In March of 2008 I went to Cuba. It was my first time visiting the island and I probably won’t go back until there is a change in government. What follows is the story of a progressive Argentine/Spaniard who had a Michael Moorish view of Cuba until he actually visited the island. Now my view is that there’s nothing progressive about Cuba. That progressive in Cuba can only mean to get rid of the Castrismo and open up, not à la China, a country that is brutally capitalist now, but still managed by the Communist Party, but á la Hungary or most of Eastern Europe, evolving from Communism to a welfare state like democracy.
First the evidence:
Yes, I do know that 2 days of interviews is not a statistic. I also know that the people who I tried to look for “the average Cuban” may not be so average after all. But because this is not Martin Varsavsky the Professor at Instituto de Empresa, but Martin Varsavsky the blogger, I will allow myself the liberty to draw conclusions with limited data. In general terms, my conclusion is that Cuba now is an extremely repressive dictatorship who has duped its citizens into believing that the benefits that they derive out of Communist Party rule are somehow unique and they would not get them in other countries.
During my interviews, the first thing that surprised me is that I did not find anyone who would criticize the Communist Party. What I found is people who seemed absolutely brainwashed and would argue in favor of the regime no matter what they were asked for, and more reasonable people who would defend the regime most of the time, but would be willing to recognize that there were improvements to be made. But what was shocking is that everyone who I interviewed believed in things that are just wrong. One example was the issue of Cuban Sovereignty. Invariably, everyone who I interviewed said that Cuba became an independent country in 1959. That Cuba was first a colony of Spain until 1895, then a colony of the United States until 1959, and then a free country after the revolution. Moreover, everyone I interviewed seemed to believe that it is the stated intention of the United States to annex Cuba again, and that the role of the Communist Party to protect Cuban’s independence. Cubans do not seem to understand that what USA has wanted for close to 50 years now is that Cuba becomes a country like Mexico, Panama and Costa Rica; that what USA wants is to have a friendly regime in Cuba; that even when USA invades countries like Panama it does not do it to annex them and create another state named Panama (in the way that say Alaska is a part of USA), even though it is completely disconnected to the rest of the States. Granted, I can see why the Cubans, after seeing what is happening in Iraq, think that USA is a country that just likes to invade and stay in what they consider “troubled states”, and it is probably true that if it had been easy for USA to invade Cuba they would have done it in the past. And, in general, I think that the use of power by the United States is frequently a force of instability with the rare positive intervention, as in the case of the Balkans. Moreover, I think that USA should renounce to its ability to invade countries without permission or cooperation of other nations within the United Nations (as it was done with Afghanistan). But having said all this, I think that the overall view of Cubans that USA would want to annex Cuba as another Hawaii is just wrong. Also, the view that Cuba was not a nation until the revolution is also wrong.
Another myth that seems to prevail in Cuba is that the welfare state is an invention of the Castro regime. All Cubans who I interviewed thought that in Spain, where I live if for example you did not have money and you got sick you would die. Cubans believe that it is only them who have universal health care. They don’t know that with the notable exception of the United States, a country that fails to properly address the needs of millions of its citizens, all other developed nations have universal health care including USA’s neighbor, Canada. Moreover, Cubans believe that pensions only exist in Cuba. Again, when I mentioned that both my native Argentina and Spain had a pension system, they found it hard to believe. And when I mentioned to them that people thought that pensions in Argentina, which averaged 200 dollars, were incredibly low, they were shocked since their pensions are a 10th of that. Same with education. Cubans seem to believe that free education is another invention of the Cuban revolution and they can’t believe that education, all the way up to tertiary education, is free in Spain or Argentina (again, this is not the case in the States for tertiary education but it is the case in all other developed nations). So not only has the Castro regime made people believe that Cuba was not a sovereign nation until 1959, but that universal access to health, education and pensions is something that is only part of the Cuban systems and all other systems are unfair.
In terms of productivity I found Cuba to be extremely disappointing. Absolutely every product I consumed in Cuba was made somewhere else and was extremely expensive. Cuba has a uniquely corrupt system in which there are two currencies in circulation. One is the national currency, Peso Cubano, and the other is the convertible currency. In convertible currency Cubans earn the equivalent of 30 dollars per month, and even though they earn 24 times that in local currency (as the exchange is 24 to 1), there is almost nothing you can buy with local currency. I walked around everywhere in Havana looking for something to buy in local currency and what I found were things as bread, tomatoes and very few edible products which looked awful. Everything else, like clothes, were only available in convertible currency. And what was amazing was how expensive they were. Cubans pay for average products, such as socks, prices that are much higher than in nearby Florida. The most shocking was a pair of socks that I needed to buy. I was charged the equivalent of $9 for a pair of socks, and that was its published price. This means that over 25% of the salary of a Cuban person could go in a pair of socks. And then the injustices in terms of compensation are endless.
In my interviews of taxi drivers I asked them what their monthly salary was, and the answer was shocking. A taxi driver has to give everything he makes to the government and his salary is the equivalent of a ride to the airport. So a taxi driver who does 10 rides back and forth to the airport or 220 rides per month earns a salary equivalent to one ride and the money collected for 219 rides go to the government. Now the exploitation of taxi drivers is nothing new. In New York City, for example, they have an extremely unfair system, the medallion system, in which somebody owns a medallion and the other person drives. While I don’t have the exact figures, I imagine that the same formula would work on something like this, for example that out of 220 rides to the airport the employed driver makes a compensation equal to the cost of 100 rides, which is bad, but capitalist exploitation pales in comparison to communist exploitation.
Posted on September 23, 2010