The Critical Choices Facing Cuba Today
Booksellers displaying their wares on a street near a park in Old Havana., photo credit: Paul Becker
His voice was filled with emotion and he gestured emphatically as he told the story. He was speaking of a young woman he knew in his youthful days in Havana. It was back in the 1950s and she was a prostitute who worked in a brothel. But she liked him and he met her at her home a number of times.
He is a Cuban, now in his eighties. After his encounters with the woman, time passed. The Cuban Revolution changed the country. About 20 years ago, some 30 years after the revolution., he happened by chance upon the woman again. They were both older, he was now bald and, as he phrased it, "She was no longer the nymph from the past."
But something else had changed. The revolution gave her the opportunity, as it did to several million others, to go to school and study. And study she did, abandoning her old life and ultimately earning a degree in literature. She was now a professor at the university. "What a beautiful thing, this revolution," he said, tears welling in his eyes. "There are no words to talk about this, no words. These are the things one would like to bring back."
"But then," he added ruefully, "they blew it."
Rafael Alcides has seen many things in his life. In a five-part interview, filmed by young Cuban filmmaker Miguel Coyula, his words capture the great dilemma facing Cuba today and the monumental choices it faces in moving forward. Just a brief ten-day visit we made to the country with a group of independent American filmmakers can serve to illuminate the current situation. To invoke an old cliché and say that Cuba today is at a crossroads is to grossly understate the case.
Keeping History in Mind
These choices now come into particularly sharp focus in the wake of President Obama's apparent change of policy and his historic visit to the island this month. Apparent because, as of this writing , full normal economic relations have not yet been restored and because there is no way of knowing what future administrations will do.
Before going into those choices it is imperative to bear in mind some history of the past 50-plus years - history that helps to focus on the present problems the country faces. It is a history that President Obama did not, or perhaps politically could not, touch upon in remarks he made during his visit. For all the years since 1959 when Fidel and Raul Castro, Che Guevara, Camillo Cienfugos, and others led the fighters that rode into Havana and began carrying out the revolution that changed Cuba, the country has faced the most concentrated and near-demented hostility from every United States government, regardless of whatever administration occupied Washington - until perhaps now.
And not just verbal hostility but outright attempts to overthrow and reverse the revolutionary changes that were occurring. Beginning with the nationalization of properties belonging to U.S. financial giants like United Fruit Company and others, the little island nation of 11 million people has stood against the world's dominant economic and military power. From illegally financing and aiding an armed invasion of the island by exiles at the Bay of Pigs in 1961 to scores of attempts to assassinate its leaders to a crippling embargo that has severely restricted its trade, the U.S. has attempted to restore the old order that ruled the country from the dawn of the 20th century until 1959.
Around 1961, Cuba began to rely upon the Soviet bloc for its trading partners, a move that sustained its economy until the collapse of that bloc around 1990. For a few years afterward, it underwent what Cubans call the "special period" when severe shortages and economic hardship were rampant. American policy makers and their Cuban exiles in Miami were exultant at the extremely difficult economic times Cuba was going through, proclaiming that it was only a matter of time before the collapse of socialism in the country. That it survived at all, even though the economic situation is still difficult today, was a miracle in itself.
The Real Reason for U.S. Hostility
The official reason for American hostility was the oft-stated proposition that Cuba was a dictatorship and was violating human rights by silencing its internal opposition. However, these factors have never stopped the United States from dealing with other dictatorships with far worse human rights records than Cuba. When death squads, sanctioned by their government, were rampant in El Salvador killing peasant and labor leaders and others in opposition (including Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop in the country) President Ronald Reagan was giving that government complete support. Not to mention the record of the CIA in toppling democratic governments in favor of dictatorships - from Iran in 1953 to Guatemala in 1954 to Brazil in 1965 to Chile in 1973 when those governments' policies ran counter to U.S. business interests. And of course, today the U.S. deals extensively with China whose record on human rights and tolerance of internal opposition is , to put it charitably, not exactly an example of Jeffersonian democracy. And over the years we have imported billions of dollars worth of oil from Saudi Arabia, enriching the sheikhs who flog or behead people in public squares. And on and on. Through the years, it is quite clear for all willing to see that U.S. policies reflect not with opposition to authoritarian rule but with whether or not the country in question cooperates with the business interests of American multinational corporations.
It also raises the question of whether Cuba's leaders "blew it," in the words of Rafael Alcides, or whether their actions, including limitations on dissent in their country, were inevitable in a country facing constant attacks and threats of the kind it faced for more than 50 years.
So where does that leave Cuba today?
First, just a brief visit to the country reveals the glaring fact that today a large section of the Cuban people feel alienated from their government. This is particularly true among younger people. Among the great accomplishments of the Cuban revolution have been the great strides made in the education of its entire people. Education is completely free from primary school through university. Cuba today has a literacy rate of over 96 percent, putting it at the top, along with Argentina and Uruguay, in all of Latin America. But the struggling economy has not created the kind of economic opportunity that is commensurate with an educated population, particularly in the professions.
In recent years, with government relaxation on the operation of some private businesses, the number of privately owned restaurants and other businesses have been growing; accounting today for about 30 percent of the country's economy. With the tremendous increase in tourism on the island in recent years, this has resulted in several things. Most notable is the fact that Cuba is today just about the only country in which people in the service professions, like hotel workers and restaurant workers earn more than those in the professions, a situation that has led to a large exodus of educated people.
Second, younger people are increasingly upset with the restraints placed upon those who are not in official favor with the government. We traveled with a group of independent filmmakers from the United States and met with a number of such filmmakers in Cuba. All complained about the fact that those in official favor get government subsidies to produce and market their films while those who are not struggle along. Although there was a time when they could not make their films or express their views for fear that they could face charges of being counter-revolutionary, that does not appear to be the situation today. The people we met were profuse in criticizing the government without any sign of fear and we saw several of their films, including the one citing Rafael Alcides at the beginning of this article. However, we saw these films in private showings. They are not shown to the general public in Cuba and their producers rely upon the internet and marketing their films abroad to make
a living. But Sr. Alcides expresses his views openly and on film - views that speak glowingly of the revolution in its early stages but is highly critical of Cuba's leadership today and can be seen on line with the click or two of a button.
Third, even those critical of the government acknowledge the great accomplishments of the revolution, particularly in education and health care. In the latter category, Cuba leads all of Latin America in the training of its doctors, the quality of its care and in providing health care to all its citizens. All medical and hospital care is free and prescription drugs cost very little. Life expectancy is in the eighties, leading virtually all underdeveloped countries and rivaling even the United States. Indeed, in areas like infant mortality and deaths of women in childbirth, Cuba's rate is lower than in some parts of the U.S. And compared with most countries in Latin America, it isn't even in the same ball park.
Other areas of social progress reveal themselves in conversations with Cubans. In early child care, for example, the government provides the free service of an aide several times a week to women for a year after they give birth to help with the job of taking care of their infants and for other problems that may arise. For working mothers, early child care centers staffed by university trained personnel are available for as little as one-and-a-half pesos a month. These and other social gains have come in the face of great hostility from the United States and often at great economic cost.
An example of the cost has been the determination of the government to provide a quantity of milk each day to sustain its children. But while it would ordinarily import this milk from the U.S., the embargo has prevented it. Most of the milk and other food products in the country are imported from far-away places like China and New Zealand at great cost.
Effects of the U.S. Embargo
Which brings us currently to the embargo the United States Congress still enforces on Cuba, even as tensions between the countries are subsiding. For while President Obama has taken some steps toward normalizing relations, most parts of the embargo were enacted by Congress and can only be removed by Congress. But Congress is still in the hands of Republicans and hostile to any attempt at easing tensions with Cuba. The embargo, the product of six acts passed by Congress over a 40 year period, restricts public and private trade with Cuba until U.S. business claims against Cuba are met. The laws include any trade with Cuba by foreign subsidiaries of American companies. Even products that are allowed to be exported to Cuba must be paid for in cash; no normal credit relations are allowed.
And the results of the embargo are evident everywhere. Havana, for example, is replete with decaying buildings that should have been renovated or torn down and replaced years ago. There is no question that the Cuban economy would be in much better shape today if it could enjoy normal trade relations with its natural trading partner just 90 miles away. And incidentally, many parts of the U.S. economy would benefit too if, for example, dairy farmers and other Americans were allowed to sell their products to Cubans..
I referred earlier to the fact that Cuba today faces monumental choices. The disaffection of younger Cubans who want fewer restrictions and controls on their political and economic activities, is an ever-present reality. A new, educated population necessarily demands reforms along these lines and they cannot be stifled - they must be met. They want to be able to travel freely and they welcome foreign visitors to their country. In our recent visit to the island, we found not a single Cuban hostile to us - all welcomed increased contact with visitors, particularly from the United States.
Much Depends Upon Future U.S. Policy
It is up to the Cuban leadership to make these necessary reforms but much, also, depends upon the attitude of the United States. Washington cannot continue its attitude of hostility toward the revolutionary changes since 1959, and expect peaceful democratic reforms to take place. A major step in this direction, as I mentioned earlier, would be the lifting of the economic embargo and the resumption of normal trade relations. For a country to make these reforms it must be allowed to develop and flourish unthreatened from a powerful neighbor. Every Cuban we met, from those who support the government to those who oppose it, are in agreement that lifting the embargo is essential to the Cuban people and must be a priority for any other reforms inside the country to be carried out
Since President Obama lifted most travel restrictions last year, American tourists have flooded to the country. Hotel bookings are hard to come by as Cubans were unprepared for the new situation. At one point, I jokingly remarked that there appeared to be more Americans in Havana than there are in the Bronx. And visitors from European and Asian countries are all over the island.
But this increased tourism has a dark side for many Cubans. In recent years, the government, in moves to stimulate the economy, has loosened some restrictions on private businesses. As noted earlier, about 30 percent of the Cuban economy is now in private hands. Coupled with the increase in tourism, this has resulted in some Cubans becoming wealthy while others slip back. Class differences, which had been vastly narrowed in the wake of the revolution have begun to pop up. In little bits and pieces, poverty among some has reappeared while luxury restaurants catering to more affluent Cubans and tourists are growing in number. Social problems like prostitution, virtually wiped out by the revolution are also beginning to show, particularly fueled by easy money brought in by the tourist trade. Some new luxury apartment buildings are going up in parts of Havana, attesting to a new class of wealthy Cubans starting to rise.
The Crucial Question Facing Cuba Today
So, this little island nation of 11 million people is today at a critical turning point. The key question for most Cubans, and this today is the most crucial question they have ever faced, is how to keep the enormous gains made by the revolution while extending the boundaries of individual freedoms to its citizens and without reintroducing the class conflicts that brought on the socialist revolution to begin with. In a larger sense, it is a question faced by any country that chooses to move in a socialist direction. This choice is compounded by the fact that, as most Cubans realize, U.S. corporate and financial giants are eager to get their hands back again on the island's economic activities. This is what most American policy makers mean when they also speak of "reforms" - restoring the situation they enjoyed before 1959. They are pressuring the United States government to extend its relations with Cuba only if the Cuban revolution is reversed, a situation that would be a disaster for most of its people.
A ludicrous sidelight of this popped up in the news a few months ago when the heirs of the American gangster, Meyer Lansky, were now reported to be demanding compensation for the gambling casinos and high class sex services his operation provided before the Cuban revolutionary government put an end to it in 1959.
A Visit to a Unique Village
Nettie Becker, wife of the writer of the article, dancing with Cuban children in La Conceit, a small village in Pinar Del Rio, at a dance performance the children put on for their American visitors.
Photo credit: Paul Becker
On our trip to the island in January, we spent a day in a small village in Pinar del Rio listening to the story of its people. The village is home to 8,300 people in 1,300 families. Before the revolution, in villages like this people were barely literate and children grew up with little prospect but manual labor in the cane fields as their only life. Today there are 10 elementary schools, a middle school, and a high school as well as a child care center for pre-school children and a nearby college.
But the village has another distinction, a unique project of the community known as Los ChapuSerios. The project encouraged children in the village to make films about their lives and to tell the story of the village. Classes were started in filmmaking, using one old camera. On Sundays and after school at a local community center, the children wrote their scripts, then chose what they viewed as the best and they cooperated on polishing it. They chose the casts, the directors and the camera operators. National renowned Cuban film artists came in to work with the children. Some of the films were shown on national television. The village had a factory that employed most of its people but, as a result of the embargo, it could not improve its technology and its production was increasingly obsolete. The factory was scheduled to be closed down resulting in severe hardship when the children, and their adult directors decided to tell the story. The film they made aroused widespread attention and concern. Money was raised both in Cuba and abroad for the necessary technological improvements and the updated factory continued to operate.
Another film, entitled Serving the Soul, tells the story of some children who had witnessed domestic violence in their homes and some whom had a parent spending time in jail for commission of a crime. The director of the film, 11 year old Amalia Gonzalez Garcia, and the lead actress, Leidy Marian Garcia Rodriguez, also 11, were themselves part of families like this. They spoke to our American group of their experiences and how their lives had changed in making their film. And as the adult manager of the film project, Zenobio Jimenez, and the teacher who was teaching the filmmaking art, Juancarlos Banos Fernandez, also spoke, the pride they had in the children shone through each word. They plan to show their film in the prisons where some of their parents are serving their sentences as a way of telling the story of how parents actions affect their children.
This photo is one of a younger group of children at the dance performance.
Photo credit: Paul Becker
Before we left, we were treated to a dance performance by the children who then encouraged their American visitors to join them in their dance. As the Cuban children and their American guests swirled around the floor, you could not help but choke up a little at the prospect that our two people might finally break down the barriers that have separated us for more than 50 years. And you could not help but hope that this Cuban revolution that has brought so much to its people will make the democratic reforms that are now necessary to solve some of its current problems, rekindle the confidence of all its people, particularly the young, and move forward. In the last analysis, that will be up to both Cubans and Americans in the coming years.
[Paul Becker is a retired teacher, currently a freelance writer, who recently returned from a visit to Cuba.]