June 2, 2007


A Cuban death rehearsal: With Fidel Castro apparently on the verge of death, I returned to Cuba to visit old friends. Little has changed over recent years and life for most Cubans remains harsh. Yet western visitors continue to romanticise the place (Bella Thomas, June 2007, Prospect)

[T]hrough my diplomat, I became privy to a stream of fascinating meetings with former comandantes, ministers, diplomats, writers, priests, youth leaders and musicians in icy air-conditioned protocol rooms at the opera and in sumptuous embassies built by the sugar barons of the early 20th century. I also got to know Cuba's would-be teachers, lawyers and businessmen, and their extended families. These people became friends. They were a few of the many who had been let down by the revolution and who had no way to make a living in Cuba unless they dealt on the black market, which was a dangerous exercise and anyway could barely bring you a staple diet. I also met people who had been imprisoned for their political views, or for carrying out acts merely deemed to be suspicious.

And so I spent the late-1990s discussing change in Cuba on many a rocking chair in many a collapsing building. I spent long hours trying to decipher the circuitous nature of people's attitudes. People abroad assumed that the end of the Soviet Union would surely mean the end of Castro's regime too. The subsidies and inflated prices for Cuban sugar that the Soviets had paid had come to an abrupt end: how could the regime survive? Scores of journalists turned up in the 1990s to chronicle the fall of the last communist domino. A book with the title Castro's Final Hour was published in 1993.

What observers at this time most underestimated was the power of the regime's nationalist rhetoric and Castro's strategic skill. Unlike in eastern Europe, where nationalism helped to erode communism, Cuban nationalism has shored up the regime. Castro was always a nationalist in communist clothing, and, throughout the 1990s, the communist references in his speeches were gradually replaced by nationalist ones.

The continuing hostilities with the US have played into Castro's hands. It was as an embattled nationalist leader of a small island, standing up to an aggressive, neighbouring superpower, that Castro preserved his revolutionary credentials most effectively. The shortcomings of life under his regime were, he argued, attributable mainly to the US embargo. Many swallowed the argument. He knew, too, how to capitalise on the latent anti-Americanism in Latin America, Europe and Canada to give his struggle more universal appeal.

In fact, the regime seems to act with zeal to ensure that the embargo continues. When it looks as if the US government might consider ending it, some heavy-handed Cuban act ensues that the status quo prevails. In 1996, when Clinton was keen to initiate rapprochement, the regime shot down two US planes manned by members of a Cuban exile group rescuing those escaping the island on rafts. When, in 2003, an influential cross-party lobby in the US seemed set to dismantle the embargo, the Cuban government promptly incarcerated 75 prisoners of conscience and executed three men who hijacked a tugboat with a view to getting to Miami.

Castro survives because of other factors too. There are new strategic relationships with Chávez in Venezuela (which provides cheap oil) and, more recently, with the Chinese (who provide much of the new electronic equipment, as well as an economic model that Raúl is said to favour). There is the revamping of the Cuban tourist industry (and the related restoration projects in old Havana and elsewhere), which is attracting hard currency after the harsh but overdue demise of the sugar industry. (Until 1989, sugar accounted for 75 per cent of Cuban exports; it is now below 10 per cent.) There are the billions of dollars of remittances that Cubans in the US send to family in Cuba every year, an essential prop to the Cuban economy. Then there is the fact that most of Castro's sternest critics have left the country, mainly for the US. (Convicted dissidents are sometimes given the option of simply leaving Cuba rather than face prison.) The fact that Cuba is an island makes any mass exodus or return—factors that helped to trigger the revolutions in eastern Europe—unlikely. And Castro's elision of the arguments of the dissidents with the machinations of the superpower is a ploy that, for nearly half a century, has stifled insurrection.

This does not mean that those still in Cuba are acquiescent or happy. They are far poorer than their eastern European counterparts were in 1989: the average wage, at $20 a month, can barely feed a single person for a couple of weeks. You cannot spend any length of time in Havana without noticing the lack of food for the majority of Cubans. The mother of a friend, an old lady who lived in one tiny rotting room in a former brothel with her son, gets by selling matchboxes to her neighbours, having stolen them from the factory where she worked. Another acquaintance keeps pigs on her balcony and sells pork to a few locals. The luckier ones sell cigars or taxi rides to foreigners. An elite work in hotels.

When the Soviets pulled out, the government reluctantly turned to tourism to stave off bankruptcy. The business started in enclaves in a few prescribed zones, on the basis that foreign influences might be quarantined. But tourists were always going to be drawn to the city centres. And the presence of tourists has inevitably revealed to Cubans the depths of their poverty and repression. Tourism has enriched some Cubans and given others decent jobs, but it has also undermined the status of those in less lucrative but better qualified professions.

Healthcare and education are supposed to be the redeeming graces of the regime, but this is questionable. There are a large number of doctors, but, according to most Cubans I know, many have left the country and the health system is in a ragged state—apart from those hospitals reserved for foreigners—and people often have to pay a bribe to get treated. Michael Moore, the American film director, who has recently been praising the system should take note of the real life stories beneath the statistics. I went into a couple of hospitals for locals on my latest visit. In the first, my friend told me not to say a word in case my accent was noticed, as foreigners are not allowed in these places. I was appalled by the hygiene and amazed at the antiquity of the building and some of the equipment. I was told that the vast majority of Cuban hospitals, apart from two in Havana, were built before the revolution. Which revolution, I wondered; this one seemed to date from the 1900s.

On another occasion, I saw a man in a white coat with a stethoscope around his neck hurrying along the boulevard of Vedado, in west Havana. We struck up a conversation. He was on his way to the hospital around the corner. I asked him if he would take me there. He was charming and intelligent, and had that ease of communication that many Cubans possess: he wasn't at all taken aback by an unknown woman in dark glasses asking to accompany him to work. The doctor told me that I shouldn't be too shocked; the hospital was being "refurbished." The building certainly was in a state of filth and decrepitude. This was not a place one would want to be ill in.

There are success stories, such as the biotechnology industry, but these are exceptions. Most Cubans know this. Most also know that liberalisation is vitally needed, but they are cautious about speaking openly, partly because they have too much else to think about (such as how to get food), partly because living under a dictatorship generates extraordinary levels of patience, and partly because questioning the regime can lose you your job or even land you in prison. Also, whatever the iniquities of the current system, there is still a certain sort of fear about what may be in store once the regime passes and, in some cases, there is even an affection for a tyrannical parent figure.

There are plenty of visitors to Cuba from rich countries (including a disproportionate number from Britain) who believe they have encountered a true alternative to capitalist democracy. Why? Perhaps it is a way of keeping alive the idea of some ideal society, without having to experience the disadvantages oneself. It may also be a facet of a general dislike of the US, or a way of expressing unease with capitalist excesses. But it is also, in all probability, related to a nostalgia for the political certainties and the handsome design of the 1950s and before: the cars, the bars and the glamour. It is not for nothing that Cuba sells itself with the music of the pre-revolutionary period. If North Korea had charm and salsa and innuendo and beaches, perhaps a lot of politically naive people would be advocating its merits too.

The Cuban people have paid a heinous price for JFK's timidity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 2, 2007 12:00 AM

Timidity or cowardice?

Posted by: Palmcroft at June 2, 2007 11:00 PM

Cubans may not have access to modern technology or the latest miracle drugs, but soap and water seems to be available, so there's no excuse for filth and decrepitude. That doctor should be ashamed of himself or maybe that's the standard for third world socialist hospitals. It sure was when we had the occasion to visit an emergency room in the capital of La Belle.

Posted by: erp at June 3, 2007 9:01 AM