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Cuba on the Cusp…?

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10 days in Cuba in the first half of January was an astonishing experience.

A ‘special’ holiday to celebrate wife Caroline’s 60th, there was little of the ‘Winter sun’ we had been led to anticipate. Rather, near-hurricane level winds and torrential rain lasted several days, with sun, cloud and lighter rain alternating for the rest.

If the weather wasn’t enough of an experience in itself, then Cuban music, art, architecture and the people themselves left indelible impressions. The music is, of course, fabulous…seemingly a well-schooled salsa and/or rumba band on every street corner in Habana (aka Havana) and a stunning concert by a version of the world-famous Buena Vista Social Club in Varadero on our last night. In contrast to the agonised grimaces of many American and British musicians, their Cuban counterparts seem to be thoroughly enjoying themselves and communicate that to their audiences. (There is plenty of healthy RED expressed in the way Cuban musicians so enjoy playing and PURPLE both in that musicians love to be in a band and the affection for their musical traditions.) The art is wonderfully expressive and the architecture awesome, even when it’s dilapidated. As for the people….

Cuba, is, of course, a victim of 2 malevolent streams of thought.

The first malevolent stream
The first is the naive thinking of Fidel Castro’s government. It mixed the idealistic thinking of the GREEN vMEME with the vMEME harmonic of RED/BLUE zealotry. A core meme the Government projects is that everyone will work hard in a committed way for the common good. Really? Then why don’t they?…and why doesn’t Communism work? The left-wing philosopher Peter Singer (1998) posits that, until Marxists find a way of factoring in the self-oriented side of human nature and how to deal with it, Communism will never work.

The result of Castro’s blind but ruthless naivety is a country that can’t feed itself or make enough of what it needs. Yet Castro’s government insisted on promoting an ideology (Communism) most of its neighbours, especially the (Capitalist) United States, find so odious they, at best, restrict trading relations with Cuba and, at worst (the USA), work actively to destroy the regime. Only subsidies from the Soviet Union enabled Cuba to maintain the façade of a functioning Communist society which developed in the years immediately following the Revolution in 1959. The end of those subsidies – worth $4-6 billion per year – crashed the Cuban economy in 1991 and plunged Cuba into the harrowing days of the ‘Special Period in a Time of Peace’. Extreme austerity and acute shortages became the new norm. Brendan Sainsbury & Luke Waterson (2015, p460) describe how “…the average Cuban lost over a third of their body weight and saw meat pretty much eradicated from their diet.”  In the Habana zoo, according to The Economist (2008), The peacocks, the buffalo and even the rhea” were reported to have disappeared while Cuban domestic cats disappeared from streets to dinner tables. Only a trading pact with Venezuela’s sympathetic left-wing government in 2005 and some cautious economic reforms introduced by Raúl Castro in 2008-2011 have brought some relief from the dreadful conditions of the Special Period. A great deal of the poverty and desperate living conditions still persist.

For Fidel Castro – possibly displaying the compulsive ruthlessness of Psychoticism – the suffering of his people in the Special Period seems to have mattered far less than continuing to promote the cause (Communism). In this respect, Fidel Castro’s government was similar to the zealots of Hamas in Gaza – see Israeli Stupidity in Gaza #2. They will both sacrifice their people for the cause.

An occupied dilapidated building in downtown Habana (photo: Caroline Rice)

An occupied dilapidated building in downtown Habana (photo: Caroline Rice)

Does Castro, now retired but still pontificating in state journals, care about the people living in the dirt and squalor of abandoned and derelict buildings in downtown Habana? Does he truly realise just how many people – including professionals like teachers and doctors – are forced to take second (or even third) jobs to make ends meet? Does he understand the scams, the thievery and the thriving black market many Cubans must engage in to have anything beyond survival-level basics? Does he even know about the large numbers of young men and women who turn to prostitution to survive?

And how can it be right for the bulk of the population to be allocated such severe rations as one piece of chicken per month? (These levels of rationing were first revealed to us by our guide, Danai, and then confirmed by several other Cubans we spoke to, including the street hustler, ‘Carlos’, who seemed to live off scamming tourists.)

Feeling overwhelmed by the sheer scale of the poverty in downtown Habana, I felt increasing anger towards Fidel for putting his people through so much when, by the early 1990s, it was increasingly obvious that Communism per se didn’t work and was a spent force. That Castro had some understanding of the need for Capitalist incentivisation was indicated by his government agreeing in 1993 to open up Cuba to tourism, allow a degree of foreign investment and authorise self-employment for some 150 occupations. In a mirror of Vladimir Lenin’s 1921 New Economic Policy (NEP), the Government’s liberalisation of agricultural markets in October 1994 allowed farmers to sell above-quota surpluses at free market prices. At least Lenin was honest enough to partially admit Communism was not capable of dealing with the crises Soviet Russia was facing and described NEP as ‘State Capitalism’ (Lewis Siegelbaum, 1992); Castro kept on defending the Revolution and its façade of a working Communist society at all costs to his people.

Plus, for all the Castro government’s meme that all are treated equally, a short walk past the attractive, detached properties on the western side of central Habana quickly puts paid to that lie.

An example of a building in western Habana's more affluent district (Caroline Rice)

An example of a building in western Habana’s more affluent district (Caroline Rice)

For all that Cuba’s government and its naiveties and hypocrisies have cost the Cuban people dear, it also needs to be acknowledged that it has made some stunning achievements. Education is universal and free, with literacy rates astoundingly high – even the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA, 2015) puts it at 99.8%! Primary healthcare is also universal and free, with Cuban medical research in the vanguard in such areas as lung cancer (Erin Schumaker, 2015). In June 2015 Cuba became the first country in the world to receive validation from the World Health Organisation that it has eliminated mother-to-child transmission of HIV and syphilis.

Of course, the dire poverty afflicting ordinary Cubans is not just the result of the Government’s internal policies. These have to be set in the context of Fidel Castro’s deluded responses to malevolent external pressures.

The second malevolent stream
This, of course, is US hostility to the Castro regime, as expressed most persistently in the economic embargo, first put in place in October 1960 and extended in scope several times since. (Of course, there have also been numerous ‘black ops’ – most notably 1961’s infamous ‘Bay of Pigs’ debacle – and, according to Fabián Escalante Font (2006), something like 634 attempts on Fidel’s life directly or indirectly by the CIA.)

The embargo, while not exactly aiming to starve the Cubans into submission, is certainly trying to limit exports and imports to such a degree that ordinary people turn against the Government and overthrow it.

The roots of American hostility to the Cuban Communists are perfectly understandable in terms of the geopolitics of the late 1950s/early 1960s. After all, having a neighbouring country willing to site Soviet nuclear missiles aimed at American cities on its territory (1962’s ‘Cuban Missile Crisis’), was hardly conducive to good relations!

Unfortunately, American foreign policy then was based on Modernisation Theory, Walt Rostow’s (1960) explicitly anti-Communist approach aimed at turning as many countries as possible in the Third World into consumerist democracies.  Given the determination of the Soviet Union and China to spread Communism throughout the developing countries, Capitalism needed to make a response. However, Modernisation Theory hasn’t worked in a single country it’s been applied to and is a key contributing factor to the huge international debts many Third World countries are burdened with. (See Modernisation Theory vs Stratified Democracy.)

Despite its complete failure, Rostow’s myopic thinking still heavily influences American foreign policy – as per the disastrous attempts to impose Western-style Democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But, whatever anxieties there might be about Russia’s current intentions in Syria and Eastern Ukraine, the hardcore Communism it once propounded is long gone. As for that other once-great advocate of a Marxist society, China, Western politicians seem more concerned these days with the effect on the markets of the vagaries of the Chinese economy.

With a different Castro, brother Raúl, now in charge, the potential for change in Cuba is blossoming. Sure, there ae still enormous amounts of propaganda about the Revolution and the bookshops are full of the writings of Fidel and Che Guevara, but almost every Cuban we spoke with readily acknowledged the need for change and opportunity.

The rigid BLUE categorisation of Cuba as an enemy of the US is both outdated and causing an inhuman level of suffering to the Cuban people. Hopefully the ORANGE of American entrepreneurship, seeing the business opportunities in a more open Cuba, will be able to manipulate Congress into lifting the embargo.

The ‘Cuban Spirit’
One of the most remarkable elements of our Cuban experience was embodied in the words of hotel gym instructor Irane: “Cuban people have heart.”

Just about every Cuban we spoke with at the level of social/political comment expressed real pride both in being a Cuban personally and in the nature, attitudes and collective identity of the Cuban people.

We found this even amongst Cubans who are strongly opposed to the Government’s policies.

Of course, not all Cubans buy into this collective identity. There has been a steady trickle for decades – with periodic surges (particularly during the Special Period) –  of Cubans escaping via the dangerous 90-mile sea crossing to Florida. In the first 30 years of the Revolution, more than a million Cubans made their way to the US. However, since Raúl Castro relaxed travel restrictions in January 2013, over 180,000 Cubans have travelled abroad and almost all have returned – though it could be argued that travel abroad is far too expensive for the average Cuban.

We found an especial pride in the resilience and ingenuity of the Cuban people in getting through the Special Period. As Danai put it to us: “We manage.”

Sainsbury & Waterson (p460, 467-468) elaborate: “…the Special Period invented a whole new culture of conservation and innovation, and elements of this communal belt tightening still characterise the Cuban way of life today…. Survivors by nature and necessity, Cubans have long displayed an almost inexhaustible ability to bend the rules and ‘work things out’ when it mattered…. In Cuba sharing is second nature and helping out your companiero with a lift, a square meal or a few convertibles when they’re in trouble is considered a national duty.”

This is an example of Samuel Gaertner et al’s (1993) Common In-Group Identity Model in action. Give the differing factions adversity and a common enemy to unite against and it should be possible to unite the factions in a single identity (in-group) against the enemy (out-group). Danai told us that, from the age of 5, Cuban children are taught that the United States is the enemy and that all Cuba’s problems are due to the American embargo. The in-group/out-group effect is accelerated by what Stan Cohen (1972) identifies as creating a moral panic (acute shortages), to be blamed on the folk devils (Americans). The result of these pressures is a sense of PURPLE hunkering down to protect ‘the tribe’ from the ‘others’. Add some BLUE sense of ‘national duty’ and a sheen of nationalism can be created which both Communists and non-Communists can support.

If the potential rapprochement with the US does develop, it will be interesting to see what new narrative the Government creates to describe relations with the former enemy.

Cuba on the cusp…?
The slight thaw in relations between Cuba and the United States has the potential to develop into one of the more interesting rapprochements of the early 21st Century.

The world’s most powerful country, its political elites mostly dominated by the BLUE and ORANGE vMEMES, attempting to find accommodation with one of the poorer countries in the world, its elite seemingly still dominated by RED/BLUE zealotry and GREEN idealism….

Make no mistake, though. For all that he fought and suffered alongside elder brother Fidel in the bitter guerilla campaigns which eventually won the Revolution, Raúl is no Fidel Part 2.

Fidel’s preference for army-style fatigues has been replaced by sharp and expensive business suits. Whereas Fidel harangued anti-Communist world leaders from behind the walls of ‘Fortress Cuba’, Raúl meets them in person. Good grief, he’s even met Barack Obama at the White House!

The economic and social reforms Raúl introduced are a vital first step in releasing Cuba both from tyranny and poverty. But Raúl has to tread carefully. Fidel is still alive and, although in 2010 he admitted that the Cuban model of centralised planning (based on the old Soviet model) was no longer sustainable for the Cuban economy, he is still active politically, if no longer in any official postion of power, and championing the values of the Revolution. (According to ‘Carlos’, the 2 ageing brothers no longer get on and Raúl was reported by Associated Press in 2009 to have replaced a number of officials previously close to his older brother.)

Thus, in December 2014, when Obama spoke on TV of rapprochement with Cuba, Raúl responded almost immediately by asserting Cuba would not be diverted from its ‘Socialist path’.

Obama has made it fairly clear he wants the embargo lifted before he leaves office in 2017. Although leading Cuban exiles are said to be strongly opposed to doing a ‘deal’ with the Castros, a number of polls have suggested a potential majority of Americans favour further normalisation of relations between the 2 countries (Sainsbury & Waterson).

Much will depend on who occupies the White House from November 2016 as it’s highly unlikely Obama can get Congress to repeal Cuba’s ‘enemy’ status before he leaves office. At this stage it’s still too early to predict who the Democratic candidate will be. If Bernie Sanders takes the White House, his overly-strong and very idealistic GREEN is likely to create an ‘assimilation effect’ – see the Assimilation-Contrast Effectmeta-stating the Cuban government to be less extreme than it actually is. As a result, Sanders is likely to make too many concessions too quickly, thus relieving internal pressures on Raúl’s government without creating much leverage for change. Hilary Clinton, her selfplex clearly dominated by the ORANGE vMEME, would probably be a more shrewd negotiator. The pragmatism of her ORANGE would likely drive hard bargains with the Cubans…but the kind of hard bargains that might just enable her to get the repeal through Congress.

Beyond personalities, there is, of course, the question of just how much and in what ways Cuba has to change to get the embargo repealed. Reflecting Modernisation Theory all too clearly, the  stated purpose of the Cuban Democracy Act of 1992 is to maintain sanctions on Cuba so long as the Cuban government refuses to move toward “democratisation and greater respect for human rights”. Yet the democratic/Capitalist model is looking increasingly ineffective for the majority of its citizens as poverty in many countries in the West is widely reported – eg: Alana Semuels (2015) – to be increasing substantially. Several former Communist countries – most notably Russia and Hungary – having tried it, are now attempting to develop different economic and political models. Although it has suffered some serious ups and downs in both the trade and money markets, China is slowly but surely increasing the per capita wealth of its citizens via a mixture of private enterprise and authoritarian political control. So, other than trying to appease American right wing legislators and Cuban exiles, why would Cuba go unreservedly down the democratic/Capitalist route?

What ever kind of model Cuba might eventually mutate into, short of another revolution, the simple fact is the country is not going to change overnight. But, to consolidate the reforms Raúl has implemented, keep Fidel and the old guard at bay and encourage further reform, Cuba needs to be rewarded in its relationships with other countries – especially the USA. The ‘thaw’ should be continued. Cautiously, perhaps in stages, the embargo needs to be repealed in exchange for more social and economic, but perhaps not outrightly political reforms…?

Of course, Raúl is supposed to step down in 2018. Irane told me no one knows what will happen then. One can only hope his successor will extend his reforms.

Of course, if Donald Trump should end up in the White House, all bets are off!

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4 Responses

  1. Bernard McGuinn says

    That's the paradox, Keith, and I know it's a similar situation in most of the Caribbean and Arab/ African counties.

    Like (1)
  2. Keith E Rice says

    We thought about that a lot, Bernard. I guess the reflective tourist tips well and leaves things for the staff. We left about £20 worth of toiletries, etc, for our room maid which she could use herself or sell to make a bit of money. 'Carlos' told us that jobs in the hotels are highly sought after because of the oppportunity to make extra money - from what the way he put it, I meta-stated that being in 'the Party' would help get that kind of job. The other side of it is that tourism is now a vital part of Cuba's economy. Irane told me that tourism accounted for around 80% of employment in Habana and Matanzas. If tourism were to decline, everyone from the Government to the toilet cleaner would be that much worse off.

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  3. Bernard McGuinn says

    Keith, thanks for giving us such a detailed first hand report. Very thought provoking. I've contemplated visiting Cuba several times, but have always stepped back because of my perception of poverty v affluence of the tourist. How does one cope with the thought of your waiter only being able to have one piece of meat per month, while the all inclusive tourist can eat and drink to excess?

    Like (1)
  4. Tom Christensen says

    This was a pleasure to read, Keith. I haven't found anything until this that gives me a current view of Cuba on the streets. Good info. And a delight to follow your Gravesian framing of the situation. Take more trips soon, please.

    Like (2)