Impressions from Cuba
May, 2006 by Mitch Anderson
El Capitolio Nacional, Havana, Cuba 2006 One of the main premises of Communism is the eradication of private property. Realistically, it's very hard to apply such a thing, and each communist country that I've visited had their back door to just "having stuff". Some say property is part of the human nature, however Cuba's war on private property is one of the toughest I have seen.
Minutes after arrival, our guide explains to us that if he wants to work for any other entity than the government, he would not be allowed to use his degree or knowledge.
So get this: even some of the knowledge of his brain is considered the property of the government.
Parking lot - you can own a car only if it is older than 1959, Havana, Cuba 2006.
Having a car? A number of Russian cars have been given to hard working people in the 80's as a privilege for their contribution to society. Privilege, not property, because they are not allowed to sell them: the title is not transferable. The same goes for the houses, you can only inherit one, but not buy or sell it. Interestingly enough, the government did not confiscate the cars or houses people owned before the revolution of '59. I think it would have antagonized too many people. They just made them un-transferable. Sooner or later, the cars become un-repairable, the houses cannot be maintained because of the poverty, the owners just age and die, and they become property of the state, so in a generation or two, private property will be eradicated completely.
Hanging out in Havana, Cuba 2007 © Eleanor Marriott Disregard the published statistics. If you walk the streets, eighty percent of the Cubans are black. The troubling fact is that despite all their social reform, the country is very racially segregated and somewhat at peace with this fact. On TV I get to observe that the national assembly is 90% white. Also their actors, anchors, singers, commentators, professors, and book authors are also 90% white. On a smaller scale, at the hotels, all the bellboys and doormen were black and the clerks and managers are white. Interracial couples are rare.
Cuban racial segregation is so obvious, and, thinking of how much the US struggled with this problem, I go ahead and ask our guide about it. To my surprise, he did not try to deny it as the party line would have expected him. He even added that virtually all the university staff and students are white. So we explain him that in the US we had the same problems, but we have all kinds of programs that promote black people in higher levels of society to make them examples for others, and to make them feel represented and accepted in the mainstream. "As a socialist country, Cuba should be way ahead of us in integration" I propose. I ask what they're doing about it.
Cubans playing their music in a large Havana square. Havana, Cuba 2006
He acts very confused about our "affirmative action" programs and it seems he has never heard of such a thing before. He tells me about Cuba that "You can't erase 400 years of slavery overnight", so segregation is an accepted fact of their society. Later that night on TV, a propaganda cartoon shows what would happen should Cuba be again under the US umbrella. A white, fat, middle-aged American is reforming the Cuban school system, making it expensive, and turning back the black students from the school doors. (Because gringos are racist too) After that they show a lot of classical music and European ballet. I wonder how many Cubans relate to that. Go figure.
Will the system survive?
A walk in the park can make you instant friends. Most of them unwanted, beggars and prostitutes. However, I've been approached by this smart looking white couple in their mid twenties. They were very friendly, and curious to pick my mind. They seemed open to have an open discussion so I plunged in. She was a student - Philosophy, and he was a dentist. They explain to me that their system works in ways that I can't understand because I am used to have certain freedoms that are not compatible with Socialism. For instance, they have their own frustration with society, and they are free to criticize their system, but only inside their mind, but not verbalize. I reply that I am a believer of an open society, where the leaders have to know about the issues of the nation and therefore can make things better. How could you have a wide participation of the masses in the leadership if speech is suppressed? I challenge them. By now, he is a bit irritated, but she's still patient with me. She said that each system has its advantages and disadvantages, and it would be really hard for me to understand the blessings of Socialism after 2 days in Cuba. She argues that I only notice the things I'm used to have in my life in the US, but not the blessings of the system.
A letter written by the twelve-year-old Castro to U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, expressing admiration and asking for a $10 bill. 6 November 1940
I ask them if the system could survive Castro's passing away. I get an absolute yes, from both of them. They tell me that the toughest crisis is gone. It was in '93, after the Soviets did not support them economically. Now things are a great deal better. New cadres are trained to replace Castro and take the revolution a step farther.
Later on, I asked a taxi driver the same question. He was openly frustrated with the system; said he hated it. He told me again that the system will survive, because there is a whole class benefiting from it.
Latter in the trip I had a really interesting conversation with another taxi driver. He explained to me that the system (Communism) was working out great until Gorbachev got bribed with money by Reagan and Thatcher and therefore he betrayed it. He still believed that Communism is a far better system on its way back, and Cuba will become a regional leader, and possibly a world leader one day. I asked if he traveled anywhere, and he said he went once to Nicaragua where he helped some tribes to fight disease and illiteracy, and he thought Cuba's so far ahead... I found some sense of respect for him for being a true believer. Then I reminded myself that Communism was brought here by Cubans, and was not imposed by Russian bayonets like in Eastern Europe. Somehow, it still does not seem to work.
Rationalized food store in Havana, Cuba 2007, © Eleanor Marriott The first time I heard that a lot of people make between 8 to 12 USD a month, I could not believe it, but it was true. They could live on that for having a food distribution system highly subsided by the government. The ratios are small. One pound of chicken per person per month, 5 pounds of rice, 5 pounds of sugar. cooking oil. We visited one of these food stores and found out that not even these ratios were in stock all the time. These are mainly the only things you can buy with their national pesos. Now, there is another class of people, the ones that have the much desired "Peso Convertibles", an artificial currency at par with the US Dollar. To get the Convertibles, you've got to be a party member, or someone working outside the country. Foreign tourists from decadent capitalist countries are only given convertibles, giving them the freedoms to buy what they want where they want it.
Despite of the few consumer products, blue eye contacts somehow made it to Cuba. Havana, Cuba 2006
The country is seriously impoverished. Luckily for Cuba, Venezuelan president Chavez supplies them with oil, virtually free. Then there is some tourism, some cigars and sugar export, and that is all in terms of production. No industrial base has been built after 45 years of planned economy. That surprised me. All the Eastern block countries built industries. Most of them unproductive, but a lot more than nothing. Havana harbor did not receive one single cargo boat in the day we spent there. We have seen children begging and young men begging, and rampant prostitution. The state runs absolutely all enterprises. Funny enough, they do have a foreign investment office. It seemed a lonely place, there was no-one inside. The ideology is to confiscate all private property, but they also seemed interested in foreign investments. The pitch is: "We confiscate everything sooner or later, but if you want to build a hotel or a factory here, for you we will make an exception for you, for some time.". Any takers?
Anti-American propoganda, Havana, Cuba 2007 © Eleanor Marriott
Corruption is rampant. Taxi drivers don't run their meters; hotels don't give you receipts; cash is king, and there is a whole underground economy. They exchange favors, goods, and do whatever it takes to get pesos convertibles.
Cuba prides itself in two things: Free medicine and great education? I got to admit that a lot of beggars and prostitutes approached us repeatedly speaking pretty good English, using past tense and fancy words. You just don't get that in South America. It makes you reflect on the value of education and its application. I make a point of visiting bookstores in every country I visit, and Cuba was no exception. In the 20 minutes we spent there, there were almost no Cubans visiting the bookstore, just foreign tourists, and not one book was sold in that timeframe. The censorship was tough. Most of the books were communist propaganda, great authors like Marx, Engels, Mao, Castro of course, and a few Americans, Howard Zinn, Noam Chomsky and Ward Churchill. I got to admit that there were also some classics of international literature.
School boys and girls, Havana, Cuba 2007 © Boqueron
I was also surprised to find out that few Cubans were able to speak the proper Castilian Spanish. It made me wonder about their 99.9% literacy rate. Reading just did not seem to be a common pastime for the mass majority. As a result, the government reduced the total number of papers and magazines to the grand total of 3. In the "best educated" South American country, this seems to be a rather small number. I bet Ethiopia has more papers.
I looked them over. They all agreed that the US is the leader of terrorism in the world for not extraditing Mr. Posada Carriles. I thought they had a point, but I somehow have a feeling that they agree all the time about everything. It saves paper to agree, I guess.
2008 © Mitch Anderson.
Mitch Anderson is the producer of the film "The World Without US" . This feature-length documentary debates the implications and consequences of US military involvement in the world today. Future scenarios in the absence of the US intervention are well debated and substantiated by experts and ordinary citizens whose lives have been affected by the American presence in different regions. World renowned author Niall Ferguson PHD brings his insights along side James Lilley (Former US Ambassador to China) and many others. For more information and trailers please see http://www.theworldwithoutus.com