So we’ve all heard the phrase “less than a dollar a day”, something that is said to (rightly) portray poverty in a lot of countries. Cuba though is another case entirely. Cuba often gets portrayed as a country where most of the people live in poverty, but in an officially socialist state, does this tell the whole story?
Whether you agree with Cuba’s system of government, or not, there are a few facts that can be agreed on. Firstly, housing tends not to be a huge issue, and there are basically no rents to pay. Secondly, Cuba’s healthcare system is not only free at the point of delivery, but also extremely good. Lastly, all Cubans are guaranteed a job and a wage by the state. But what does the said job pay?
Going into how and what Cubans get paid could be a blog post all to itself, but for all intents, they earn between 750 – 1250 CUP (Cuban Peso) per month, or at black market exchange rates $30-50 a month. Thus at the lower end a dollar a day. But again, to add some context to this, along with free childcare, education, and medical care, things such as public buses cost as little as 0.5 peso, or $0.02.
On a side note, I am not Cuban, so my accommodation has to be paid for, BUT for $20 a night I basically have my own apartment, were I staying long term it would be possible to bargain this down to a few hundred dollars a month.So with this in mind, and my everlasting Pioneer Spirit, I have decided to lead the next 3 days on a daily budget of CUP 25, or $1 a day, to see what it is really like. To keep things interesting as well I won’t be cooking, and all meals will have to be taken outside.
Day 1 Las Tunas City, Las Tunas Province
I start in Las Tunas, my home for the next 3 days, a notorious backwater of Cuba despite its provincial capital status. It is also notoriously one of the poorest regions of Cuba and thus should have more Cuban Peso dining options than more metropolitan places such as Havana, or Veradero. Day 1 is a little bit of a cheat for me, as I already have a $1.30 pack of cigarettes (yes my smokes are included in $ a day), so that won’t be an issue for the day.
Not being a great one for breakfast, and being more thirsty than hungry I have taken a slightly cop out option for breakfast, by opting for 2 glasses of “jugo naturale”, natural fruit juice. Tamarind, and a mango juice. Really good, and frankly amazing for CUP 2 ($0.08) each.
Lunch made me realize that my Spanish maybe wasn’t as good as I thought it was; “pan con pasta” wasn’t bread with pasta, but bread with paste. I am not sure what was in the paste, but it wasn’t good. Cost was only CUP 3, and with a lemonade type juice cost CUP 5 ($0.20). If I’m honest, this was not enjoyable, but bread paste and a drink were at least enough to keep the wolves from the door.
Having got to 7 pm on 3 drinks and vomit-like paste with bread I decided to throw caution to the wind and visit the classy looking peso restaurant on the way back to my casa and get the spaghetti napolitana and Fruit bombassa (sic). The pasta was essentially spaghetti with tomato puree, but the VERY liberal amount of cheese it came with made it all worthwhile. The juice was amazing and even had flakes of ice in it, and as if they knew what I was doing (or maybe I just looked fat and dehydrated) they gave me a free glass of water. At CUP 18 ($0.72) I had slightly shot my budget, but I have to say it was a pretty damned good meal.
Total budget – $1
Total spent – $1.08
To be honest, I am not a massive foodie, particularly when I travel alone, so for me it provided a sufficient amount of sustenance to get me through the day, with the last restaurant bordering on fine dining. The challenge will be trying to mix it up over the next few days. What upset me more than the food (which didn’t really bother me) was the lack of delicious (and cheap) local drinks, such as fruit juices or $1.00 Mojitos at will, although it did teach me a stark lesson in the difference in lifestyle for those that have and don’t have $’s.
After eating next to nothing, and more importantly having drunk nothing, breakfast on day 2 was going to have to be somewhat more substantial than a glass of juice, so I headed to the main square to see what the action was looking like. Since the economic reforms by Raul Castro, a number of self-employed professions are now legal, including street food vendors. If only I spoke more Spanish…
Being an Englishman a classic breakfast is a cup of tea and a cigarette, and after exhausting my supply yesterday I was now forced to get a pack of “popular”; these are what the regular fold here smoke and come out at .40 cents dollars (I paid in hard currency), this will leave me with much less than I would have liked for food, but luckily the disgusting cigarillo type taste to them should aid me in smoking less.
After searching for anything completely cheap and vaguely edible, I have today gone for a lemonade type juice for CUP 2, to wash down the cigarettes, and I’m now 4/10 through my budget and I have yet to eat a thing.
With CUP 15 to last me the rest of the day I was determined to find something cheap and filling for around the 5 peso mark, which in Cuba usually means pizza, something that is available everywhere here, and yet I had yet to purchase as part of the challenge. Five peso for a fairly large slice of cheese pizza, a great success! And CUP 10 left over for dinner, what more could I want?
Well who knew? Saturday night in Las Tunas is frankly mental, around the parks there are at least 5 different sound systems hooked up and thus 5 different alfresco discos, and not only this, but there are also outside restaurants and more importantly food carts set up. Dinner a pork meat bun for CUP 5, fatty bready, and very very satisfying.
10 for the cigarettes, 2 for the breakfast juice, 5 for the pizza, and boom! 5 for dinner. Exactly 22 spend for the day, or CUP 49 for 2 days, $1.96. Way within budget.
Well the intensely bad cigarettes have at least had the effect of making me smoke less, so budget wise I at least still have smokes, and thus CUP 25 to go wild with.
Breakfast, and lunch
I’m nothing if not friendly, and having befriended a Cuban family when the offer for lunch came, I was not going to say no. I was picked up around midday before heading over to their house. Rice, salad and a meat stew (that Las Tunas is allegedly famous for). Being home cooked it was, without doubt, the best meal I have had so far, and I still have my full budget left for the rest of the day.
Not eating and drinking instead is not a sign of poverty, it is just smart, so now with my locals friends (with local knowledge) I now try and go for the elusive peso bar. Cuba might now be full of stylish dollar bars, but before the invention of the dollar bar Cubans were getting drunk in draft beer joints where the glasses of the good stuff cost a fraction of what we spend on water in the west, and with only the mildest chance of dysentery, I was up for the challenge. We managed to find one where small glasses of draft cost 3 peso each, or about $0.12!
In conclusion, my 3 days on a dollar a day really put into perspective what Cubans are provided by state, and just how much what you earn is related to what things actually cost in the real world, PPP, purchasing power parity. I’d much rather be a Cuban on $30 a month, than living in London on $500. But money is still money, and the differences between the have and have-nots when it comes to dollars is stark, with a decent night out in a dollar bar and restaurant easily setting you back a month’s salary at least.