CUBA- A MUSEUM OF COMMUNISM
Facts about Cuba.
Area: 114 524 km˛. Population in 1999: 11.179.700. Capital: Havana with 2.250.000 in 1998. Independent from Spain since 1898, but dominated by US until the revolution January 1 1959. President: Fidel Castro Ruz. Literacy rate: 98%. Infancy mortality rate (until one year) in 2000: 6.4 pr. 1000 (better than US).
What follows are mainly based on my travels all over Cuba from January 31 to March 19, 2003. I travelled alone and spoke with a lot of people, mostly in Spanish. If you want to know more about Cuba you will find Internet references at the end of the article.
Cuba’s form of communism.
Cuba is a communist country in many ways similar to the old style communism found in the former Soviet Union but flavoured by its Latin-American culture, its nearness to US and also influenced by African music and culture. While Chinas focus is on economic development Cuba is focused on defending the revolution of 1959 and the ideology connected with it. But it is also a journey back in time with horse and carts trafficking many streets operating like a tram, rationing books, libretta, for food, reminding me about wartime in Norway from 1940-45. All the Americans cars from the 1950-ties indicate the strong economical link to US up to 1959 and all the Soviet built cars, Lada, indicate the strong links to Soviet up to around 1990. The government frowns upon private ownership, but in one area they have allowed it, i.e. allowing private people to let out a room or two, but they have to get a licence and pay 100-250 dollars pr. month for each room they let. These licensed houses are called casa particular and they have a blue triangle over the door so they are easy to find and there are lots of them in the cities but not at the typical tourist resorts where the government wants all the tourists in their more expensive hotels. A room in a casa particular costs around 25 dollars in Havana and 15 dollars in most other cities. The standard is reasonable, sometimes with a bathroom attached but more often shared with another room or the family. Some considers the owners of casa particular the nouvau riche. If people let out a room without a licence they may have their house confiscated and their family evicted within three days. But in one instance I encountered the owner was fined 1500 pesos = 60 dollars and told to make the necessary arrangement to get a license.
Freedom and control.
Cuba is a strictly controlled society and its citizens have very little access to information from the world outside Cuba. Cubans have no access to Internet and foreign TV stations. Many said that a liberalisation had taken place the last 2-3 years, but then they had a crack down on dissidents that began on March 18. 2003. Amnesty International is concerned that 77 people may be prisoners of conscience, detained for the non-violent exercise of their rights to freedom of expression and association. In what has been labelled by dissident groups as the biggest crackdown in a decade, at least five dozens people from different provinces across the country have been detained in a major police operation. Those detained include journalists, owners of private libraries and pro-democracy members of illegal opposition parties. All of the detainees remain imprisoned without charge, and the whereabouts of some of them is unknown. .
Meeting with a dissenter group.
I meet a group of dissidents early in March 2003. One member had been to prison for seven years, another political journalist twice two years. They were not exposed to physical torture but psychological like being kept awake and living in a small cell with 18 other prisoner. The group I met were easygoing people more preoccupied that evening with music, dance and drinking rum than politics. I got some written material from one of them which emphasised human rights and a desire for a democratic society. It was a peaceful group with no extremist points of view. Similar groups had contact addresses in other cities in Cuba. They would definitely be known to the authorities and felt safe. But an owner of a casa particular said, when I showed the writings to him, that if he was found with these papers on the street he would be arrested. This ubiquitous presence of the secret police combined with the lack of human rights as in democratic countries makes people uncertain. I met one pensioner who told he had anxiety for the police and couldn’t sleep at night without medicine.
Cuba’s positive sides.
But let it also be said that family members are not reporting on each other, as has been the case in some authoritarian regimes as Nazi Germany and Cambodia under Pol Pot from 1975-79.
Fidel Castro may be described as a mild dictator, and Cuba’s situation has clearly been aggravated by US’s harsh embargo and hostile attitude. It is a miracle that Cuba has survived after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Cuba has also a good education system free of charge and free hospitalisation. There is though a shortage of antibiotics and pain killing drugs, and medicine prescribed to outpatients is not free. A good health service and education for everybody are also part of human rights, and in this Cuba is far ahead of other Latin American countries.
Electricity seems to be available to most people, also in the countryside, and the houses there seem to be of better quality than what you find in developing countries. In most places one can drink water from the tap.
Havana has many run down buildings in need of restoration but has at the same time a certain charm with its rather narrow streets in the centre and the old part, and there is people out in the streets, lit up by yellow light, 24 hours. Both Havana and other cities have many shady parks where you can sit down. The cities are alive and they are safe.
It is easy to get in contact with Cubans. You can just sit down in a park and soon somebody will talk to you. Speaking enough Spanish to have a conversation was a clear advantage, but I also meet many older people who spoke English well. These people were often critical to the present regime because they knew conditions before 1959 when Fidel Castro took control and because they were a very poor group with a pension of 3-4 dollars a month. A physician earns 15 dollars pr month and most workers around 8-10 dollars.
Cubans are warm and friendly people, but poor. Children seem to get a lot of love from their parents and a good follow up by well-trained health personnel. A picture sticks in my mind of a young mother walking in front of me with her one-year-old child. She kisses the child, the child kisses back and laugh and the mother smiles back. Maybe this type of situation, of warm relationship, also is reflected in the grown up Cubans behaviour. Cuba is also a non-violent society, which partly may attributed to their treatment of children, partly to the strict police control. Dictatorships are often strong on good “law and order” and are safe for tourist who doesn’t interfere in their politics.
Cubans are well educated with a very low illiteracy rate and 12 years of education seems common but most of them have very little knowledge of countries outside Cuba. I asked many if they knew the name of capitals in Spain, UK, Mexico and Venezuela. Some knew that Madrid was the capital of Spain but the other capitals were unknown to almost everyone I asked. One woman had studied five years in Soviet Union but only knew that the town she had stayed in was 12 hours with train from Moscow. But at the same time they were good in reading maps when I wanted to know exactly in which street my casa particular was situated.
Rather few young Cubans spoke English. I actually met older people speaking English. This may be because of the close contact between Cuba and US before 1959, while Castro didn’t want to many Cubans to know English because that more easily may bring “wrong ideas” out to the people.
Cubans enjoy music, dancing and rum, and their attitude to sex seems liberal and change of partner seems common. Their dancing may be described as sensual. The police try to control prostitution in some tourist resorts by threatening owners of casa particular with a fine of 1500 dollar if they let out room to prostitutes or allow tourists to bring them to their house. But in big cities one are often approached by prostitutes in central areas because this seems to be the easiest way to make money.
Prices in Cuba.
Cuba has a national currency called peso and the US dollar. One dollar equals 26 pesos. Foreigners are forced to pay almost everything with dollars while Cubans can use peso and sometimes pay the same in pesos, as a foreigner has to pay in dollars. This applies for instance to railway tickets meaning that as a foreigner you pay 26 times as much for a ticket. From Havana to St. Clara, a distance of 280 km, a railway ticket costs 10 dollars for a foreigner and 10 pesos (40 cents) for a Cuban. On local buses a foreigner can pay with pesos but not on intercity buses. Cinema, pizza some places and tapped beer can be paid with pesos. It normally cost one peso at the cinema, 4-6 pesos for a pizza and 6 pesos for a glass of tap beer, cerveza sirviendo. But even for Cubans it is limited what they can get for pesos, i.e. medicine. The “peso pharmacies” have cheap medicine but little is available I was told, while in the “dollar pharmacies” they can get almost any medicine but many can’t afford it.
The American embargo and the collapse of Soviet Union have certainly aggravated the situation for Cuba but is not the only or perhaps not the most important reason for the poverty.
The wages are so low that very few can live from what they earn. How do they survive? About 50% receive money from relatives abroad but the legal limit is 100 dollars pr month. The black market is big business. A job may be more important because of what you can steal from your employer, mostly a state enterprise, than what you can earn. Cigars are one of the products a tourist is offered. But the biggest income earner is the tourist industry and many Cubans try to exploit this. Owners of casa particular are a clear example, private taxies, often old American cars, is another. Tourist hotels are generally owned by the state but there also seems to be some joint enterprises. Varadero is the biggest tourist resort complex in the Caribbean with an international airport. Many tourists don’t move outside this tourist ghetto. I didn’t go there. Foreign investments are still modest, probably more because of strict conditions by the Cuban government and limited opportunity to make profit more than due to the American embargo. But Cuba no doubt is an interesting country for investment due to its well-educated population, particularly in medicine and related areas and until now lack of capital. I suppose most Cubans would benefit from a more liberal monetary policy, but if the Americans were let loose in Cuba they probably would be far more preoccupied with making money than thinking of the welfare of the Cuban population. A gradual easing up of restriction may be one approach, and Cuba may learn from Vietnam and particularly China, which have opened up for foreign capital on a grand scale. Castro visited those two countries early in March 2003.
Travelling in Cuba.
You need patience due to delays, fully booked buses or no bus at all. The only exception is routes served by Viazul, one of the state owned bus companies. They operate modern aircon buses between the major cities in Cuba and I always managed to get a seat without booking in advance. Those buses were more expensive, about six dollars pr 100 km, than buses from the other state owned bus company Astro where it was difficult to get a seat. In eastern Cuba trucks were more commonly used for passenger transport than buses and foreigners were supposed to be denied access but this rule seemed to be ignored because it meant a lot more money to the operator as the tourist paid in dollars the same as the local in pesos, i.e. 26 times as much.
Another example of how difficult it is to plan travelling time was my return from Isla de Juventud 118 km off the coast of Cuba. I had planned to leave seven o’clock in the morning. That boat was fully booked but no information was available beforehand. The next should leave 13:00, but was delayed until 17:00. In addition only one of the two engines was working resulting in a travel time of five hours instead of two.
Comparisons with other countries.
Cuba is a very special country. Their priorities is distinctly different from other Latin American countries with more equal opportunity for their citizen to education and medical attention. They even help African countries by training doctors and sending specialists to Africa. In this respect Cuba may be considered a human and advanced society. They take well care of the young ones but many of their old people live in poverty. China is economically far more dynamic but also a much harder society with no health care for everybody. The transport systems are better in most other Latin-American countries and Asia. The Cuban people may have a lot of initiative but the system doesn’t allow it. Fidel Castro and his people are too preoccupied with defending the revolution and controlling their people. Too much emphasis on ideology and too little emphasis on economy and freedom are the main weaknesses of Castro’s Cuba.
Fidel Castro is considered intelligent, charismatic and a good speaker. Cuba may continue at its present course still some years as long as Fidel Castro is still going strong. But its present economical policy can’t continue because it is too inefficient. Some said that Cuba should have started to revise its economical policy 20 years ago like China. It is a pity that no discussion of human rights and a process towards a more democratic society is allowed. The world is changing but Cuba remains almost the same as it was 40 years ago. I strongly wish that Cuba can change in a peaceful way and avoid a brutal occupation like Iraq recently. Cubans don’t hate US citizens or westerns like many Arabs. Lets hope that leaders in Cuba and US together with the Cuban dissidents can arrive at a peaceful solution for the prosperous future of Cuba and its citizens. The Cuban people deserve it.
Some Internet references:
Campaign to End the U.S. Blockade of Cuba: http://www.globalexchange.org/campaigns/cuba/
Cuban political group: http://www.cubaliberal.org/who_we_are.htm
Cuban topics: http://www.megastories.com/cuba/index.htm
Dissenter groups view: http://www.cartadecuba.org/Homeland%20Belongs.htm
Facts about Cuba: http://www.mapzones.com/world/caribbean/cuba/educationindex.php
Kubaforeningen (in Norwegian): http://home.no.net/vivacuba/index.html
Tourist information (in Spanish): http://www.cubaweb.cu/esp/main.asp?screen=1024