If ever there were a case for capitalism, Havana, Cuba might be it. I had the good fortune to take part in a four-day mission to Cuba this past weekend, yet it took no more than a few minutes on the bus drive from the American terminal of Havana’s Jose Marti Airport toward Havana Vieja (Old Havana) to see the cataclysmic failure of Fidel, Che, Raul, and Camillo’s socialist experiment on the Pennsylvania-sized island ninety miles off Florida’s tip.
The first sign of failure is the beautifully decayed mid-twentieth century architecture. The Spanish-Caribbean fusion – multi-colored and crumbling – is fully apparent, but each day some building, or some part thereof, collapses. As is the justification for inefficacy in so many elements of Cuban society, neither the government nor the people have the resources to make necessary reparations. To this end, one participant in the mission described the capital as a “tale of two cities.” Havana’s people are trapped living in denigrated housing with exterior beauty, driving long-antiquated vehicles with touristy appeal, and struggling to exist in a modern world under governance that actively thwarts innovation and progress. Havana has an underlying glamour leftover from the pre-Castro and pre-Batista era; however, it is a former second-world state not far from third-world poverty.
The average Cuban makes the equivalent of approximately twenty to thirty U.S. dollars per month, with exceptions few and far between. For instance, one Cuban has made rare investments in an incredibly small area of Havana, building new hotels and restaurants. For his trouble, he has made several million dollars, according to local sources. However, in any Cuban private venture – which is a rather novel concept – the private entity makes the full investment, and the public entity (Castro’s socialist government) reaps half the profits and maintains a fifty-percent stake in the business.
Weirder than simple socialism in action, though, is the topsy-turvy job structure. Employees in cigar factories are paid partially in product, which they seek to sell at discount to tourists on the side, despite the risk they take in doing so. Taxi drivers make more than doctors, and barbers make more than professors. This is because in Cuba, access to cash is everything. A doctor is limited in the number of surgeries he can perform in a day and the amount of money the government will award him for performing them. Conversely, a taxi driver can work as long as he desires and he has the enormous benefit of gratuity.
Cuban medical care and education are both strong – they are the so-called pillars of Castro’s revolution – but there is minimal incentive to work in those sectors. We were told a personal story of three doctors. Two retired from medicine (many doctors just leave Cuba whenever they get the chance) and sat around drinking rum, playing dominos, and collecting change. The third doctor refused to join them on moral grounds, but he struggled utilizing unbelievably difficult public transit to get to work each day, only to make less money than his unemployed former-colleagues.
Castro’s propaganda is still intense and immense. I saw more images of the “Cuban Five” in my first hour in Havana than I heard the name “Alan Gross” in the last several years in America. But the propaganda was not sufficient to corrupt Cubans. Most were more candid in their political discourse than one might expect. When I asked why Cubans were so open, some suggested that while Cuba is not what it can be twenty years from now, it also is not what it was twenty years ago. Today, discussion is less secretive and restraints are less piercing. When I asked how Cubans could survive on so little money, I was told that everybody has a “relative in Miami.” Cuban Americans commonly create debit accounts (credit cards are more-or-less nonexistent on the island) for their Cuban relatives. Missionaries, like those on my trip, bring medical and other supplies. And for all else, Cubans have an unwavering communal and creative force that seems to enable them to subsist on almost nothing.
Although it was made clear that “to expect two eighty-something year old brothers to admit that their dream has been a total failure is ridiculous, unthinkable; it won’t happen,” it is clear that Cubans believe the Castro Boys will not outlive the majority of Cuba’s contemporary citizenry. Hemingway – who spent much time in Cuba – wrote, “That is the secret. You must get to know the values.” The values of average Cubans – despite unfettering attempts to con tourists and the constant struggle to get by on food rations and minimal assets – are clear and good. And, as for their take on their capitalist neighbors, there exist no hard feelings. Most Cubans (unlike many Cuban Americans) want an end to the embargo, which they believe would destroy Castro’s last political scapegoat.
En route to the airport for our departure back to the United States, our forty-two year old tour guide told us that his dream is to someday visit Yankee Stadium. Visiting the socialist state only a few days before July 4th offered an important contrast, and a welcome refresher about how great a country the United States really is. There are huge problems and inequities inherent to our system (ex: There are 5 empty houses for every homeless American) and we are not number one in every category, or even the ones in which we really should be (Cue Will McAvoy and PHP‘s Laurence), but I believe American exceptionalism is still alive and well.
Happy Fourth of July to all of our readers, and Happy 236th to the Red, White, and Blue. A few (of many) images from my trip are below: