My Argument with Fidel

Tio Fidel deserves his status as a hero to the Cuban people. Pre-1959 Cuba under Fulgencio Batista was a bastion of corruption, prostitution, gambling, suppression, and gross inequality, and was on course to becoming a safe haven for the Mafia. Illiteracy was above 80%, and only the rich had access to medical care and education. The gap of inequality was huge, with no safety net at all.

I was recently in Cuba for nine days. That, of course, entitles me to make expert pronouncements about the whole subject. Seriously, though, I have studied the Cuban situation for years, including Yoani Sánchez’ dissident blog, Generation Y, that has recently received some international attention. My little visit gave me a more realistic view of things than most Americans have.

Tio Fidel deserves his status as a hero
to the Cuban people.

When Fidel and Che marched into Havana in 1959, the streets were jammed with tens of thousands of cheering people, many of them newly liberated from a guaranteed lifetime of cruel poverty and despotism. Fidel made several trips to the US after the triumph, where he was well received.

Then the US government reared its ugly head and did its best to screw things up, as it has done in virtually every Latin American country from the time of Jefferson’s presidency. First, Cuba asked permission to refine oil from the USSR at an American refinery. The US refused, so Fidel nationalized the refining company, since petrol was essential. That pissed off Washington, which retaliated by voiding the agreement to buy Cuban sugar. Fidel could see where this was going so he nationalized everything. The US responded with an embargo on all things Cuban, also pressuring Cuba’s trading partners to honor it, and that’s pretty much where things have stood for a full half century of continuous stupidity from both sides.

The US government did its best to screw things up.

Their perpetual carnival convincingly ended, most rich Cubans fled to Miami, where some of them became the Cuban mafia that has created endless trouble since.

Meantime, in the early years, Cuba made remarkable strides. The empty mansions became all sorts of things, including medical clinics, schools, and apartments housing many people. Nobody is homeless. Wealthy people who didn’t want to leave were allowed to stay. Racism was uneventfully outlawed. Universal healthcare was instituted. And a national literacy campaign was launched, which has resulted in a literacy rate above 99%. The entire country was turned around in short order.

The Cuban mafia has created endless trouble.

But that’s pretty much where it stopped, and life became repressive thereafter. What good is literacy if the only reading is Grandma, the party paper named after Fidel’s boat? Why learn to think if you are not even allowed to watch uncensored TV news, the textbooks are fiddled with to reflect the party fiction, and you can’t even visit outside the country?

Castro was a great liberator, but he was a lousy nation builder, and like every tinhorn dictator fell into the pattern of believing that only he understood what was best, and nobody could be allowed to disagree with anything he said.

If he had retired from public life about 25 years ago, after having established some basic goals for the country and preparing others to take over and improve on la revolución, he would now be a beloved elder statesman like Nelson Mandela, admired around the world, and Cuba would be a far better place. Instead, he managed to squash all the genius and good ideas that Cubans might have given him.

Castro was a great liberator,
but he was a lousy nation builder.

Even so, Fidel Castro, like Che Guevara, remains a great hero to many millions not only in Cuba, but in most of Latin America, and Cuba is a lively and interesting place in spite of all. And things are changing rapidly, at last.

Is there anything in formal socialism or communism that says people should not be able to disagree with the government? I don’t think so, but that’s exactly what has happened in every case I know of. The government is as thin-skinned as certain Islamic governments, and unable tolerate even mild satire. So Cuba has political prisoners, imprisoned solely for their beliefs. Their numbers aren’t huge, but reports say there have been more lately. But we should not forget that the US has a considerably higher rate of incarceration overall.

Is it carved in stone that everyone’s income must not exceed the piddling amount the government gives you? What’s wrong with picking up a peso or two extra? But until very recently, that’s the way it was. Every cop was charged with seeing that you didn’t sell that stick of gum. That sort of thing is changing.

Every cop was charged with seeing
that you didn’t sell that stick of gum.
That too is changing.

The central problem with classic communism, as I see it, is that there is no reward for enterprise, initiative, and hard work. Everything your work creates goes to the state, which rewards you with exactly the same thing the lazy bum next door gets. Nobody has any incentive to give anything extra, since she will not receive anything extra in return. So of course nobody makes any real effort, which results in still more inefficiency and lack of progress, and one is forever bound to a slowly worsening existence. All of that potential talent and drive is simply wasted. It’s a downward spiral that fails to enlist the best the people could offer, and Castro pursued it relentlessly for nearly fifty years. With such failures of leadership, it is amazing that Cuba has done as well as it has.

Thus, classic communism worked no better in Cuba than it had in the USSR. In recent years Fidel and Raul were aware that the system wasn’t working, and even said so, but both appeared to be clueless about the reasons as well as the cure.

Classic communism worked no better
in Cuba than it had in the USSR.

And then Uncle Fidel became quite ill a few years ago, and passed the presidency to brother Raul. Things have slowly changed for the better since then, so maybe Raul gets it. Visitors who came to the island just a couple of years ago notice the improvement today—not that all is well, by any means. But on our trip we experienced no blackouts, and always had hot water, and there were no shortages we knew of. For the most part, Cuban food is mediocre after a half century of deprivation, but recent visitors say all these things are better than just a few years ago, and we enjoyed some truly good meals in new privately owned restaurants.

To his credit, Raul seems to understand that the system they had set up killed all initiative, and things were deteriorating. Everybody had a place to live, all right, and medical care and an education, but Havana’s housing was literally collapsing at the rate of three units a day. People now can own their apartments, but are not required to contribute to building upkeep, so they don’t. Medical clinics were also falling apart, as were schools. And nothing much worked the way it should. All of it, IMHO, could be attributed to classical communist theory’s insistence on equality of income (although that isn’t rigid in Cuba anymore), regardless of ability and effort, and the central government’s insistence on deciding every detail of Cuban life.

Want to know why Cuban doctors
drive taxis after work?

Want to know why Cuban doctors drive taxis after work? It’s because the central government wanted to cut down on the number of people who sought the high prestige enjoyed by doctors, so they paid them the equivalent of $35 per month. A taxi driver gets much more than that in tips from foreign tourists, who pay in tourist currency, which is worth more.

But today the government’s effort to squash any effort to earn that extra peso seems to have been abandoned, and many people are improving their lives by growing and selling food crops, operating small restaurants, or selling small crafts and other stuff. Although the idiotic US trade embargo continues, and Americans are supposedly prohibited from visiting that pleasant island, tourism is thriving, even among Americans. Numerous American groups like ours visit legally in groups for “educational research” purposes, which requires the charade of flying to Mexico, with a connecting flight to La Habana. Quite a few Americans who spend a month or two at their winter place in Mexico pop over to Cuba for a week or more. This is possible because Cuba issues a visa, but does not stamp your US passport.

“Obama, give us five.”

Ever heard of “The Five”? Every Cuban has, and all are angered at the gross injustice of the case. There are posters and commemorations all over the island, put up by citizens, not the government. One banner we saw showed a brown hand and said, “Obama, give us five”.

Some background: early on, self-declared “rescue” missions launched by Cuban exile groups in Miami entered Cuba and killed over 3,000 persons in things like nightclub bombings over a period of years, it is claimed. Much of this was the handiwork of CIA-trained terrorist Luis Posada Carilles, whom we sheltered, who also bombed Cubana 455, with a loss of 78 innocent lives, including the entire Cuban national fencing team and an Italian tourist. Then there was Kennedy’s irresponsible Bay of Pigs invasion, and numerous CIA-assisted attempts on Fidel’s life.

After 30 years of this, Cuba sent five operatives to the US to infiltrate the Miami groups and find out what their next atrocities might be. They were exposed, captured, and stood trial. Now, you would think that the time they had already spent in prison and expulsion would be an appropriate punishment. Instead, they were convicted of espionage, conspiracy to commit murder, and a number of other questionable or downright ridiculous charges, and sentenced to two lifetimes plus 15 years. The only American among them is now released on probation, and the rest have completed 15 years of incarceration—only two lifetimes to go. Meantime, known terrorist Posada, the kind the CIA is so competent at creating, an amoral monster who places zero value on human life, has been free. Besides the 78 airline passengers he killed, there were unknown numbers of others from his other projects. But he found safe haven in the US, and is only now charged with some lesser paper offense.

Such is the legacy of US involvement in Cuba over the past half century. It would seem that we are utterly incapable of dealing with Castro in a rational, moral, and responsible way. Yes, Cuba is communist, but so are China and Vietnam, and we have made no attempts on the lives of their leaders, nor have we attempted to invade those sovereign nations—lately.

Tourist spending and various fees have been put to good use rehabilitating Old Havana, which has many truly beautiful buildings. The improvement is gradually spreading, and some residents of the area live in good apartments, their children attending handsome schools close by. But it is not enough. It’s a race against time, and the collapse of Havana’s buildings continues.

Cuba’s 1950s American cars are famous. Some are beautifully restored, and some are rolling junkyards. There are a lesser number of more recent non-American cars, including some from the USSR. Those hugely ugly USSR army trucks can also be found outside of Havana. There are lots of new modern tour busses.

Fidel’s policies doomed the island to a downward spiral.
But the US brought pressure on all of Cuba’s usual
trading partners, in its usual meddling way.

It would be best for Cuba not to depend entirely on tourist money, and there are a number of promising possibilities. Sugar, cigars, and rum are the classic products. They are all excellent, and would sell well in the US and elsewhere, if only we got the Miami Mafia’s hands off our throats and dumped this eternally dumb trade blockade.

But wait. The trade blockade involved only the US, didn’t it? Cuba has the whole rest of the world to trade with, and there is no excuse for the decrepit conditions. Well, yes and no. Yes, because Fidel’s policies doomed the island to the downward spiral it has endured, at least until very recently. No, because the US brought pressure on all of Cuba’s usual trading partners, in its usual meddling way, causing lots of unnecessary suffering and poverty. There’s plenty of blame and stupidity to go around.

Cuba has a number of other possible exports. Returning from the pretty city of Trinidad to La Habana on our group bus, I saw areas where there were cattle to the horizon in all directions, and orchards, apparently citrus, that went on for dozens of miles on both sides of the road. There is also an apparently undeveloped coffee crop. Bamboo grows on the island too. Bamboo grows like a weed, and can be used in quite a few ways, including flooring and other construction, and even clothing. The government should provide extensive R&D to develop these, pay for the infrastructure, and subsidize private manufacturing. Cuba has few manufactured items, and the government should encourage and support the development of certain specific technologies. Since the medical system is so strong, perhaps medicines or medical devices for poor countries would be another way to go.

Obama has a golden opportunity
to bring about the end of a half century
of stupidity and meddling.

Is there any reason a Cuban go-getter should not be able to operate his own business, and earn enough to live in a nice house and drive a good car, even in a communist nation? Not in my opinion. The only limitation should be to avoid the old system of overly rich and desperately poor. What must be done is to prevent the excessive accumulation of money by a small minority of the rich, the pre-1959 condition that doomed most Cubans.

Obama has a golden opportunity to bring about the end of the half century of stupidity and meddling the US has inflicted on the Cuban people, beginning with the pardoning and expulsion of The Five. Bringing diplomatic pressure on Raul Castro to continue and expand the course of liberalization Cuba has already begun would quickly bring our relationship back to rationality. Obama should insist that Raul dump the dictator role entirely, start listening to his fellow countrymen, enlisting their talents, and quit tossing dissidents in jail unless they commit crimes. If things continue to move toward liberal reality, we should end the trade embargo and establish normal diplomatic relations. It’s long overdue.


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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. The 11th international permaculture conference will be held in Cuba this November. The world is waking up to how they handled foot shortages back then, and how they’re famous for taking poorly utilized space in and around Havana to grow food. We could really learn from them.


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