The real Cuba

December 11, 2016

Memories of Castro’s Cuba from nearly a decade ago, an embodiment of the left’s values preserved through the years

The real Cuba

As I finished my degree in policy studies in the heart of the American establishment in Washington DC, I decided to visit Cuba to assess the idealism of the left -- which until the early 21st century Latin American renaissance had no other place to look to but Cuba.

I wanted to evaluate my neoliberal education which saw socialism and communism as defeated ideologies. I wanted to experience a society that had been closed to the outside world except for its doctors, its president and most importantly its aura that discredited numerous development theories by delinking GDP per capita and human development.

As I walked out of the airport after a thorough baggage check, the pace of life around me slowed and I saw a billboard-less landscape: A world devoid of advertisements where no beauty showed herself off to sell a mobile phone or a designer dress.

Instead, on occasion, revolutionary political memorabilia adorned billboards or stone carvings coerced the inattentive population to the values of the Revolution -- the Cuban Five currently in jail in the US for espionage charges or the first Cuban hero Cespedes who freed his slaves and took up arms against the Spanish. When asked by the Spanish to lay down his arms for the life of his captured son, he instead adopted the whole Cuban nation as his children, ultimately sacrificing his own life for the aspiration of independence.

Cuban nationalism is nothing new and what the Americans never understood was that the Revolution was first and foremost the voice of Cuban independence with organisational ideologies of socialism only a far second. This nationalism still peeks from every nook and corner, a proud people who disagree with their government, its economic and restrictive social policies but who also possess the collective confidence to want to decide their own future.

The very first thing that hits you in Cuba is the peacefulness. Even Havana, a city of 2 million boasts a relaxed life. This is a far cry from the utter chaos of Lahore traffic or from the insatiable wants of American life with every conceivable consumer item.

Their uniqueness lies in their social milieu which blends together descendants of African slaves and European colonisers into a nation of every hue that seems to transcend race differentials to a visitor’s eye, a centurial dream maybe for the American nation.

Explaining race, a professor with whom I shared an apartment with said that the Revolution ended objective (state policies) racism; however subjective racism still existed.

My first visit was to the Plaza de la Revolution (Revolution Square) which has defined Cuba since 1959. On one side, a 13-storey building adorns the immortalised image of Che Guevara which has become a symbol of resistance across the world.

Plaza de Revolution

However, if resistance was the symbol of the Cuban state, then what was the role of Cuban society? This hinted of a totalitarian state that allowed no space for difference of opinion, because the state itself encapsulated dissidence. The Cuban state restricts freedom of movement and only citizens who get a job in Havana can move there from other areas. Because, the state employs the vast majority, it dictates the terms. Similarly, the state requires an elaborate process to visit other countries.

But is this enough to render Cuba as an ill-conceived societal experiment? In Fidel Castro’s own words "Condemn me. It does not matter. History will absolve me". But, will it?

The very first thing that hits you in Cuba is the peacefulness. Even Havana, a city of 2 million boasts a relaxed life. This is a far cry from the utter chaos of Lahore traffic or from the insatiable wants of American life with every conceivable consumer item -- even commoditised yoga lessons. That said, the Cubans always seem to be waiting for the next already-packed bus. Some use curious open pickups packed to the hilt with people standing as if they are cattle, challenging the contemporary notions of human comfort.

But then Cuba has defined its own priorities and its own value system. While the buildings of old Havana are crumbling, the only sites which do compete with sites of American multinationals or Pakistani military establishments with their well-kept lawns are schools, the pre-school day care centres, the special music and technical schools and the teacher education universities. A tv sits in every classroom of a primary school and every child under 7 gets a litre of milk a day. There are no street children, no beggars, no homeless piled as they do in the parks of Washington DC less than a mile from the White House.

The Revolution brought real freedom to Cuba, a dream articulated by its founding father and poet philosopher, Jose Marti who died fighting the Spanish in 1895. Following nationalisation of the economy, the elite and part of the educated professional class left the country. The huge government mansions such as our Governor House in Lahore, private mansions and houses left behind were converted into schools or houses shared by the poor and homeless. The large agricultural estates were divided among peasants who till an average of 4-8 hectares. Though the property belongs to the occupant who has paid an equal sum to the state, it cannot be sold but only exchanged. Thus, a legal land and housing market with its associated speculation, overnight riches and low-income housing shortage as in Pakistan does not exist.

But what does exist is a drastic housing problem for all and a foremost issue for young couples who can’t find privacy in shared homes.

As I made my way from Havana across the island to Santiago de Cuba, the rhythms and landscape changed as this hilly town had a distinct African flavor because of its population. All around Cuba, kids played baseball, some with the ball and others with a stick and a bottle cap, while the popular music rage at the time was Reggaeton. On my way, I visited a tobacco farm for a sense of what made Cuba cigars famous -- especially the Cohiba. The other highlight was visiting Che Guevara’s mausoleum in Santa Clara as much more than Fidel, it is Che who is omnipresent in Cuba, and thus symbolises the Revolution.

As I reached back Havana at night, short on money, I requested the taxi at the bus stop to take me some place cheap, and ended up in a room on the 3rd storey apartment of a Cuban family that seemed hooked on Mexican soap operas played through their illegal cable connection. To my astonishment the next morning, this room was in the heart of Havana Vieja (old Havana). Though run down, this old broken home still had marble stairs of the olden days. But more importantly, as I walked out, I felt as if I was in a museum surrounded by beauty.

But life in Cuba is tough. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and thus Cuban trade benefits, along with the perpetual American embargo, Cuba opened up to the world leisure class. Tourism now constitutes 40 per cent of the economy with the immediate outcome that two classes are emerging in Cuba -- one that works in the tourist industry and the other that does not.

This differentiation is mimicked by the two currencies: Cuban peso in which locals are paid and Cuban convertible peso, a $ convertible currency, and expectedly most well stocked markets and restaurants use Convertibles. Further, other than the few hotels, select homes are designated as Casa Particular, which act as Bed & Breakfast for tourists.

All Cubans I talked to stated that the economic system of the island needed reforms because the current restrictions on free enterprise leads citizens to live double lives. In generalised terms, the state only provides 10-20 per cent of the monthly living costs, a government salary of 300-800 Cuban pesos ($14-$32) takes care of another 40 per cent. Thus most Cubans are still 40 per cent short which is made up by a second or third job -- an illegal business, selling cigars illegally, or prostitution.

Cuba is thus gradually losing its national pride as its citizens do not interact with rich tourists on an equal plane. The younger generation is restless and wants the freedom and capacity to visit the best hotels and resorts reserved for tourists. While they understand the values of collective good, they at least want the chance to earn a better living. E.g. a software engineer who wanted to work with a Spanish company over the internet while contributing to the nation through his university employment, was instead penalised by the university authorities for not attending patriotic functions.

The Cuban revolution has no doubt done wonders for its population through a collective human dignity which is unmatched in the "underdeveloped" world as well as the US. But times have changed and the same system now hinders fulfillment of human capacity and Cuban national pride. The bureaucratisation of the Revolution is now strangling the energies of its well-educated population, and the longer the current system stays, the higher there are chances of abrupt changes leading to the reversal of the Cuban miracle.

The real Cuba