Your Camera – My Meal


Sure, there are government-subsidized food rations in Cuba. They provide citizens with a pre-determined amount of beans, rice, sugar, salt, and sometimes – if you’re lucky – a few eggs. Two words: “woefully inadequate.” Three more words coming at you: “exploding crime rate.”

Need bath soap? Not a problem. It’s readily available at many shops and gas stations. Expect to pay about .80 cents for a bar. Not bad, eh? Think again. Those .80 cents are in Cuban Convertible Pesos (CUC) – Fidel Castro’s homemade dollar, which is pegged evenly (minus the sizable tax taken out when you make an exchange) with American cash. At about 25 CUC to the U.S. dollar, that .80 cent bar of soap costs the average Cuban worker with no access to cold, hard U.S. cash, about 20 Cuban pesos. Want to know how much your average Cuban worker brings home every month in the Caribbean’s very own Stalinist paradise? Come on, take a guess . . . Let me help you out here: 375 Cuban pesos ($15 USD). That one bar of bath soap costs our friendly Cuban worker just over five percent of his monthly income. Now, let’s make this all relative. Let’s say the current average salary in the U.S. for an individual in their mid to late twenties is about $38,000 per annum. That bar of soap would cost your average American “Joe” upwards of $160. Ahem, that’s a bit steep. More than that, the situation in Cuba is, in a word, “untenable.”

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Ahh, the “chavito.”

Havana being the island’s largest city, heart of the Cuban “government” and a mecca for foreign tourists, is perhaps the most straight-forward poster child for Cuba’s unnecessary economic woes. On average, over a million ignorant tourists visit the island every year. Cuba’s capitol city is a gold mine for local residents trapped in an economic system devised in part – to ensure failure. Want to control a population so as to maintain your Herculean grip on power (I’m speaking to all our future dictators here)? Ensure that your population can never achieve any measure of economic prosperity and institute a system of rationing coupled with substandard – but still state-offered – healthcare and education. Now you control everything. Even better, you maintain the perception – among millions of ignorant foreigners – that you are in fact, a “benevolent leader.”

Remember those million+ fanny-pack-wearing tourists who visit Cuba every year? Four more words here: “Food on the table.” Over the past five years, as Cuba’s economic situation has continuously worsened as a result of a two-tier monetary system, crime has visibly increased. Most common are petty offenses – the theft of a camera or a gold chain. Those who are the victims of these crimes return home with the viewpoint that “those Cubans” are just a bunch of derelict third-world criminals. Nothing could be further from the truth. We have no choice, my friends. No choice but to swipe those fancy cameras you use to photograph the Stalinist squalor in which we are trapped indefinitely. No choice but to make off with those shiny gold chains you deem fit to show off while strolling past the swanky hotels which we are forbidden to enter. That Canon Sure-Shot you’ve got there . . . I can make off with it on Galiano Street in Old Havana and hawk it to another unsuspecting tourist for a cool hundred bucks. That’s 2,500 Cuban pesos, amigo – six-and-a-half months salary. I need to eat, you need to photograph my misery and you’ve got the key to the food pantry. Enough said?

10 thoughts on “Your Camera – My Meal”

  1. How did you come up with 500 pesos average salary?
    I would think the figure is lower than that, something in the low 300s, maybe even less.

  2. That was the most common response I received when questioning a wide variety of workers – from doctors to university professors. Certainly, there are plenty of folks making much less than that.


  3. Perhaps when the island opens up, Cubans just might be MAKING those Canons, Nikons, Olympus and Fuji Cameras. Stranger things have happened. -S-

  4. Exactly, that’s why I don’t think it is the average salary. Doctors are the best-paid workers in Cuba. When I left Cuba in 2000 salaries for jobs such as driver and secretary were from 128 to 153 a month. My father works as an engineer in a factory, he has management responsibilities as a sub-director and his salary at the time was 355. Even my boss who was the director of an industry at the province level was making less than 400. I know salaries have “improved” a little bit in Cuba, but I don’t think 500 is average. We are being generous with the regime by putting the average salary so high :). Anyway, great article, I always enjoy articles that expose how “affordable” is to live in Cuba for the average citizen.

  5. CubaWatch,

    RG is right. Pegging the average montly wage for all Cubans at 500 pesos is too high. A doctor with about 10 years experience earns approximately 550 pesos per month. A specialist with over 30 years experience, and with additional dutites as a medical school lecturer earns approximately 700 pesos a month.

    An A/C technician with less than 5 years experience earns approximately 300 pesos per month.

    This is far from a valid statistical survery, but it should give you some idea. Your numbers (and mine) are heavily weighted in favor of doctors and other professionals who earn at the top of the range of the pay structure. Most Cubans are not doctor or even skilled A/C techs. I have to think the “average” wage is closer to 300 pesos.

  6. RG and LittleGator,

    Indeed you are both correct. The $500 peso average is for more skilled workers – doctors, etc. Given the fact that I’m currently looking at some information citing the average secretary’s wage to be about 300 Cuban pesos, I’m more inclined to peg the average – if we want to get a bit more detailed – at around 350-375. This translates to roughly $14-$15 USD and is more in line, considering.

    Cheers and thanks for caring,


  7. There you go again! Besmirching kuba’s socialist economy. You forget that a family of four sharing one bedroom pays very little rent, electricity is nicely subsidized when available, and education is free for deserving pioneers. And don’t you dare to forget the most excellent free healthcare!

    So by my calculation, that bar of soap does NOT cost $160 equivalent dollars, that is just ridiculous. The equivalent real cost is less than $60.

    Errors like these make you loose all credibility.

  8. cheomedalla,

    Your arguments concerning rent and free education are quite irrelevant. What little wages Cuban workers earn simply do not cover their cost of living – no matter how many government subsidized “perks” they receive. You forget that I have experienced this first hand. It isn’t as if I’m some sort of armchair quarterback pontificating from high atop a mountain. The CUC’s (convertible peso) simultaneous existence with the near worthless Cuban peso has created a widening rift between those who are able to obtain what’s necessary to properly feed a family, and those who cannot. I would refer you to an earlier post I made titled “A Frank Conversation Concerning Cuban Healthcare” where I relay one doctor’s story concerning the pitiful wages paid by the state. In “Nestor’s” case, he – a medical doctor – has been forced to bet on squash games in a bid to earn enough to feed his family.

    Your arguments unfortunately belie the fact that you most likely have never lived on the island, as a Cuban (NOT A FOREIGNER). Your calculations and arguments speak of exactly that which I am not: an armchair quarterback or “backseat driver” if you will. This is a very black and white issue, chemedalia. Case closed.

  9. I don’t buy your arguments, they are in error! A bar of soap in kuba is US$60 and not your unsubstantiated and terminally exaggerated $160. Case closed.

    ( …anyone see now why the embargo is almost 50 and the kastro thugs are still in power…? so sad.)

  10. cheomedalla,

    I think you’re misreading the analogy. The $160 number is a percentage and obviously not the actual cost in terms of dollars. What I’m doing with the post is showing the percentage of a monthly wage, that bar of soap costs. It is what it is – there really isn’t any argument on this – I was just there. I bought the soap, I exchanged the dollars. There simply is no exaggeration going on here so I can only deduce that you’ve misread the post.

    The bottom line is, the gap between haves (those with access to convertible pesos) and have-nots (those with access to only Cuban pesos) is rapidly widening, in large part due to the rising of prices of all sorts of goods. This was a very common complaint when I was in Cuba and something that I saw first hand when viewing the prices of a wide variety of goods in stores.

    Sorry for having to be a bit terse – I certainly don’t mean to be disrespectful but your counter assertion is simply, well – 100 percent, unabashedly incorrect.

    Allow me to lay out the math very simply:

    Average Cuban wage = 375 Cuban Pesos

    25 Cuban Pesos for each Convertible Peso

    Thus, in order to deduce the amount of U.S. dollars (Convertible Pesos) the average Cuban makes every month, we divide 375 by 25, giving us $15 USD.

    A bar of soap costs on average about .80 cents (Convertible Pesos), which is 20 Cuban Pesos.

    Now, to convert the price of that soap into a percentage of monthly income, we use the following equation:

    375X = 20 Thus 20/375 = .0533 x 100 = 5.3% or, roughly 5 percent.

    Now, given an average salary for an American worker in his/her mid to late 20’s of about $38,000 per annum ($3166 per month), we next calculate what 5% of 3,166 is.

    3166 x .05 = $158.30, or, as I put it: $160.00

    This is simple math, cheomedalla. I have nothing to hide or exaggerate here. The numbers speak for themselves.

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