Facts versus Reality in Cuba
(5/24/14) I wanted to wait and publish this but, I think its important you get a since of what I was experiencing in Cuba.
Fact: While Fidel Castro and Raul Castro are the leaders of this nation their influence today I believe is one marked by a historical footnote by the average Cuban.
Reality: On the ground their power is what they gave to people in an hour of need while industrialist and elites found the country a playground and said, damn the masses.
The Cubans have seen very little of Fidel except for the occasional appearance with a world leader (he hasn't been seen in nine months). I don’t know how many times people have predicted his demise. He will likely succumb to a natural death of old age. What comes after him may be radically altered, socialism which may include some form of capitalism?
Fact: Going into Cuba I knew the influence of Che Guevera. His writings and willingness to go to war over these ideas is legendary. His iconic image is everywhere.
Reality: Che was born in Argentina. He embraced communism as the bulwark against western imperialism. The former medical student came to Cuba to fight with Raul and Fidel against Batista. After the overthrow he tried to do the same in the Congo but, failed. The irony is he died in Bolivia fighting a guerrilla war and his side lost. Today his image is sold on t-shirts and hats in shops where people make a profit. Isn’t that capitalism?
Fact: The United States would have you to believe, if only there were free elections, and people were free to immigrate, Cuba could join western nations. This narrative paints a picture of things being in dire straits and on the ground things are really bad in this nation.
Reality: Having spent a week in Cuba I have discovered the exact opposite. While Cuba may have a one party state, the U.S, has a defacto two party state (Hmmm?).
I spoke with intellectuals, workers, and people on the street. None of them turn to me and said, “Help me get out of here.” What they did say, “We wish for a better life (Isn’t that an American trait?).”
Like any large American cities there is a crush of people from the working class, government officials, entrepreneurs, and yes, those who are desperate/at the margins. It was not uncommon to encounter people asking for spare change near hotels in the tourist district. I also saw resorts that rival Cancun, Mexico and Ocho Rios, Jamaica. This country has many problems but, to put into perspective it’s like that Public Enemy song “Don’t Believe the Hype.”
Fact: There is a concerted effort to block certain cable television networks and the internet is monitored. Certain sites are blocked to keep information away from people.
Reality: In the hotel room, where I stayed, I was able to see not only American television networks (CNN, Discovery, HBO, ESPN, the BBC), Venezuela TV, and Mexican Football. The average Cuban doesn’t get all these networks but, they are very much aware of them.
There is a lot of frustration with the inability to utilize the full range of the internet in Cuba. Among the young the penetration of Smart phones (not Apple products) is massive. At Havana University I visited a classroom, students were equipped with desktop computers which rivaled any major college in the US. In talking with college level students they get around problems with slow internet by sharing information off of flash/smart drives.
Fact: Cuban Journalists are paid by the government to keep/tow a party line.
Reality: Yes, journalists are paid by the government but, so is the janitor, the school teacher, the police, the department store worker, etc… While I am personally uneasy with this relationship, there are independent journalists in Cuba. They work for NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and are paid by them. There are also publications owned by labor unions.
Fact: The Cuban government touts the fact there is no racism. There is a very unique conversation about Afro-Cubans and their role in society.
Reality: The Cuban government is embarking on a unique survey to ascertain the influence of the Afro-Cuban population in all aspects of the country. We met with one of the authors of the study, a University of Havana professor. Hearings are being carried live on television. We were told the first three years of the Revolution there was a near utopian society where race was replaced by being Cuban. On the ground however, it was and is still difficult for dark skin Cubans to get choice jobs. It will be interesting to see this process unfold.
Reality: I know going into Cuba I expected to see guards with AK-47’s the moment I stepped off the plane. Instead what I found was a typical experience you get when landing in any Caribbean country. There were federal officials who were “a matter of fact” when dealing with you. On the streets of Havana the police were dressed in light blue shirts, dark blue pants or skirts and a bret. They also were “a matter of fact.”
We watched an officer signal swimmers out of the water with his hands and they did so quickly.
We were also told not photograph them, the army, nor military bases. Yes, we complied. Lastly, I did not personally witness this but, one of my colleagues did. An officer carrying AK-47 was following a man into a building. It just happens to be a bank.He was providing security.
On the streets I traveled alone to get a vibe of what things were like on the ground. I am very cautious when things don’t seem right, and I know as tourist you get hit on for souvenirs, restaurants, and that oldest world profession. I did not feel threaten, nor was I uncomfortable. I often knew to keep one of these officers within visual site.
Fact: Russia’s influence on Cuba is waning and the emergence of Venezuela and that of South America and Mexico is growing.
Reality: The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1982 sent Cuba into a recession. They still haven’t recovered financially but, the country has replaced Russian oil with Venezuelan oil. We were told that two tankers per day bring more than a billion gallons per year of raw petroleum product.
Russia traded oil for sugar, bananas, and rum; what the Venezuelan gets from Cuba are medical doctors and tourism. In the world of trade I would call this fair.
A recent discovery of oil deposits off the Cuban coast has a number of people excited, but cheap Venezuelan oil will keep the taps flowing. There is some caution by environmentalist in Cuba as to what it might do for reefs around the country. Today a UK Newspaper questioned whether the same collapse which we saw with the Soviet Union is possible in Cuba.
The US embargo on prohibiting companies from doing business with Cuba hasn’t dampened some countries willingness to do business. Building materials are coming from Mexico to assist with the ongoing renovations in the capital in Havana. From Brazil technology; Columbia banking and the list goes on.
The irony, there are number of foreign companies prepared to step in.
Fact: The United States Chamber of Commerce is in Cuba. Will they see dollars signs everywhere? Can this staunchly conservative group convince a reluctant congress to ease restrictions on doing business in this nation?
Reality: This isn’t the first time the Chamber has come to Cuba. The South Florida lobby which fled Cuba romanticizes about returning and taking over their former property and businesses. Let’s be clear, “this ain’t gonna happen.”
The President, by Executive Order, could change 50 plus years of status quo policy. It will be weighed politically and that’s a calculation I would make. Immigration has proved a windfall for Democrats; is a Cuban policy change far behind? I will watch.
Fact: It is difficult for Americans to get to Cuba to see for themselves what I experienced.
Reality: Yes, making a decision to go means a lot of planning. You can fly from Canada directly to Cuba, and I met a number of Canucks. The other is to go via Cultural Exchange. Several colleges and universities are sending students abroad to study in Cuban universities (specifically the University of Havana).
Several people have done these exchanges in education, music and art. Mine was a Journalistic cultural exchange. We received special permission to fly from Tampa into Cuba on a charter.
I have never been myopic in my thinking and this trip has broadened and reaffirmed my need and desire to see more of the world. When I was born my family lived in Section 8 Housing. That child, now a man has discovered a world I could not have imagined nor experienced firsthand.