Bureaucracy: A Week of Enduring the Cuban System

04/07/2011 12:25 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2011
  • The Morningside Post TMP is the student-run news and opinion site for Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs

This post was written by Christopher Reeve

The customs officer at Havana's Jose Marti International Airport weighed my bags and asked me about their contents. He didn't need to ask. All of the Miami Cubans on my flight brought the same items: food and medicine in one bag, and clothes and hygienic products in another. This is what the Cuban government allows.

Because basic goods of any quality are difficult to find in Cuba, it isn't enough to bring money to family members. You have to carry the actual goods.

I told the man what I was bringing. He then asked me what I had paid for the "gifts." After I told him, he wrote the number on a piece of paper, and sent me to a cashier who added a third of that figure to the amount. She then asked that I pay her the new figure--cash only.

Welcome to Cuba.

After eight years and new U.S. legislation allowing me to visit my family, I was back on the island of my father's birth.

I hadn't planned on going to Cuba, but went to accompany my cousin who was visiting her sick grandmother.

By the end of our trip, I concluded that the Cuban system made life unnecessarily difficult.

Why did it take two hours to find fish in a coastal neighborhood? Why did it take another two hours to change money at a bank? Why couldn't we find fruit at the market? Why did arranging transportation take days? Why did the most mundane of tasks require going from place to place and person to person, and waiting in numerous lines?

Very few people have phones, fewer have computers, and only a handful have "intranet," which allows for emailing only through the state-run account of the computer's owner. Internet is available in tourist spots for about $12 an hour, the equivalent of a Cuban professional's monthly wages, effectively keeping Cubans from accessing it.

To make calls, I had to use a neighbor's phone. When she overheard my difficulty arranging transportation, she smiled at me, threw her arms in the air, and proclaimed, "Cuba is socialist!"

Throughout my trip, I thought of her words frequently.

Near the center of Havana, I asked two actors about their government.

"This is shit, buddy," one replied in Spanish.

I would also recall his words throughout my trip.

I told them about a play I saw my first time on the island. An actor in the play referred to Cubans as butterflies with no wings, saying they spend their lives getting educated, but can never leave the island to see the world for themselves.

I asked my new friends if any of their work criticized the system. "Are you crazy?" the second actor responded. "That would be my last act. You wouldn't see me again."

We spoke about the role of a free press.

The second actor acknowledged that the media's role is to challenge government and corporate actions (one in the same in Cuba), so Cuba's media--an extension of the regime--is worthless. He looked down as he spoke and appeared embarrassed by his summation.

I told them that I thought it a contradiction to educate a population on the one hand, and deny them the ability to communicate with the world and access information via the internet on the other. They nodded in silence.

We talked about Cuba's ludicrous dual currency system. One currency, the Cuban peso, is the currency used to pay employees. The other currency, the "convertible" peso, is tied to the U.S. dollar and was created in response to remittances from Miami. Cubans receiving U.S. dollars buy convertible pesos for a fee. Those pesos can then be used to purchase higher quality goods only sold in that currency.

Cubans with no access to dollars are left wanting, since buying a convertible peso costs 25 Cuban pesos.

The irony here is that Cubans whose families defected get to live more comfortably than Cubans whose families remained loyal to the revolution and stayed.

"This is shit, buddy," the first actor repeated.

Throughout my trip, I noticed that most cigarette smokers smoked a harsh filterless cigarette. I told them that I was surprised that a government that touts its medical accomplishments would permit the sale of such cigarettes that must certainly result in costly health care for aging smokers. Everyone admitted to knowing the dangers.

My aunt said it didn't matter. When given a cigarette with a filter, she breaks off the filter before smoking. I couldn't help but think that this mentality was telling of Cuban society. Generally, if people have hopes and dreams and believe that the future will be bright, they tend to care for their health. They don't tear filters off cigarettes before smoking them.

A government employee tried to charge me five convertible pesos to enter the Colon Cemetery to lay flowers on my grandfather's grave. "I don't make the rules. I just follow them," the woman said.

I thought this was the epitome of the system's insensitivity and greed. But it got worse.

About two hours before my flight to Miami was scheduled to depart, I was told that I had the wrong visa and would not be permitted to leave Cuba.

I spent the next two hours trying to find someone to help me resolve the issue (that I still don't comprehend since I've gone to Cuba with the same visa in the past).

I spoke with immigration officials, employees of the state-run travel agency dealing with the flights, and anyone else in the airport who would listen to me.

Those who didn't walk away while I was talking to them told me that there was nothing anyone could do.

I offered to pay for a new visa and any fine to get on my flight. Not possible, they said.

Knowing that my family would be waiting for me in Miami and that I still needed to get to New York, I desperately asked to be deported. Not possible, they repeated.

I was told that although my problem was common, there was no mechanism to solve it.

I heard the same response repeatedly: "I don't make the rules. I just follow them."

I would simply have to wait until the next day to go to the immigration office.

I left the airport, took a shared car to the Centro Habana neighborhood, and walked through its dark streets between the decaying buildings, remembering the words of my new friends: "Cuba is socialist!" and "This is shit, buddy." I walked along the famed malecon seawall until I reached my uncle's house.

Anger and uncertainty prevented me from sleeping that night.

The next morning, my uncle took me to the address an airport employee had given me the night before.

It was the wrong immigration office.

Meeting the requirements of the visa process meant spending hours driving around Havana on a scavenger hunt.

Back at the airport, I spent the day begging people to check if there were any seats available on any of the overbooked flights to Miami.

I learned that my frantic mother had not gone to work and was going to wait at Miami's airport until I arrived.

I was finally able to get on a flight, but only after paying more than $300, the fee the state-run agency charges for a seat on any airline.

I later found out that they had sold my seat from the night before as well.

These earnings plus the $46 for the visa process meant that keeping me from making my flight was excellent business for the Cuban government.

Now back in New York, I keep reminding myself to focus on the beautiful memories I made with my family while in Cuba, and not on the inefficiency, ineptitude, indifference, and hunger for money of the bureaucratic apparatus that is the Cuban government.