“Cuba’s revolution — its ideology and economy, the society as a whole — is in crisis. Contemporary reality is changing rapidly in confusing directions.” This I wrote introducing “Cuba at the Crossroads”, an anthology mainly of articles written for the British “Morning Star” when I was its correspondent between 1993-1996. I lived in Cuba from 1987 to 1996, working for the book publisher, Editorial José Martí, and the news agency Prensa Latina.
After a decade in Denmark, I returned for three months to compare the state of affairs
Right from the start, I was impressed with advances.
The aircraft landed at Havana’s new airport, terminal three-a modern complex, attractively decorated and clean. Customs and service workers perform quicker and more efficiently in serving travelers than when I lived in Cuba. Furthermore, it soon became clear that service workers are generally more attentive and efficient, also in peso places.
After a night in one of Havana’s casa particular (private homes whose owners pay a tax to rent a room or two), I looked up an old friend. The former “outlaw” Black Panther loaned me his bicycle.
I found an apartment for rent to Vedado, a central Havana district, and began to tour the city and province. I noticed few bicycles and many more automobiles, scooters and motorcycles.
Havanans view this as progress since not many care to cycle, according to experienced cyclists. In the first part of the Special Period — the government’s term for survival reforms being enacted since the fall of European state socialism — there were hundreds of thousands cycling Havanans.
Cuba imported one million bikes from China and started making its own. The factory is closed. Cyclists say the bikes were poorly made and there were never enough spare parts and tires. The only new bikes are European imports and sold in valuta. Still, in the countryside and in most provinces, there are more bicycles and many are the old Chinese or Cuban makes.
My friend Rogelio, who works in the foreign ministry, greeted me with: “Good to see you back in the home of your heart.”.
When I asked about a state security officer mutual friend, he said, “I haven’t seen him in years. With all the changes going on, I don’t know what he is doing. He could be selling croquettes on the street for all I know.”
In the coming days, I learned that former acquaintances, well educated with good positions — ship officers, journalists and editors in the publishing world, middle-level institution leaders — had left their respectable jobs with low pay to become self-employed in gastronomy, as taxi chauffeurs, office clerks in foreign joint venture firms and in tourism. This had been the case before but it is now more generalized.
In contrast to a plethora of prostitutes and hustlers, however, these opportunists are now rare. I never frequent tourist spots where some prostitutes are said to be, but there are fewer and they are not walking the streets.
Some Cubans join the brain drain, abandoning Cuba not for ideological reasons but for better economic opportunities. The captain of Seaweed, a tanker I worked on, stayed in Ecuador after taking cargo there. Another friend, a philosphy professor, moved to Canada. Quite a number of athletes, musicians, technicians, even a journalist colleague have abandoned Cuba for its enemy, the warrior country of my birth.
My first boss, the director of Editorial José Marti, had been a thoroughly uncritical Fidelista. He was fired some years ago for incompetence. He remained in Cuba but took up writing for a Spanish Catholic magazine, which supports “anti-Castroism”.
Others, like Maya, a professor of English teachers, got promoted to her job of choice with opportunities to travel abroad. She taught Mexican natives and earned hard currency with which to buy appliances for her cosy apartment. She has benefited from free higher education like hundreds of thousands of other professionals who volunteer for foreign missions. While “resolving daily problems”, they also concretely help people where they are sent.
Some view this cynically, others as practical. Most can agree that Cubans and Cuba are seen by more and more millions of suffering people in the “third world” as the “Big One” when it comes to humanitarian solidarity. Operation Miracle is a good example.
I first heard of this recent Cuban invention, a cure for many blindnesses — cataracts, retractile disorders, corneal leucoma, myopias and strabismus, and soon, glaucoma — from a criminologist friend. Fernando had retired from the ministry of interior (pensioned at 300 pesos) and opened a paladar, a private restaurant legal only in one’s home and limited to 12 customers at a time. Owners must not hire employees. (These rules are not vigorously enforced.)
Fernando complained that he is viewed as one of the “new rich”, and that the state gastronomic world does not enjoy the competition. So many paladars are closed. In Fernando’s district, the preferred Playa, there exists only 17 from the 187 a decade ago.
Fernando struggled to find a bright side in his contradictory mindset. “Look into Operation Miracle. There’s a positive story.”
In only 18 months usage, the simple and quick Cuban-devised operation had cured 210,000 persons in 25 countries by December 2005. Most of them, 150,000, are Venezuelans, but 36,000 Cubans too.
Cubans no longer suffer blindness and other illnesses caused by poor nutrition, as they did in the mid-1990s when a neuritis epidemic caused sensory disturbances in over 50,000 persons. Today, Cubans daily average 3300 calories and 82 grams protein; in 1993, it was 1863 and 46. WHO recommends 2400 calories and 72 grams.
But not all Cubans are so pleased with the fantastic success their medical science has achieved in foreign missions. Even my former editor and staunch Communist party leader, Maritza, is upset about one of these developments.
Because she was a leading journalist, Maritza had access to the Ministry of Health. She felt forced to speak personally to the minister, in order to assure an eye operation for her husband. He had suffered partial blindness for two to three years during which he awaited an operation. After the minister ordered an operation, he can now see.
There’s a general view that many institutions, including health care staff, are plagued with lethargy, indifference and personal favoritism. Some complain about this and the lack of adequate housing when pointing to the top floors of Cuba’s tallest apartment building, Focsa, where I used to live. Several floors have been filled with Venezuelans brought in for the Operation Miracle cure.
The complainers seem to say, “You can’t eat morality.” At the same time, Maritza slammed the door on my face when I suggested that the majority, at least Havanans, lack revolutionary morality.
Sigi had been Seaweed’s first mate when I sailed with her. He earned a captain’s certificate but never received his own ship. There are more qualified people than positions. Sigi is a mixture of European and African bloods, and proudly claims native Taino roots, too. Sigi had earlier applied for a pension but the monthly 264 pesos didn’t reach. At 69, he is still sailing and earns twice that in pesos plus two dollars in convertible currency each day he sails.
Sigi gave me his view of Cuban traits:
“We are a people in love with pleasure: sports, entertainment, drinking, relaxing, sex. Men are womanisers; women are flirtatious. We are an amiable, joyful people, always in love or soon to be, and caring affectionately for those in our lives.”
Cuba is still changing rapidly but not in such confusing directions as when I left, and Cubans clearly live better materially. As the saying goes: “We are born poor” (few resources) “and die rich” (of rich country diseases).
One of the problems, however, is that most I spoke with do not feel they live well enough. They don’t care to compare themselves with the poor in the world. They complain of shortcomings, are even busier finding solutions to their daily problems, and focus more on themselves. As one friend reflected, “We are obstinate and spoiled.”
With the post-Soviet reforming process has come greater concentration on individually assigned work tasks. Most work centres are required to financially balance their own budgets. The government still basically controls society but has decentralized some authority. It owns and operates less of the economy than it did-about three-fourths production, services and employees.
The remainder is run by joint-venture companies plus the growing numbers of self-employed.
With more self-reliance comes greater production but, perhaps, less “caring affectionately for those in our lives”.