On May 1, I stood in Havana’s Plaza de la Revolución transfixed by my first in-the-flesh sighting of a communist autocrat. A few hundred feet away at the base of the towering monument to 19th-century Cuban nationalist José Martí, stood 71-year-old Fidel Castro.
Around me, thousands of people swirled, part of the giant street party that is the annual May Day parade in the heart of the crumbling capital of Castro’s decrepit worker’s paradise.
I felt I was experiencing something special, something that soon will be swept away forever. Castro was all of 31 when he seized power in 1959 and instantly became the symbol of youthful revolt that inspired the young leftists of the 1960s. His socialist Cuba was to be the model for a world that soon would be transformed by revolution.
But the young revolutionary had given way to the old man standing before me, and his revolution, once vibrant and new, was now shabby and exhausted.
Cuba no longer is a beacon to the future. Instead, it is a historical backwater in a world that has moved on, a relic of a bad idea whose time, whose century has come and gone.
The slogan “Socialism or death!” once inspired revolutionary fervor. Now it is more likely to elicit a tired and cynical, “What’s the difference?”
When Castro disappears into senility or death, so will his revolution go. It is slipping away from him already.
After spending a week in Havana this spring on assignment for my newspaper, The Columbus Dispatch, I returned home convinced more than ever that the United States should lift the embargo against Cuba.
Not because I like Castro or Cuban communism, but because I think lifting the embargo would destroy Castro’s regime.
Without the embargo to inflame Cuban nationalism and to blame for the economic failures of his revolution, Castro would be stripped of the last excuse he has for the decades of unnecessary privation and repression he has inflicted on the Cuban people.
If the U.S. embargo were lifted, the full force of American culture and commerce would hit Cuban shores like a tidal wave, sweeping away whatever loyalty to Castro and socialism remains there.
In fact, this already is happening on small scale, and the results have so alarmed Castro and his inner circle that in the past year the Cuban government has significantly tightened the screws on dissenters and independent Cuban journalists and expanded the list of crimes punishable by death.
The irony is that it was Castro himself who opened the door just a crack to freedom and unleashed forces that are trying to push it open even wider.
When the Soviet bloc dissolved at the beginning of the 1990s, Cuba suddenly lost the $5 billion to $8 billion in annual Kremlin aid and trade that had kept the island afloat for three decades.
Unable to produce enough food, Cuba’s people began to go hungry. Without the generous Soviet oil subsidy, transportation and industry were paralyzed. Without hard currency to pay for them, no food, fertilizer or oil could be imported. Left to stand on its own for the first time in 30 years, Cuba folded.
Beginning in 1993, with people eating banana peels just to feel something substantial in their stomachs and with the populace suffering an epidemic of blindess and paralysis linked to vitamin deficiencies, Castro borrowed a page from Lenin’s New Economic Policy of the 1920s and turned to capitalism to save socialism. He legalized the U.S. dollar and opened the door to small-scale private enterprise.
Farmers markets, private taxis, auto repair shops and small restaurants sprang up. Just as it did for the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, this limited opening to free markets pulled the Cuban economy out of its nosedive. Suddenly, there was food again. Not much, but enough.
At the same time, Castro intensified efforts to lure joint ventures with foreign investors, with much of that investment poured into Cuba’s tourist industry, a generator of desperately needed hard currency.
Suddenly, Cubans could buy food and consumer products that hadn’t been available for years. Well, some Cubans could do this, those who had access to dollars, either from relatives in the United States, or who worked in the tourist trade, serving wealthy foreigners. These lucky folk, about 81,000 of the 11 million Cubans, often make more in tips in a day than most Cubans earn in a month. That’s not hard to do when the state-mandated salaries for all other Cubans, even doctors, range from $10 to $20 a month.
Those relying on such miniscule state salaries spend much of it buying food in private markets to supplement the inadequate rations the government provides to each Cuban.
American and European goods can be bought at special state stores that traded only in dollars. Those with only Cuban pesos in their pockets are left to press their nose against the window.
This dollar apartheid is carried further in the tourist industry. Hotels and restaurants catering to foreign tourists are off-limits to all Cubans except those employed there. Any Cuban caught trying to enter, even with an invitation from a tourist, gets the bum’s rush.
My tour group’s hotel, the Habana Riviera, built by American gangster Meyer Lansky in 1958, was hermetically sealed against unauthorized Cubans. Numerous security men stood at the entrance, thoughout the ground floor of the hotel and especially at the lobby elevator to ensure that no Cubans got in.
One even guarded the stairway to the lower level, where the hotel restaurant laid on a smorgasbord at breakfast and dinner that included food in a variety and quality that many Cubans haven’t seen, much less tasted, in years.
Naturally, the inequalities between those Cubans with dollars and those without, and between deprived Cubans and pampered foreigners, has provoked a lot of resentment in a society officially committed to egalitarianism.
Cubans squeaking by with government salaries—many of them highly trained professionals—resent their nouveau-riche comrades who earn fistfuls of precious dollars each day simply by driving a private taxi or cleaning toilets in a tourist hotel.
The incongruities that result have inspired some biting and bitter humor, such as the joke about the pathetic neighborhood blowhard who tries to impress people by telling them that he drives a taxi, when everybody knows he really is only a brain surgeon.
Alarm at this relative explosion of privately generated wealth extends into the highest reaches of the Cuban society. After Castro legalized small enterprises, the Cuban entrepreneurial spirit, crushed for more than three decades, ignited like a rocket. Soon more than 200,000 people were reckoned to be involved in private enterprise and many were making money hand over fist.
Hardliners in the Castro’s inner circle demanded that such shameless prosperity be reined in. The result was a sharp increase in taxes on private enterprise, driving thousands of entrepreneurs out of business. In a recent count, the number of people officially estimated still to be active in legal private commerce had been reduced to 130,000.
Of course, this small capitalist class is probably just the visible portion of a much vaster enterprise, the underground economy. Every socialist society that has ever existed has rested on a capitalist foundation. Socialism is so profoundly inept at meeting basic material needs that citizens are forced to resort to the black market.
In Havana, the fact that a cop is stationed on virtually every block is a tacit admission of this fact. Everywhere, police stop Cubans to demand their identification and to inspect the packages they are carrying, questioning them closely about where they’ve been and where they’re going. My tour group’s government-supplied guide explained that the purpose of the cops was not intimidation of the populace, but to stop black-market activities. Perhaps one has to be a communist to understand such distinctions.
The Cuba I saw is subsisting, not prospering. Foreign investment still is estimated at $2 billion or less since 1990. Cuba, with virtually the same land area and population as Ohio, had an estimated gross domestic product of just $16.9 billion in 1997. Ohio’s gross state product was $342 billion in 1998.
Castro likes to blame the island’s poverty on the U.S. embargo, as if Cuba cannot and does not trade with Canada, Mexico, South America, Europe and Asia. While it’s true that Cuba could import many items more cheaply from the U.S. than from more distant places, such as Europe, the U.S. State Department estimates the embargo only adds about 5 percent to the cost of Cuba’s imports. That seems a reasonable estimate, but even if the added cost is double that, it wouldn’t explain Cuba’s economic anemia. No, the real problem with the Cuba is socialism.
The condition of Havana alone speaks volumes about the bankruptcy of Castro’s centrally planned economy.
Collapsed buildings and heaps of rubble can be found in every other block. Estimates of how many buildings fall down each year range from 80 to 300. On one main street, a former commercial building six or eight stories tall is a gutted shell, its roof and upper floors gone. Only the second floor remains, heaped with rubble in which palm trees have taken root and grow through window frames.
Once-magnificent buildings are pocked and stained with rust and grime, while inside, their spacious interiors have been converted to warrens of tiny apartments to provide housing for the city’s 2 million residents.In many multistory apartment buildings, the elevators no longer work.
From formerly elegant balconies and windows, each family’s meager laundry hangs to dry, the banners of the enthroned proletariat.
The broad boulevards that once rivaled in beauty those of any in Europe are a grimy gray and fouled by auto exhaust, some from ancient American sedans from the 1940s and ’50s, the remainder from belching Soviet Ladas and Moskviches.
In a city that once was a vibrant 20th-century metropolis filled with lights and movie stars, it now is common to hear roosters crow and see wagons pulled by oxen.
In Havana and throughout the country, the infrastructure is ancient, decayed and inefficient. For example, the phone system, now being upgraded in a joint venture with an Italian company, is a relic of the 1950s, built and formerly operated by ITT.
The Partagas Cigar Factory, where some of the world’s most famous cigars are made, is an ancient multi-story firetrap where 600 workers labor by hand without air-conditioning and virtually no machinery. Granted, handrolling is a plus in cigar manufacture, but even in the accounting department, the only business machine in evidence was a scabrous typewriter that looked like it hadn’t been used in years. Production records were kept with pencil and paper.
The public transportation system is equally backward. Havana residents sometimes wait for hours for one of the peculiar Cuban buses, called “camels”—two semitrailers welded together and pulled by a semi tractor. There is no schedule. It is common to see scores, even hundreds of people sitting, standing and milling around a bus stop, waiting. And waiting.
Others ride bikes—tens of thousands were imported from China after the loss of the Soviet oil subsidy. Two, three, four people—in some cases an entire family—perch precariously on a single bicycle.
Cubans are proud of their ability to make do, and to repackage bane as blessing. Bicycling is not just an fuel-free form of transport, it’s good for you and doesn’t pollute. Lacking fertilizer, Cubans have discovered the holistic wonders of organic gardening. With medicines in short supply, herbal remedies are all the rage.
This make-do spirit is an admirable alternative to despair. And the fact is, however they may act when they’re among their own, toward guests Cubans are as sunny and warm as their island. They welcome visitors, even those who have been their enemies for 40 years.
In fact, the cheefulness Cubans display toward foreigners can have a curious effect. It’s easy to begin to think that perhaps things aren’t all that bad on the island. It can seem that despite the poverty and the political repression, that maybe the Cubans really do have something special, a way of life that emphasizes human connections, interdependence and egalitarianism. And if that’s the case, why fuss about the lack of basic freedoms?
But this attitude is condescending. It is the height of elitism for those who enjoy the freedom and affluence provided by liberal democracy and free markets to suggest that the people of Cuba or any other backward, repressive place are content with their lot and therefore have no need of the institutions of liberty.
Of course adversity can bring out the best in people, revealing unsuspected reserves of courage, resilience, ingenuity and generosity. Certainly this applies to the Cubans I met.
But it is altogether perverse to suggest that the political system that inflicts that adversity is therefore an agent of good. Castro is not a saint for imposing the privation that forces Cubans to discover the best in themselves.
And those who think Cubans are content with their lot are forgetting the tens of thousands who have set sail on rafts and inner-tubes through shark-infested waters to escape such a blessed existence.
Last year, the United States held a lottery to distribute some of the 20,000 visas allotted each year to Cubans who want to emigrate to the U.S. When officials were finished counting, they found they had 540,000 applications, equal to a quarter of the population of Havana, or one of every 20 Cubans on the island.
Yet Castro and his revolution still have a small cheering section, as I discovered after returning from Havana and writing a number of stories about Cuba for my newspaper.
Apologists for Castro take a few basic tacks. One is to divert attention to all the other nasty places in the world. One critic of my stories complained that I hadn’t noted the poverty, misery and violence in Colombia. True, but I didn’t visit Colombia, I visited Cuba. Beyond that, I have to wonder how the existence of nastiness in Colombia excuses the nastiness in Cuba.
The other tack is to excuse Castro because Cuba has literacy and infant mortality rates as good as those in the developed world. This is the familiar leftist double-standard. Collectivist regimes, which get most things wrong, are praised to the sky for getting a few things right. Liberal democracies, which get most things right, are utterly demonized for getting a few things wrong.
It is particularly ironic that Castro’s defenders should seize on literacy and infant mortality statistics in his defense. All those who survive infancy thanks to Castro spend lives stunted by poverty and repression, also thanks to Castro. The populace may be educated, but the regime tells them what they are supposed to think, read and write.
Most fascinating among the members of the Castro fan club here in the United States is an organization called Pastors for Peace, a subsidiary of the leftist Interreligious Foundation for Community Organization.
IFCO is headed by a Baptist clergyman in New York named Lucius Walker. According to Walker, Cuba is among the most democratic societies in the world, a place where human need is put ahead of capitalist greed. If human rights sometimes are violated there, it is only because Castro feels that he is under seige from the United States, which wants to reduce Cuba once again to colonial vassalage.
Not surprisingly, Walker and Castro are pals.
Pastors for Peace organizes nationwide bus caravans each year that travel city to city to collect medicines and medical equipment, clothing and food for Cuba. The caravans then push on to Canada or Mexico, where the buses are loaded on ships bound for Havana. The next caravan is scheduled to pass through Ohio in November.
Even though it is legal for Americans to send humanitarian aid to Cuba by applying for a license from the federal government, Walker and Pastors for Peace pointedly refuse to do so, deliberately flouting the U.S. embargo.
For Walker and his supporters, the U.S. embargo is immoral and the group’s disobedience is intended as a provocation to federal authorities, who so far have stopped short of prosecuting Walker or any of his followers for violations of the embargo.
Pastors for Peace relies on lefty activists and groups, some religious, some not, in scores of cities around the nation. In Columbus, where I encountered them, they met in a Presbyterian church.
There is much about the group that is admirable. They really have moved hundreds of tons of desperately needed supplies to Cuba to the undoubted benefit of thousands of ordinary Cubans, for whom toothpaste, soap and toilet paper are prized luxuries.
More than that, Pastors for Peace has done this in the face of harassment and threats from federal officials. One needn’t be a lefty to agree with the group that Americans have the right to travel and trade wherever they please, short of a declaration of war by the U.S. Congress.
But what is troubling about Pastors For Peace is its hypocrisy. On the night I visited with the local chapter to talk about my trip to Cuba, the members also were reverently marking the 50th anniversary of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, several provisions of which Cuba has violated routinely for decades.
Even more disturbing is a recent Pastors For Peace newsletter that defends, even lauds, Cuba’s recent imprisonment of four political dissidents who had advocated nonviolent resistance to Castro’s authority, just as Pastors for Peace advocates nonviolent resistance to U.S. authority.
The newsletter argued that the dissidents deserved their prison sentences because, among other things, they encouraged Cubans to “engage in civil disobedience against the Cuban regime.”
How dare they!
But I suspect Pastors For Peace will not have too many more years to exercise their political double standard. Castro is definitely old and definitely not immortal, and when he goes, everyone expects big changes in Cuba.
Cubans themselves seem to think that nothing can change until Fidel is gone. That prospect offers hope to many, but also fear that the immediate aftermath will be instability, perhaps bloody civil strife.
That’s a worry shared by American diplomatic officials I spoke with, whose nightmare is a civil war in Cuba that launches thousands of rafts toward Miami.
But whether it is bloody or peaceful, change is coming to Cuba. Castro himself has unleashed it, and he and his revolution appear too old and too feeble to hold it in check much longer.
Glenn Sheller is an editorial writer for The Columbus Dispatch.