Cuban history in brief

Cuba is an oxymoron - a frozen revolution

 

The main part of this text is principally a summary of a chapter of the Lonely Planet guide to Cuba, plus various wikipedia articles. I have quoted liberally from both.


The Spanish Period

View of TrinidadSince the arrival of Columbus in 1492, Cuba's history has been turbulent - genocide, slavery, two bitter wars of independence, a period of corrupt and violent quasi-independence, and finally, a populist revolution... A revolution that has frozen in time. As a result, almost 20% of the population has emigrated, mostly to the US.

The original inhabitants came from the Orinoco Basin of South America. The Taino were capable ceramicists and subsisted by farming. The Spanish invaded in 1511 and by 1550 only about 5,000 natives remained alive. The rest had been wiped out by Spanish arms and imported diseases.

Except for a brief British interlude, the Spanish ruled Cuba for the next three and a half centuries with their customary colonial brutality. They imported African slaves on a large scale. As a side-effect of the Seven Years' War, the British took Havana in 1762 and occupied Cuba for nearly a year, finally swapping the island for Florida. During the 19th century, five different US presidents attempted to buy Cuba from Spain.

The Cubans began to fight for independence against the Spanish around 1815, decades after the rest of Latin America had broken away from Spain. The first and unsuccessful war of independence ended in 1878, leaving 200,000 Cubans and 80,000 Spanish dead and the economy in ruins. Partly as a result of this war, Cuba abolished slavery in 1886, after 350 years of exploitation. It was the second-last country in the Americas to do so (Brazil was last).

The pivotal figure in pre-Castro Cuba was Jose Marti. He is the one man universally admired by Cubans and ex-Cubans of all persuasions. Interestingly, whereas I did not see even one statue of Che or Fidel during my tour, busts of Marti were omnipresent. Marti was a poet, patriot, visionary and intellectual. He spent 20 years formulating his ideas in Mexico and the US. He was impressed by American business savvy and industriousness, and by its standard of living, which he wished Latin Americans to have. However, Marti was repelled by the country's all-consuming materialism and was determined to formulate a workable alternative.

Marti was a liberal thinker and a great believer in the democracy and freedom he saw in the US. However, he condemned the elites of the US because they "pulled the main political strings behind the scenes". He believed they were the biggest threat to the ideals with which the United States was first conceived. Importantly, he viewed the US as a grave threat to Cuba. Together with Marx, Marti was the greatest influence on Castro, who described Martí's political ideas as "a philosophy of independence and an exceptional humanistic philosophy".

The second war of independence, inspired by Marti, began in 1895. Despite early successes, the rebels failed to gain control of Cuba. A year later, Cuba was a shambles, much of it in flames, with neither side holding sway.

Enter the US. Tensions between the US and Spain had been rising for years. The US offered to buy Cuba for $300 million and when this was rejected they declared war in 1898. The Spanish surrendered in July of the same year.



Post-colonial Cuba

After a four-year occupation by the US, Cuba became an independent republic in 1902, if only on paper. The infamous Platt Amendment was written into the Cuban constitution, giving the US the right to intervene militarily in Cuba any time it wished, which it did in 1906 and again in 1912. Cuba was now effectively a US protectorate. The US also acquired a base in Guantanamo Bay, which it holds to this day. For Cuban patriots, the US had merely replaced Spain as the new coloniser and enemy. The repercussions continue to the present.

Following an army coup in 1933, Fulgenico Batista took power almost by default. In 1940 he was elected president in a relatively fair election. He then enacted a number of liberal social reforms and drafted a model constitution. Unfortunately, his good intentions did not last. Batista turned dictatorial, not to mention criminal.

When asked by the US government to analyse Batista's Cuba, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. wrote prophetically in 1957, "The corruption of the Government, the brutality of the police, the government's indifference to the needs of the people for education, medical care, housing, for social justice and economic justice... is an open invitation to revolution." These words were ignored; the US continued to support Batista. On October 6, 1960 Senator John F. Kennedy, in the midst of his campaign for the US Presidency, criticised the Eisenhower administration for supporting him:

"Fulgencio Batista murdered 20,000 Cubans in seven years... and he turned Democratic Cuba into a complete police state—destroying every individual liberty. Yet our aid to his regime, and the ineptness of our policies, enabled Batista to invoke the name of the United States in support of his reign of terror. Administration spokesmen publicly praised Batista—hailed him as a staunch ally and a good friend—at a time when Batista was murdering thousands, destroying the last vestiges of freedom, and stealing hundreds of millions of dollars from the Cuban people, and we failed to press for free elections."

Of course, this was election-time rhetoric, and since Batista was already gone, it was a case of being wise after the fact. Moreover, just six months after this speech, President Kennedy would authorise an invasion of Cuba.

In December 1946 the Mafia convened the biggest ever get-together of North American mobsters in Havana's Hotel Nacional, under the pretence they were going to a Frank Sinatra concert. In 1952, knowing he would lose the election, Batista staged a coup and made a deal with the US Mafia, giving them carte blanche in Cuba in return for a cut of their gambling profits.

Che in pink

The Revolution cometh

Enter Fidel Castro at stage left. Fidel had a powerful personality with an indomitable will and he excelled at all he did, even baseball. A charismatic lawyer and gifted orator, he planned to stand in the 1952 election, which was cancelled by Batista. So Fidel turned revolutionary in 1953. Together with his brother, Raul, and 118 rebels, he led an attack on the Moncada barracks in Santiago. The audacious and poorly planned assault turned into a fiasco after the rebels' driver, who was from Havana, took a wrong turn in Santiago's badly signposted streets.

All but a handful of the rebels were killed and Castro was eventually captured. It is a mark of a great leader that he can turn disaster into opportunity. Castro used the publicity of his trial to embarrass the government and to broadcast his views. He was sentenced to 15 years' prison. While in prison he wrote a masterful speech in his defence that later became his revolutionary manifesto, called History Will Absolve Me.

Two years later, bowing to international pressure and wanting some good publicity, Batista granted an amnesty for all political prisoners, including Castro. Believing that Batista meant to assassinate him after his release, Castro fled to Mexico.

In December 1956, Castro, Che and eighty other rebels crossed to Cuba from Mexico. They travelled 1,900 km on the improbably named cabin cruiser, Granma, which was designed to carry twelve. As Che wryly remarked, "It wasn't a disembarkation. It was a shipwreck." Granma is now the most prized relic of the Revolution, as well as the name of a province and of the national newspaper. Although it has entered the annals of revolutionary myth, the expedition was another fiasco. Little more than a dozen of the rebels who had embarked in Mexico survived an attack by Batista's soldiers.

Split into three groups that lost contact with each other, the rebels wandered around hopelessly. Fidel, "At one point I was Commander-In-Chief of myself and two other people". However, after this low point, the rebel cause gained momentum.

Sensing the threat, Batista sent an army of 10,000 to the Siera Maestra in operation Fin de Fidel. By this time, Castro commanded a solid force of 300 men. Using guerrilla tactics and the support of the country-people, Castro held the poorly disciplined conscript army at bay. Also in Castro's favour was the lack of enthusiasm of Batista's soldiers, some of whom switched sides. Che's ambush of an armoured train in Santa Clara was the skirmish that proved decisive. No major military engagements were needed to seal Batista's fate. The US had ceased its support when Batista's atrocities became too much to stomach. Then in March 1958 it imposed an arms embargo, which contributed to Batista's fall.

Had Castro suffered the same fate as did most of his comrades in either the Moncada attack or the Granma landing, these would be insignificant footnotes, while future Cuban history would have been different. Because Castro was successful, Moncada and Granma are seen as pivotal events in the country’s history, which reminds me of Winston Churchill’s quip: "History will be kind to me, because I intend to write it."



The Castro Era

On January 1, 1959, Batista fled Cuba in a private plane, taking severance pay of $300 million. That same day, Castro gave a rousing victory speech in Santiago and travelled across the island to Havana in triumph. He was soon in full control of Cuba and he set about creating a communist state. In the aftermath of the Revolution, he had hundreds of members of the old regime executed. Castro also seized all US holdings on the island, which were vast - 40% of the sugar fields, 90% of the mines and practically all of the oil industry and ranches. On May 17, 1959, the Agrarian Reform Law crafted by Guevara went into effect, limiting the size of all farms to 1,000 acres. Any holdings over these limits were expropriated by the government and either redistributed to peasants in 67-acre parcels or held as state-run communes.

Ernesto Guevara was made Finance Minister, President of the National Bank, and Minister of Industries, placing him at the zenith of his power, in charge of the Cuban economy. It was now his duty to sign the Cuban currency, which was ironic, given that he wanted to eliminate money altogether. Instead of using his full name, he signed the bills solely with the nickname “Che”, which means “hey”. This symbolic act, which horrified many in the Cuban financial sector, signalled Che’s distaste for money and the class distinctions it brought about.

Post-revolution, it has been a story of rhetoric, armed conflict and Cold War stand-offs between Cuba and the US.

In April 1961, President Kennedy reluctantly authorised a half-hearted and badly planned invasion at the Bay of Pigs. Instead of US troops, the invasion featured 1,400 Cuban exiles with air backing. It failed due to lack of support inside Cuba, the small number of invaders and because the Cuban secret service (having infiltrated the US command) had given Castro warning. The invaders were defeated in three days. Castro feared another US invasion for many years afterward, and this made him turn to the Soviets, as well as creating the second-largest army in Latin America. Appropriately, the word “castro” means “fort”.

All the invaders were captured, and eventually 1,113 prisoners were exchanged for $53 million in food and medicine. Kennedy later told Ben Bradlee, "The first advice I'm going to give my successor is to watch the generals and to avoid feeling that because they were military men their opinions on military matters were worth a damn." The failed invasion severely embarrassed the Kennedy administration and for many Latin Americans, it reinforced the already widely held belief that the US could not be trusted. The invasion strengthened Castro's position, both in Cuba and as a champion of anti-imperialism in Latin America and beyond.

The Cuban Missile Crisis

The Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962 was a 13-day confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union concerning Soviet atomic missile deployment in Cuba. It was the closest the Cold War came to escalating into a full-scale nuclear war. In response to the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion and the presence of American Jupiter missiles in Italy and Turkey, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev decided to agree to Cuba's request to place nuclear missiles in Cuba. They were intended to deter any future invasion of Cuba, as well as to be a bargaining chip against the US with regard to West Berlin.

These missile preparations were detected by the US when a U2 spy plane produced photographic evidence of medium-range and intermediate-range missile facilities. The United States established a military blockade to prevent further missiles from entering Cuba. It announced that it would not permit offensive weapons to be delivered to Cuba and demanded that the weapons already in Cuba be dismantled and returned to the USSR.

After a period of tense negotiations, an agreement was reached between Kennedy and Khrushchev. Publicly, the Soviets would dismantle their offensive weapons in Cuba and return them to the Soviet Union, subject to United Nations verification, in exchange for a US public declaration and agreement never to invade Cuba without direct provocation. Secretly, the US also agreed that it would dismantle all Jupiter MRBMs, which were deployed in Turkey and Italy against the Soviet Union, but were not known to the public.

When all offensive missiles and Ilyushin Il-28 light bombers had been withdrawn from Cuba, the blockade was formally ended. The negotiations between the US and the Soviet Union pointed out the necessity of a quick, clear, and direct communication line between Washington and Moscow. As a result, the Moscow-Washington hotline was established. A series of agreements sharply reduced US–Soviet tensions during the following years.

Che was practically the architect of the Soviet-Cuban relationship and had played a key role in bringing the nuclear missiles to Cuba. A few weeks after the crisis, he was still fuming over the perceived Soviet betrayal and told the British communist newspaper The Daily Worker, that if the Cubans had been in control of the missiles, they would have fired them.

Che was in favour of launching a pre-emptive nuclear strike which would likely result in the death of millions, believing that it would advance the cause of socialism. Castro stated that he would have recommended a nuclear strike only if the US invaded, despite knowing Cuba would be destroyed in the event of nuclear war. Luckily, Kruschev never allowed the Cubans to control the missiles and he excluded them from his secret negotiations with Kennedy. Mirroring Che, in the US the Joint Chiefs of Staff had unanimously agreed that a full-scale attack and invasion of Cuba was the only solution to the crisis.

Because the withdrawal of the Jupiter missiles from NATO bases in Southern Italy and Turkey was not made public at the time, Khrushchev appeared to have lost the conflict and become weakened. According to Dobrynin, the top Soviet leadership took the Cuban outcome as "a blow to its prestige bordering on humiliation". Kruschev was ousted two years later.

Unknown to the US, more than 100 tactical (ie short range) nuclear weapons were still in Cuba after the crisis ended. During a tense, four-hour meeting, Anastas Mikoyan convinced Castro that despite Moscow's desire to help, it would be in breach of an unpublished Soviet law (which didn't actually exist) to transfer the missiles permanently into Cuban hands and provide them with an independent nuclear deterrent. Castro was forced to give way and – much to the relief of Khrushchev and the rest of the Soviet government – the tactical nuclear weapons were crated and returned by sea to the Soviet Union during December 1962.

Museum of the Revolution
Museum of the Revolution, Havana

Continuing conflict and nationalisation

Although the US did not plan any further incursions, assassination was another matter. It made the Guinness book of records by carrying out 600-plus attempts on Fidel's life. It also engaged in terrorism, bombing a plane that killed 73 people, plus other acts of sabotage. Castro may have been paranoid about the US, but he had good reason to be. Fidel, "What the imperialists cannot forgive us, is that we have made a Socialist revolution under their noses".

In 1964, Walter Lippmann wrote, “The greatest threat presented by Castro's Cuba is as an example to other Latin American states which are beset by poverty, corruption, feudalism, and plutocratic exploitation ... his influence in Latin America might be overwhelming and irresistible if, with Soviet help, he could establish in Cuba a Communist utopia.”

Unable to oust Castro, the US imposed a 55-year (and still counting) embargo on the country that has stifled the Cuban economy and hardened Fidel's resolve. Together with the failed invasion, it made Castro turn to the USSR for support. Needless to say, this was not what the US wanted.

In 1968 Castro, inspired by China's Great Leap Forward, proclaimed a Great Revolutionary Offensive, closing all remaining privately owned shops and businesses and denouncing their owners as capitalist counter-revolutionaries. Everything fell under government control. The severe lack of consumer goods for purchase led productivity to decline, as large sectors of the population felt little incentive to work hard. This was exacerbated by the perception that a revolutionary elite had emerged consisting of those connected to the administration; they had access to better housing, private transportation, servants, and the ability to purchase luxury goods abroad.

Havana has a weird Chinatown - one bereft of Chinese. They all left when they heard the word socialismo. Cuba remained in the firm grip of Castro-style communism from 1959 till now. Bourne claimed that power in Cuba was completely invested in Castro, adding that it was very rare for a country and a people to have been so completely dominated by the personality of one man. Sondrol suggested that in leading a political system largely of his own creation and bearing his indelible stamp he bears comparison with Mao. After the death of King Hussein of Jordan in 1999, Castro became the longest continuously serving head of state in the world.

Before the revolution, Castro took autocratic control of the rebel organisation, MR-26-7, with some dissenters labelling him a caudillo (dictator). He argued that a successful revolution could not be run by committee and required a strong leader. He has maintained that level of control. To outsiders, it may seem that Cuba is Castro's personal fiefdom, yet the Comandante seems to be popular. Of course, it is impossible to know the real state of public opinion when there is no way for it to be expressed or measured, given the lack of political freedom. A roadside slogan reads, "Fidel es Cuba", and indeed few Cubans can picture Cuba without Fidel and his brother. What ordinary Cubans want is not political freedom but a higher standard of living.

 

As in other countries where all power is concentrated in a single organ (ie the Party), Cubans lack certain basic human rights. The world's two most respected human rights bodies regularly berate the government for its refusal to respect the rights of assembly, association and expression. In 2008 Cuba had the second-highest number of imprisoned journalists of any nation (China had the highest). When the Cubans speak of Cuba libre they don't mean free in the usual sense, but free of foreign domination. People fear to speak openly about politics and can only read what the government wants them to read. They may be free from foreign interference, but not from the interference of the ever-present Party, with its thousands of local Committees for the Defence of the Revolution, whose role is in large part to monitor and report dissent.

It seems to me that social engineering inevitably entails the suppression of dissent. One cannot impose a socialist model and allow democracy at the same time. Nor does Castro allow boats. The Cuban shoreline is eerily empty because Cubans are not allowed to own boats in case they attempt to cross to Florida.

Political correctness meter

Political correctness meter in the Belles Artes Museum, Havana

The Soviet era and the Special Period

Cuba has conducted a foreign policy that is uncharacteristic of such a minor, developing country. Under Castro it was heavily involved in wars in Africa, Central America and Asia, supporting leftist causes. Castro believed that, "The duty of a revolution is to make revolution". Cuba sent tens of thousands of troops to Angola during the Angolan Civil War, where Cuban involvement played a crucial role in defeating South Africa and its system of apartheid in 1988. Other countries that featured Cuban involvement include Ethiopia, Algeria, Guinea, Congo, Mozambique, and Yemen.

Historian and journalist Richard Gott considered Castro to be one of the most extraordinary political figures of the twentieth century, noting that he had become a world hero in the mould of Garibaldi to people throughout the developing world for his anti-imperialist efforts.

Wayne S. Smith, US Interests Section in Havana Chief from 1979 to 1982, wrote, "Castro first and foremost is and always has been a committed egalitarian. He despises any system in which one class or group of people lives much better than another. He wanted a system that provided the basic needs to all—enough to eat, health care, adequate housing and education. The authoritarian nature of the Cuban Revolution stems largely from his commitment to that goal."

"There is often talk of human rights, but it is also necessary to talk of the rights of humanity. Why should some people walk barefoot, so that others can travel in luxurious cars? Why should some live for thirty-five years, so that others can live for seventy years? Why should some be miserably poor, so that others can be hugely rich? I speak on behalf of the children in the world who do not have a piece of bread. I speak on the behalf of the sick who have no medicine, of those whose rights to life and human dignity have been denied." - Fidel Castro's message to the UN General Assembly, 1979. Biographer Volka Skierka stated that "he will go down in history as one of the few revolutionaries who remained true to his principles."

Yet Fidel could also be pragmatic, unlike Che, an uncompromising idealist, who died making revolution in the jungle. Che would never have introduced a smidgen of capitalism. In the first years after the revolution, Castro concealed his communist beliefs, both out of fear of the US reaction and because many of his fellow rebels did not share his views.

The period 1961-91 was the age of Soviet domination, followed by the Special Period of economic hardship, from the fall of the Soviet Union till about 2000. The Cuban economy crashed because it had been artificially propped up by Soviet subsidies. Half of Cuba's factories closed almost overnight and Castro introduced extreme austerity measures. In three years the average Cuban lost over a third of their body weight and meat was just about eradicated from their diet.

Yet concomitantly with the economic disaster Cuba became a truly independent nation for the first time.

Socialism in retreat

In 1993, attempting to resuscitate the economy, Fidel legalised the US dollar, opened the country to tourism and allowed a measure of free enterprise. Later, President Chavez of Venezuela gave Cuba significant help, in the oil-for-doctors programme, reviving the economy. However, in 2002 half of Cuba's sugar refineries were closed, ending a three-century addiction to the boom-bust mono-crop.

In the early 1990s Castro embraced environmentalism, campaigning against global warming and the waste of natural resources, and accusing the US of being the world's primary polluter. By 2006, Cuba was the world's only nation which met the United Nations Development Programme's definition of sustainable development, with an ecological footprint of less than 1.8 hectares per capita.

In 2006 the ailing Fidel stepped aside and was replaced by his younger brother, Raul, then aged 75. Raul allowed Cubans to purchase mobile phones and other electronic goods. In 2011 he laid off half a million government workers and granted business licences to 178 professions, so that people would switch to the private sector. In the same year, he permitted Cubans to buy and sell cars and houses for the first time in half a century. Even more boldly, he gave Cubans the right to travel, with limitations.

In a dramatic shift, nearly 400,000 people were working in the private sector by 2013. Mobile phones are now almost as ubiquitous in Cuba as elsewhere. Another important reform that greatly benefited many Cubans is that they were allowed to rent rooms to tourists. In the small town of Trinidad there are an estimated 500 of these casas particulares.

Cuba is a society in transition and given that the Castro hegemony will soon end (Raul will retire in 2018), more change is expected. My guess is that Cuba will reluctantly move further in the same direction as China and Vietnam, ie towards a mix of communism and capitalism.

In 2014 President Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic ties with Cuba and his intention to end the embargo. Ambassadors were exchanged in 2015. The story continues...

 


The good boat Granma

Cuba's Frozen Revolution

I came to write this piece because I was fascinated reading the Lonely Planet's account of Cuban history. Wanting to share it, I summarised it. Yet I realised that something vital was missing from the Lonely Planet, namely a summing up of Cuba as it is now. The last part of this essay cannot fill that gap. Rather, it is a personal reflection of someone born in a communist country, who has travelled to Cuba and attempted to understand it. Cuba felt like stepping inside an anachronism, a living museum of communism. It is also a complex, paradoxical, fascinating and friendly island.

Obviously, these thoughts reflect my biases, though I did rethink my attitudes to Che and Castro while in Cuba. Here, these two are regarded as saints who could do no wrong, whereas in the West they are generally seen as violent apostles of a bankrupt ideology. Setting moral judgements aside, I tried to evaluate what the revolutionaries created, as well as the negatives.

On the plus side, one can cite the removal of a brutal dictator, the achievements in medical care and education, plus the elimination of extreme poverty. The minus side is that Cuba is stuck in the past.

Yet even the much vaunted achievements of Cuban communism can be doubted. Cuban medicine is hamstrung by lack of modern technology and a shortage of drugs. Education is free, including university, but with strong ideological content. The constitution states that educational and cultural policy is based on Marxist ideology. While literacy is extremely high, there is little worth reading available.

As for housing, much of it is very basic, not to mention falling apart. Overall, Cuba is one of the poorest countries in the region. Politically, intellectually and materially it lags way behind the more advanced Latin American countries, such as Chile and Costa Rica.

 

So are the Cubans better off because of Castro? Fifty years ago, he did a lot of good by removing a tyrant and eradicating extremes of poverty, but now in the 21st century, it seems that Cuba would be in better shape without communism.

 

Socialism is supposed to benefit everyone, yet it operates as if both money and human nature were irrelevant. Capitalism operates as if people did not matter, yet on balance, it provides better outcomes.

The philosopher-historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote that fascism is the attempt to live in the past, and that communism is the attempt to live in the future. He believed a society progresses when human creativity is brought to bear on the problems of the present. To do this, freedom is needed. In Cuba freedom is a limited commodity, not just for the average Cuban, but also for those who steer the ship.

The Castro brothers are shackled to the ideas of a 19th century philosopher called Karl Marx. Marx did not live to see his ideas put into practice. Undoubtedly, he would have been horrified by the crimes of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. What he would have thought of Fidel and Cuba is an interesting question. Would Marx even be a Marxist if he lived now?

A favourite revolutionary slogan here is Che’s "Hasta la victoria siempre!" (Always till victory!) It reminds me of the ironic Polish saying from communist times, "Communism is on the horizon". Meaning that it is never reached. I also recall someone saying that if Spanish lacked a future tense then Castro would have to shut up. It confirms Toynbee's view that the communist mind-set means perpetually living in the future.

Yet paradoxically, the Castros are also living in the past. Revolution means rapid and radical change. Fidel continually urges Cubans to preserve and defend the Revolution. Of course, it is not possible to capture or preserve change, let alone enshrine it in an institution, such as the Party. A revolution that happened half a century ago is no longer a revolution but a relic. What he really means is that he wants to protect and perpetuate the communist system, in other words, the status quo. Thus he is a rigid conservative posing as a revolutionary. The last thing he wants in Cuba is another revolution.

It is said, only half in jest, that the measure of the greatness of a scientist is how long they hold up progress in their chosen field. If we apply this metric to politics then Castro is without a peer.

Another paradox is that Fidel himself has undermined socialism. Two currencies now circulate in Cuba, one for foreigners, the other for the locals. At any rate, that is the intention. The problem is that only a few basics can be purchased using the local peso. The two-tier price system and the influx of tourists, who are wealthy by Cuban standards, has distorted the largely classless post-revolution society. Absurdly, taxi drivers now earn more than doctors. The fare from the airport to Havana is equivalent to a high monthly salary. Simply because they receive tips from Westerners, people working in the tourist industry are far better off than others. They are the new upper class. For instance, a waiter in Verdadero can earn the equivalent of a monthly salary in a single day, just from tips.

Peter Millar writes that among the Cubans “… it has been widely accepted that it is better for some people to have nice things than for nobody to have anything. At least this way there is a chance for a trickle down, rather than stagnation and starvation.”

Cuba is a fertile country with abundant rainfall, yet its agriculture is so inefficient that it is unable to feed itself. Eighty percent of its food was imported in 2008. Consequently, Cuba has resorted to tourism which, since 1995, is the number one industry. Tourism in Cuba is growing faster than in any other country in the world, and it is expected that if the embargo is ended a million Americans will visit in the first year.

Tourists come to Cuba to view the relics of its colonial past and for its beaches. Few come because they want to know the man whose image sold a million T-shirts, or out of curiosity about social engineering. It is a paradox that Western tourism is keeping communism alive, yet the tourists are not here because of their interest in communism; indeed they want no part of it for themselves.

Cuba exhibits the staples of communism - shortages, empty shops, queues, artificial prices, things not working, and a low standard of living (except for the select few). The libreta, a complex and bureaucratic system of rationing, was introduced in 1962 by Che as a temporary palliative to a crisis, and has lasted for more than fifty years. As in communist Poland, most people struggle just to get by. Women ask tourists for soap in the street. Of course, there is a positive side too - medicine, education and housing are free for all, and basic foods are highly subsidised through the libreta.

By contrast, the US is a free country with a high standard of living where things work and shops are over-stocked. Yet in the US medicine, education and housing are expensive, and there is a whole under-class that cannot afford these basics. In Cuba, things are pretty much the reverse.

In terms of Jungian psychology, Cuba is the US's shadow, ie the disowned part the US does not want to see and pretends does not exist, although it is right next door. For all its faults, the Cuban system can prick the US conscience because it embodies the notion that every person matters and should be provided with the basics of life, regardless of the cost of this to the state.

For the Cubans, the US epitomises the Other, ie what is foreign and dangerous, yet at the same time attractive. There is the siren call of pursuing material riches untrammelled by notions of social responsibility.

It may suit Castro to have the Yankee bogeyman just 150 km away across the Straits of Florida. It helps unite the country and makes his warnings to defend the Revolution more credible. Also, many of the shortages can be (justifiably) blamed on the embargo.

Actually, Uncle Sam is not glowering across the water but is squatting right on Cuban soil. Guantanamo Bay seems like a weird aberration. I used to wonder why Castro allows the US to keep a base there. The answer is simple enough. The US soldiers are there and Castro lacks the military clout to expel them.

Cuba is an oxymoron - a frozen revolution. Yet since the fall of the USSR, it has begun to thaw. Having lurched all the way to the left fifty years ago, it seems the only way for it to emerge out of stasis was to move towards the centre. Only by allowing more capitalism, with the inequalities it engenders, can the living standard of ordinary Cubans be raised. This is the uncomfortable truth the Castros are struggling with.




PS My reflections on Cuba garnered some comments at the Havana Times. Most are negative and not all that interesting (though not because of being critical). The most interesting comment is this one by Marlene Azor Hernandez, which I have translated:

"Whereas the article writer understands some things, others he does not. Education and medicine in Cuba are universal but not free. All the citizens have worked to sustain the system, whereas the administration of the treasury has been a disaster since 1959. One should note the charisma of the cult of personality. The unitary propaganda of all the official media praises the brothers, however, it is only a propaganda mechanism without any alternative, and an unctuous, repressive regime. Obama is popular in Cuba. The libreta rationing is only bureacratically administered ten days per month, the rest one has to buy using a currency that is devalued by a factor of 25. [She is referring to people being paid in the local peso but buying food using the foreign peso, which is worth 25 times more.]

"People do not matter in Cuba, the daily arbitrary treatment of the citizens, originating from the government and the public officials; the current situation is one of disregard and abuse of the people. I don't know how long the young [sic] author stayed in Cuba. He has discovered some things, but he has not understood the severity of the national drama."

Marlene's comment recalls what my mother used to say about communism in Poland, that people were treated like cattle.

Tad Boniecki

September 2016


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