Cuba’s Frozen Revolution
September 27, 2016
By Tad Boniecki
HAVANA TIMES — I came to write this piece because I was fascinated
reading the Lonely Planet’s account of Cuban history. Wanting to share
it, I summarized it. Yet I realized that something vital was missing
from the Lonely Planet, namely a summing up of Cuba as it is now.
The last part of this piece cannot fill that gap. Rather, it is a
personal reflection of someone born in a communist country who has
travelled to Cuba and attempted to understand it. Cuba felt like
stepping inside an anachronism, a living museum of communism. It is also
a complex, paradoxical, fascinating and friendly island.
Obviously, these thoughts reflect my biases, though I did rethink my
attitudes on Che and Castro while in Cuba. Here, these two are regarded
as saints who could do no wrong, whereas in the West they are generally
seen as violent apostles of a bankrupt ideology. Setting moral judgments
aside, I tried to evaluate what the revolutionaries created, as well as
On the plus side, one can cite the removal of a brutal dictator, the
achievements in medical care and education, plus the elimination of
extreme poverty. The minus side is that Cuba is stuck in the past.
Yet even the much vaunted achievements of Cuban communism can be
doubted. Cuban medicine is hamstrung by lack of modern technology and a
shortage of drugs. Education is free; including university, but strong
ideological content is present, with the constitution stating that
educational and cultural policy is based on Marxist ideology. While
literacy is extremely high, there is little worth reading available.
As for housing, much of it is very basic, not to mention falling apart.
Overall, Cuba is one of the poorest countries in the region.
Politically, intellectually and materially it lags way behind the more
advanced Latin American countries, such as Chile and Costa Rica.
So are the Cubans better off because of Castro? Fifty years ago, he did
a lot of good by removing a tyrant and eradicating extremes of poverty,
but now in the 21st century, it seems that Cuba would be in better shape
Before the revolution, Castro took autocratic control of the rebel
organization, MR-26-7, with some dissenters labeling him a caudillo
(dictator). He argued that a successful revolution could not be run by
committee and required a strong leader. He has maintained that level of
control. To outsiders, it may seem that Cuba is Castro’s personal
fiefdom, yet the Comandante seems to be popular. Of course, it is
impossible to know the real state of public opinion when there is no way
for it to be expressed or measured, given the lack of political freedom.
A roadside slogan reads, “Fidel is Cuba”, and indeed few Cubans can
picture Cuba without Fidel and his brother. What ordinary Cubans want is
not political freedom but a higher standard of living.
As in other countries where all power is concentrated in a single organ
(ie the Party), Cubans lack certain basic human rights. The world’s two
most respected human rights bodies regularly berate the government for
its refusal to respect the rights of assembly, association and
expression. In 2008 Cuba had the second-highest number of imprisoned
journalists of any nation (China had the highest). When the Cubans speak
of Cuba libre they don’t mean free in the usual sense, but free of
foreign domination. People fear to speak openly about politics and can
only read what the government wants them to read. They may be free from
foreign interference, but not from the interference of the ever-present
Party, with its thousands of local Committees for the Defense of the
Revolution, whose role is in large part to monitor and report dissent.
It seems to me that social engineering inevitably entails the
suppression of dissent. One cannot impose a socialist model and allow
democracy at the same time. Nor does Castro allow boats. The Cuban
shoreline is eerily empty because Cubans are not allowed to own boats in
case they attempt to cross to Florida.
The philosopher-historian, Arnold Toynbee, wrote that fascism is the
attempt to live in the past, and that communism is the attempt to live
in the future. He believed a society progresses when human creativity is
brought to bear on the problems of the present. To do this, freedom is
needed. In Cuba freedom is a limited commodity, not just for the average
Cuban, but also for those who steer the ship.
The Castro brothers are shackled to the ideas of a 19th century
philosopher called Karl Marx. Marx did not live to see his ideas put
into practice. Undoubtedly, he would have been horrified by the crimes
of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. What he would have thought of Fidel and Cuba
is an interesting question. Would Marx even be a Marxist if he lived now?
A favorite revolutionary slogan here is Che’s “Hasta la victoria
siempre!” (Always till victory!) It reminds me of the ironic Polish
saying from communist times, “Communism is on the horizon”, meaning that
it is never reached. I also recall someone saying that if the Spanish
language lacked a future tense then Castro would have to shut up. It
confirms Toynbee’s view that the communist mind-set means perpetually
living in the future.
Yet paradoxically, the Castros are also living in the past. Revolution
means rapid and radical change. Fidel continually urges Cubans to
preserve and defend the Revolution. Of course, it is not possible to
capture or preserve change, let alone enshrine it in an institution,
such as the Party. A revolution that happened half a century ago is no
longer a revolution but a relic. What he really means is that he wants
to protect and perpetuate the communist system, in other words, the
status quo. Thus he is a rigid conservative posing as a revolutionary.
The last thing he wants in Cuba is another revolution.
It is said, only half in jest, that the measure of the greatness of a
scientist is how long they hold up progress in their chosen field. If we
apply this metric to politics then Castro is without a peer.
Another paradox is that Fidel himself has undermined socialism. Two
currencies now circulate in Cuba, one for foreigners, the other for the
locals. At any rate, that is the intention. The problem is that only a
few basics can be purchased using the local peso. The two-tier price
system and the influx of tourists, who are wealthy by Cuban standards,
has distorted the largely classless post-revolution society. Absurdly,
taxi drivers now earn more than doctors. The fare from the airport to
Havana is equivalent to a high monthly salary. Simply because they
receive tips from Westerners, people working in the tourist industry are
far better off than others. They are the new upper class. For instance,
a waiter in Verdadero can earn the equivalent of a monthly salary in a
single day, just from tips.
Peter Millar writes that among the Cubans “… it has been widely accepted
that it is better for some people to have nice things than for nobody to
have anything. At least this way there is a chance for a trickle down,
rather than stagnation and starvation.”
Cuba is a fertile country with abundant rainfall, yet its agriculture is
so inefficient that it is unable to feed itself. Eighty percent of its
food was imported in 2008. Consequently, Cuba has resorted to tourism
which, since 1995, is the number one industry. Tourism in Cuba is
growing faster than in any other country in the world, and it is
expected that if the embargo is ended a million Americans will visit in
the first year.
Tourists come to Cuba to view the relics of its colonial past and for
its beaches. Few come because they want to know the man whose image sold
a million T-shirts, or out of curiosity about social engineering. It is
a paradox that Western tourism is keeping communism alive, yet the
tourists are not here because of their interest in communism; indeed
they want no part of it for themselves.
Cuba exhibits the staples of communism – shortages, empty shops, queues,
artificial prices, things not working, and a low standard of living
(except for the select few). The libreta, a complex and bureaucratic
system of rationing, was introduced in 1962 by Che as a temporary
palliative to a crisis, and has lasted for more than fifty years. As in
communist Poland, most people struggle just to get by. Women ask
tourists for soap in the street. Of course, there is a positive side too
– medicine, education and housing are free for all, and basic foods are
highly subsidized through the libreta.
By contrast, the US is a free country with a high standard of living
where things work and shops are over-stocked. Yet in the US medicine,
education and housing are expensive, and there is a whole under-class
that cannot afford these basics. In Cuba, things are pretty much the
In terms of Jungian psychology, Cuba is the US’s shadow, ie the disowned
part the US does not want to see and pretends does not exist, although
it is right next door. For all its faults, the Cuban system can prick
the US conscience because it embodies the notion that every person
matters and should be provided with the basics of life, regardless of
the cost of this to the state.
For the Cubans, the US epitomizes the Other, ie what is foreign and
dangerous, yet at the same time attractive. There is the siren call of
pursuing material riches untrammelled by notions of social responsibility.
Che was so idealistic that he wanted to eliminate money altogether.
Whereas capitalism operates as if people did not matter, socialism
operates as if money were an irrelevance, thus ignoring human nature.
It may suit Castro to have the Yankee bogeyman just 150 km away across
the Straits of Florida. It helps unite the country and makes his
warnings to defend the Revolution more credible. Also, many of the
shortages can be (justifiably) blamed on the embargo.
Actually, Uncle Sam is not glowering across the water but is squatting
right on Cuban soil. Guantanamo Bay seems like a weird aberration. I
used to wonder why Castro allows the US to keep a base there. The answer
is simple enough. The US soldiers are there and Castro lacks the
military clout to expel them.
Cuba is an oxymoron – a frozen revolution. Yet since the fall of the
USSR, it has begun to thaw. Having lurched all the way to the left fifty
years ago, it seems the only way for it to emerge out of stasis was to
move towards the center. Only by allowing more capitalism, with the
inequalities it engenders, can the living standard of ordinary Cubans be
raised. This is the uncomfortable truth the Castros are struggling with.
Source: Cuba’s Frozen Revolution – Havana Times.org –