Observations on Cuba’s reality
These are some impressions by envío’s Honduran correspondent,
who visited Cuba time just before it marked 20 years of its “special period.”
The government is banking on new economic “guidelines” to save Cuba
and its revolution from a prolonged crisis that’s not just economic,
but also social and generational.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
At the end of the 1990s, when the whole world was expecting the end of Cuba’s revolution, starved of oxygen since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the government opened the Latin American School of Medicine (ELAM) to train hundreds of poor young people from Central American countries as doctors. I met young Salvadorans and Hondurans who returned home as medical professionals after years of study. At the same time, when emergency responses to the devastation Hurricane Mitch caused in Honduras were being coordinated in the Sula Valley city of El Progreso, the first effective contribution we had was the arrival of a brigade of Cuban doctors who went straightaway to the least accessible and poorest areas.
“We’ll be waiting for you”Despite the distrust and rejection by the Honduran Medical School, Cuba’s brigades were for many years an incomparable testimony to devotion, austerity and solidarity, values much needed in Honduras.
At that time I had the opportunity to build a close friendship with several Cuban doctors that brought me closer to the reality on the Caribbean island. And when each of them returned to Cuba, they said, “We’ll be waiting for you; you have a house and a family there.” The chance to visit the island finally presented itself, and those friends received me like a relative, with a generosity that far exceeded their means. It was my first visit to Cuba and the following notes, with all their limitations, are the result of my experiences there.
I went in late June for a nine-day meeting of directors of Jesuit social centers in Latin America. I didn’t want to just stay in the meeting, held in an enormous building belonging to the Catholic Church in Havana. I decided to walk through the streets of the clearly unpainted and dilapidated capital, explore the pathways of its neighborhoods, look beyond what tourists’ eyes observe and what Cubans present to them in the old city center. I took buses and spent three days exploring this beautiful island, the biggest in the Caribbean. I had a chance to see the fields, the crops in peasant areas and, more importantly, to listen to people from different professions and jobs. I was in the central province of Ciego de Ávila and stopped off in the provinces of Cienfuegos, Matanzas and Santa Clara. In all these places I learned about Cuba’s controversial political, social and economic reality.
Strangled by two blockadesCuba is like someone caught in a noose, just before strangulation. Its oxygen is so scarce that anyone hearing its moans can’t be sure it will survive if the noose isn’t immediately removed and first aid rendered. It’s being suffocated by 50 years of a severe economic and financial blockade imposed by the United States, which preaches a free world while squeezing a whole society. But it’s also being suffocated by the ideological and mental blockade of Cubans themselves, imposed by a system that has eliminated private initiative, concentrated the main means of production into state hands and conditioned the whole of society to accept as truth whatever the leaders of the revolution hand down. This socialist State denounces the Empire’s blockade while maintaining its own regarding news, ideas and the Internet. One 60-year-old peasant from the island’s central region, who has spent his whole life working at the service of the revolution, told me that he had cattle, but hadn’t tasted beef for almost a year. He’s prohibited from selling or buying it, punishable by 15 years in jail. “The cows are mine,” he told me, “but I can’t slaughter a single one. And I can only sell them to the State at the price it dictates.”
The suffocation has a high cost The Cuba of this second decade of the 21st century is no longer the Cuba of the generous and selfless devotion of young revolutionaries guided by Fidel’s illustrious figure and the omnipresent bearded and youthful face of Ché Guevara. It was still that Cuba in the sixties, seventies and eighties, but in the nineties it fell into a depression from which it has never recovered. Today it is administering a crisis and the international ups and downs are sinking it further, rather than helping it stay afloat, as I’ve gathered from listening to political and economic analysts. This prolonged suffocation has had its human, social and ideological costs among the younger generations. Cuban youth choose to pass on the speeches and calls for sacrifice and devotion of years gone by.
Young people still see the effigies of the revolution’s heroes, but their gaze locks with equal force on the shortages and absences and on the octogenarians whose faces appear free of wrinkles and gray hair in the historical photos. Young Cubans don’t want to be heroes or look like heroes. In the streets of Havana and the towns of inner Cuba young people are listening to reggaeton music. They follow and want to be like the stars of that booming music that comes via Miami or Puerto Rico. They’re taking a pass on the 20th-century communism of their grandparents and parents, eager to wear jeans and sneakers, with their gaze fixed on the sea, looking northward.
Tremendous cultural developmentI was impressed by the cultural development and quality of Cuban society. Out of all the countries I’ve visited in Latin America, I’ve never come across anything comparable. In a provincial city I met a couple of guys, one 20 years old and the other 15. The former is finishing a major in computer sciences, and despite the absence of Internet, his knowledge and ability to manage the information left me astounded. I asked him general questions about Cuba and in the couple of hours shared with him I learned more about Cuban history, the Guantanamo military base, the island’s musical wealth and the different stages of Cuban film than I could ever have read.
The 15-year-old is still in pre-university studies and his fondness for reggaeton ties in with his love of the arts. He plays the guitar and violin very well and is part of a band in his small city. I came across at least three bands in Havana’s plazas, all well equipped and playing Beethoven, Mozart, Stravinsky and Vivaldi rather than martial music.
Instead of just watching and listening to the bands, I concentrated on the audience’s attention and interest. I got the impression that the people listening knew and enjoyed what the bands were playing. In another plaza I came across a trio of comedians entertaining people by laughing at everyone, none spared: they poked fun at the gringos, the meat rationing and even the everyday connivances to avoid state coercion. They said that there’s now a very special pot in Cuba that announces when the food being cooked is done. If you’re cooking rice it makes one whistling sound and if you’re cooking vegetables it makes another whistling sound. But if you’re cooking beef—whose sale and consumption is prohibited—it just whispers.
While I was walking through Old Havana, which is organized for tourists, I ran into a group of young people walking down the street on stilts, acting out a play with strong social content as they went. I asked if that cultural expression was common and they told me they performed once a week. It would be very difficult to find anything of that nature with such frequency in any other Latin America city.
Happy voice, sad gazeCuba is no longer the island of Silvio Rodríguez’s emblematic song La era está pariendo un corazón [The era is giving birth to a heart] or of the equally legendary Pablo Milanés’ Himno de la unidad latinoamericana [Hymn of Latin American Unity]. Both are more legend and nostalgia than current reality. They are relevant, their songs are still being played and their records still sell in the shops, but they no longer express the atmosphere of daily social and political life.
Today’s Cuba is still the Cuba of the eternal Caribbean rhythm, but even those beats have a touch of melancholy. One evening while we were eating at a Havana restaurant, a trio was playing and I looked at the face of the woman singing “Son de la loma y cantan en llano…” [They’re from the hill and sing like plains people…]. It’s a vibrant Cuban popular music beat, but while the woman sang with a happy voice, her eyes stared off into nowhere, seeing no one. Happy voice, sad gaze. What was going on in her heart? Surely a bit of both: Cubans’ innate happiness and frustration with a life of such narrow horizons.
The group Buena Fe, formed in Havana in 1999, sings about the Cuba of this 21st century. This group hasn’t broken with the “new troubadour” movement of the 20th century’s last three decades, but it has established a discontinuity due to its critique of a revolution it doesn’t reject out of hand, but whose very foundations it questions. With catchy rhythms and the government’s dubious acceptance, Buena Fe doesn’t hesitate to use its songs to question official truths. In its song Lo que no fue [What wasn’t] the group raises its latent criticism of a revolution that still sustains itself with symbols anchored in the past: “Because everything that was and isn’t, is like it had never been…. Never caress a story, as even the fairest idea is poison if you fanaticize it … There are no absolute truths like money doesn’t make you happy…”
“Melecio was right”In Cuba’s rural self-identity, Melecio Capote represents the wild guajiro—peasant—who wanders freely and can’t be controlled. After the arrival of the revolution, the mythical Capote tenaciously opposed its socialist proposal to control the land and cooperative organization, to the point of becoming the typical reactionary peasant. Fifty years later, that peasant unease has translated into growing demands. They want direct access to the land, to grow for themselves and to administer their own profits; and are against the official dynamic of cooperatives and peasant production based on state planning.
Buena Fe takes up this character, vindicating him and turning him into a song with a happy, catchy rhythm: “Melecio Capote was a radical guajiro who didn’t believe 100% in all that about ANAP [National Association of Small Farmers] and cooperativization. He was excommunicated for refusing to live with the dream…. Melecio Capote said very simply: My small farm is mine; if not, I don’t want it… Peasant, here’s the motive of so much concern. Although it hurts me to admit it, Melecio was right. I went to the cooperative, Melecio was right. And I lost the initiative, Melecio was right. I have no quality of life any more; Melecio was right.”
The two HavanasWalking through the streets of Old Havana, two mutually exclusive realities cross paths. There are the shops, restaurants and organized recreation areas for tourists, mainly from Europe. There you can buy and sell everything using convertible currency. Crossing these spaces are the Cubans selling peanuts and candies, shabby musicians offering their songs with old drums and guitars, and young mulata girls—and boys—also offering themselves particularly brazenly to passing tourists. All you have to do is veer off one of the main streets and push into that other Havana to see it packed with men, women and children sitting or walking parsimoniously as if going nowhere and with a discontented look also fixed on nowhere, like someone who hasn’t come from anywhere and has nowhere to go. That’s the impression I had of the mood of that Cuban population, their faces matching the faded, unpainted buildings, where old rags hung from rooftops and garbage was piling up in the neglected streets, all just a few meters from the streets organized for tourism.
That night, after wandering through those two Havanas, we were shown the Cuban film “Suite Habana,” which has won a long list of national and international prizes. It’s about daily life in Havana and uses real-life characters. We watched the film with an extraordinary ingredient: the director, Fernando Pérez, was sitting with us.
Our long conversation with Pérez, who’s about 60, confirmed what I had perceived on the streets: life has increasingly been stripped of dreams for the inhabitants of Cuba’s capital. When asked by the director what her dreams are, the oldest lady in the film sadly replies, “I no longer have any dreams.” The revolution, with all its symbols, stopped being a novelty a long time ago, and many Havana inhabitants sustain themselves with the illusion that someday, walking along the waterfront, they’ll come across a boat that will invite them to cross the seas, heading for an unknown place where everything can be better than they have known over the revolution’s five decades.
“What’s my problem?”The following are two accounts I heard directly: “I’m a doctor and I practice at a clinic in my barrio. I feel very happy about my profession and know that the State has guaranteed health for everyone. I see my patients right here in my house because the clinic is downstairs and my home is upstairs. All the neighbors from the blocks around here are my patients. If anyone has a serious illness, I refer them to the regional medical center, and from there they refer them to the hospital, if need be. The care provided is very competent, even if the equipment is obsolete.
“So what’s my problem?” she asks rhetorically. “It’s that because I’m a doctor I can’t leave the country. I’ve got a sister in Spain and she’ll pay my fare to take a holiday there. I’m not at all interested in leaving the country. I feel good and want to continue building my life here, serving my people. But I want to see my sister who I haven’t seen for 20 years. And I can’t. If I were to decide to go on my own, I’d have to quit my profession, work for another five years on other jobs the State tells me to do and only then would they allow me to visit my sister. But when I came back I’d never be able to practice as a doctor again.”
“I’m disenchanted”“I work in a foreign exchange bureau. I’m head of personnel. They pay me better than many people in my barrio, around 500 Cuban pesos a month, which is less than US$16. My father is 80 and he and my mother educated me through their example and dedication to the revolutionary values. I love my country and have been devoted to the revolutionary cause during my 50 years, fulfilling the tasks assigned to me. But the situation is unbearable here. My husband had to leave the country because we were starving here. He went to Miami and works as a truck driver. He was the same as me, committed, but we couldn’t endure the situation and he decided to go. I never wanted to leave, but now I don’t want to continue here anymore.
“I’m disenchanted. As part of my work I accompanied a group of foreign tourists to the beaches of Cayo Coco one day. When we were going in, they welcomed everyone but told me I couldn’t enter, that it was forbidden for me to visit those beaches. Can you believe it? They forbade me, someone who loves my country so much, from visiting my own beaches? And I know from my work that the top leaders have all the permits and perks. What about the others, those of us who have given our lives for the revolution? Why aren’t we allowed to? It’s better for me to go. I don’t want to stay in my country, being maltreated by my own compatriots.”
A dead-end economyCubans are squeezed by an economy that’s basically a dead-end street, despite the efforts and decision of the Communist Party to push new “guidelines for the economy” based on reactivating production, with slight openings and concessions for small-scale private enterprise. Above all, they are based on the sacrifices and discipline forged over more than 50 years promoting a socialist proposal that demands austerity and perseverance.
In a conversation with a top leader of the party’s Central Committee, she recognized that the economy is unquestionably the greatest challenge and the area where one can find some of the errors leaders like her would dare to recognize. Among the most serious problems is the parallel currency, a system hard to understand with disastrous effects on people’s lives.
During the longest stop made by the bus taking me to one of the island’s eastern provinces, I was struck by how few sat down to eat at the restaurant even though we had 45 minutes to wait, had been travelling for over three hours, it was midday and we still had half of the journey ahead of us. Yet a mob of people got off to buy very light refreshments at the next station, where the conductor announced just a five minute stop. My traveling companion explained, “That’s because you can only pay with CUCs [Cuban Convertible Pesos] at the previous eating place, while here people can use Cuban pesos.”
The double currency dramaThe CUCs have no support in the bank because they have no link to production. The State created them to capture foreign currency. A CUC is equivalent to US$0.87 cents and to 25 Cuban pesos. Normal Cubans have Cuban pesos in their pockets and only tourists have the convertible money. At least that’s the way it should be, but economic life is actually governed by other kinds of logic related to hardship and survival.
In reality, the number of shops and places that only accept convertible currency is increasing. If Cubans want to eat in a restaurant where the bus makes its main stop, they must have convertible currency and that means having to change their pesos into CUCs. The average Cuban earns around 200 pesos, which works out at 8 CUCs. I paid 6 CUCs for my lunch, 1 CUC for a drink and 25 cents of that currency to use the restroom. Then I left 75 cents in a small container of the duo in the restaurant singing typical songs from the province of Cienfuegos, where we were at the time. In other words, I left behind in that restaurant what a typical Cuban earns in a month.
What about education and health?There appears to be no solution for an economy designed this way, at least as long as everything remains under total state control and there are no incentives for personal and private initiative. Naturally, the issue of Cuban and convertible pesos doesn’t tell the whole story. Each person receives a monthly ration of basic foods at subsidized prices, including rice, beans, oil and chicken or fish, but the amount provided only covers many families for the first ten days of the month. Children receive food at school and workers receive it at their work centers. The same can be said of various social rights, as people have full access to health and education, the latter to such a degree that legal mechanisms establish jail sentences for parents who don’t send their children to school.
However, the quality of education has fallen and the health centers lack almost everything. Someone who had just been operated on in the most complete hospital in Havana told me he had to take his own lamp with him because there wasn’t one in his room. The health centers in the provinces are in worse condition, as I was able to verify during visits to two of them. Built in the seventies, they have had no repairs or maintenance since and have the same equipment they had back then. And although people have work, the low salaries don’t even cover their basic needs.
The mental blockadeThe economic guidelines recently approved by Cuba’s Communist Party talk about opening the doors to microenterprise, doing away with the convertible currency, strengthening salaries and keeping on until the subsidized food supply card disappears. Before, soap and other products were sold with that card, but their sale has now passed to the market and, despite the low prices, they are no longer accessible.
People tell me the State accustomed them to receiving everything, albeit in small amounts and of a bad quality. That created a culture of dependence, so the population isn’t very motivated to put much effort into work and production, doing things indolently and with minimum effort.
This is the mental blockade the government has created, a subjective one that goes hand in hand with the external economic blockade. It is known and perceived that corruption abounds in the activities of middle and top leaders. But everyone turns a blind eye, waiting for their chance to personally benefit from state and public resources.
Although the State has tough coercive measures for those who commit such crimes, the impression is that it has reached a stage in which connivance is accepted between what the State demands through its austerity policies and the “resolve” of individuals to take from the State what allows them to survive.
“I love this revolution”Cuban humor hasn’t lost its creativity, despite the crisis and disenchantment. Cubans say that Superman decided to visit Cuba, but couldn’t take off when he was leaving. Looking over his shoulder he saw 50 Cubans hanging on to his cape.
After hearing about so much disillusion, I met a university geography lecturer who goes around by bicycle, austerely dressed. He told me a lot about Cuban geography and culture. At the end, he was direct and frank: “I’ve lived and made too many sacrifices here during my 60 years to want to leave and set up in another country. I was born here and I love this revolution with all of its defects. I’ve visited other countries and seen their advantages, but nothing could be stronger than my life and work in my country.”
The third big crisisI took the following notes on what most struck me from what I heard from various analysts and many corridor chats.
* The economy hasn’t been able to get back on its feet and become self-sufficient. At the end of 2011 the State will freeze
the deposits of foreign companies in Cuba, which is resulting in their withdrawal. Supply shortages have become more acute in 2011.
* This is the revolution’s third great economic crisis. The first was in 1961 when Fidel Castro declared the revolution’s socialist orientation and the economic blockade started. The second came with the fall of the Soviet Union, which heralded the initiation of the “special period”—reduced social care and increased supply shortages and production losses. The consequences of this second crisis were never sorted out and Cuba is now facing its third big crisis.
* The army is the most successful in managing the Cuban economy. There’s an urgent need for a process to open up the economy. It’s based on subsidies, but as it’s impossible to subsidize tourists for what they consume, we have two currencies: the Cuban peso and the convertible Cuban peso, although the latter doesn’t have reserves to back it up in the Central Bank. The guidelines have timidly opened the doors to small-scale industry, but if you open the door to a tiger that’s been caged for 53 years with only vegetables to eat, it’s only going to be looking to see who to eat first…
The party or the government?Cuba is living through the twilight of its current leadership. Fidel Castro’s absolutist and centralized leadership has been determinant. His word has defined everything, particularly in the economy. Such leadership is very hard to replace, and any possible successor who appeared immediately disappeared. Given Fidel’s illness and no successor, his brother succeeded him.
To the surprise of many, Raúl has been able to handle himself well in his brother’s role. Recently, in response to political pressure from the “Ladies in White” who were gaining sympathy among diverse social sectors, including young people who normally don’t express themselves, Fidel emerged to divert attention toward the threat of a third world war. There are power groups that back one brother over the other, which generates tensions. Fidel’s group says you have to close ranks in response to the changes, while the other says the time has come for more openings. Power has passed from the group of one brother to the group of the other, with whom the army’s influence weighs heavily.
Although the internal struggle is latent, there’s consensus around the changes, which are still small and cosmetic. Raúl has started to say that “the government rules here, not the Party anymore,” which indicates internal political tensions, given that the Party has had and still has greater decision-making capacity than the government.
Church and StateThe Church-State rupture came about in the first years after the declaration of socialism, moments of great tension with the Church linked to the oligarchy. After breaking with the Church, the revolutionary leaders began to break with religion, but that started to change in 1986 with the publication of Frei Beto’s book Fidel and the Revolution. This process materialized in the Pope’s visit in 1997. Since then, “being Christian is good again.” The Constitution has been reformed so it no longer defines the State as atheist and establishes the freedom of worship. Today, the government is seeking allies given the need for changes, and the Catholic Church is the strongest institution in Cuba after the State and the party.
Over half of those who now attend church didn’t do so for most of their lives. While the older ones have returned, it is still with a great burden of guilt. One lady told how for many years she was insulted and maltreated by a neighbor from the Revolutionary Defense Committees because she attended Mass. Today they sit next to each other in the same church pew, but they haven’t talked about it and both still bear that unhealed wound. They know their reconciliation is still pending. It’s pending for the whole of Cuban society, which is surely the most injured and broken society in a continent crisscrossed by economic, political and ideological abysms, ruptures and separations.
Conclusions?Here’s a brief summary of my look around, which pulls together what I heard from Cuban analysts:
Cubans have experienced a very authoritarian regime. And when that happens, people develop an attitude of giving up both their rights and their responsibilities. The population receives food, employment, education and health in exchange for obeying the regime to the point of losing freedom. Sexuality is one of the few spaces for freedom left to the youth, but it is a freedom understood as uncontrolled, doing whatever you want to.
The Cuban Church has tended to reproduce the same authoritarianism it criticizes in the State and party. Given the lack of liberties, it closed ranks, tending to leave little space for internal freedom.
Very few in the Church have learned about the new theological, ecclesiastical and pastoral currents, and only very recently was there a belated opening up to the renovation in Latin America brought about by Vatican II and the documents of the Latin American bishops based on Medellín in 1968. Given a State that preached non-belief and scorn for religion, the Church’s defense consisted of anchoring itself to the hardest, most dogmatic lines of the past.
The openings have come about mutually, with the State opening up to dialogue with the religious reality and the Church opening up to the new currents. The visit of Pope John Paul II was decisive in achieving these openings. We were told this by the Cuban Communist Party’s religious affairs minister: “We are currently enjoying the best moment in the history of relations with the churches, particularly the Catholic Church.”
Cuba is a country of personal, family and ideological ruptures and uprooting. There were ruptures in families, and when those who left return, it produces emotional charges that reach beyond ideological matters. The first generation emigrated with pain and for ideological reasons. The new generations go because they feel the system their parents believed in and worked for isn’t working. They leave out of desperation and disenchantment. The dreams have run out. The revolution has lost credibility among a great many people and the blockade no longer works as an excuse. How can the youth be re-enchanted? It isn’t a desire to lose the revolution, but rather to transform it. Most people want their history. They don’t want to lose it, but rather to redefine its course. As one Jesuit told me, “It isn’t the end of the blockade that will lead us in another direction. It’s about building bridges.”
Seeking bridgesI don’t whether I heard it or dreamt it, but I ended my journey and my observation with this formulation, which sums up what I was trying to say in these notes: “Cuba saw the construction of a socialist proposal that progressively advanced towards a state and party totalitarianism that wore itself out and at this point in the 21st century no longer offers a solution if the same political and economic patterns are maintained. Cuba can only survive if there’s a rupture.”
In our countries we have market totalitarianism,which has forced millions of young people to emigrate or look for violent solutions. That system excludes millions of people and denies them basic goods, while generating a growing and unstoppable concentration of wealth in fewer hands.
While that’s not the case in Cuba. totalitarianism of whatever stripe ends up crushing dignity and freedom and disillusions people. It’s up to us to find bridges between one system and the other. It’s up to us to rupture not only the deification of the State and its leaders but also the deification of capital and the market, until we have put people’s dignity at the center of all political and economic activity.”
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduraws.