Visit to Havana post-Fidel, pre-Starbucks
In late April, Susan and I were able to see real despotism in action. I have visited Russia and Red China when everyone wore Mao jackets and rode bicycles. The two of us have visited Yugoslavia, Hungary, Albania, and the new People’s Republic of China. We have at least a passing grasp of state-run communism.
Our most recent chapter of Adventures in Dictatorship took us to Cuba where, since the 1959 revolution, Fidel and Raul Castro starred in their version of The Property Brothers. In the Castro production, Raul and Fidel took your property but never got around to renovating it. Or giving it back.
Whether it was an omen when the Russian utility vehicle hauling Fidel’s coffin broke down during his funeral procession last year, I don’t know, but Cuba under Raul Castro has made tentative steps toward restoring tourism and removing the occasional shackle from its citizens.
Because Fidel Castro apparently made building maintenance a felony, swaths of buildings in Havana are crumbling; there’s insufficient funding to repair them. Nonetheless, you can’t fail to see that Havana was once the most beautiful city in the hemisphere - and could be again.
The one nugget of Cuban folklore that everyone in our country seems to know is that thousands of American cars from the 1950s remain on Cuban roads. Indeed they do - thousands more than I expected.
The old cars are a metaphor for the Cuban people. Both have endured as the Marxist-Leninists turned a once-vibrant economy into a sub-tropical mirror of every other failed planned economy. The Cubans got universal health care of a sort, an education, a place to live, subsidized food, and all the rest of what the Left considers Utopia and what Winston Churchill called “shared misery.”
A superficial look at the cars, many of which have rattling Russian diesel engines under their hoods, gives you the impression that all were waxed and polished daily by their owners. Likewise, superficial contact with Cuban citizens can lead one to believe that they are the same happy, smiling, intelligent, and hardworking people that the ancient among us remember from long ago. And they are. Sort of.
Cubans are more literate than Americans. Cuba’s 99 percent literacy rate is a cornerstone of communist bragging. Before the revolution, it was 76 percent, fourth-highest in Latin America, but universal literacy is an undeniable accomplishment.
Education is compulsory from age six to 15, and further training can require a payback in the form of spending a few years working for a designated social agency. That’s not all bad. We might consider expanding similar programs that we have here.
Once educated, you are assigned a job. The government looks at your record and decides, for example, that you are perfect for that clerk’s job over at Santiago’s sewage treatment plant. Once assigned, you are not allowed to change your place of employment.
Cubans are paid by their government, assuring a minimum of income inequity. We learned of a medical doctor who made more money driving a cab than he did at the office. His job, like most in Cuba, paid US $480 a year. In the U.S. it would pay $300,000 or more.
Why would a doctor drive a cab? Because the subsidized food that your Cuban ration book provides runs out about the middle of the month, leaving you to scrabble for ways to supplement socialism’s bounteous harvest.
Once upon a time, the Soviet Union sent food to Cuba, and bought Cuban products, but that went away with the USSR’s failure. That’s one part of the food problem. Another is that planned food growing and distribution has a spotty history; and usually fails. To a degree, China has filled some of the plates emptied by the USSR, and before Venezuela’s planned economy imploded, it helped as well.
With money sent from the outside or otherwise accumulated, a Cuban may buy or build a house. These private homes can even be inherited, though by only one relative. No selling the house and squabbling over ill-gotten capitalist spoils.
With a passport and a national ID card, a Cuban may now travel outside the country. The passport costs about five months’ income. But this is a small ray of light shining on the island - which is, incidentally, about 780 miles long and slightly smaller than Mississippi. It lies 90 miles south of Key West, Fla. Run sensibly, it could be a self-sufficient neighbor.
We prize our brief exposure to Cuba. I only wish that Bernie Sanders could have come along. The liberal Democrat refugees from the U.S. swimming ashore all over Cuba would have warmed his heart, and so would have an up-close look at what 58 years of communism can do for a country’s mental and physical infrastructure.
William Jeanes is a Northsider.