Report on a trip to Cuba
(Nov. 1997)

by Barb, Chicago Workers' Voice
(from Communist Voice #17, April 20, 1998)


. The following report from Barb, here reprinted in full, originally appeared in the latest Chicago Workers' Voice Theoretical Journal, issue #14, February 18, 1998.(1) She makes a flattering assessment of the Castro regime, but many of her concrete observations tell a different story that she is repeatedly forced to explain away or apologize for. Finally, in the postscript to her report, she admits "the obvious fact that the Cuban workers do not control the society", but she thinks that this isn't necessary in order to have "shoots of socialism". She is thus aware that she is painting a policy of benevolent despotism as the practical socialism of the moment, and she goes to the extent of declaring that it is "irresponsible" at this time in history to even discuss what genuine socialism really is or isn't. Her report is critiqued in Mark's article "A desperate search for `shoots of socialism'", which appears elsewhere in this issue of Communist Voice.


. Having spent but a brief week in Cuba in November, I will merely give an anecdotal account of what I observed and what was told to me. While there, I also had access to a recently-published (in English) government handbook. Information from this source will be labeled (GH). Comrades can incorporate this material into whatever view they hold of Cuba's economic and political character.

Women's Conference

. I visited Cuba under the auspices of an international conference called "Women on the Threshold of the 21st Century" held at the University of Havana. Even though the conference was only an excuse and an inexpensive way to go, I was hoping for more than was the case. It seemed little different from any other feminist university conference held anywhere. The conference was ambitious, offering about 90 workshops and short courses over a four-day period, which pretty much covered the spectrum of women's experience (schedule is available). I ended up attending only one and a half days (15 workshops), but did read some additional papers presented and heard summaries of others. I particularly checked out the workshops relating to Cuban women under such catchwords as race, class, economics and power. However, the presentations tended to be short and, thus, superficial or general, and most often they were of an academic, historical or demographic nature. There was also the problem of distraction, in that one's attention was divided between the Spanish presentation and the English translation, given by university students sitting among groups of English speakers.

, About 100 foreign participants attended, representing the U.S., Canada, Australia, England, Turkey, P. R., Mexico, Central and South America. The topics presented by the foreign guests seemed mostly old hat, tangential, or academically frivolous, such as women's impact on the internet, on the environment, their role in soap operas, the suffragette movement, migration patterns, the feminization of poverty, psychological issues, etc.

. Interestingly enough, the word "socialism" was not to be found among the 90 presentation titles! The only important motive that I could discern behind these conferences (held every two years) was that of encouraging guests to carry on the struggle against the U.S. blockade; and I suspect that is an underlying motive behind the many international conferences that the Cubans host. A special reception was held for Alice Walker, the Black-American novelist, who was honored for her work against the blockade.

. The conference emphasized the gains women have made since the Revolution, and that cannot be denied. There is certainly legal equality in Cuba, and the (GH) gave these statistics: women comprise 40% of the civil sector workforce, 62% of technicians, 29% of executives, 60% of university graduates, and occupy 23% of the seats in the Communist Party and the parliament. In addition, women enjoy some social benefits that are rare even in developed capitalist countries, for example, state subsidies if they have to take time off from work, not only for childbirth, but to care for sick children or relatives. Abortion has been legal since the Revolution, and methods are comparable to those in the U.S. although women must furnish a supply of their own blood to cover any emergency. Currently, there is a strong family-planning and contraceptive campaign; one sees few pregnant women on the street. The government imports contraceptives and sells them below cost, but they are still relatively expensive

. The conference was held in conjunction with The Cuban Women's Federation, which was established immediately after the Revolution. It is very comprehensive and very respected. After researching the Bolshevik Zhenotdel, it struck me that the Cubans followed many of its guidelines, only did some things better (possibly a topic for a future research project). One of the tasks of the CWF is to keep alive in the people's memory the women heros of the Revolution, such as Haydee Santamaria, Melba Hernandez, "Tanya", Celia Sanchez. It was emphasized how much Castro valued the role of women in the Revolution and trusted them to carry out the most dangerous and sensitive assignments. One thing I did learn was the considerable role women had played in the War for Independence. Today, women are still not conscripted into military service, but there is now a women's military academy. Vilma Espin, the wife of Raul Castro and head of the CWF, was to give the closing address, but was unable to make it. One U.S. conferee audibly interjected, "She's probably home making Raul's lunch!" Who else but an American feminist would publicly demonstrate such gall? In her place, Graciela Pogolotti spoke. She is a famous old guerilla fighter after whom streets and parks are named, but I wasn't familiar with her.

. The informal discussions were really more interesting than the formal presentations, although they were hard to follow. However, one dominant theme could not be missed. The Cuban women complained, although in good humor, that the men did not share equally in domestic duties. Housework is still considered "women's work.." In contradiction to the historical ideal of women as guerrillas and the official propaganda of their promotion in society, there is still a prevalent concept of women as the "sweet and tender" sex. The men are very respectful, even gallant -- but the women do the cooking. At one point, a young Cuban man (there were a few men in attendance), cried out in mock anguish, "Hey, I'm NOT the enemy!" And it was at that point that I felt I could be at any "feminist" conference, anywhere in the world!

. While the conference was well-organized, and the Cuban women were wonderfully gracious hosts, it was obvious that there was not a lot of money or resources behind it. This I concluded from talking to women who had attended other Cuban international conferences on science, technology or education, which had been much more elaborately provisioned, offering field trips, transportation, meals, and literature, which this conference did not.

Social Services

. Many people we talked to pointed to the healthcare and educational systems as Cuba's proudest achievements. Despite the privations of recent years, healthcare is still almost totally free. According to (GH), before the Revolution there were only 6,000 physicians in a country of 11 million people, and 3,000 of these fled. Now there are 284 hospitals, in addition to several hundred local clinics, maternity centers, blood-donation centers, and dental clinics which cover 96% of the country. There is a ratio of one physician to every 195 citizens, and every year 5,000 new students enter medical schools and research institutes (entrance dependent on "revolutionary behavior"). The Cubans have eradicated many diseases entirely, and life expectancy and infant mortality rates still compare favorably with the most advanced countries. Evidently, however, a saturation point has been reached, and Cuba "exports" medical workers.

. The new industry called "Health Tourism" (SERVIMED) comprises nine international clinics which specialize in the treatment of complicated conditions -- organ transplants, rare skin and eye diseases, etc. The Cubans manufacture many high-tech, specialized medicines for export -- interferon, medicines for hepatitis B, for meningitis -- as well as medical equipment. However, common "drug-store" medicines are in critically short supply. Visitors are asked to bring down aspirin, vitamins, cold and allergy medicines, and especially asthma inhalers, even though asthma is another medical specialty. On the other hand, we suspected a "scam" on the streets, where a young man was persuading tourists to buy asthma inhalers at the tourist pharmacies for his allegedly sick girlfriend.

. The Cubans seem to be handling the problem of AIDS rather intelligently. At the onset of the epidemic in the early 80s, they threw out all their blood supply and began testing a large segment of the population: all military personnel, pregnant women, anyone who had traveled abroad. The (GH) estimates that currently there are only about 2,000 HIV and AIDS cases. Patients are mandatorily housed in a sanatorium in Havana, but are allowed home visits (the "warranter" program). Recently, an "ambulatory" or out-patient program has been started.

. A shocking phenomenon occurred a few years ago. About 100 "roqueros" or punk-rocker youth (and their girlfriends and wives) deliberately injected themselves with the HIV virus as a protest against government restrictions on their lifestyle, which not only involved American-style dress and music but also refusal to work or comply with compulsory military service. In the sanatorium, they were allowed to practice their lifestyle and, as well, had access to better food. Now most are dead, but this sad occurrence evidently had some influence on government relaxation of restrictions on youth activities. (I have a most interesting article on this which is available.)

. My traveling companion, who is a Social Worker, visited a huge mental hospital (4,000 patients) and talked with both patients and workers. She was impressed by the kindness and caring of the healthcare workers, although the care-concept seemed to her to be paternalistic "warehousing," that is, no concept of community-based mental health or of integrating patients into the community. On the other hand, there are obviously not the resources to do so. The psychotropic medicines arc mainly donated from abroad, e.g., from France, and are of the out-dated, heavy kind. All able patients are employed in such activities as assembling toys and manufacturing ceramics. This is considered an important part of their therapy, and supposedly they are paid standard wages. While she was there, a large musical entertainment was presented in which both guest artists and patients participated. She also pointed out to me that there are almost no public conveniences for the handicapped, and that the casts and apparatuses she saw on the streets are very old-fashioned. We witnessed a bad bicycle-car accident in the middle of the city. Although an ambulance was summoned, none came, and after a considerable wait, motorists carried the victim to a hospital. A nurse who was with our group tried to give instructions on how to properly handle the injured man, but to no avail.

. As mentioned, the educational system, bright spot as it is, has over-produced professionals. The society simply cannot absorb them. The University's exterior is attractive, but its classroom resources are minimal; it is just beginning to computerize. The tank with which the students held off Batista's police occupies a prominent spot on the grounds! The public school buildings we saw were very shabby, and ordinary school supplies are still lacking. But the school children are a delight. Long lines of well-behaved, co-operative, happy, laughing kids are everywhere -- touring public attractions and doing outdoor exercise in the park. According to (GH), 95% of the high-school students volunteer one month of their summer vacation to helping the farmers with the crops and also teaching literacy. We were told, however, that there is now a shortage of pre-school slots and long waiting lists.


. Yes, Che is everywhere -- on the billboards, on the buildings, on the currency, in the bookstores, and in many museums. The Che t-shirts, posters, paintings and postcards seem geared toward the tourist trade. In fact, the Museum of the Revolution (the old Batista palace) is almost as much devoted to Che alone as it is to the total Revolution. Every scrap of his personal possessions -- bloodied, bullet-ridden clothing, utensils, guitar, radio, etc. -- has been preserved. Even the mules which carried his asthmatic body through the mountains of Bolivia are stuffed and mounted. A holiday, "Heroic Guerilla Fighter's Day," is devoted to Che; and his bones have recently been returned to Cuba and reunited with his hands in a grand new monument and museum in Santa Clara.

. In the U.S., the kids are encouraged to "want to be like Mike"; in Cuba, the kids are encouraged to "want to be like Che." In spite of the way Che may be manipulated these days, is that such a bad image to hold up? To be fair, Che has never not been the strongest revolutionary presence in Cuba -- along with Jose Marti. However, the current Cuban promotion campaign seems to have spawned "Che mania" among the youth worldwide. The youth I've talked to have little idea of what Che actually did or what he stood for. One young man from Honduras sporting a Che t-shirt answered: "Oh, well, you know. He's a cool revolution man." By the way, although there probably are some, I never saw a picture of Castro anywhere.

The Countryside

. We spent one day driving around the countryside in the direction of Pinar del Rio, west of Havana. While this area has some cane, banana and citrus groves, it is mainly tobacco country. We were told that 70% of the agricultural land is government-owned and 30% is private-owned. According to (GH), 58% of the state land has now been granted in free usufruct to people already working it. Most of these farmers have organized themselves into cooperatives. The private land is taxed heavily, but the (GH) noted that the cooperative farmers are not taxed, and that both sectors enjoy the full range of free services and benefits granted to all other citizens. The privately-farmed land is the best kept up and produces the highest yield, although we were told that only about a half of all arable land is presently under cultivation. Due to the overeducation of the people, and the fact that fuel shortage has arrested mechanization, Cuba is having trouble recruiting sugar cane workers. Supposedly, the government has been forced to double wages for cane-cutters. An interesting phenomenon is the considerable outmigration from the cities to the countryside of urbanites, including women, seeking employment on the private farms.

. The bohios, which are thatched-roof, dirt-floor huts, are still a common sight in the rural areas. They are in use both as family dwellings and for tobacco storage and curing. The countryside is littered with unfinished construction projects: bridges that connect nothing, foundations for housing dug and then abandoned. A very disturbing sight was the hoards of people waiting by the roadside, often for hours and in the rain. They were carrying large bundles, and had come from the towns into the countryside to purchase food. They were hoping to catch a ride from motorists, as few buses are running in this area anymore. The rural police are now, more often than not, on horseback, and there were many horse-drawn wagons on the road. In addition, we saw many old trucks crammed to the limit with agricultural workers being transported to and from the fields. We did not happen to see any oxen used in fieldwork, although we were told of them. We saw no "state patrol" cars on the highways even though the many bicycles and animals on the road make driving conditions hazardous.


. There were actually more cars on the road than I expected to find -- plenty of old American-model Dodges, Plymouths, Oldsmobiles and Buicks with fins. These cars are so prized that they have become an "icon" of Cuba: many artists specialize in "car paintings." On every block and by the side of the highway, one can see feet sticking out from under stalled vehicles, their owners valiantly trying to repair them. By necessity, the Cubans have become inventive fixers, and prizes are awarded in the neighborhoods for the most ingenious repairers. But there are also (old) Russian and Polish cars, and (new) Korean and Japanese cars. We were told that there is now no gas rationing per se, although only licensed car owners can purchase gas, which is about 4 times the price of gas in the U.S. There are now many privately-owned taxis, and also many motorists earn extra cash by picking up passengers. With the fuel crisis, the government imported one million Chinese-made bicycles, and now there are many ingenious conveyances, pedi-cabs and bike-carts, as well as horse-drawn conveyances in the city. We happened upon two interesting events: a huge bicycle marathon race and a demonstration of racing cars.

. The public transportation system looks nightmarish, although it still costs only a few centavos. Long lines of people are constantly waiting, and tourists are discouraged from using the buses. To cope with this, the Cubans have manufactured monstrously strange vehicles which look like they have been knocked together from old (Russian?) army trucks and tanks. The Cubans swear that these khaki-colored "camillos" (camels), as they are nicknamed, can hold 350 passengers.

The New "Liberalism"

. While we were there, the country was gearing up high-speed for the Pope's visit. Conferences scheduled for that time had been canceled. All the Catholic churches were ablaze with welcoming banners. I couldn't resist purchasing an amusing commemorative plate from one of the churches which portrays a pensive Pope, chin in hand, sitting under the Cuban flag, evidently pondering what to do! According to (GH), over a third of the population identifies as Catholic, and this includes a sizeable representation of younger people, unlike in Russia where the Orthodox Church supporters are mainly elderly women. However, few attend church regularly. Cuba's most famous cathedral in Plaza de Catedral was undergoing extensive renovation. There appear to be several motives behind this new tolerance toward religion (Castro recently said that "Catholics can be Communists!") As we all have seen on TV, Castro's bold (and risky) invitation to the Pope was obviously calculated to arouse opposition to the blockade and to increase humanitarian aid. But these historical churches are also of tourist interest, and serve the needs of the new foreign residents. Incidentally, people seem to be very aware of and appreciative of the organization "Pastors for Peace" who recently got caught trying to smuggle computers into Cuba.

. A few of us had the opportunity to attend a private Santaria ceremony (like Haitian voudoun). I don't know if, in the past, any effort was made to discourage Santaria; my impression is that it was pretty much left alone as it was a deeply ingrained relic of the African (Yoruba) cultural and religious heritage of Cuba's large and poor Black population (about 30%). Today, Santaria appears to be thriving -- almost "trendy." The large Santaria district in Havana, as well as Santorian towns, are now tourist attractions. In addition, there were "white" Cubans participating in the ceremony, and also we visited an alley-art gallery featuring many Santarian artists.

. The film of a few years back, "Strawberry and Chocolate," which won wide acclaim worldwide and was very popular in Cuba, is said to have been partly responsible for a change of attitude toward homosexuality. The current Party position was expressed to me this way by our guide who, I assumed, is a Party youth-organization member: "We still see homosexuality as a social deviance, but they are human beings like everyone else and deserve the full rights of all other citizens." Homosexuality is attributed to deviant parenting or upbringing; there appears to be resistance to a genetic theory, but at least it's a start.

. Popular culture seems fairly free. One now sees many posters and t-shirts advertising rock groups, and youth styles resemble those in the U.S. -- dreadlocks and braids, dyed hair, shaved heads, pony-tails -- although I didn't notice any tattooing or extreme piercing. The Cubans are big movie-goers; we saw constant lines (almost as long as bus lines) of people waiting to purchase tickets. The film industry is very small, and it is difficult to judge the amount of freedom currently given it. Both "Strawberry and Chocolate" and a current hit "Guantanamera" criticize government policies, but they seem to me to be criticizing "old" government policies, and to be supporting "new" government positions. Both films have been widely distributed. (A critique of these films will appear in the next issue.) The TV industry is still embryonic. There are only a couple of local stations, which air the requisite government meetings which nobody seems to watch, but plenty of Mexican soap operas which people love. Only the hotels can afford cable, on which a full range of mindless U.S. fare is available. The locals often gather in the bars of the smaller hotels to watch American sports. All Cuban sporting events, by the way, are free. The video industry is gaining momentum, and a VCR is a prized possession. There are also foreign radio stations, including one English station. We also saw quite a bit of satirical art. A lot of it seemed to be directed against stupid bureaucratic practices or the worship of the dollar, or depicted the cruelty of the living conditions. Again, it was hard to tell just where it was coming from.

Economic Situation

. During el periodo especial, the name given to the period from 1990-94 after Cuba got the rug pulled out from underneath her with the collapse of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, according to (GH), she lost 85% of her markets, more than 1/2 of her fuel supply, and 70% of her imports. Between 1990 and 1995, the economic situation decreased by 34%. Special hardship was caused by the decline in oil delivery from the SU. During this period, as everyone knows, the people experienced acute shortages in basic foodstuffs, clothing, footwear, and hygienic articles, to the point where the government put out pamphlets on how to use local herbs to make soap and cure minor illnesses. Housing suffered and, as well, cutbacks in electrical power were imposed several times a week. The government emphasizes, however, that during this period, no schools, hospitals, or elderly facilities were closed. "Guantanamera," now playing in the U.S., gives a good picture of how people dealt with el periodo especial and the black market. The government insists that Cuba began to pull out of el periodo especial in 1995.

. Not so long ago, Castro insisted that: "For us to adopt perestroika would be like living in our home with another man's wife." Cuba's new image certainly looks like "perestroika" but the government does definitely portray the current economic policy as Cuba's NEP -- a necessary retreat on the road to socialism. The (GH) lists the new economic measures as: increased crop diversification and food export; convertible currency (dollars); dispersion of state lands for private use; a new tax system to heavily tax private businesses; raising of prices for nonessential goods (not specified); abolition of certain gratuities (not specified); self-employment encouraged; free-market prices for agricultural and industrial goods; simplification of the central state apparatus (more autonomy given to local centers); foreign capital investment and joint ventures; and changes in laws accordingly.

. These new laws state that foreign investment is possible in all areas except health, education and the military. There are many types of foreign investment allowed but, in all, the foreign investors do not own the land nor, in my understanding, are they sold existing businesses or structures. They are "given" them to run and make a profit from. A recent Granma article featured Raul Castro in China learning how to set up free-enterprise zones and industrial parks, while flattering the Chinese that Cuba and China represent the last bastions of "socialism." The government has vowed to offer foreign investors a more attractive proposition than they can get elsewhere. The Germans and Italians seem to be in currently in the forefront.

. According to (GH), as of the middle of 1996, more than 200,000 people are now engaged in 140 newly-allowed owed private enterprises. Most of these have to do with the food or service industry, such as restaurants, taxis, car and appliance repair, small craft retailers, etc. Anyone, even professionals, can engage in these occupations. We saw many hustlers on the streets, selling back issues of Granma and souvenirs of the Revolution, and proprietors operating food carts, used-book, fruit and flower stalls, and craft stands. But the situation is nothing like in Russia, for example, where the streets are crowded with kiosks, and people are lined up at the railway stations, selling off their pitiful household possessions and family heirlooms.

. Because of the nature of our visit, we were limited to talking with university people, students and service workers. We did see a few factories, mainly old and decrepit, and were told that especially the cement factories had bad working conditions and that environmental illness was a serious problem in them.

Living Conditions

. It was interesting to re-read Jim's article of 1993 and to compare it with the living conditions of the Cubans four years later. Today, the people appear to be well and fashionably dressed, still not so well shod, however. We were told it was no longer necessary to donate clothing. The citizens have a slim appearance, but are very energetic and healthy-looking, this despite continued rationing of basics. What isn't rationed is often beyond the means of ordinary workers, such as coffee, rum, even sugar --chief among Cuba's exports! There is a shortage of vegetables and fruits for local consumption, although meat appears to be more plentiful. The Cubans are just beginning to develop their fishing industry and to encourage people to eat fish, formerly considered a "low" food. The terrible situation of a few years back where children were suffering from vitamin-deficiency eye disease appears to be under control now. Efforts are definitely directed toward the children, who receive a special ration of milk and also soap and other baby products. The soap ration has evidently gone up to 2-3 bars per family per month, and the electricity blackouts cut back to one or two hours per week, staggered among the districts. Hotels are exempt.

. At our very modest, state-run guest house ($270 for 8 nights and 2 meals per day), we actually suffered food deprivation. We were served the same meal every day: for dinner, a choice of fried beef, pork or chicken, potatoes and rice in very small portions. We never saw a vegetable. For breakfast, when they ran out of eggs, a deep-fried ham and cheese sandwich which most guests found inedible. Milk and coffee also often ran out. The conference participants found it necessary to go searching the streets for fruit, not easy to find, or to resort to Chinese restaurants in Havana's small Chinatown or other private restaurants, where food was plentiful, tasty and inexpensive. Although there are "dollar specialty stores" and even "dollar supermarkets" now, travel books advise travelers to bring food with them, and it is a good idea. Out of curiosity, I checked out the University cafeteria, and was appalled to see that it offered only three dishes: brown rice with peas, plain white rice, and a kind of pastry.

. The housing situation does not appear to have improved. The shabbiness of the apartment buildings is shocking, and it is common to see people drawing water from outside pumps. Rent is still very cheap, but most people are buying their apartments. Some people, e.g., pensioners, are given living space, and it is also possible to inherit a deceased relative's apartment. The Cubans brag that they have no homelessness. We were invited for dinner at the home of our guide, whose mother is a divorced university teacher. University professors still make double the salary of an ordinary worker, although now it has gone up from a 150-300 peso ratio to 250-500. The apartment building was located in Milimar, formerly a rich section, its mansions now converted into foreign embassies or multiple dwellings. We were told that the former servants of these rich had been given first choice of apartments; this is similar to what the Bolsheviks did. Our hosts' ugly cinder-block apartment building, eerily located beside the Iraq embassy with a huge, scary picture of Saddam outside, was dark and in a state of disrepair. Inside, the living conditions were very depressing: five family members in a very small space, bathroom plumbing which did not work, an antiquated kitchen smaller than an average U.S. bathroom, cracked dishes, an ancient Russian-made TV -- but lots of books. We were served an elaborate meal, but felt guilty eating it because we suspected that the family had blown their ration stamps for our benefit. We brought along wine, but had no idea what a rare treat it would be -- simply beyond the means of most people.

. The streets of Havana are bustling with activity. Everyone seems to be hurrying to or from work. There is very little lounging about, although we did notice a few elderly drunks who seemed to be tolerated by the police. We were approached only a few times by people asking for money or goods. We brought down a lot of soap, shampoo, and toothpaste to give to helpful citizens or instead of tips. The saddest supplicants were the mothers asking for pencils or pens for their school children. One other rather sad phenomenon was the hundreds of scraggly stray dogs roaming Havana, surviving off tourist handouts. It seems that during el period especial, people couldn't afford to feed their pets and had to let them loose.

. Havana, as well as the other towns we visited, is generally clean, tidy and well-ordered. I was admonished by a "park patrol" for indecorously sitting on a bench arm rest instead of on the seat, and a young Cuban man who did likewise received a sizable ticket. I was constantly using a camcorder, and was stopped only once by a young policeman who very politely inquired if I were taking pictures of the police. When I explained that I was actually focusing on a monument but was afraid to cross the street (there are few traffic lights), he gallantly took my arm and led me across and back!


. Nicknamed "the chimneyless industry," tourism is going great guns. Underneath the shabbiness, the old Spanish colonial architecture is fascinating. The UN has designated "Old Havana" as a world historical heritage cite. According to (GH), in 1995 tourism generated an income of one billion dollars, and Cuba currently averages about 3/4 million visitors yearly. The hotels appear to be booming with business, and some are quite splendid. They contain many luxury shops and special services, expensive restaurants, musical entertainment, foreign magazines and newspapers, etc. Although it was a bit disconcerting to see Cuban women dressed up like French maids, we were assured that their wages and tips compensate for this seemingly demeaning costume. Tipping was formerly not allowed. About the only construction we could see was the renovation of hotels and other tourist facilities and attractions. The wonderful stretch of white-sand beach east of Havana is now sprouting resorts, and trendy cafes, bars, and music clubs have sprung up in the city. Will the Cubans next revive the gambling casinos?

. I had forgotten that Cuba capitalizes so much on Hemingway, who resided there for many years and supposedly supported the Revolution. His old hotel room, favorite restaurants and bars, private marina, etc. have all been preserved and designated as tourist cites. Our guides couldn't understand why we were not at all interested. They were shocked when I volunteered that many regard Hemingway as having had reactionary politics and a chauvinistic attitude toward women!

. Tourism has and is continually changing the society. As mentioned, the ease-up on religion, culture, homosexuality, etc. has a lot to do with encouraging tourism. But most important, tourism is taking up the slack in employment, especially for the over-educated professionals, many of whom are now working in the tourist industry. For example, our tourist agents, who worked for the University, had earned degrees in biology and law. Tourism is also responsible for the many people who have gone into the taxi industry. It is enabling many service workers to obtain not only dollars but foreign-made goods as well. Tourism has had a positive impact on attempts to control the black market; it is responsible for the new rules on foreign currency which now may be bought and sold. A new "tourist peso" bill which equals a US dollar has been circulated, and travelers' checks and credit cards are now accepted (not American Express, of course!).

. With tourism has re-emerged some evils, mainly petty theft and purse-snatching (although, as yet, practically no violent crime). We were warned against youths on bicycles who would snatch bags and cameras, and prostitutes quite openly walking the streets with their clients were pointed out to us. We saw a very ugly scene at one of the beaches where 13-14 year old girls were skipping school to mingle with fat, prosperous German businessmen. Another lesser "evil" is the famed Tropicana Nightclub, one of Cuba's biggest tourist moneymakers. We couldn't resist checking it out. The place is huge, the price is exorbitant -- $50 for a two-hour show, and the drinks are watered down -- but the show is fun and tasteful, no bare breasts like in Las Vegas.The Tropicana stayed open after the Revolution, amidst much criticism. I can't understand who frequented it besides the Russians? Certainly not the Cubans. A poll was taken of the audience, which was heavily German, French, Italian and Canadian, but a sprinkling of tourists from everywhere. It wasn't asked how many Americans, but they were there. Our flight from Cancun was full of vacationers who were bopping over for the weekend just to say they'd been to Cuba.

The US-Cuba Connection

. Maybe others are aware of these matters, but I learned some new things. For example, I was surprised to learn that the University of Havana has a "U.S. Studies Program" which regularly sends academics to the states for research. One professor's project had been Harold Washington, Chicago's former Black mayor! Another surprise to me was the huge, heavily-guarded U.S."Cuba Special Interest Section" building in central Havana, which is an "embassy" but not an "embassy." I was told that it employs over 100 people. When I asked what they do there, the answer was: "They spy!" It is intriguing to speculate just how these "spies" integrate into Cuban society. I was also taken aback by billboards advertising American products, e.g., Lux soap and Pepsodent toothpaste. There must be some subsidiary arrangement through another country. And why is the tourist peso tied to the American dollar? Why not, e.g., to the deutschmark, or to the currency of some other heavy investor?

. Despite the dire warnings and complications mentioned in most guidebooks, it is very easy to visit Cuba and quite cheap when you get there. One can go down officially under the auspices of a government conference or tour, with a U.S. Treasury Department license and visa, although this office is now swamped, and one should allow about 3 months for application processing.The government has an arrangement with an E. Coast travel agency through which flight arrangements can be made with Air Cubana. (I have the information on this, plus a long list of officially-sanctioned conferences.) Or one can merely hop over from Cancun, Nassau or Jamaica on nothing more than a $20 tourist card. Although flight arrangements to Cuba cannot be made in the US, we easily made ours through Air Mexicana in Mexico City and were allowed to pay for our Cancun-Havana ticket in Cancun. Cuban customs does not stamp passports, and the only restriction is that one must have verification of a place to stay. It is now also possible to go down as a student for a six-week study tour, through a U.S. college (I also have this information). It is easy to get past US customs, who assume you have been vacationing in Mexico or the Caribbean. Just be careful about bringing back Cuban cigars -- a red flag! And even though you can buy Cuban cigars in Mexico, Mexican customs also questioned us. I couldn't figure that out.

Postscript -- or the end of anecdote

. Yes, it is true. There are billboards all over Cuba which proclaim: "Tenemos socialismo, y tendremos socialismo" (We have socialism and we will (continue to) have socialism). And obviously, that is not the case. However, in my opinion, to make such statements as "the repressive society in Cuba has nothing in common with genuine socialism or communism" is not a very materialist or dialectical way of dealing with Cuba (re: DWV). For starters, no one on this earth has yet experienced "genuine socialism." One should perhaps review Lenin's analyses about "shoots of socialism" (or communism) which he regarded as any sincere volunteer or cooperative efforts by the people which undermined capitalist exploitation, individuality and selfishness. Despite the obvious fact that the Cuban workers do not control the society (as the Soviet workers did not under the Bolsheviks either), there are, in my opinion, certain "shoots" which took root in Cuba and remain today. For example, the extensive free services that Cubans enjoy, no matter how cut back, are considerably more than a "safety-net." Moreover, a lot of ideological training has been accomplished, which is not the ideology of capitalism: better race relations than I am aware of in any other country, the spirit of sharing out scarce goods which have been donated and other neighborhood cooperation, many forms of volunteerism, a certain honesty in interactions and, not the least, the respect shown to women in a Latin culture, all of which seem pretty impressive to me.

. Furthermore, to even bring up "genuine communism" at this point in history seems to me to be irresponsible. Certainly, Castro's rhetoric is sloppy. Sometimes he talks about "creating socialism" or being on the "socialist road." Sometimes he speaks of Cuba as being "socialist":the 1977 Constitution states that "The Republic of Cuba is a socialist state formed by workers, peasants, and other manual and intellectual laborers." Perhaps I am mistaken, but I don't believe that he actually calls the society of Cuba "communist," although the government or the Party may be referred to as such. Lenin once defended the name of the USSR, which of course contains the word "socialist," by saying that it was validated by their "intentions." It is mainly the western capitalist press which has wildly hurled the epithet "communist" at any regime it is threatened by, so, in my opinion, to talk about "Cuba's phony communism" only confuses the very complex situation.

. Castro may be incompetent, misguided, ideologically flawed, whatever you wish, but he is no Stalin, Mao or Ceausescu, who lives as a splendid potentate and lies to the people to maintain personal wealth and power. He is, after all, the man who brought about a most remarkable Revolution and has stood his ground against incredible odds. I am not convinced that Castro consciously knows that he is NOT CREATING socialism! While there is plenty of grumbling against government blunders and the inevitable red tape, Castro himself seems remarkably exempt from criticism. (Obviously, I am not talking about the Cuban exiles: the "gusanos," the "Marielites," or the "barcos"). My impression is that he is neither hated nor feared by the majority of the population, and I believe that most regard him as a sincere advocate of the working masses. A common view, however, is that Castro cannot control those beneath him, as the military narcotraffikers' case of a few years back demonstrated. Our guide insisted that I take home a book (in English) which has reprinted the entire Ochoa, et al. affair, including a transcript of the trial. It was very interesting, but I had to send it back.

. The Cuban masses certainly suffer from serious material deprivation, but I doubt that most feel they are living in a politically repressive society at this particular moment in history -- and now the Catholics will be happier and some political prisoners will be released, etc., etc. The fact remains that Cuba can still blame the U.S. blockade (the "silent bomb") rightfully for much of their economic deprivation, and that undoubtedly clouds the internal situation. In addition, the current market reforms are going to improve the average Cuban's standard of living at least for the immediate future. Things have already improved in the last couple years, due to tourism and the controlled foreign investment, which Castro believes to be the only way out of the economic crisis. Like other Caribbean islands, Cuba has few mineral resources to exploit. And while agricultural certainly needs reorganizing, there has to be money to invest in any enterprise. What economic course should Cuba take?

. It is a platitude that the situation in Cuba is not a carbon copy of the USSR or of Eastern Europe, but I personally feel that there is much more serious work to be done besides relying on bourgeois appraisals of Cuba, before one can "advise" the Cuban masses how to be "revolutionary." One intriguing thing: when we asked people where the "well-to-do" lived, we got nothing but blank responses. Perhaps a place to start would be to do some investigation on the strata of Cuban bourgeoisie: who they are, how exactly do they maintain their lifestyle, by what means do they rob the people, what laws and loopholes allow them to do so, how is ideology manipulated to justify this?

. The problem is, the 1959 Revolution is still very much alive in Cuba. Deprived as the Cuban masses are, the older generation still remember how much worse life was for them 40 years ago, and the younger generation is constantly reminded of it. As our young guide expressed it: "I'm a Black man. I received a free university education and now I have a law degree." Even though he cannot currently get enough work in his specialty, he is both grateful and hopeful -- and that counts for a lot.


(1) A couple of typos have been corrected, and several sets of square brackets have been replaced by parentheses. (Return to text)

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Last changed on October 17, 2001.