The blog has been so silent recently because my wife and I have recently been cycling across Cuba. Raul hasn’t quite yet transformed the island into a broadband paradise, so blogging proved impossible. I’m going to write more at some point, but overall the trip was a revelation. For me Cuba has always been a political abstraction – an unlikely aberration in a warming world (in more ways than one) rather than a real place with people in it. I’d read Che and some of his biographies; i’d flicked through the articles on the Bay of Pigs and the missile crisis; I knew all about America’s trade discrimination and the exploding cigars. I imagined it’d be a bit like an enlightened version of other supposedly Communist states like Laos or Vietnam. I bought the standard line that you “have to visit soon before the regime collapses”.
The regime isn’t going to collapse soon. Power isn’t vested entirely in the current Castro just as Fidel didn’t rule with an iron fist. There’s a complex democratic structure including an elected national assembly, a council of ministers and a council of state. A successor to the President will be found, and likely not a revolutionary capitalist. Reuters describes Vice President Jose Ramon Machado Ventura as a “hardline communist ideologue and old guard revolutionary,” whatever that means. People can vote out their national assembly member if they want, very much unlike in the former Communist countries with which Cuba is often unfairly compared. Foreign analysts (mostly US-based, and trotting out the standard tropes about human rights and democracy) have so often been proved wrong about the collapse of the system because they are blinded by a desire to see the Castros crumble and because their liberal ideology fixates on personalities. They can’t see the wider political and social structures that underpin the regime.
Local politics is probably more responsive than it is in the US or UK. The opportunities for Cubans to influence politicians are ample. In seven weeks we met not a single person who wholeheartedly opposed the Castros, even though many grumbled. Even Granma, the dull and staid national paper, features critical letters. Maybe the lack of obvious outright opposition is because people were frightened of talking to tourists, but I doubt it. Almost everyone was grateful for the free, excellent and universal healthcare and eduction. There is a doctor per roughly 117 people and the achievements in schooling since the revolution are astonishing.
Another thing which struck me was the degree of racial and sexual equality. There appeared to be almost no discrimination against coloured people. Women were to be found in most professions. The orchestra playing a concerto by Rodriguez in Santa Clara, the town where Che is buried, featured two female conductors and was almost exactly split 50:50 between blacks and whites, roughly mirroring the racial composition of the country. How many coloured people do you see in a British orchestra? How many women conductors?
The support for the system was marked: a lady called Terisita who we stayed with in the same town said she’d spent 10 years in Florida but came back in 2010 because she “didn’t like the United States”. Life was too hard, medical treatment over-priced, and the pensions too low. At the age of 80 her dad still had to work as a porter in an expensive condo.
A 21-year-old we met in Trinidad who’d grown up in Canada said he loved his country but wanted to be allowed to travel more, criticising the cost of Internet access and the lack of foreign TV (the X-Factor isn’t all that great, I wanted to tell him). He was no anti-Castroist; just a reasonable critic.
The former TV journalist we stayed with in Havana was equally mild in her objections, saying that the government’s big mistake was to neglect infrastructure and the maintenance of buildings in Havana. I agreed. It was troubling to see the old city crumble, and despite the empty roads being ideal for biking it couldn’t have been much fun for locals to rely on sporadic bus transport or hitching. She said her reporting used to go uncensored although she never directly criticised the president.
Cuba’s main problem is probably not internal instability but low wages. The tourism boom is in effect a confrontation with capitalist prices. Doctors earn about $25 a month, which is ridiculous given that Casa Particulares (a bit like bed and breakfasts) charge the same per night. We met several medical professionals moonlighting as taxi drivers in their time off. Ordinary low-skilled employees of state companies earn about $10 a month. That’s fine when the cost of living is so low (I particularly enjoyed the 20-cent pizzas), you receive daily rations of bread and other staples and when electricity and water are provided virtually free. When the country was shielded from outside contact the domestic pay structure probably worked, but with the influx of tourist dollars the system malfunctions.
I’m not one of those naive materialists (like most Marxists and neoclassical economists) who believes that people are motivated only by money. When your country is emerging from a brutal dictatorship and when real change is being built, you probably will work for a shared ideal. The lingering willingness to work for the common good was remarkable. But when the social contract breaks down it seems less likely that people will put up with poor pay.
But why are salaries so pitiful, and why has Cuba had to rely on tourism so much? In large part it’s because of US trade sanctions (Venezuelan oil is another economic lifeline). In a particularly rash outbreak of US hypocrisy, the Helms-Burton legislation passed under Clinton in 1996 not only bans all American tourism and trade with Cuba but discriminates against foreign companies which invest in or export to the country. This staggering violation of international trade law (OK, Cuba isn’t in the WTO but the US gets militant about much lesser matters) is a bit like Britain being prevented from trading with mainland Europe. The UK would no longer to be able to access the £18 billion worth of goods it imports from Europe each month or to export products worth £12 billion. Tourism and investment would be a fraction of what they are now.
Given Cuba’s lack of access to normal international markets it has little choice but to rely on foreign visitors for its hard currency.
So when people talk of the Cuban system ‘failing’ or of its forthcoming downfall, i’d say the point is not so much the inadequacies of the current set-up but its amazing resilience in such a hostile environment. Discussing Cuba’s undoubted flaws is perhaps to get things the wrong way round. The country shows what’s possible rather than what isn’t. Maybe i’m like one of those misty-eyed 1960s leftists who flew out of Havana full of hope for humanity. But in a cynical world, full of nit-picking and pessimism, maybe a bit of hope is no bad thing. Cuba at least shows that things can be done differently.