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No Signs of Tropical Trepidation in Havana

Cuba at the Crossroads?

by HOLGER W. HENKE

An article on Haiti that appeared in Time magazine in January 1973–at the end of the dictatorship of "Papa Doc" Duvalier and the commencement of his son "Baby Doc’s harsh rule­ states: "There is also a sound on the city streets that to most urban Americans is unfamiliar: laughter." The sentence might as well have been written about today’s Cuba. That may only amount to a trite observation, but, despite Fidel Castro’s grave illness, there are many more hearty smiles and–yes–real laughter to be encountered in today’s Havana, despite the greater privation than conceivably in any major American city.

Upon a recent visit to the island, I had an opportunity to witness first hand that Cuba is by no means–as is regularly reported in U.S. newspaper editorials–in a state of tropical trepidation. Islanders do not usually herd themselves around the radio or the television set awaiting the latest fateful news about Fidel Castro or wait for some awesome pronunciamiento by brother Raúl. Quite to the contrary. Although Cubans are continuing to carve out their daily lives in the context of a punishing economy impacted by a harsh U.S. embargo that has never been revisited for its utility or assessed for success, they continue to pursue the opportunities they know to exist within the hidden crevices of their economy. The population is beginning to sense that conditions are better than they were a few years ago and are responding in kind. Couples crowd the seawall along the Malecón or La Rampa in the Vedado district and are enjoying the Friday night shows at the clubs and Bolero bars. Indeed, I have not seen so many couples walking hand in hand, arm in arm, in any major city I have visited in the world–if you’re thinking romance, think Havana, not Paris. Another obvious fact is how palpably with good cheer Cubans of different ethnicities and upbringings are getting along with each other.

An important aspect, which immediately strikes a traveler who has visited other developing countries, is the large number of health clinics and hospitals that fill Havana’s urban landscape. There can be no doubt at all that health care for the average Cuban has improved immensely since the Castro government took power almost 50 years ago. Anyone who has visited other Latin American countries, Africa, or the Caribbean can vouch even without reviewing a plethora of statistics, that access to decent hospitals and public medical care more often than not is excruciatingly difficult. Nor is it a small matter that Cuba also may be the only tropical country that I have ever visited without even seeing a mosquito, let alone being bitten by one. In an effort to stem dengue fever the government has been engaged in an obviously very comprehensive and effective mosquito eradication program. Public health is a personal issue that is closer to the heart of the Cuban government as well as the average citizen, than to the governments or private sectors of almost any Western country.

Indeed, while watching the German government’s global TV network Deutsche Welle in my hotel one evening, I was struck by a gripping investigative report that featured a German cancer patient literally begging his health insurance company for his life. The reporter accompanied him on trips to his doctors and his health insurance, where he tried unsuccessfully to persuade the authorities to reverse the insurance company’s decision to cover the costs of an experimental treatment, which had earlier shown itself capable of resulting in a remission of his otherwise fatal brain tumor. One cannot help but wonder what the 45 million Americans currently without health insurance might think about receiving the basic advanced health care to which Cubans are routinely entitled.

Blatant poverty, so evident in many developing countries featuring a market economy–even those with a higher GDP and a greater amplitude of traditional freedoms–is hard to find, even on the meanest of Havana’s streets. Only once or twice have I been approached by the elderly seeking a handout; there were no beggars to be seen on the sidewalks and no children ever asked me for a hand-out. Some explain this by insisting that governmental micro-management of the streets produces this orderliness. Even for a veteran New Yorker used to seeing so many homeless, the relative absence of their counterparts from Havana’s different neighborhoods is noteworthy.

All of this, however, is not to say that there is no public awareness in Cuba that the country is likely at an historic crossroad. In many conversations I have had with Cubans in recent weeks, people are quite prepared to admit that Fidel is indeed not immortal. What is perhaps surprising to many, is that this is stated as a matter of fact, and not with either anxiety or exaltation. A sense of pragmatism is what I have perceived to be the prevailing characteristic of the overwhelming majority of Cubans I have encountered. There are those who openly will acknowledge that even if Castro recuperates, he will–because of his decades-long grind of unremitting hard work–probably no longer function as the regime’s day-to-day ultimate decision-maker.

There can be no doubt that many Cubans are frustrated with the secrecy surrounding Castro’s state of health. This particularly is the case among the younger generation, who does not have the immediate perspective at hand to be able to compare the island’s current situation with conditions in the recent past. Yet even before the era of the Cuban Revolution had been fully attained, many Cubans shouldered varying degrees of hostility towards their government. They perceived it as restricting their freedom of movement and expression and deeply resented it for dictating too many other aspects of their lives as portrayed in the 1994 Cuban movie Strawberry and Chocolate. Discontent is particularly widespread in regard to the disproportionate difference in income levels as well as the disparity over the availability of goods and services.

There is also no effort being made in this article to justify the imprisonment of journalists, writers, and activists who disagree with the government’s imperatives and have the personal courage to openly profess their opposition. Such practices cannot easily be excused–even if one considers the fact that the United States has the highest per capita prison population in the world and still practices the death penalty, for which the country is almost universally criticized by international human rights bodies. But if the recent Florida execution of Angel Nieves Diaz (which took over half an hour to be conducted, obviously causing him physical pain) had occurred in Cuba, one wonders whether the public reaction against Havana would have been as understanding and accommodating as it was in Diaz’s case.

Despite all of the criticisms regarding the lack of freedom of expression in Cuba, I was impressed by the ubiquity of the arts in all of its forms and varieties. People reading, writing, playing music, and staging street performances are evident everywhere throughout the island. By no means are the artists performing only for the tourists; much of it is just for private enjoyment. A stroll through the Museum of Fine Arts in Havana reveals the treasure trove of various forms of sculpture and painting produced before as well as after the Revolution. There is a plethora of galleries, museums, and casas dedicated to the arts throughout Havana, particularly in the center of the city. But even in places less likely to be frequented by tourists or better off Cubans, people can be found engaged in studying, practicing, or performing in the arts or engaged in studying some of the more practical skills. In Old Havana it is difficult to find a bar or restaurant that does not feature live music.

There can be little doubt that the Revolution has to renew and refresh itself if it wants to thrive, perhaps even to survive. There is still much unused or underused productivity and energy that could be utilized; the ubiquitous security and desk officers, particularly in state-run buildings, appear to be doing anything more than watching their desks or the passers-by. They are clearly the outgrowth of a managed economy trying to achieve full employment of its workforce. But Cuban officials could argue that they have witnessed the disastrous social consequences that accompany an abrupt transition to a free-market economy and an open society in countries such as the republics of the former Soviet Union, Poland, as well as East Germany.

A remarkable and largely under-reported development recently unfolded as a number of influential Cuban economists have contemplated decentralizing control, allowing for expanding the power of managers at agricultural cooperatives, extending private ownership in certain sectors, improved investment in infrastructure and increasing incentives to workers. It is presently a cautious and measured debate (as it should be), which does not contemplate a full-fledged onslaught by foreign investors or eager condo buyers arriving from Miami. But the fact that the government is allowing such a debate to be started is in itself somewhat remarkable and demonstrates that there are domestic forces willing to seriously consider changes.

In the end, economic reform will probably depend on the extent to which Cuba’s leadership becomes willing to accept the loss of some of its plenary political control, which is likely to occur in the wake of epic economic changes in the direction of liberalization. However, such a strategic decision will, in turn, be affected by the degree to which the United States’ attempts to interfere with Cuba’s development and the political choices it makes regarding its residual leverage over the island’s fast moving events. Ultimately, only a Cuban leadership, reasonably secure in its position and its ability to steer the economy and preside over society in a productive and creative direction, is likely to open Havana to a greater degree of democratic participation. Such a new departure should be welcomed and Cuba’s past accomplishments leading up to the post-Castro period justly deserve applause.

Dr. H.W. Henke, a COHA Senior Research Fellow, is assistant professor of political science at Metropolitan College of New York and also a Senior Fellow of the Caribbean Research Center (Medgar Evers College–CUNY). His books include: Crossing Over: Comparing Recent Migration in the United States and Europe, The West American Indians, and Modern Political Culture in the Caribbean.