Foreign funds pour in but ordinary Cubans are held back

Fidel Castro, the Marxist-­Leninist revolutionary leader who symbolises Cuba’s decades of defiance in the face of a neighbouring superpower, famously once said he found capitalism repugnant, filthy, gross and ­alienating, the cause of “war, hypocrisy and competition”.

If the quotation betrays little scope for middle ground, Fidel’s younger brother Raul, who succeeded him in 2008 as the president of the Caribbean’s largest island, seems determined to find some on behalf of a younger generation restless for progress.

Ernesto Nunez* is one of Cuba’s impatient ones. He longs, with important reservations, for the changes rapprochement with the United States and the reforms of Raul Castro promise to deliver.

But he says the culture of red tape and all the inefficiencies of 57 years of Communism are stubborn obstacles.

Mr Nunez, in his late 20s, collects a basic monthly salary of little more than 20 pesos (Dh3). As a tourist guide, he can boost this meagre sum with tips averaging 200 pesos.

His wife, Ramona, a highly qualified civil servant, earns only 39 pesos a month. They pay no rent on their state-provided apartment in the capital, Havana, and their joint income provides for a reasonably comfortable but far-from-luxurious lifestyle.

“I have a fridge, TV, video player and washing machine, but no freezer,” Mr Nunez says. “I enjoy social media on the internet but it costs too much for a Cuban – 2 or 3 pesos an hour depending where you have access – to use very often.”

Supermarket shopping is prohibitively expensive more than once a month and there is a continuing shortage of basic products in cheaper stores. When taking groups of foreign tourists around the island, Mr Nunez makes a point of helping himself to toilet rolls and bathroom products from hotel rooms, so scarce are they.

Many Cubans top up their earnings with money sent from relatives who have settled in the US, home to more than 1.1 million people of Cuban origin, immigration from the island having begun on a large scale after the Castro revolution toppled the Batista regime in 1958.

Mr Nunez wishes to rely on no one and harbours an ambition to run his own company. But he suspects Cuba remains some way from creating an open enough business climate to encourage him to take the plunge.

“Foreign investment seems to be pouring into the country while Cubans themselves are held back by restrictions,” he says.

“Things will improve and I’d love to launch Ernesto Nunez Tours, but the frustration of bur­eau­cracy and uneven competition with state-owned businesses make it impossible for me at present.

“Foreigners don’t have the same problems and there are more and more 51-49 per cent partnerships in favour of the state. For Cubans, it’s a little like a boxing bout where only one of the fighters turns up, so the other loses by default.”

Mr Nunez also longs to travel, especially to Italy, France and the UK. Overseas travel for Cubans has become easier to arrange but the cost is beyond most budgets.

So are good, reliable, modern cars. A legacy of Soviet-style rule is that each neighbourhood still has a “committee for the defence of the revolution” (CDR) with a representative keeping a watchful eye on residents.

When Mr Nunez briefly had the use of a gleaming new BMW, hired by a holidaymaker who wanted to be driven around the island, his CDR delegate demanded to know how he had acquired such an expensive vehicle.

“I think we are struggling to find our way forward as a country,” Mr Nunez says. “It is no longer communism and it’s certainly not yet capitalism, but we don’t quite know what our third way will be.

“Like most younger Cubans, I welcome the changes. And I hope most would also agree with my view that our country must fight to keep its own character,” he says.

“I do not want to wake up one morning and find a huge McDonald’s sign in Revolution Square.”

* Names and personal details have been altered by request.

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