Friday, May 17, 2013

Reflections on a Journey to Cuba

Sunrise in Havana as seen from the roof of the Hotel Parque Central

“Wait, you can go to Cuba?”

That seems to be the reaction of most Americans I talk to when I reveal that I have returned from a recent trip to Cuba.  Indeed, Cuba is a bit of a diplomatic special case since the US does technically restrict the travel of its citizens to the island.  Unless one is on a diplomatic mission or some other such extenuating circumstance, one would have to travel to Cuba out of the sight of US authorities -- via Canada or some such.

Sunset in Cienfuegos
That is, until recently.  Thanks to President Obama (one of the few times I will type these words non-ironically), there are a number of exemptions that ordinary Americans can obtain to travel to Cuba.  These include people-to-people cultural exchange programs, such as the one that I participated in through Stanford University.  

Other exemptions can be for religious organizations doing cultural exchange.  By coincidence, I met an American (who happened to live a couple blocks away from me in San Francisco) at the Havana airport travelling with his church group.  There was also a minor stir caused by Beyonce and Jay-Z who happened to be in Havana at the same time that our group was.  It turned out that they, too, had an exemption from the Treasury Department (yes, the Treasury Department issues these) -- an educational one, mind you.

Jay-Z and Beyoncé on a Havana balcony (photo credit: Greg Surrurier)
Contrary to popular belief, there is much interaction between the United States and Cuba, albeit less than that of countries with normalized diplomatic relations.  There is a US diplomatic presence in Cuba (called the US Special Interests Section) and vice versa.  Flights travel between Cuba and the US every day carrying both Cubans and Americans.  In the Miami airport, for instance, there are several ticketing booths run by ABC Charters, the airline my trip used.  Cuba is a recipient of food and other aid from the US, so much so that in 2012 Cuba imported more agricultural products from the US than from any other country.

My desire to visit Cuba was driven partially by a naive belief that there might be some kind of cataclysmic reconfiguration of the island after the inevitable end of the Castro regime, and an urge to see the island as it was before the all the McDonald’s sprang up.  I learned, however, that some gradual change has already taken place on both sides of the Straits of Florida which has recently reconfigured the face of Cuba.
Visage of Ernesto "Che" Guevara in Havana's Plaza de la Revolución
On the Cuban side, the government has implemented a variety of notable reforms in the past few years.  First of all, Cuban citizens no longer need the permission of the government to travel abroad.  Second, buying and selling real estate is now allowed by the government.  Are these changes as drastic for Communist Cuba as they appear on face value?  Kind of, sort of, maybe.  Government policy in Cuba is unpredictable and fickle, the infrastructure for a policy usually comes after it has been announced, and many other rules, regulations and provisions -- explicit and implicit -- prevent these policies from being implemented to their logical conclusion.

On the US side, Obama also lifted travel restrictions on Cuban citizens and removed restrictions on remittances to family members in Cuba, among other changes.  The sense among Cubans that I talked to was that the combination of remittances and liberalized real estate laws were allowing Florida-based Cuban-Americans to acquire property on the island.  But again, there are a multitude of official policies that limit the extent to which this can happen (only certain familial relations can transfer land to others under certain conditions at certain points of time etc. etc. etc.).  I can’t claim to understand all of them, partially because there seemed to be so many.
A donkey in Trinidad
The experiments with privatization by the Cuban government aren’t totally unprecedented.  As I learned throughout my travels, there already exist enclaves of private ownership in the sea of public ownership.  Paladars, or privately owned restaurants, have existed since the government was forced to experiment during the economic catastrophe known as the “special period” when the USSR -- Cuba’s main trading partner -- disappeared from the face of the earth.  (GDP in Cuba dropped by around thirty percent over the next several years.  To compare the severity of this crisis, consider that the dismal economic situation in America is caused by GDP that is actually growing, just not fast enough for some people’s taste!)  Much of the privately-owned sector seems to be in tourism: hotels, taxis, restaurants, etc.  In that sense there is somewhat of a two-tier economy in Cuba.

As a Western tourist, you would have to be blind not to notice that you exist in the higher economic tier, compared to the average Cuban.  Eating meat and fish at the paladars is different from rice and beans purchased from one of the often-empty stores selling subsidized staples.  Staying in a nice hotel is a far cry from living in a crowded, crumbling building.  Touring the countryside in an air-conditioned bus sure beats plodding around in a barely-functional 50’s automobile.  There is even a separate currency, the CUC, which is used by tourists and other privileged members of Cuban society (government, military, business people) to buy items that are out of the reach of most Cubans, who deal in regular pesos.

Lineup of antique American cars in Havana
Oh yes, did I mention the crumbling buildings?  The signs of decay are everywhere in Cuba’s architecture.  Even on the main tourist strips and inside the landmark museums, peeling paint, collapsed outcroppings and cracked facades are a constant sight.  It is not uncommon for entire buildings to outright collapse in Havana.

The life of the ordinary Cuban is difficult.  Whenever one would quote us his or her salary, we in the tour group would marvel at how he or she was still alive.  It seems like everyone is forced, one way or another, to survive on some combination of their salary, subsidies and the black market -- the black market being the most lucrative.  One apropos experience that stands out in my mind is a visit I took to a Cuban cigar factory.  The factory workers were quite openly offering to sell us cigars as we walked the floors, which of course is expressly illegal.  We did some math and determined that only one sale to a tourist would double a worker’s daily salary.  
Plowing fields, old school, in Havana
Opinions of Cubans are mixed with regards to the current state of affairs, the Revolution and the future.  It seems that Cubans respect the Revolution and the positive aspects that it has brought to the people against great international adversity, but they would also be welcome to economic improvements in their life that the Revolution cannot offer.  Some think that younger Cubans have less interest and investment in the Revolutionary ideals.  One speculated that half of the population would leave the island for the US if given the chance.  But it seems that most would be against a complete capitalist takeover of the island, dismantling the community and culture that Cubans treasure.
Man in Havana selling state newspapers
Regardless of perspective, it appeared that every Cuban I talked to was pretty frank with his or her opinions.  All seemed to agree that the political repression had significantly slackened in the past several years to the point where one effectively ignored it in his or her day to day routine.  There are exceptions, however, and people seemed to believe that any significant agitation against the government was still taboo.
Driving down Havana's Malecón in a 50's Chevrolet
My communication with Cubans was easy in part because so many of the people I interacted with spoke English (my Spanish could be generously described as rusty).  English displaced Russian as the mandatory foreign language in schools after the collapse of the USSR.    Also, most of the tourist industry workers tend to be highly educated professionals.  This dynamic is the sad and predictable consequence of a poor country that doesn’t offer its professionals sufficient career opportunities to prevent them from taking a job in the virtually lone sector in which it is possible to earn a decent income.  Naturally, my opinion of Cuban life is disproportionately influenced by interactions with this professional class which accounted for most of my candid conversation with Cubans.
This Havana kid thought that the rip in my shirt was hilarious.
What is the solution to Cuba’s economic problems?  One thing is for sure: unleashing unbridled capitalism upon the island, the thought of which many American policymakers salivate over, is not it.  One need only to look to Cuba’s nearest neighbor, Haiti, to see what might lie in store for Cuba if that scenario were to play out.  In fact, Communist Cuba is doing quite well economically in comparison to its Greater Antilles neighbors.  According to the CIA World Factbook, GDP per capita in Cuba is 91st in the world, and countries with similar histories, locations and climates rank below it.  The reality is that Cuba is a relatively poor, undeveloped country and will remain that way for the foreseeable future.  If the reader is hoping for some positive policy prescriptions, unfortunately I feel that I do not have nearly the knowledge of Cuba’s situation required to make any informed ones of much use.

Whatever developmental course Cuba chooses to pursue, the US could help out by getting out of the way.  America has a very long history of terrorism, invasion, proxy dictatorship and general nastiness with respect to Cuba that I won’t go into fully here.  Suffice it to say that American designs on Cuba go back to hundreds of years, really got going with the Spanish-American War, and continue to the present.  Currently the US maintains its economic embargo on Cuba which every year is condemned by the United Nations General Assembly (the US, Israel and Palau were the only dissenting votes in 2012).  America also lists Cuba as a state sponsor of terror (along with Iran, Sudan and Syria).  An obvious first step, if the US wanted to stop antagonizing Cuba, would be to drop these two policies.
Missiles that were (not) used in the Cuban Missile Crisis outside Cienfuegos
Beyond that, the US could go from being a neutral country viz. Cuba to a friendly one.  There are plenty of reasons why this would be a natural arrangement.  The close proximity, the large Cuban-American population (over one million strong in the US) and the shared history and culture.  Everywhere we went in Cuba, for instance, there were statues and busts of Abraham Lincoln, considered a hero for the same reasons that many Americans hold him in high regard.  His philosophy was influential on José Martí, the most important figure in the Cuban independence struggle.
The Cuban flag flying near the tomb of José Martí in Santiago, Cuba

But as it stands, Cuban-American diplomatic relations are typically strained.  Throw in Guantánamo Bay (a controversial American military base on Cuban soil), the cast of alleged terrorists, spies and political prisoners that each side accuses the other of mishandling (Alan Gross, Assata Shakur, The Cuban Five, Luis Posada Carriles, etc.) in addition to the shenanigans already mentioned, and one has a recipe for an icy relationship that shows no signs of thawing.
Propaganda poster in Guantánamo province
But who knows?  If Cuba’s current president, Raúl Castro, is true to his word, the Castro regime will end in 2018.  Perhaps that will be the start of a diplomatic rapprochement.  Or maybe one will start before then.  Or maybe things will continue on as they are now.  Really, what the future holds for Cuba is anyone’s guess.

In sum, these are just some rambling thoughts on the contemporary Cuban political economic situation informed by my recent visit to Cuba.  I don’t really have any point to push here, but rather have attempted to give a brief glimpse into what Cuba is actually like today.

Yours truly reflecting on the day in Baracoa

Further reading


Some have commented that I have not given enough space to the positive accomplishments of the Cuban government.  These include: