Cuba after Castro
STAY IN ONE OF the five star hotels, and Cuba is a fabulous place for
a holiday. Sit down by that swimming pool and bask in the Caribbean
sunshine, light up a cigar from beyond the wilder shores of Freudian
symbolism and knock back cocktails blended from the finest rum on
earth. And if it’s nightlife you want, there’s hot jazz and salsa
clubs that stay open until four am. That’s on the weeknights.
Convertible pesos only, of course.
But for most ordinary Cubans, life is pretty damn grim. I saw that for
myself two years ago, when I spent four weeks in an ordinary home in
Havana while studying Spanish. Even such basic foodstuffs as rice are
rationed. Water supplies are sporadic, and power cuts regular
occurrences. The housing stock is badly run down. Many everyday items
are simply unobtainable.
Yes, of course the US blockade and the economic effects of the
collapse of the USSR are part – although by no means all – of the
explanation. But there is no getting away from the conclusion that
Cuban society is deeply polarised.
Beyond a layer of older people who lived through the revolution in the
late fifties, there are few strong supporters of the government. The
younger a person is – and the darker the colour of their skin – the
more likely they are to be hostile. Many of those at the sharp end of
the multiple hardships would rather be living in Miami, and don’t
think twice about saying that to a foreign journalist.
The thing is, Cuba is the last remaining country with even a
semi-credible claim to be somehow ‘socialist’. Few nowadays regard
China as anything other than an extended neoliberal sweatshop with the
chutzpah still to fly the red flag, or see North Korea as more than a
famine-ridden hellhole suffering under a particularly ghastly
Accordingly, many lefties in the developed world maintain a soft spot
for the homeland of Fidel Castro. The Cuban system wasn’t imposed by
the Red Army, they point out; it emerged instead from a genuine
revolutionary process that grew over from nationalism to what it is
today. And Che did try to export revolution rather than build
socialism in one country. Welcome to Sunshine Stalinism.
But nevertheless, socialists have a duty not to duck some elementary
truths. Cuba is a one party state. There are no independent trade
unions, and the government maintains the strictest imaginable
censorship over the media.
There are no gulags as such, but plenty of political prisoners. Party
cadre are privileged, if to an extent limited in comparison to other
historical examples. In plain English, Cuba is a dictatorship. A
dictatorship lite, perhaps, but a dictatorship nevertheless.
Of course there are counter-arguments aplenty. Important as democracy
is, it is not the sole criteria on which to judge a country. Turkey
holds regular elections, but still brutally represses the Kurdish
population. In multi-party India – the self-styled ‘largest democracy
in the world’ – hundreds of millions starve.
Cuba, on the other hand, provides universal education and the highest
standards of health care in the third world. It’s the only poor
country I have ever seen that isn’t scarred by shanty towns. Even
those locals that grumble most don’t dispute that.
Havana might not by Heaven, but it sure ain’t Haiti either. It’s just
that – not unreasonably – the population wants a system that provides
them with toilet paper. Oh, and some fresh fish once in a while would
Many are openly envious of a layer in Cuban society that certainly
isn’t hard up. Entry to Havana’s premier salsa spot costs more than a
month’s white collar wages. Yet most of the several hundred strong
crowd are young Cubans.
Some of them simply have jobs – formal or informal – in the tourist
sector. Some of the women are not prostitutes, you understand; they
just put out for foreign men who can show a girl a good time. Even
bellboys can earn more than university professors, so long as they
pick up tips en convertibles. And to get to be a bellboy – so I was
told by a qualified architect currently working as a cinema usher –
you need ‘connections‘.
But most of the obviously well-off benefit from remittances from
abroad. Havana is not immune from globalisation. Starbucks and
McDonalds are unable to set up shop, thanks to the US embargo. But
Benetton and some Spanish hotel chains are already running local
Perhaps the clearest reason for socialists not to go starry-eyed over
the place is the massive social weight of the Cuban armed forces, so
typical for Latin America. That was probably the real significance of
the decision of Fidel Castro (pictured) to hand over de facto power to
kid brother Raul in 2006, confirmed by his resignation today. Power
lies with the guys that dress up in olive green.
For the democratic left, then, the conclusions are clear. We should
oppose the US blockade on basic democratic grounds. Ironically from
Washington’s viewpoint, it could actually be holding back the
development of an indigenous Cuban democratic opposition.
But at the same time, we need to stress that a democratic opening is
essential if Cuba is to avoid the build up of discontent on the scale
of 1980s Eastern Europe, and the eventual introduction of a
particularly savage brand of neoliberal capitalism.
I’d hate to go back in a few years and find that heart-stoppingly
beautiful Old Havana had reverted to its former role as one big
extended casino-cum-whorehouse theme park for gringos.