Cuba After Castro?
In front of the most popular ice cream shop in Havana there is an oft-photographed billboard -- a photo of Castro, looking old and grizzly but still fierce. He is caught mid-speech, mouth open and soft, finger raised in the air to illustrate his point. Below the photo, in big letters, are the words: Contra el Terrorismo y Contra la Guerra. Against Terrorism and Against War.
It sounds sane and rational. For those of us in the States who have had difficulty stating a similar position without being branded traitors or terrorist-sympathizers, it's inspiring to see the message displayed so openly. But while it continues to provide a measure of inspiration to the solidarity brigades that come from all over the world, increased tourism and continuing shortages and restrictions mean that Cuba is having a harder time inspiring hopefulness and energy in its own people.
One's impressions of Cuba depend a lot on one's expectations. Anyone visiting Cuba, and especially anyone who visited the Soviet Union when there was such a thing or traveled to China in the last 10 years, would probably be pleasantly surprised by the amount of unregulated joy found on almost any Cuban street. People burst into song, play guitar and woo each other by the ocean's edge, and dance so well their clothes seem to want to fly off their bodies.
Returning on a packed truck from a beach in Santiago, I found myself surrounded by dueling songs. A woman would start a song, all the other women would join in, and then the men would respond with a (usually more sexually explicit) song of their own. At a few points, the songs converged and then the whole truck, including the driver, would shout out the chorus (Bad! No! Good! Yes! -- this was the chorus I remember best). I tried in vain to picture my rush-hour subway car, similarly crowded, breaking out in unified song.
There is a physical beauty in Cuba too, that comes from the lack of new resources and the necessity of preservation. Cars from the 1950s are painted with whatever remnants of paint can be found, creating patchworks of green and blue that look like landscapes. Old bicycles become parts of merry-go-rounds. Then there is the surreal and lovely sensation of seeing beautiful old houses so well used. The marble columns of the 1920s are covered in vines, the 100-year-old wrought-iron gates make excellent clotheslines and the curved '50s balconies provide the perfect vantage point for wrinkled old men with their fat cigars to take in the street scenes below. Barefoot children play in old ballrooms long stripped of furniture and curtains. The palaces have truly been taken over by the peasants.
There is a tendency for Cubans to compare Cuba with the U.S. Because of the large influence of Cubans with relatives in the U.S., and the increasingly available access to television and U.S. movies. Cubans see new American cars and myriad computers and appliances, the endless varieties of clothing and the grocery stores and think: Yes, I'd like that. It makes more sense to compare Cuba to Haiti and Jamaica, its two other closest neighbors. Haiti and Jamaica are both capitalist countries whose governments are (now at least) perfectly acceptable to the U.S and they are in far worse shape than Cuba. Haiti is now the poorest country in the Caribbean. It has half Cuba's literacy rate and twice its rate of poverty and infant mortality. Jamaica is drowning in debt to the IMF and most of its people have been stuck in deep poverty for over 40 years.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, and before it relaxed tourism restrictions and legalized "hard currency," Cuba was as close as it had ever been to starvation. But now Cuba -- compared not just to its immediate Caribbean neighbors but to much of Latin America -- looks good. There is no homelessness or landlessness or starvation and very little drug addiction. But Cuba today is a good example of what Che meant when he argued that a "revolution in one country" was only a temporary solution to inequalities.
Tourism may be what is keeping Cuba afloat, but it has also fortified the prostitution and hustling that the revolution sought to eradicate. The legalization of the U.S. dollar has created a two-tier economy, with one market for tourists and richer Cubans and another for most ordinary Cubans, exacerbating class differences. The government's intentions, at least in some cases, are good. While the botanical garden, the zoo, and the museums cost a dollar for me to enter, the Cubans I was with were charged a peso (about 1/26th of a dollar). Yet at the resort beaches and packaged vacation getaways, Cubans who didn't work there were prohibited from the premises.
Most people in Cuba have just enough; enough food to keep them from starving, enough education to keep them literate, enough medical care to keep them healthy (though, thanks to the embargo, not nearly enough medicine), and enough housing to guarantee they won't be on the street. But as many young people expressed to me, enough is not enough. Thanks to government rations, no one is starving, but people are almost always hungry. Especially since the influx of tourists in the early '90s, Cubans have become acutely aware of the differences between their lives and that of their wealthy neighbors to the North. Enough is not good enough when some people obviously have more and the revolution is a mostly rhetorical inspiration.
This seems at the crux of Cuba's problem. The carefully preserved remnants of the revolution (from Castro's blood-stained battle uniform to the horrific photos documenting the Batista dictatorship) and the faded billboards exhorting people to "Be like Che" are not enough to make people feel "grateful" and accept their lack of political and social freedoms. The people I spoke with resented the restrictions on freedom of the press and free speech. They have little choice about what to eat and what to buy.
"We have some good things here," a Cuban friend told me, "but we also want the chance to decide." Maybe he would choose Cuban-style socialism again, he says, but he'd like to find that out for himself. "It's not terrible here," another friend said. "It's just your life feels determined for you before you are even born."
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Reagan was sure that Cuba was on its last legs. "A little tightening of the blockade," went the official rational that led to Clinton's signing of the Helms-Burton Act, and Castro would be broke and begging for help. Then, when Cuba turned to tourism to cover the deficit left by the death of its benefactor, some U.S. analysts and visitors said that Cuba would die softly, drowned under the wave of tourist dollars and hard cash.
Cuba has survived and it will survive Castro's death, but few Cubans seemed to be able to think about what a post-Castro Cuba could or should look like. When speculating on the fate of their country, Cubans still say if -- not when -- Castro dies...and this is usually followed by a shrug of the soldiers.
More young Cubans I spoke with dream of leaving Cuba rather than participating in significant change at home. This seems to me the clearest failing of a socialism that has, in many ways, kept its promises. Many young people don't feel like active participants in a Cuba that is supposedly by and for the people. They don't feel that they make choices, that what they do matters, or that their actions have effects. While many young people feel similarly alienated in the U.S., with all the government talk of enforcing democracy, Cuban planners seem to think that what Cuba needs most right now is tourist dollars. But that leaves little for Cubans to do but serve and hustle tourists.
Some of the ideals of the Cuban revolution -- equality, literacy, healthcare, housing, and education for all -- seem so deeply ingrained in people that they will not go away easily. But it is possible that Cuba after Castro's death will suffer the fate of South Africa after Mandela and find itself saddled with a government -- supported and financed by the U.S., a government elected by the Cuban people -- that "talks left and walks right," that mouths the rhetoric of the revolution, but destroys the institutions that make Cuba so remarkable -- the healthcare, education, and housing systems.
And there is much in Cuba that should not only be kept, but emulated. In front of the Calixto Garcia main hospital in Havana, right above the entrance to the emergency room, it reads: "The life of a single human being is worth a million times more than all the property of the richest man on earth."
It would be worth a lot to live in a country where this sentiment is commonplace enough to be understood as a truth instead of a crazy leftist notion. Even better to live in a country where there is freedom to question even the most basic truths, to choose our paths and actively participate in our future. The alienation that people voice is familiar to those of us from the States, where less than 35 percent of the population votes and where there are only small differences, at least at the national level, in who we can vote for.
In the U.S. we may be able to choose our toothpaste brand or which action movie to see, but we have no choice in how our federal land is used, whether we have national healthcare, and whether we invade and destroy another country. Call it a "Democracy" or call it "Cuban-style Socialism" the struggle is how to have a government that is truly accountable not to its corporations or to its doctrine, but to its people.