We sit on the patio outside the hotel lobby and drink illicit pina coladas. Illicit because Raul is not a guest at the hotel and is technically not allowed on the grounds without purchasing a day pass which he could never afford. I didn’t get him one because he can’t take a day off from his school and work and is coming to see me for a couple of hours in the evening.
He’s lost a lot of weight since we met two years ago, and doesn’t want his picture taken.
“Why?” I ask.
He’s uncomfortable at the question, but answers in halting English.
‘Because when I go fishing the water is very cold’ he says. ‘And sometimes I don’t have time for lunch, only breakfast and dinner.’
My brother and I met Raul on the beach where tourists are taken to go snorkeling at the coral reef in 2007. He was selling shell necklaces to supplement his meager income and he spoke some English that he learned from a book a tourist left behind. My brother fell to talking with him and invited him to come back to our hotel so he could pick up a shirt that my brother promised to give him. When we exit the hotel lobby he is waiting for us perched on the concrete railing looking distinctly shy. He’s brought a canvas bag as a present for us in exchange for the shirt. Galvanized into action my mother who has a heart of gold and endless generosity stuffs his bag with all the items we can possibly leave behind – sandals, toiletries, clothes, hats and such small items that we always leave behind for the staff.
Several drinks later we learn a little bit about him, he lives with his father and extended family in Cardenas – a small city close to Varadero. He goes to school to learn English to he can work with the tourists. He wanted to get a sociology degree but working with tourists will enable him to survive whereas the government salary will not. When he’s not in school he fishes for the simple reasons of needing to eat. Every day he fishes from about six am to sometime in the afternoon, and goes to school four days a week. He can’t skip a day or the fish will drown, or someone else will empty the traps. His catch feeds his family, neighbors, friends and any excess sold to pay for the basics of life which there are never enough of.
If he’s very lucky, after he’s done two more years of school he can get a job at the airport or hotel. He doesn’t understand why he earns his money in pesos but has to pay for everything in tourist dollars. For that matter neither do I. The prices of goods are about the same – an ice cream on the side of the road costs 1.00 CUC, soap costs about 2.00 CUC and a pair of shoes 40.00 CUC. For people that earn 15-20 CUC per month the cost of living far outpaces their ability to pay.
‘When I moved here to go to high school’ he tells me, ‘I could not afford shoes. I was very lucky when a cousin went to Miami, as he left me all his shirts and shoes’.
I have nothing to say to that. I’ve known poverty when we first immigrated to Canada with nothing but four suitcases, but it was a genteel poverty compared to his. I’ve never gone without shoes or not had enough food to eat. Yet this is his daily life and the daily life of all the citizens of that mismanaged and beleaguered island. With very little private enterprise and oppressive and constant governmental control citizens must do what they can to survive, be it engage in black markets or try to engage tourists to spare a buck to complement their income.
Since we met we’ve corresponded with Raul several times, with a few letters and parcels going missing. The first thing he asked for as we told him we’re sending him gifts? An English Spanish dictionary. Now that I see how much weight he’s lost and how hard he works I wish I feel a deep sense of injustice. It is not lack of willingness to work or a lack of opportunities that keeps him struggling to live, but a government that is totalitarian and obsolete and rules all areas of life including food production that accounts for the horrific shortages Cubans experience daily.
We sip drinks on the patio until the guard approaches and tells him he has to leave.
I walk him to the bus bound for his hometown, hug him goodbye and tell him we will help however we can, and that I hope there are major changes in Cuba soon.