After lunch, we stepped outside and the conversation shifted to a serious tone. He told me I could ask him anything about Cuba and he would try to answer. So that is exactly what I did. Here was my opportunity to pick his brain about all things Cuba.
From an earlier conversation, I knew he was slightly paranoid about the role the government played in his life. He felt like they were constantly waiting and watching to see him mess up.
As we walked down the street, I could not help but notice his clear paranoia come to the surface in as we conversed. He constantly glanced over his shoulder and spoke quietly near my ear as to not be heard by others.
My first question regarded public perception of Castro. What was the feeling of Cubans towards a government that kept everyone just above the poverty line to keep them from starving or revolting? His answer surprised me, but other conversations with people later in the week supported his answer.
In his estimation, roughly 50% of people in Cuba agree with the government decisions. With that said, one hesitation he voiced was the need for the government to change with the time. "The actions that put Fidel & Raul in power will not keep them in power. They must listen to the people and their advisors if they want Cuba to grow," he said.
Next, I asked about the culture of starting and running a business. According to him, it is extremely difficult to start a business and all major industries are run by the government. This last part was clear. Every industry I saw had only one company. Most of the titles started with "CUB"-something. For example, the taxi service is Cubataxi. The airline is Cubana.
With this type of environment, most people give up on their ambitions and dreams because of these hurdles. Then he paused and said, "Well they give up or get more determined to leave Cuba to find opportunities." He thinks the best and brightest are forced out of the country because of the lack of a culture that fosters uniqueness and creative ideas. Obviously he was one of the few that stayed in Cuba and prospered. He is a very wise man, and he knows how to work the system regardless of the extra hurdles.
His wife is a lawyer, and she only makes $30-40 per month. This salary range extends to doctors as well. But he was quick to add that few people go hungry because of the government help.
"If you do not want to start a business or work for the government, where do you put your money?" I asked. He just laughed and said, "My house of course! I have money stashed all over my house. Everything is in cash. The last place I would put money is in the bank." That seemed fair enough.
As we ended our time together, I thanked him for the stories and insights. He said with a slight twang in his tone, "It's no problem."
If we had the time, I could have listened to him for hours as he told stories about life before the revolution and after. Hopefully I will get that chance some day.