In early November this year, I was invited to participate in an international conference in Havana on Global Capitalism in Latin America, co-sponsored by the Cuban-based Asociación de Historiadores Latinoamericanos y del Caribe. More than 75 scholars gave presentations on a wide range of topics from transnational trade and investment and the impact of capitalism on the environment, social inequality, and indigenous rights to the resurgence of social movements across the hemisphere.
Much of the work will soon appear in Third World Quarterly, Monthly Review, and other journals. The conference was intense and engaging, but participants also had ample time to witness Havana and interact with Cuban citizens outside the tourist areas.
I was also personally fortunate to meet with Juan Jacamino from Radio Havana Cuba and Ovidio Acosta, senior international editor at ACN (Agencia Cubano Noticias—the Cuban national news agency). In addition to some informative exchanges about the Cuban media practices and the cultural adjustment occurring with increased foreign investment and licensing of small business, we spent almost two days walking Havana and its diverse neighborhoods. Having been to Cuba several times before, most recently during the “special period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union, several things stood out as I witnessed Cuba today.
Perhaps most striking was the widespread, large-scale construction appearing across Havana. Cranes everywhere. Scaffolding everywhere. One obvious and significant part was the United Nations’ restoration projects in and around Old Havana—both small homes from the Spanish colonial days and major projects on former colonial edifices, castle-like structures and former colonial institutional structures.
The other noticeable major construction projects were Chinese and Spanish hotels going up, especially near El Malecon, the main thoroughfare by the Caribbean Sea. Again, multi-story buildings with construction equipment, scores of workers, and cranes operating—even at night.
The third noticeable construction activity around Havana was all of the individual homes and apartments that were in various stages of repair and improvement. Walking through most neighborhoods, there was a remarkable number of homes with residents painting walls, refinishing doors, laying floor tile. Given that most Cubans are economically challenged, the level of home improvement was significant. As several Cubans expressed along our journey, the socialist system in Cuban still provides all with exceptional healthcare, education, housing, and basic nutrition—but resources available for personal consumption are in short supply.
Increased spending on home improvement and consumer goods reflects the expansion of tourism (which brings dollars to those working in the industry) and the licensing of small businesses (which also provides additional income for some).
This was the second noticeable change in Cuba since the late 1990s: individual Cubans can start and profit from small businesses, including hiring employees. In almost every neighborhood, there are barbershops, auto repair shops, food stalls, street vendors, tutors, and bars and restaurants—and hundreds of self-employed taxi drivers.
Both Jacaminio and Acosta expressed some ambivalence with the new “opening” of small enterprise, noting the nudging of social inequality resulting from the increased income for some in a socialist cultural economy that shares public resources with all. Acosta explained that all small businesses need to be licensed, and a primary requirement is for each enterprise to provide a social service to their local neighborhood.
Barbers in one neighborhood fund the local park—callled “barbeparque”—as well as recreational and cultural programs in the park for families and children. One bar we visited established a cooking school—“gastronomique”—for local youth to learn culinary trades.
In every case, the enterprise applicant must meet with representatives of the local neighborhood to discuss and agree on what programs or projects will be provided. The local CDR (Committee for the Defense of the Revolution) then monitors to assure the small business fulfills its commitment. A small, perhaps even symbolic, recognition of the collaborative culture of human solidarity that Cuban leaders (including Raul Castro) still promote.
One of the most startling characteristics of Cuban society for visitors unfamiliar with the dramatic changes following the Cuban Revolution is the manifest desegregation of daily living. From tourist streets to every neighborhood, the separation of black and white does not exist in Havana. Sure, there are some more predominately black neighborhoods, but none solely black streets, no exclusively “ghetto-ized” sections where only blacks live and work. Likewise, there are a few remaining primarily white sections, due to some families who have maintained the residence of their ancestors from before Batista. (Contrary to US propaganda, Cubans did not have their homes confiscated by the revolution. There is no real estate market for home sales, but some Cubans still live in their family homes).
More manifest and transparent is the natural interaction among Cubans of all ethnicities as intermingling socially and culturally is common. Couples hold hands, multiracial families share park benches and public transportation, work together, laugh together, dance together. Truly inspiring for the future of humanity—once the economic incentives (e.g., rent gouging, race-based pay scales, unemployment) and institutionalized racism has been dismantled, citizens gravitate to each other in mutual respect and exchange.
Following the loss of its primary trading partners in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Cuba suffered economically. It is not possible to build a socialist paradise—even on a tropical island—if your primary products are sugar and tobacco. Making matters much worse has been the concerted US blockade that both threatens and undermines Cuba’s ability to normalize relations for trade and finance—given US threatened sanctions against those too friendly with Cuba. With the explosion of tourism, Cuba has found an additional source of revenue, but serving tourists does not serve domestic equality.
So Cuba is poor by many economic measures. Not poor in the Mexican maquiladores, Brazilian favela or US urban blight social inequality sense, but poor in the public appearance and private goods sense. It is obvious everywhere. Streets are clean; kids are cheerful; but there are severe limits on resources, so buildings and streets are in disrepair (even as increased refurbishment takes place) and the notorious 1950s US automobiles are everywhere. No luxury sports cars are around.
Free health care, free education, no rent, affordable public transportation, and nutritional basics—but after that things are tight. Art is everywhere. Museums, libraries, and schools are everywhere—even if not posh. Music is everywhere, so local entertainment is available and affordable. Almost everyone seemed to be carrying a cell phone. Rice, sugar, flour, and milk for children is ample and available for all. We had lunch of spaghetti, pizza, fruit, and pru (a Cuban fermented beverage) for less than a dollar. Still the consumer goods, shiny technology, and latest fashion options are in short supply.
The appeal of self-gratification offered by visiting relatives from Miami and seen on television stands in quite a contrast to the adequate, but seemingly mundane, bare necessities of Cuban daily life. There are visceral, visible signs of shortages for décor, appearance, and consumerist leisure, but the streets are safe, the quality of life is high (educationally, public health, mortality, or most any other measure from the United Nations).
Security and democracy
In my week in Havana, I saw very few police of any sort. A few walked past a public park, stopping to kiss the cheeks of several acquaintances. Each morning a couple of police chatted and rested at the end of one main tourist street. This is no police state. No black youth get shot down. One sees more cops in any US city before lunch than can be seen in Havana in a week. Safety and security and resolution of conflict is usually handled by citizens themselves, often through the neighborhood CDRs with local residents who are known and respected.
Cuba is a democracy. In a few weeks, citizens will vote in local elections for mayors and council reps. Acosta, the senior editor at ACN, reported that there are more than 20,000 candidates in the 168 local elections. Anyone can run; anyone can be elected. (A few years ago, a Presbyterian was elected to a local city council, upending the US charge of no religious freedom in Cuba). After the local voting, elected representatives will vote for the National Assembly, a variance from most other models, but still emblematic of democratic, representative governments.
As a media critic, I had some extended conversations with both Jacaminio from Radio Havana Cuba and Acosta from ACN. Jacaminio explained his role was different from commercial reporters—he does not write of spectacles or the lives and pastimes of entertainers or politicians. Instead, he writes of Cuban citizens, to “find the heroic meaning in the daily life of the bricklayer.” Acosta, as senior editor for international news, on the other hand, reports on global events, particularly as they affect Cuba, including the Paris Accords, NATO and UN decisions, global trade activities, and similar stories. Both of them agreed that public access to Cuban media was limited—there are no community radio stations in Cuba, like those that have sprung up as part of the socialist stirrings in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.While public and community media across Latin America has been a site for educating and mobilizing social movements for change, that recent history has not spurred changes in Cuban media. Jacaminio and Acosta agreed that the lack of more direct public participation in media is a missed opportunity to engage Cubans in critiquing, proposing, and ultimately strengthening the revolution. Both tempered their assessment with real concerns about US intervention, the anti-Castro Miamians, and the general conditions of insecurity and intimidation caused by the US blockade. Cuba is so close to the US and such a target of North American intervention that caution and control over communication are to be expected and almost justifiably the default response.
Cuba Libre 2017
On the day of departure from Cuba, the US announced further restrictions on trade and travel. It will be harder in the future for US residents to visit Cuba, even for academic and educational activities. While continuing to brutalize Cuba, the US policy is intended to prevent Americans from witnessing what has been achieved on a small island 90 miles away. The threat of a good example is perhaps more disconcerting to the Democratic and Republican party than any immediate challenge Cuba might pose. They fear that if more Americans witnessed the cultural diversity, education, health care, quality of life in Cuba—all under the illegal US blockade that creates serious problems for further improvements—more Americans might reject claims that more equitable policies are possible in the US. They might ask why the richest country in the world cannot provide adequate health care, free college education, decent housing, and environmentally sustainable nutrition to all. As pat of the conversation for which way forward for the US, we have a vested interest in defending the Cuban example.