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Growing Up in Cuba   (A.R., February 4, 2008)

All this information is based on my life in Cuba from 1962 when I was born until March 5th, 1990 when I left. Some of the masses organizations have lost popularity these days, and the original duties have been reduced to almost nothing according to what I hear from friends and family still living there. Hunger is such that people’s fear has dissipated considerably. However government repression is still the same or worst.

Political Organizations:

  • UPC (Union de Pioneros de Cuba) Stands for Cuba’s Pioneers Union.
  • This is the first organization you get to know from the moment you start school, and it includes children from 1st to 6th grade. Government states that joining is voluntary, but it is not true. The level of harassment they put you through if you do not join goes from affecting your parent’s jobs to having you spelled from the school.

    You have to realize this organization is the first tool the system has to indoctrinate children since a very early age. Communism is not about options and freedom to choose them. I personally was not allowed by my parents to join when I first started school, and after 2 months they had no choice but to cave in and accept. The symbol of this organization which identifies the members is a red handkerchief that is tied around your neck like a tie.

  • UJC (Union de Jovenes Comunistas) Stands for Communist Youth’s Union.
  • This is the next step of the indoctrination process and the actual preparation to join the Communist Party. You have to go through an extensive investigation process where they research your entire school history from 1st to 10th grade. When you are accepted, you received a red photo identification booklet (similar to a passport). You start paying a monthly fee of $2 (Cuban Pesos) before you even start working.

    Weekly meetings are mandatory for all members of the UJC. All UJC members are expected to be the example of a perfect politically involved student. They are also expected to:

    1) Encourage their classmates to attend every single political activity scheduled.

    2) Keep track of their fellow student’s attendance to these activities.

    3) Report any fellow students with weak attendance to political activities and/or conduct not in line with the principles of "The Revolution"

    4) Coach fellow students with poor attendance, and whatever is needed to get them more involved.

  • PCC (Partido Comunista de Cuba) Stands for Cuban Communist’s Party
  • I defected right before I was ready to be recruited. All I know is from references of friends and relatives that were members. Pressure is similar to the UJC but multiplied by 100.

    Masses Organizations:

  • CDR (Comite de Defensa de la Revolucion) Stands for Committee for the Defense of the Revolution.
  • An entire book could be written about this organization alone. This organization allows the government to spy on every household in the entire country. There is one CDR in every single block of every city. The CDR is located in one household; it has a complete structure of responsibilities: President, Vice-president, Vigilance, etc. The CDR is expected to keep eyes on the entire block and reports to the proper authorities any suspicious behaviors and/or activities that might go against the principles of the Revolution.

    Your next door neighbor could call the police and report you if they hear any negative comments or expressions against "The Revolution" and/or any of the government figures. CDR organizes and pretty much pressures all residents to participate in the following events that keep people busy all the time, and prevents them from thinking of the many socio-economical problems which surround their daily life:

    1) "Voluntary Work" sessions (usually occurred on weekends). The scope of the work goes from cleaning the streets, pulling weeds off park lawns, to going for the entire day to work in the agriculture.

    2) "Night-time Guard Duty". Based on the theory that the enemy "United States" is always looking into ways to hurt “The Revolution”. Every member of the CDR has an obligation to be on guard duty one (1) time every month. Guard duty had two shifts. First goes from 11 PM to 2 AM, and the second from 2 AM to 5 AM. Your date and time was pre-scheduled by the CDR and you were told in advance the day you had to report for your duty. What was done during the guard duty? Walk around the neighborhood and talk with your partner to hopefully make it go faster. It was considered everyone a total waste of your time, but you had no choice. A patrol always went by during the 2 shifts to make sure you did not left your post and went home to sleep. Same duty exists for all students at University level, and for all work places. Once a month you have to be on "night time guard duty" scheduled in advance. Bottom line you do this up to 3 times every month if you study in a university.

    3) Monthly CDR meeting. This meeting is scheduled ahead of time and every resident of the block has to attend. The president or vice-president read the latest documents provided by the government for all citizens. If you start missing these meetings, your work place receives a report from the CDR about it, and if attendance is not improved you might very well loose your job.

    4) CDR members could search the bag you carry while you are coming home, just to make sure you are not involved in any black market operation. If you are, an immediate detention takes place.

  • FMC (Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas) Stands for Cuban Women’s Federation)
  • this one has another full set of political events and activities to keep women busy and away from their families.


  • Education is free for everyone.
  • Primary School goes from Pre-school to 6th grade.
  • Secondary School goes from 7th to 9th grade.
  • Pre-University School goes from 10th to 12th grade.
  • Middle Technical Education (for people that will not go to University) is for 2 years, and they get a diploma called “Middle Technical Education”. These folks work in factories at a level higher than the production line worker with 12th grade education or less.
  • University Education lasts an average of 5 years for a typical Bachelor’s Degree. Specialty Degree available in most careers goes for another 2 to 3 years. Highest level you could go for is a Doctorate (PHD here) and it takes another 2 to 3 years depending on the career. Careers are selected close to the end of 12th grade. Selection on what you can get is based on your academic average (100 points max) and social and political involvement.
  • Only students that have the highest average along with a proven record of attendance to all political activities throughout their entire Pre-University period can select the career of their choice.
  • My comments:

    1) I knew outstanding and very bright people that could not go to the University because of their Religious beliefs, and lack of attendance to political activities.

    2) Education is "free". There is one small "but" though. When you graduate from the University, the government decides where you are going to work for the first 3 years after graduation. This period is called "Social Service". In my case: I finished Architecture school and on my fifth and last year, they came in and selected a few lucky architects that will get to be in the military for the 3 years of their social service. I had no choice but to renounce my thesis work on "Solar Architecture" which research I had already started, and go ahead and move to a military school for 6 months and do a very exciting thesis work on "Camouflage".

    I personally knew people who were sent to Angola and Ethiopia to work as doctors and engineers during the war and they were buried there. It is said more than 100,000 Cubans died in the Angola war and not one body was returned to Cuba.

    3) Level of the educational system was already starting to deteriorate when I was on 4th grade, since most experienced teachers started to retire and the new generation of teachers (that never wanted to be teachers) started taking over. Teaching and Medicine were the 2 main careers pushed down people’s throat for all the ones that did not have the requisites to choose the career of their liking.

    4) Education today is a complete joke along with a totally demoralized society and country.


    At the time I left Cuba in 1990. 1 US dollar = 7 Cuban Pesos (this was the black market exchange rate, since the US dollar did not circulate freely at that time) Average salary at the time was $150 Pesos per month. My salary as an Architect was $265 Cuban Pesos per month. It was just a few years ago (I think it was between 1997 & 2000) that the Cuban government allowed the US dollar to circulate freely without penalty. Up to that point having more than $1.00 US dollar in your pocket was considered illegal, and even sentenced to jail. Allowing up to $1.00 was based on collecting foreign currency coins.

    Historic fact: Somewhere between 1957 and 1958, the Cuban peso was so strong that was exchanged for $1.01 US dollar. I only learned this from my grandparents and parents who constantly told me stories about the times before my birth. The exchange rate is about 25 Cuban pesos for $1 US dollar today.

    After Fidel Castro fell at a public appearance just 4 or 5 years ago, the video and photos of this event circulated all over the worldwide web and several newspapers published photos and articles. It is said this event made him mad enough at the "Capitalist World" to create a brand new exchange policy. Today all foreign currency has to be exchanged for a type of "Convertible Dollar" that Mr. Castro created (called "Chavitos").

    In other words, you can’t pay directly with US dollars or Euros anywhere. The new money did not replace the Cuban peso; it just allowed him to take a 20% cut for himself and the government. So, every $1 US dollar that enters Cuba loses $0.20 automatically. Same applies to the Euro.

    Growing up in a Communist country:

    The double you:
    Imagine you are 5 years old, and you are told a bunch of lies at school daily. When you get home your parents sit down with you and tell you all the truth. They also tell you not to say a word outside of home, and explained to you that they could go to jail and our family could be separated forever if you do. You are forced to live a double life and a double personality. The real you stay at home with your family, while the other you go out everyday and tell everyone only what they want to hear. This is the best way I can describe it.

    There are two (2) ration cards you get every year. One for food and one for all others. Food rationing card looks like a small booklet 3” x 5”. Everything you are supposed to get is listed and it is marked by the person at the bodega (Small neighborhood grocery store) every time supplies arrive and they are distributed. There were no set dates when certain supply will come in.

    As they came, neighbors will let other know and people will run to get in line and get it. Clarification: all items are to be paid for and not given to you. There is a portion of this food card for poultry and meats. The monthly allowance of beef per person was ¼ lb. In the healthy lifestyle my family has today, we think this is OK, but nobody felt this way while I lived in Cuba.

    It was always interesting to me that being in as island surrounded by seafood; we never saw fresh fish, shrimp and lobster from Cuban waters. Fish we got at the store was frozen mackerel that came all the way from The Soviet Union, while fresh fish, shrimp and lobster was exported, sold in the black market, and enjoyed by tourists at any of the hotels and resorts throughout the island.

    Similar details applied for the second rationing card for all others: clothing, shoes, personal care items (deodorant, toothpaste, etc.). Going for several months without deodorant was common, and toilet paper was a bad word and not available. There was an all-time joke about Cubans having a very educated behind, from using every possible printed publication you could get your hands on as your toilet paper.

    Tourists vs. Cubans:
    Cubans were not allowed inside any hotels and/or resorts unless you were invited in by a tourist visiting the country. This issue was something that always made me think quite a bit. Anybody from any other country in the world could come into my country and enjoy things I could not.

    Most youngsters live with their parents even after they get married. Divorce rates were always very high because of it. There is no rental availability whatsoever. Government programs for building new apartment buildings is basically like this: You go into a "micro-brigade" (name given to a group of 15 to 20 individuals) who under government supervision build a 5 story building from scratch.

    Once the building is completed a few of the apartment are awarded to some members. There was a set amount of hours you needed to be awarded an apartment. It would take approximately 2 to 3 complete buildings before you will get an apartment. Your work place will pay your complete salary while you were working in the "micro-brigade".

    After you got your apartment, then you will go back to your normal job and start paying the government rent for your newly acquired home.

    Working in the agriculture:
    All students starting in 7th grade have to attend (Escuela at Campo) Stands for School to the Fields. Every year from 7th grade to 12 th grade for 45 days. You were taken to a camp with your classmates. There were “All Boys Camps”, “All Girls Camps” and sometimes “Mixed Camps” with both. Every student took one wooden luggage with a hinged top and a padlock in front. You kept there all your basic needs. All camps had dorms, kitchen and dining area, and outdoor showers and latrines. Your parents could visit you every Sunday for the entire day. Saturday was a rest day depending on how the work goals were accomplished from Monday to Friday. Daily schedule was similar to a boot camp, but instead of military training you work in the fields doing whatever was needed. Daily schedule was like this:
    - 5:30 AM wake up call
    - Breakfast
    - Taken to fields in trucks or carriages pulled by tractors.
    - Morning work session
    - Taken back to camp to eat lunch
    - Lunch
    - Taken back to fields
    - Afternoon work session
    - Back to camp to shower and rest (approximately 5 PM)

    Living conditions were very basic and food was not very good. Bottom line is that at the end of this yearly exercise, you were ready to go home with your family.

    Some additional comments:
    Regardless of all of the challenges I had to face during my childhood in Cuba, I am glad I had them. I think they were critical in my development as a man, and they allowed me to see from my darkest hours into a possible better future. When you do not have to fight and sacrifice yourself to accomplish your goals in life, appreciation for what you currently have is minimal, your body and your mind become lazy, and in my opinion the chances of success are reduced. I truly believe that I appreciate so much of what I have today because of the way I grew up.

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