When a late change of destination had us heading for Cuba one of my daughters-in-law set up a spoof “Free Lincoln” campaign on social media in recognition of my robustly anti-Communist views. She needn’t have feared: Cuba seems entirely relaxed about the views of its tourists. It has to be since it needs them so much, but one feels they would be pretty relaxed anyway unless there was evidence that you were an actual CIA agent. And, in any case, I had visited Communist countries back in the day, in fact most of them.
So I present my studiously superficial view of contemporary Cuba. But I insist that superficiality has its proper place and has some of the virtues of objectivity. Unlike (say) Richard Gott (Cuba: A New History) or Dervla Murphy (The Island that Dared ) who have researched and written extensively about the island I am not over-familiar with or over-committed on the subject. My hostile feelings are very mild. When Communism was a few hundred miles away, controlled a third of the world and was confident of its own expansion, I was very much against it. When it is a social experiment on a Caribbean island I am mainly just interested. But for the record I am against it: I value liberty and utility and believe the values of equality and social justice to be merely chimeras. I want a world in which I and mine (or somebody at least) can accumulate wealth and thus write and travel freely and that is never going to be Communist.
Having got that out of the way, I am faced with an obvious comparison. In the early 1980s I took an equally superficial look at the Soviet Union, swinging through Russia and Central Asia in a three week tour largely aimed at people in the travel business. I published my impressions in New Society. I concluded that the Soviet Union was going to collapse. People who knew far more about it did not agree. And now, having been to Cuba, I have concluded that the regime is not going to collapse. That puts me in contradiction with those in Washington and Miami who have confidently expected regime change, but also with those millions of tourists (including my wife) determined to visit Cuba “before it changes”. The number of tourists in Cuba has doubled in five years and part of this has been the “Frank Sinatra effect”, so-called because of his numerous final tours.
In the case of both journeys my principal research method was talking to tour guides. This is far less limited than it might seem because in both cases the profession attracts the most educated and intelligent people and in the case of the USSR they were, above a certain level, KGB in any case. In contemporary Cuba many have deserted universities and colleges in order to get a job in the tourist industry. The reason for this, they unanimously state, is that in the Cuban economy any “extra” income is far more important than basic income. Cuba’s own special route back, if not to capitalism, then at least to financial inequality and a form of class distinction, is a modern version of bi-metalism: there is a “National Peso” and a “Convertible Peso” and only the latter has any potential as a store of value. Tips are, naturally, either in convertibles or in foreign currency.
Back in the old USSR and in the Warsaw Pact countries generally there was at least a defensiveness, evasiveness and lack of enthusiasm about what guides said about there country whereas in contemporary Cuba there is a real belief, albeit with strong reservations. The reason for this, I believe, is that Cuba has paralleled the unusual achievement of its hostile northern neighbour in that it has forged a national identity in ideological terms. Cuba before 1959 was an island lacking a strong sense of identity and sharply divided on racial lines whereas now it has a very strong sense of its own character and place in the world. Otherwise it would not have survived the American embargo and the consequent traumas, most of all the “Special Period” following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the implosion of the sugar industry that followed.
Cuba has the only revered Communist founding fathers apart from Lenin and Ho Chi Minh and they sell a good deal better than Lenin. In shops attractively labeled “Propaganda Nacional” you can buy the appropriate hats, t-shirts and so on. Of course, Che is the big seller and I experienced a mild contempt at the sight of elderly Englishmen and Canadians shuffling round Havana with “that” picture of Che on their chests. In my opinion Che was a bit of an eejit whose reputation owes a great deal to an early death and a single “iconic” – and very flattering – photographic image, making him comparable to James Dean. But Fidel is more interesting. Of course, he did many of the bad things that Communist leaders do; I say that quickly, but not trivially. He was also genuinely popular, charismatic and capable of levels of independent thought (on religion, for instance) rarely demonstrated by Communist leaders. His judgement varied between the excellent and the appalling. All of which makes him comparable to Winston Churchill rather than James Dean.
If Cubans’ genuine reverence for their leaders marks them out from other Communist subjects, so do their faces. In Russia, in the old Czechoslovakia, in East Germany people looked guarded and miserable. But in contemporary Cuba you see schoolchildren or people on the beach or dancing in a bar on a Sunday afternoon or just talking to each other in the street and they look happy. Most tourists notice this and put it down to sunshine: Communism-in-a-warm-climate, not too bad. To which I can only respond that I’ve been in many a hot country where people look as miserable as Muscovites.
I trust the basic human observation on this question more than I trust constructed statistics on well-being. But one should remark that life expectancy in Cuba is considerably higher than the global average and roughly on a par with that of its northern neighbour. If you take the three best known statistical sources on this figure two give it to to the USA and one to Cuba, but the differences would be well within a reasonable margin of error. Given the difference in resources this is a considerable achievement. On literacy and violent crime, for example, the statistics clearly favour Cuba. Again, one should be suspicious of these figures in both cases.
Under President Obama, who visited Cuba, there was a distinct thawing of relations with the USA. Under President Trump we are back to the complete embargo: “worse than Bush” as the Cubans tend to put it. This raises an interesting counter-factual speculation. What if the Americans had tried to kill Cuba with kindness after the demise of the Soviet Union? It would, of course, have been difficult for any politician to do, given that the only people who really care about Cuba in the USA are the exiles and the fairly extreme right. But it would surely have worked: the country was desperate and deals could easily have been put in place which made it dependent on American investment and American tourists. It didn’t happen, the regime survived and strengthened it’s self-image and sense of independence. Now it is difficult to imagine Cubans tolerating any regime change which brought Americans or emigrés back to Havana. In some respects the tourist trade thrives on the absence of US citizens; the largest national group of tourists, the Canadians, seem to enjoy it very specifically.
If you walk through the old part of Old Havana (a World Heritage Site, of course) and play the blindfolded parachutist game you are in Andalucia in some city you never saw before. It is a beautifully preserved old city, full of tourists. But walk even a few yards west and you are in a poorly developing country with crumbling buildings and roads, poor and inactive people and shops which look less hygenic than those in most of India. This is the facade architecture of Communism and more or less the same is true in the countryside; off the main road, with its exotic mixture of very old American cars (now mostly powered by German engines), fairly old Russian cars and modern vehicles you are in a run-down African landscape largely powered by animals.
But those similarities should not blind anybody to the achievements and sustainability of the Cuban regime. This is not the old USSR and it is not Venezuela. Those who believed in regime change thought it might happen when Fidel relinquished power to his distinctly uncharismatic brother Raul or when he died (in 2016). His children have pursued various different careers outside of politics and I don’t think Raul’s retirement, currently projected for February 2018, will register on the political Richter scale. Under Raul it has become possible to inherit property, the small enterprise sector has been allowed to expand and the convertible peso has allowed modest savings to be accumulated. This is not exactly capitalism, but it would account in most books as a movement in the direction of capitalism, but possibly one which enhances the chances of Communism.
There is one aspect of Communism-in-the-sun which is entirely absent. I never saw a single solar panel in Cuba. The country is about 45% self-sufficient in oil and gas, but they are dirty and expensive. Given the massive increase in the efficiency of this technology its potential must be enormous (even given the possibility of hurricanes). And the Cubans can be grateful that they haven’t invested in it already, given its relative inefficiency in the past. I don’t know who might exploit the possibilities of aid and investment in this area, but for the time being it will not be the Americans
Lincoln Allison December 2017