Letter: Cuban embargo punishes the poor
Having just returned from a people-to-people tour of Cuba, I heartily concur with James Carroll's comments in his Feb. 4 op-ed column.
One aspect that Mr. Carroll does not touch on is that Cuba is becoming a two-tiered economy of haves and have-nots: those with access to "Cuban Convertible (from/to US dollars) Currency," known as CUCs, and those only earning lower value pesos. Cuban-Americans send dollars to their friends and relatives on the island: over $2.6 billion in 2012. Moreover, Cuban-Americans travelling to the island in large numbers bring coveted items such as TVs, microwave ovens, mobile phones, and computers, possibly in such quantities as to equal in value the dollar remittances. Others with access to CUCs are those owning or employed in facets of the tourist industry, such as tour companies, hotels, and restaurants.
The "haves" are those with access to CUCs: Cubans lucky enough to have generous relatives abroad or who are employed in the tourist industry. These are doing reasonably well economically; they can shop at the CUCs-only stores that carry "luxury" items, which in addition to such things as TVs, carry house paint and building materials, enabling them to renovate and maintain their houses.
The vast majority of other Cubans however, such as the large numbers of government employees, can only earn the regular low-value Cuban pesos and are the most disadvantaged by the embargo. These "have-nots" lead quite impoverished lives with little hope for the future. The most visible difference is seen in the housing: nicely renovated and maintained buildings exist side by side with dilapidated ones, some falling apart, yet still lived in.
The economic division is also partially a racial one. Well-to-do businessmen and professionals of the pre-Castro era were generally light-skinned, for there was considerable discrimination against the descendants of black slaves. Since most of those who left the island were the wealthier Cubans, it is their light-skinned relatives and friends that stayed behind who now benefit from the largesse of Cuban-Americans.
The Cuban government recently enunciated the policy that the two currencies be merged. It is not clear how that will be accomplished and what the consequences will be. One can only hope that it is accompanied on the part of the US by ending the embargo.
ELSKE V. P. SMITH
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