Reflections from Cuba

ImageDriving through the warm wet wind into Habana on the night of my arrival, the only billboard I see reads “Fin a la Injusticia!”

That’s the kind of advertising I can get behind. I needed to be reminded who those five faces were alongside the slogan. A vague, forgotten memory from nearly 20 years ago, of a bogus trial in Florida that committed five Cuban agents to too-harsh sentences: they were investigating violent anti-Castro groups that had terrorized Cuba, but were accused of spying on the US military. Someone compared the fairness of their trial in Miami to a trial held in Tehran for an Israeli spy.

Despite the Five–and the half-century-old Embargo– I feel no anti-US sentiment from people. Unless you count the Rincon de los Cretins– the Cretins’ Corner– a mural in the Revolution Museum in Habana, which depicts caricatures of Batista, Reagan, Bush I and Bush II, thanking each of them for their key role in fostering the revolution and socialism. Ha.

Instead, there’s Coca-Cola almost everywhere, although officially Coca-Cola does not sell its wares to exactly two countries in the world: Cuba, and North Korea. But Mexico and other places funnel it in. I bought an adorable toy VW beetle cunningly fashioned from a Coca-Cola can, its license plate a tiny Cuban flag. I thought of it as a little Fuck You to Coca-Cola, this tiny marvel of workmanship, for which I paid 5 Convertible pesos to the artist, about five times as much as the beverage sold for in Cuba, virtually none of which went into Coke’s pocket. But maybe it’s just the opposite, evidence of the losing battle to global brands and the free market.

Certainly the Cubans are glad to have Coca-Cola, and Nikes, and Colgate toothpaste, and a host of other US brands that sneak through into the limited commercial realm and are available for ridiculously elevated prices in the Convertible peso (roughly equivalent to the dollar, and worth about 25 times as much as the actual Cuban peso, of which Cubans receive 20 per month in Guaranteed Minimum Income..)

And when I bring up how beautiful and amazing and peaceful it is to be someplace with NO ADVERTISING AT ALL (not counting the billboards for the End of Injustice or “Your Example Lives, Your Ideas Endure” alongside Che’s winsome face), the Cubans mostly shrug, no comment.

When I tell A., who chats me up outside the Santa Clara church where his job is playing the piano, that I have come to his country from Germany, he clutches his heart: oh, you have such amazing cars there! I would give anything for a German car! I tell him that I think Cuba has the most beautiful cars in the world–have we ever designed more aesthetic stunners, automotively-speaking, than in the 1950s? Even the Ladas and Trabants running around are heartstoppers..!  Linda, pero loca, I can hear him thinking. Most Cuban men, by the way, are definitely channeling machismo; but the Cuban women, better represented in government and in all professions than almost anywhere, don’t seem bothered. With humor and grace they indulge the masculine energy, and get on with things. I find Cuba’s form of the gender dance frankly refreshing, invigorating.

In a clinic in Cienfuegos, posters on the wall list the prices of all manner of procedures, from angioplasty to xrays, in the convertible peso, 18,000 or 66,000 for this or that, but “FOR YOU, ALL FREE,” it pointedly reminds Cubans. Like most places, the clinic’s in need of paint and repair, but it gets the job done. (Ah, until the roof caves in, which happens with relative frequency.)  Cubans live longer (average til 78), with better teeth and better health, than most places in the world. And Cuba is a leader in pharmaceutical innovation and in the production of cheap generic medicines which get shipped around the world to needy places (as do their excellent doctors): what happens when medicine is not controlled by profit-driven corporate leviathans.

We stop at a corner in Old Town Habana to peer into a home for pregnant girls without family support. They live there for free until the baby is brought safely to the world; after having had the option of a safe and legal abortion also paid for 100% by the government.

In general, people seem very aware, awake, their glances shrewd. This in contrast to the sense I have in many other supposedly better-off places, where all but a few folks are glazed over, zombified by consumerism and the work mania that drives it, clutching purchases to their chests in self-defense.

You get the sense, my friend M, a fellow ex-pat American, reflects about his own travels in Cuba, that the Cubans know what the Truth is, even though they can’t openly speak it, but in the USA, people don’t know the Truth anymore, so lost in the fuzz and distraction, the stress and the shopping.

Something like this, I felt too. Although I have a complicated relationship with the idea of an objective Truth.

I’m left with a sense of outrage at the people who call Cuba a failure, another example of how socialism failed.

Here is an island nation that was self-sustaining until 1500, when the Spaniards invaded, killed off the vast majority of inhabitants, cut down the vast majority of the trees, and made it basically into a sugar factory on the backs of stolen, brutalized Africans. Not unlike The Lorax.

With Independence from Spain in the late 1800s, Cuba basically became a colony of the USA for almost another century, with half the country’s farmland owned by the United Fruit Company, until the Revolutionaries succeeded in 1959.

So we’re talking about some 450 years of an exploitative export-based economic system, until the the key active player drops out and enacts an embargo. Then Cuba scrambles to find someone else to buy its sugar (and fruit, nickel, and cigars) in order to make ends meet, keep people fed, keep machines running, while simultaneously overhauling the system and implementing the new populist dream. So the USSR takes over as the new main buyer for a few decades before collapsing.

Despite this– although there were very, very lean years, after the crumbling of the Soviet Union, and then again since the global economy went Boom in 2008/2009… the Cuban people did not starve to death (in fact, the reduction of richer foods and less petroleum-based agricultural practices translated to significant health benefits). And today, Fidel himself has admitted that the old centrally-planned Soviet-style model needs to be abandoned. Cuba is embracing worker-ownership /cooperatives, alongside independent self-employment.

So: failure? I did not see any more failure in Cuba than I do in the hordes of unemployed youth in Greece and Spain, or in the masses of people living out of their cars and clutching onto foodstamps in the USA after losing their homes to nasty big banks. Poverty is not dignified in any of these places. The lack of free speech in Cuba is an abomination, but is there really free press and speech any more in the world of corporate media conglomerates and Snowden and Assange? OK, I know that’s an unequal parallel, and that our freedoms of speech, and even of the press, are stronger. Still, you get my point about where we’re drifting..

And finally, the conclusion that a socialist system and/or a guaranteed minimum income makes people lazy also enrages me. A group of foreign tourists in a Habana museum, for example, comments on how the staff are sitting in chairs on the balcony, chatting, rather than working, as we pass. I am reminded of my friend T, a former Ossi, who says the East Germans were always accused of being lazy as well. Instead, she says: we worked hard when there was work– very hard. But when there was no work to do, we didn’t pretend we were working. In capitalism, most people spend a lot of time pretending to work.

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