My wife, Rosario, and I were among the first non-Cuban Americans who are permitted to fly directly from JFK to Havana. We qualified because our son, Tom, has a working resident visa in Cuba. We stayed for a week.
Cuba is very different from what I had expected. Cubans are proud of their Revolution and how they have had to pull together and improvise in order to sustain themselves in the face of the American embargo and the withdrawal of Russia’s support. Chinese investors have filled that vacuum but they are not popular among most Cubans as elsewhere in Latin America.
Cubans are very hopeful about the new relationship with the United States that President Obama has made possible. The opening will have its challenges.
On the one side, the Helms-Burton Act mandates the embargo. This prohibits the exportation of U.S. goods to Cuba and the importation of Cuban goods to the United States. The current congressional majorities in the United States strongly support the embargo. On the other side, the Cuban government does not want to erode the moral and political capital of the Revolution by opening up too indiscriminately to American capitalism. What Cubans emphatically do not want from the United States is a lot of low-paying, mass production jobs in outsourced American factories as in Mexico, or the state of virtual dependency as in Puerto Rico.
The relative absence of crime, drugs and racism in Cuba speaks to the well being of the Cuban society, if not economically then certainly in terms of the benefits provided by state supported compulsory education and by health care for all. The cost of Cubans’ education through college and the graduate level is paid by the government. You can tell the level of schooling students are at by the color of the uniforms that they wear. Good doctors are abundant in Cuba. A concerted effort has been made to recruit and train “revolutionary doctors” from the lower income population.
Military service (the emphasis is on civil defense) is another pillar in the Cuban social structure. A three-year military stint is obligatory for both sexes but the state makes sure that the drafted person’s place of employment is kept open to him or her until their obligation is met.
A critic might say that there is no drug problem in Cuba because nobody has enough money to buy drugs. A critic might also say there is no crime because there is no property or money to steal. I think these contentions miss the point. Despite dire economic conditions and the attendant frustration, doing crime and drugs would mean betraying that sense of revolutionary solidarity which still permeates Cuban society.
Besides Cuba, the major leftist social revolutions in Latin America in the last century were in Mexico (1910) and Bolivia (1952). I taught these latter two revolutions for 30 years at the Colleges in my Latin American politics course. Within two decades of their respective outbreaks both of these revolutions were headed toward center-right positions marked by growing accommodations with the United States. The revolutionary drives were lost. The Cuban Revolution is 55 years old and shows no signs of losing its steam. The one fear the government has is that too much abrupt American influence will break down the Cuban sense of revolutionary solidarity that has thrived on American efforts to overthrow Castro and isolate Cuba in the hemisphere. At the same time, the government must recognize that U.S. participation is needed if the stagnant Cuban economy is to be developed and the living standard improved. A gap is evident between the number of highly educated persons and the number of jobs commensurate with their education that are available to them. One of our cab drivers was a music teacher. The other was an engineer.
As far as racism is concerned, the first thing one notices is the fluidity of relations among the three components of the racial structure: one-third Afro-American, one-third mulatto, one-third white. I asked our cab driver in Vinales, a city in the interior, about this, and he agreed that fluidity was an apt word to describe race relations in Cuba. A white himself, he included among his best friends and relatives many Afro-Americans. I pressed him a little on this and he did observe that among the prison population in Cuba, Afro-Americans are disproportionately represented. So there are traces of institutional racism but by and large race does not seem to make much difference to Cubans.
On the day before we left Cuba, Tom, Rosario and I attended a “briefing” at the American embassy. I didn’t like the way it commenced. The speaker, an economic officer, noted somewhat gleefully that he could observe that many new cars had appeared in the last two years since he had been there. The streets were no longer filled with all those 1950 American cars. This was supposed to be evidence that inequality of income was appearing in Cuba, a sign that socialism was failing. I think he missed the whole point. The 1950 vintage cars are monuments to the ingenuity of the Cubans. They embody and symbolize the proud, can-do Cuban spirit. The new cars may represent people, including this particular officer, with more money than the drivers of the old cars. But as far as learning what is right about Cuba and what is wrong I would rely more on the testimony of the drivers of the old cars than the drivers of the newer ones. Significantly, many of the the drivers of the old cars are precisely the younger Cubans. With a few exceptions, we made it a point to flag that 1956 Chevrolet cab instead of the 2016 Toyota cab.
What about the absence of political democracy in Cuba? Do Cubans hope for some democratic guidance from the new relationship with the United States? I am not sure that we are in the best position to instruct Cubans on the virtues of democracy. Most Cubans we talked to are shocked by the current American political situation and our recent presidential “debates.” If that’s democracy, they don’t feel they need it.
I did however ask one cab driver what he thought the chances were for presidential elections in Cuba.
“About the same,” he said, “as the Yankees ever reaching the playoffs.”
Whether he was rooting for the Yankees or not I do not know.
Tom Millington, Finger Lakes Times
November 20, 2016