Impressions of Cuba
After sampling pre and post soviet era life in the CIS countries (in `65, `71, `94 & `97), and in China during the same period (in `73, `96, `97 & 2000), I just had to return to Cuba to see how it had evolved since my first visit there in 1976. Actually, I had not seen much of the real Cuba during my week`s vacation at Varadero beach as my group of sun worshippers had been carefully herded and shown selected sights as packaged tourists are everywhere in the world. This time however, I backpacked individually where I chose and met a large number of Cubans, some by chance and others through previous Internet contacts.
While Russia and most of its previous satellites have fallen prey to unrestrained savage capitalism and China is prudently moving towards a market economy ( see Impressions '97), Cuba has steadfastly retained its Marxist ideology in spite of the extreme hardship caused by the loss of the economic support previously provided by its soviet mentor and by the intensification of the vindictive embargo imposed by the USA government to appease the wealthy extreme-right Cuban immigrant lobby based in Miami.
Communist memes predominate
The Cuban government has been able to maintain its totalitarian regime thanks to three major factors:
a) There is no doubt that Fidel Castro`s charismatic leadership and his remarkable intellectual and physical abilities have played a major role in sustaining the morale and unity of the Cuban people through the most difficult period of the crisis until a modest rate of growth was restored in 1994. The Cuban people unanimously love respect and admire their national hero in spite of the deficiencies of his regime. Nonetheless, he is 74 and no one is eternal.
b) The proximity of Florida and the US policy of welcoming dissidents have facilitated the selective removal of elements that could have constituted an internal opposition to the regime. It has generally been the most enterprising and ambitious that have gone, leaving behind the more docile and conforming. This has meant less trouble for the state but also the loss of the specific human resources required to increase the dismally low productivity of the Cuban economy.
c) Finally, it is my contention that the tightened embargo imposed by the US did not produce the hoped-for rebellion against the regime largely because the Cuban people have inherited the tendency to be believers that is common to all the ex-colonies of Absolutist, Catholic Spain. I feel that the mindset of placing belief in ideals above the hard facts of reality has played an important role in the political attitudes of most Cubans (as it still does).
I think that the Cuban people`s attachment to revolutionary ideals has kept them from switching to a market economy almost overnight as have the ex-soviet populations whose faith in communism had been severely eroded by scandalously visible corruption at high levels of their governments. I have felt that the Cuban revolution is still quite present in the minds of most of the people I met even if it happened 42 years ago. The Cuban revolution and Cuban socialism has become a religion. For most Cubans, the heroic figures of an idealised Che Guevara and of the indomitable leader Fidel, occupy the front of the stage, well ahead of the faded images of Christ Crucified and the Virgin Mary and the still paler but ever present African divinities of Santeria.
Communist memes still predominate in Cuba in spite of a marginal resurgence of religions since the depths of the economic crisis in `93 and the Pope`s visit in `98. It is difficult to me to foresee how public opinion might evolve for the people avoided political discutions and no one criticised the government. Two good indications of the state`s control on the flow of memes in Cuba.
Cuba`s most important achievement is indubitably to have freed itself from US tutelage. We readily forget the condition of the average Cuban worker before the revolution. Havana was the brothel of the Caribbean in the hands of the US Mafia. Land ownership was shared between big US corporations and a handful of Cuban terratenientes while the country was run by the dictator Fulgencio Batista and his cronies. Human rights violations, torture and physical elimination of political opponents were condoned by the US as long their puppet remained subservient to US interests. The same type of colonialism was practiced by the US through Trujillo in the Dominican Republic, through Samoza in Nicaragua and through Marcos in the Philippines. Getting rid of it in Cuba must be recognised as a great achievement of the Cuban people.
Another significant achievement of the Cuban revolution has been to limit the privileges of party and government officials so as to prevent the establishment of the corrupt apparatchik class that was a characteristic of soviet communism and whose excesses are largely responsible for the disintegration of the soviet empire. The death sentence of general Ochoa along with 3 other corrupt officials in `89, confirmed the Cuban government`s position on corruption.
Third in this list, but most important for the average Cuban, is the successful establishment of free medical services (the number of people per physician fell from 1076 in 1959 to 183 in 1996). The system`s success, evidenced by a reduction of infantile mortality from over 60 per thousand to 7.2 and by an increase of life expectancy from 62.6 to 76.1 years in 40 years is undisputedly a remarkable achievement.
Equally impressive is Cuba`s public education system which is free at all levels and accessible to everyone. In 40 years, it has raised the level of literacy from 76.4% to 98.1%, the highest in Latin America. In the mid `90s Cuba had 530 000 university graduates (5% of the population), of which 5 000 were doctorates.
Finally, the revolution achieved its goal of improving the lot of the poor. In 1953, the poorest 40% shared only 6.5% of the income. In 1996, they received 26% compared to 22.4 in Holland, 14.1 in Argentina, 12% in Costa Rica, 10.3% in Venezuela, 9.9 in Mexico and 7% in Brazil and Peru. (The Gini coefficient of inequality, that stood at 0,57 in 1953, dropped to 0.27 in '78 and to 0,22 in 1986.)
The bottom line of these achievements is the health and abilities of Cuba`s human resources which constitute its greatest asset.
There is however the other side of the medal. Cuba has several shortcomings, some of them quite serious. The most pressing are the economic problems resulting from the collapse of the soviet empire that purchased Cuba`s sugar at premium prices and supplied equipment, manufactured goods and technology at a discount. The vindictive US embargo, intensified by the Torricelli (1992) and Helms-Burton (1996) laws, did not achieve their goal of bringing down Castro`s regime but it did cause a serious degradation of Cuba`s terms of trade with the world (lower export prices and higher import costs). The principal results of these short sighted laws were to impose greater hardship on the Cuban population, to harden the resolve of the Cuban government and to generate widespread international sympathy for the underdog Cuba, struck hard by an overwhelmingly powerful opponent while it was down.
During the worst period of the crisis, in `92 and `93, the peso fell to 150 to the dollar on the black market, forcing the government to legalise, in 1994, the circulation of the dollar that had become the preferred currency. Since then the peso has climbed up to 21 to the dollar but that is still much less than its actual local purchasing power. The dual currency system is causing severe inequalities between peso salaried Cubans and those who receive dollars from relatives abroad or who obtain them from tourists. A home owner renting two rooms in Havana can average of 1000 US$ per month which is 50 times more than a well paid professional.
Salaries are very low, ranging from less than 200 pesos a month for an agricultural worker to 500 pesos a month for a qualified surgeon (10 & 25 US$/m at the present exchange rate). The people do however get by on so little because basic food costs are heavily subsidised, because they pay no taxes and because many services are free (health and education), or almost free (housing). The staples, rice and beans that sell for the peso equivalent of 50 US cents a kilo on the free market are provided for 2.5 cents/kilo in the subsidised shops. Chicken sells for 2.00 $/kg and pork for 1.50 $/kg.
Imported goods are scarce and have to be paid in dollars. In fact, there are three markets, a low priced subsidised market for basic necessities, a high priced dollar market for imported goods and tourist services and an important black market at intermediate price levels for items diverted (stolen) from normal channels. Indeed, the hard times have brought about widespread pilferage by low echelon employees in almost all state enterprises. The hard times and the growing number of dollar holding tourists have also caused the emergence of a lively sex industry not only in Havana but also in the smaller cities I have visited. As sex tourism is bringing in much needed hard currencies (particularly from Italy and Spain), the "jineteras" and the inevitable "jineteros" are tolerated by the authorities. The government's opportunism in this matter is degrading for it has sufficient control to stop the skin trade if it chose to do so.
Cuba`s economy is slowly recovering from its 1993 low but growth is due mainly to the tourist industry whose expansion the US embargo could not prevent. Hard currency income from tourism has grown from 200 million dollars in 1990 to 2 800 million in 2000 (more than twice the value of sugar exports). Cuba had no alternative to the massive development of tourism but it will have to cope with the degradation that goes with it. Paradoxically the US embargo that was largely responsible for the replacement of sugar income by tourist income, has kept US investors out of that lucrative market.
Finally, (in cauda venenum), as favourably impressed as I was by the Cuban people and their realisations, I cannot accept nor condone the regime's relentless efforts to control the minds of the people. I think that freedom of speech and the free access to information are fundamental to any civilisation worthy of that name. The atmosphere is saturated with political propaganda and the media constantly play variations on the theme of the "glorious revolution that shall prevail". Everyday a primetime T.V round table (6-8pm) extols the virtues of the regime and exposes the evil failings of capitalist countries in general and of the US in particular. It's really heavy!
Not once have I seen or heard even a timid suggestion of the type "The government might wish to consider to..." in the media. The Spanish kings might not recognise the doctrine but they would be proud to recognise their heritage in the manner of spreading "The truth". I found the Cubans spontaneously open and friendly but I had the impression that my probing questions embarrassed most of them for they did somersaults to avoid a frank exchange on the political situation (except a few militants and party members who vigorously defended the use of propaganda to counter the viciously hostile propaganda beamed from Miami by the Cuban American Foundation (broadcasts that are quite efficiently scrambled by the Cuban authorities anyway).
Cuba can be proud of it's great socialist realisations but if they have been built on mind rape they become as horrendous to my eyes as the great pyramids built by slaves or the great cathedrals built by the blind faith at a time when the expression of doubt led to the heretic's burning stake.