To Cuba and Back

I recently went to Cuba as part of a delegation sponsored by the American organization Witness for Peace whose Cuba project works closely with the Martin Luther King Center in Havana. Neither organization is affiliated with either the US or Cuban governments, but WFP does operate legally in Cuba on a religious license from the US Dept. of Treasury. The group has been in Cuba since 1999 on an annual renewable license which expires at the end of April and which will most likely not be renewed this year. The US has been tightening restrictions on travel to Cuba — educational licenses have been almost entirely eliminated in the last year — and the new regulations for religious licenses stipulate that people affiliated with a group must “engage in transactions directly incident to a full-time program of religious activities in Cuba”. WFP’s origins are vaguely Christian in its commitment to non-violence and solidarity, and it works with both religious and non-religious groups, but its work in Cuba and elsewhere in Latin America has no particular religious character. As the name suggests, WFP is less concerned with improving conditions in Cuba — that is the Center’s job — than with bringing Americans to Cuba to see the conditions there, to learn more about the social, political, economic and cultural realities that Americans have little access to, and to encourage visitors to work for changes in US policy upon their r! eturn.

The MLK Center, which is an important and well-known entity both within Cuba and internationally, was founded by the Reverend Ral Su·rez, pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church, out of which the Center developed. The two are located in the predominantly black neighborhood of Marianao, the poorest one in Havana, which once served as the living quarters for manual laborers. The Center is very much a part of local and national life, engaging in religious, educational, local construction and other social projects. It is the result of Su·rez’s attempt to reconcile the traditional churches’ elitist and spiritually-oriented activity with the Revolution’s concrete programs of social and political change. Su·rez has attempted to practice a religion whose concern is not exclusively on the condition of the soul after life, but also on the condition of body and soul here on hear, and to find a place within the Revolution for different methods of spiritual expression — not limited to Christianity, but encompassing all religions. In recent years, Cuba has changed its Soviet-derived policy of total atheism to one of secularism, leaving room for religious freedom. And this is in part due to Su·rez’s political efforts, for he is among many other things a non-Communist member of Parliament who describes himself as an uncomfortable friend of the Revolution.

The WFP trip lasted one week and included meetings with Su·rez, JosÉ Vidal — a former editor of one of Cuba’s three newspapers and currently a professor of communications at the University of Havana — Ester PÉrez, a prominent intellectual, a group of medical students from the ELAM (Latin American School of Medicine), a visit to an agricultural cooperative, a maternity hospital, an elementary school, the Cuban Foreign Ministry and the US Interests Section (the equivalent of an embassy), as well as various cultural activities. I would like to stress that my comments do not reflect the opinions or positions of either WFP or the Center, nor those of any other member of the group. Moreover, they are, to the best of my ability, not meant to be taken as generalizations! about Cuba or about Cuban-American relations; they are simply observations and concerns stemming from a hectic one-week visit to a country that Americans are not encouraged to learn about, that indeed we are in many ways prevented from knowing in any meaningful way.

It seems to me that there are a couple of things to avoid in any case, particularly when dealing with Cuba: firstly, romanticizing the Revolution on the one hand, and vilifying it on the other, or, since the people reading this are probably sympathetic to the Revolution, applying useless standards of judgement to the Castro government; and secondly, confusing questions of material prosperity with economic and political structures in themselves. Obviously at some level the two latter things are connected, but given the unreliability of information coming from the US and Cuba regarding the Cuban economy, it is difficult to know what that level is. The US government explicitly uses its blockade to isolate and starve Cuba into opening up to foreign investment; and a! t the same time it claims that the blockade has only minimal effects, which could be alleviated — according to the person at the Interests Section — by Cuba allowing magicians and jugglers to be self-employed.

(Among the pile of documents we were given at the Section is the transcript of a talk by James Cason, chief of the Section, in which he says, “Recent government measures are taking the economy in the wrong directionÖ Since early 2003, under the pretext of clamping down on vice, the Cuban government forced the closure of many private room rentals and peddlers working the margins of the tourist trade.” I wonder if the people who voted for moral values in the last election are aware that the US government is advocating prostitution as a solution to the blockade? Is that what you voted for?)

Cuba is a poor country: buildings crumble, roads are in bad shape, there are still blackouts in the cities, meat and eggs are hard to come by, the average salary of between 160 and 220 pesos (approx. $6.50 to $9) a month is not nearly enough to feed people, despite the rations and food subsidies. The country is not abject, however, for there are very few beggars or homeless people either in Havana or in the area of Pinar del R”o that we visited; no one is emaciated and everyone has proper shoes and clothes, not rags. The fact that Cuba is poor may have something to do with the US blockade and with the state-controlled economy; the fact that everyone appears to eat all right and to have clothes and full, free medical care, however, does have to do with the social! and economic priorities of the Cuban government.

In some respects Havana looks like a parody of the grey nightmare world of 1984. The only billboards contain revolutionary slogans — Hasta la victoria, siempre, El socialismo triunfar·, 26 julio, 46 aÑos (reminding everyone of the Revolution’s longevity), Volver·n (referring to the five Cubans imprisoned in the US on espionage charges) — which are repeated on the sides of buildings. At the Plaza de la RevoluciÛn there is a grey obelisk built by Battista and a statue of JosÉ Mart”, added after the Revolution; it is from here that Castro gives his annual May Day speech and here where the Pope said mass on his recent visit to Cuba. Surrounding the plaza are various ministry buildings, including the Ministry of the Interior with a metal frame of the famous si! lhouette of Che occupying most of the faÁade. Che is ubiquitous, but by contrast, images of Castro are relatively scarce. We visited the square on a Sunday and there was no one else there, and virtually no cars on the road, giving the six-lane road around the obelisk an eerie feel; luckily there was a baseball game nearby.

In the more commercial tourist areas there are signs for Cristal and Bucanero, the two national beers, and billboards for Havana Club, the national rum. And that’s about it for advertising. On the walls of each of the classrooms of the elementary school in Punto Esperanza that we visited there was a quote by JosÉ Mart”, the 19th century Cuban revolutionary and national hero, and more pictures of Che. This single-minded propaganda can get really annoying and a bit spooky too. What is initially most frightening in the Cuban situation is not the slogans themselves, nor the sanctification of the Revolution’s heroes — holy relics from the war against Battista and Che’s medical instruments and even locks of his hair are enshrined in the Museo de la Revoluc”! on — since this sort of thing exists everywhere, but rather in their predictability and in one’s awareness that they only come from one source — the Cuban government.

But then again is there a difference between things like ‘Hasta la victoria, siempre’, urging you to maintain your revolutionary fervor, and ‘Drink Coca-Cola’, urging you to buy? Undoubtedly there is much more variety and ingenuity in capitalist advertising than in Communist sloganeering, but is that sort of freedom what one thinks of as an inalienable right? It is merely question-begging to say either that you can ignore advertising, or that at least you’re given a choice. I doubt most Cubans pay any attention to their billboards, just as most Americans pay little attention to ads; the point however is that it doesn’t in the end matter whether you buy Coke rather than Pepsi since you’re being conditioned by constant repetition to buy something and to assume tha! t buying is not only a normal activity but an expression of choice. Just as Cubans are being conditioned by constant repetition to believe that America is evil and is out to destroy them.

Moreover, the Cuban signs aren’t all quite so boring. Outside the US Interests Section building there is a billboard of a group of smiling children that reads: ‘No, Mr Bush, we don’t need to be vaccinated. We already are!’ And directly in front of the building is a huge scaffolding, as for a rock concert, with a dark image that’s maybe fifty feet long by twenty feet high, showing two hooded figures chained to a metal grating. In the center is a giant red swastika. Not having been to Libya, Iran, Iraq or North Korea, I don’t know what the going rate of anti-American propaganda is, but the swastika is absurdly magnificent. Coming from the US, where saying nothing in many words is the goal of political utterance, and! where the switch from ‘terrorism’ and ‘private accounts’ to ‘terror’ and ‘personal accounts’ can mean the survival of an administration, it’s refreshing to see such a forceful and unambiguous denunciation of torture. It doesn’t hurt to remember too that the Afghans who are being tortured to reveal that they know nothing, are being tortured by the US in Cuba.

I am not a pacifist and I don’t think that rational discourse is always the only way to approach conflict or express discontent: sometimes you just have to say, Fuck the draft. And however futile it is in affecting US foreign policy, that swastika is a reminder that not everyone will allow themselves to be duped by sophistries.

At the Interest Section meeting, we were informed that the structure cost $2M, that is to say, as the official made explicit, “$2M that the Cuban government is not spending on feeding its people”. True. But it begs the question of whether a government must spend all of its resources on feeding its people. The US has so far spent $160B on the war in Iraq; that is to say, $160B that it has not spent on providing universal health care to its citizens or on feeding them either. Maybe sometimes there are more pressing concerns than food: such as terror, for example. Peddling the imminent arrival of turbaned evil in our living rooms is sometimes more important than eradicating malnutrition and illiteracy in our own country.

A taxi driver, who was very much opposed to Revolution, complained that Fiedl kept raising the specter of imminent US invasion to rally the people and distract them from the of food shortages that are the result of the government’s backward economic policies. Undoubtedly that is the case; and certainly in Cuba, the food issue appears to be of more general concern than in the US. In fact, one of the complaints among Cubans is that the government spends too much money on its prestige projects, such as medicine and social services which look good to the world, and not enough on providing more food.

No one, I think, including the US government denies the huge steps that Cuba has taken in providing universal health care to its people and top-quality medical and surgical assistance not only to Cubans but to Latin Americans and Africans as well. The ELAM is one of its most recent projects in this regard: the government plans to train 10,000 people from poor and rural areas of Latin America, Africa and even the US, absolutely free of charge. The course of study lasts six years and the first class will graduate this August. These new doctors are expected, but not required by the Cuban government, to go back to poor an rural areas of their countries and practice the sort of holistic, preventive medicine they learned in Cuba. A group of Argentines at the school as! ked if they could do one or two years of service in Cuba to repay some of their debt, but the Cuban government replied that they already had too many doctors, and that their services were needed more in their own countries.

Of course, for a country as poor as Cuba, training 10,000 doctors over the next 10 to 15 years is an enormous expense and one which might better be used to look after the immediate needs of its people.

But if one takes the ELAM in perspective, then it becomes clear that there is more at stake than immediate needs. Just as terror and the communist threat can sometimes be more important than a living wage. Rather than isolate itself as a unique site of communist innovation, pushing away its Latin American neighbors as stooges of the US, Cuba is helping not only to alleviate the need for doctors in those countries — and risking that they will take their free medical training and set up practices only for the wealthy — but it is attempting to build a different model of society — one not based on profit and consumption.

The basis of Cuban medicine is prevention and personalization of care: the local doctor meets frequently with the people in his or her neighborhood and gets to know their particular problems; he or she checks up on them to make sure that problems do not arise, thus lessening the need for costly drugs that are meant to cure illnesses once they’ve appeared. They are trained as well in traditional African medicine, which makes use of local plants and also has a largely preventive and holistic focus.

The fruit of the ELAM may not be visible for another 20 or 30 years; and the whole project may turn out to be a disaster. But is it possible for 10,000 doctors who have spent six years being trained in a poor neighboring country to go forth and practice medicine and solidarity not to work for a change in the prevailing ethos of greed and personal consumption? Contrast this with the US approach to world assistance, pumped through the World Bank and the IMF, lending unrepayable sums of money in return for US access to foreign markets. The revolution that Cuba is exporting is a way of viewing the world in the context of everyday life, as much as or more than it is about anti-imperialist rhetoric and propaganda.

Unfortunately, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the egalitarian society that Cuba managed to foster (with a 6-1 disparity between highest and lowest incomes) has begun to disappear. From about 1992, when the US really began tightening the clamps of the blockade, Cuba has had to revamp its internal economic structure in order to survive. On the positive side, this has led to the abandonment of its toxic and single-minded sugar production, in favor of cooperatives of small farmers growing highly profitable products such as tobacco and sugar, as well as vegetables and fruits to be sold relatively independent of state interference.

The cooperative we visited was one of the more successful ones: barring staples such as rice and beans, they are nutritionally self-sufficient, exchanging vegetables for fish with the local fishermen. Cooperatives have their own internal governing system which is connected to the provincial, then the national governing bodies, which look after the needs of all the cooperatives. Within the cooperative each farmer is visited at least every two days, so that immediate problems can be brought to the attention of the whole group and dealt with promptly. All major decisions are arrived at through voting.

The reform from the Special Period that has had the greatest economic impact, however, is obviously tourism, which now accounts for some 50% of Cuba’s economy. The egalitarian society of the 1980’s has developed into what appears to me as a typical third world parasite culture. I was very surprised to see that in downtown Havana there are tall, modern luxury hotels and clubs; parts of Old Havana have been refurbished — with foreign money — and there are tourists everywhere. There are two parallel currencies: the Cuban peso (worth four cents) and the Cuban convertible peso (worth $1), which give rise to the ‘informal economy’ or hustling, which allows those Cubans who deal with foreigners to make ends meet.

The depressing feature of the Cuban tourist industry is not so much the contrast between Cuban life and tourist life, since similar contrasts exist in most third world countries, but that tourism represents the antithesis of revolutionary equality. In theory, in Cuba, money has almost no meaning given that all social services are free and guaranteed and each person is provided monthly rations of food (which however are only sufficient for about 15 days); tourism on the other hand is limitless unproductive spending — on restaurants, bars, tobacco, souvenirs. In other words, the Cubans’ livelihood depends upon consumption in Cuba by people with plenty of disposable income, generated directly or indirectly by the exploitation of poor countries similar to Cuba. The ! Cuban government, in order to survive, must encourage the sort of consumerism in tourists that it is trying to eradicate in its own people, who nevertheless can clearly see some of the benefits of that type of consumerism everyday.

The taxi driver I spoke to resented the two-tier system, especially since, as a taxi driver, he dealt with large sums of money that were all destined for the state, while he worked for 200 pesos a month. He resented that he could not get another job, and that there is no freedom of speech, that Castro uses the embargo to oppress the people. The sort of political freedoms that Americans tend to think of as guaranteed — freedom of speech and assembly, the right to protest, freedom of the press, multi-party elections — don’t quite translate into the Cuban system. There is only one political party in Cuba, though you don’t have to belong to it to run for office — as the Reverend Su·rez has demonstrated; radio, television and newspapers are state-run, although there ! are independent presses too (at the MLK Center, for example), and with the advent of internet, information is much more accessible; political dissent is clearly not tolerated at a certain level of prominence; and to be sure, there are cops and CDR offices (ComitÉs de Defensa de la RevoluciÛn) all over the place — though whether these are really nefarious Big Brother-like surveillance outfits, or merely civil service jobs to reduce unemployment, I don’t know.

At the same time, these things can also be put into perspective. None of the people we talked to — intellectuals and non-intellectuals alike — seemed to have reservations about speaking openly, whether to criticize the system, praise it, discuss hardships or to talk about baseball. The one time there did seem to be a limit on speech was on the visits to the cooperative, school and maternity clinic, when we were accompanied by two Party goons whose presence some of us felt hindered conversation. Though again, I thought that the fellow from the coop would have said the same thing had the goons not been present; the doctor at the clinic, however, was clearly reciting a speech for their benefit. But did he need to?

JosÉ Vidal freely and humorously depicted the sort of interference he had to put up with as editor of one of the newspapers, but he told the story within the framework of a larger one about censorship in general, in which he related his experiences with the self-censorship imposed by American so-called journalists. The government may not actively persecute wayward journalists, but that doesn’t mean that the product on the newsstands is any more reliable than the stuff coming out of Cuba. Americans and Cubans alike have to surf the net to get a better picture of the world.

And this seems to me one of the key issues when discussing the Cuban and American situations. It’s pointless always to judge the Cuban revolution by US political and economic standards, precisely because the Revolution’s purpose is in part to create an alternative set of standards. Yes, the US is perhaps the freest country in the world and the one where anyone really can make it; Don King likes to say: ‘Only in America’. But Don King also represents one of the ways that you can make it: by fraud, murder and exploitation.

The press is free in the US in as much as a paper like CounterPunch is allowed to exist; but it is not free in the practical sense that huge corporations own more and more of the news outlets and they favor a version of reality that protects their interests. And anyway, can you really say anything you want and expect to get a good corporate job? There’s freedom here as in Cuba — but it has its limits. The difference is in how those limits are imposed. In Cuba the control is more direct; here you can reject this or that thing, but the more you reject, the less space you are allowed. What do you do if you don’t get a good job?

There are multiple parties in the US, but most of them don’t have enough money to compete with the Democrats and the Republicans; and in the last election, the Democrats spent tens of millions of dollars to make eradicate all those on their left. You’re free as long as you have enough money to buy your freedom.

The model in Cuba, whatever its faults, is meant to be different and it begins with the premise of social and economic justice. You give up the freedom of individual purchasing power and the privileges this can imply, in favor of a universal safety net, in favor of building solidarity among people — not war, fear and hatred. No government is honest — the fellow at the Cuban Foreign Ministry was as evasive and one-sided as the lady at the US Interests Section — but it’s also ludicrous to expect it to be. What one can expect is that there be some visible and positive relation between rhetoric and practice.

Reverend Su·rez describes himself as an uncomfortable friend of the Revolution: uncomfortable because he reserves the right to criticize wrongs, errors and failures of judgement; a friend because he believes that the aims of the Revolution are generally good and need to be fostered. What is not always good are the particular strategies the government adopts to reach its aims. That is to say that he has faith in the Revolution. The fact that he chooses to remain in Cuba and to work for change in the neighborhood of his parish, as well as in Cuba generally, and to work with international organizations to change the policies of the US government towards his country seems to say a lot.

There’s not much you can see or do in a week in any country, and in Cuba some of the things you see immediately, especially when coming from the US, are the poverty and the creepy revolutionary billboards. But neither thing gets at the core of the Cuban revolution — namely the different attitude from the capitalist one, regarding human relations and obligations. That you can’t see in a week. What is telling, though, is that a couple of people from our group who come from Latin American countries, mentioned that unlike the poor of their own countries, Cubans are proud: their poverty isn’t a sign of moral or economic failure in a system that exploits them. And as one of the medical students from Ecuador said, the Cubans criticize their health system because they feel it belongs to them, whereas poor Ecuadorians don’t even care, since serious medical attention is not a reality for them. Americans criticize their government too because they think they can do something about it.

There are however fewer and fewer opportunities for Americans to visit Cuba to see for themselves what an alternative system looks like.

ANIS MEMON can be reached at: