bed and breakfast where our group was staying. She was his sister. I later learned this was false, but he duped me at the time. His plea continued. He wanted to know if I wanted to buy something purely Cuban. Una cosa pura cubana. Slowly, and cautiously he looked around and reached into his breast pocket. His hand emerged with a plastic bag. I immediately became apprehensive before I realized the contents of the bag. He worked at one of the government owned tobacco factories in Havana where he rolled cigars. He had sneaked out a few. I had misheard him earlier, un puro cubano... he had said, a Cuban cigar.

I had dealt with peddlers before. I had haggled a few times, but something about this transaction still did not seem right. He was selling cigars, but he constantly glanced behind him, he spoke softly as to make sure no one we passed could hear, and he was pushing the cigars into my hand as if to get them out of his possession as quickly as possible. I told him that I could not take them, that they were his. His response floored me. No son mios, todo aqui es de Fidel! They are not mine, he said, everything here belongs to Fidel. I responded that I certainly did not want to buy them if they were Fidel's. His own paranoia became mine, and I wished I had just kept walking but I could not shake him. It was after all, a black market sale.

The Cuban black market is a means for survival. It is a bartering system that has allowed Cubans to obtain necessities, gifts, and other merchandise that could otherwise not be afforded on the minimal government salaries they receive. However, a Black Market is a somewhat over-ominous title given the goods that are traded and sold behind the government's back in Cuba. Guns and drugs, although possibly a small piece of the market, do not make up the majority of goods. In order to fuel the market Cubans search for items at their jobs to sneak out and resell. Goods could include nails, tools, milk, food, cement bags, and of course, cigars. Still, it remains illegal, and it is a growing testament to the financial insecurities felt by those living on government salaries.

The man that caught up to me on the street was simply working a second job. He was trading his stolen goods in order to afford goods that he and his family needed. It was a difficult plea to ignore. In a nation where todo es de Fidel, he was trying to scratch out something for himself.

Eating Out and the State in Cuba

Quite recently in Cuba, paladares, or privately-run restaurants running out of somebody's home, became legal business operations.  They existed before, but as shadows, and not officially.  I ate at some of these restaurants while in Havana and was surprised by the variety.  There were paladares with merely two tables, and ones that took up multiple rooms in houses and seemed comparable to the giant restaurants you can find in the U.S.  There were some where you could get an incredibly filling meal for less than I pay for small latte back home, yet we also visited a fancier paladar where the full meals ran $15-$25.

Other restaurants are run by the state, though they might not always seem it on the surface.  The state-run restaurants catering to tourists have different names, very different ambiances, and somewhat different menus.  The food was generally cheap and unseasoned, and depending on what you ordered the portions were usually either enough-to-be-satisfied or enough to take a little bit home.

If you've ever wondered what a "typical meal" would be like at a state-run restaurant in Cuba but haven't yet made it there for try one for yourself, you're in luck (and finally my annoying habit of sharing pictures of what I eat via social media can serve a higher purpose)!

A "typical" restaurant meal in Cuba, no matter what kind of establishment you ate at, would almost always include plain white rice, a salad largely based off of cabbage, and some type of meat or fish.  This one also included canned potatoes, green beans, and carrots, as well as fresh cucumber and tomatoes.  The canned vegetables are a subtle reminder that though Cuba is famous for its impressively quick adoption of urban gardens and organic agriculture (discussed in more detail elsewhere on this blog), it still imports around sixty percent of its food.

As possessor of the world's biggest sweet tooth, I got far too excited over the fact that when you order a "meal" rather than a sandwich at this restaurant, it automatically comes with dessert (as all meals should).  Though the merits of Cuba's policies about food and degree of retention of state ownership in businesses are debated on the international stage, inclusion of dessert with meals is one policy that this state-run establishment should never change!

PALMA Project: International Development among the Transition

Why I am interested in the project?
I learned about the project from the lecture we had in the UNDP-Cuba office and was amazed by UNDP’s participation in Cuba’s development. Interested in the way such an international development project is conducted in a country like Cuba where the state and the communist culture prevail everywhere in their daily life, I chose this as the topic of my research to study the dynamics behind the project and the experiences provided by its success.

Introduction of the Project
Programa de Apoyo Locala la Modernización Agropecuaria en Cuba (PALMA), or “Program of Local Support to the Modernization of the Agriculture Sector in Cuba” is a five year project implemented by United Nations Development Program to increase agriculture productivity and to reduce the country’s dependence on imported food through material delivery and capacity building. PALMA receives funding from the European Union through two EU initiatives: Food Facility (11.7 million Euro) and the Food Security Thematic Program (4.4 million Euro) (PALMA, 2009). In 2012, Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) also became a funding source with a maximum contribution of 1.2 million USD. The project began in July 2009 and the project is expected to be completed in December, 2014. In the Cuba side, the Ministry of Foreign Trade represents the country and the Ministry of Agriculture is responsible for the execution of the program. Until now, more than 13,200 new farmers and 366 cooperatives in five provinces of Cuba have received agricultural equipment and inputs. The percentage of basic food production increase ranged from 25% to 80%.

Backgrounds of the Project
PALMA was designed to be situated in the two national strategies of the Cuba government: decentralization of agriculture production and local management of agricultural development at municipal levels. From the lecture in Cuba, we were also informed of the practices of UNDP in the capacity building of local governments, which turned out to be going together with PALMA’s effort in improving local officers’ management and decision-making level. The other interesting point of the project is EU’s funding and the triangle relation between EU, UNDP and Cuba in the project. In 2010, EU passes the first country strategy paper for Cuba and put “food security” as one of the three priorities in the country paper. The relative flexible condition of the aid to some extent reflects EU’s attitude towards Cuba, which is different from U.S. or China but more similar to Canada.

Design and Implementation
UNDP adopted the approach of “bottom-up” to precede the project. Given the high education level of Cuban farmers and the technical knowledge accumulated in the cooperative network. The ground provided many resources for the project to utilize and this is also the unique characteristics of development project in Cuba. Another interesting combination is between the Cuban “solidarity” sprit and the “learning by doing” philosophy of the project. In our visit to Cuba, “solidarity” was emphasized by many people from different classes and the community relation based on traditional social capital still bound people closely in most area of the island.
In addition to the adaptability of the project, participation of beneficiaries and the intention to develop sustainability also guarantee the success of the project.

Apart from the development management methods used in the project, the most intriguing feature of this project is the dynamics between international players and Cuban government in the tide of economic reform. Choosing food security as the focus is a smart way to avoid political disputes and it addressed a compelling problem of the country, which increases the Cuba government’s acceptance of the project. To go further, success of the project to some extent helps justify the authority of the regime even though the money comes from capitalist countries. As the second largest project conducted by UNDP in Cuba, PALMA’s success may provide a model for future development project in this country. It does not mean the model should be copied completely, but as the PALMA itself, the mindset to find a position in the power dynamics and to take advantage of local development policies are the principal guarantee of a success. 

Havana view

Executive Board of the United Nations Development Programme and of the United Nations opulation Fund (2013). Draft Country Program Document for Cuba(2014-2018). United Nationas.
Holm, W., & Ag., P. (2011). Walking the walk: Cuba's path to a more cooperative and sustainable economy.
PALMA (2009). Programa De Apoyo Local a la Modernizacion Agropecuaria en Cuba (PALMA). Havana: UNDP.
UNDP Cuba (2010). Buletin Information of UNDP Cuba. Havana: UNDP Cuba.
UNDP (2012). Hacia la seguridad alimentaria desde el desarrollo humano local. UNDP.

Things you can learn well walking in Old Havana

Instead of talking about the research I did on Cuba, I thought I’d take this opportunity to be a little abstract and talk a little bit about doing research in Cuba.  To me one of the great benefits of study abroad programs is the ability to gain firsthand knowledge of a place from the people that are around you when you are there. I think this is especially true in our trip to Cuba.

Not to take away from the classroom experience, because I did learn a lot from our guest lecturers, but I think I learned a lot as well about Cuba and it’s economy in the two weeks that we were there from talking to people on the street and at restaurants etc. then I think I could have learned if I would have spent a semester reading about Cuba in academic journals from a library in the U.S.

Here’s one example. It was midafternoon in old Havana and myself and another student were walking down a side street when we came across of all things a pub. Being curious we stopped on in. The place was empty besides the three people that were working there. We sat down ordered something to eat and drink and started talking. Over the next few hours we filled out page after page in our notebooks, here is a sample of some of the questions we asked:

What did you do before you started working here?
Waiter’s answer: I was a professor of computer science.
Why did you leave your job as a professor?
Waiter’s answer: I didn’t really like it… and because I can make just as much money or more here.
Keep in mind the pub was completely empty the 2-3 hours we were there, with the only other person to come in was the shopkeeper from next door, who had come in to make change in peso for a CUC and get the numbers for the Florida lottery.
How does the self-employment tax work?
Answer: 10% of salary a month for contracted workers but you are contracted to one type of job and to one employer or 60 pesos a mouth for basic service jobs but you can change jobs and quit whenever you want... But it’s easier to find work if you’re a contracted worker.
What would you get paid if you worked for the state in these types of jobs?
Answer: About 365 pesos a month. Which is around $15 to $20.
How did the owner of the pub get the money to buy the place?
Answer: He loaned money from his family in Florida about 4 years ago.
What do you think about Granma?
Bartender’s answer: It’s great for knowing when they are going to start working on the water pipes under the street. It’s no good at telling you when the work is going to be done though.

Many more questions were asked and many more answers were given, and our understanding of some of the details how the Cuban economy worked and how people worked within it became more and more clear.  A 5 CUC tip were given by both of us. It seemed like everyday we were in Cuba conversations like this happened, with our Cuban professors, with each other and also with average people you meet along the way. I went to Cuba with a very basic understanding of how the country’s economy worked and to be honest with some pretty strong preconceived notions in my head but by the time I left I had a better understanding of the country but still a large amount of questions. This leads me to the topic of my research; one of the things that I think all of us found apparent was that Cuba’s dual currency monetary policy was causing a many externalities in the country’s macro-economy, one of which is a growing amount of inequality throughout the country. For a country like Cuba that fought a revolution, with one of the stated goals of ending inequality, this seems to be a paradoxical situation.

So the focus of my research was around why did Cuba introduce the CUC in the first place and what benefits has it gained from it? To make a very long paper short, the CUC was introduced in 2004 to help de-dollarize the Cuban economy after it had started to stabilized partially due to the reforms of the special period. At which point the Cuba economy started to grow and the authorities were reluctant undergo monetary change when experiencing high rates of growth for the first time in a decade. Then the financial crisis occurred and trade, liquidity and revenue decrease causing further unwillingness to move away from the dual monetary system. It is my opinion that now that economic conditions have once again stabilized it is time for the Cuban authorities to undergo exchange rate reform to bring the two currencies together if not unify them. If you would like to read more on this topic, below is a list of basic articles that I found helpful.

Being in Cuba changed, but also at the same time validated, many of the abstract concepts that I have learned over the course of my academic career. I still have many questions that have yet to be answered, but I think I gain a large body of knowledge over very short period of time by being there. One thing I am sure of though is the true benefit of gaining firsthand knowledge of a subject in which you wish to study, even from chatty well-educated waiters and bartenders on a slow day in old Havana.

  1. Hernández-Catá, Ernesto. "Macroeconomic Effects of Exchange Rate and Price Distortions. The Cuban Case." Association for the Study of Cuban Economics; Cuba in Transition 21 (2011).
  2. Di Bella, Gabriel, and Andy Wolfe. "A Primer on Currency Unification and Exchange Rate Policy in Cuba: Lessons from Exchange Rate Unification in Transition Economies." Association for the Study of Cuban Economics: Cuba in Transition 18 (2008);
  3. Canler, Ed. "Pesos, poverty, and perversions: What’s wrong with Cuba’s money and how to fix it." Association for the Study of Cuban Economics: Cuba in Transition 18 (2008): 31-36;
  4. Di Bella, Gabriel, and Andy Wolfe. "Cuba: Economic Growth and International Linkages—Challenges for Measurement and Vulnerabilities in a Bimonetary Economy." Association for the Study of Cuban Economics: Cuba in Transition 19 (2009): 354-367;
  5. Orro, Roberto. "The Cuban Dual Monetary System and Challenges Ahead." Association for the Study of Cuban Economics: Cuba in Transition 18 (2008): 5-7