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Deep Dive: Cuba
My observations from a trip to Cuba
Frozen in time. An untouched land. Like many East Coast millennials, I know someone who ventured to the no longer forbidden Shangri-La Island of Cuba. What once required paperwork, uncertainty, and potential stigma now only requires a plane ticket and a minor act of civil disobedience. “Oh I’m not going for tourist reasons, but to ‘support the Cuban people’.” Few things can jump-start a country’s nascent tourist economy better than providing tourists an act of faux rebellion. Like most Americans being regaled by stories from a friend who had recently returned from Cuba, I was told the country is “stuck in the 1950s”, “frozen in time”, or “a different planet”. The clichés have become so common that NPR even did a podcast titled “How (NOT) to Cover Cuba”.
So, in 2017, as a newly minted economics Ph.D. and first-year assistant professor, I was excited to take nine students to the island for a weeklong study abroad trip. There would be no legal loopholes here – we were granted visas under the not new educational activities waiver. Yet as our plane descended into Cuba - on Spirit Airlines of all carriers - there was still a sense of the unknown. I realized that it was entirely possible that every passenger on my sold-out flight was going to Havana for the first time. At the very least, most of the passengers on the plane were heading to a country and culture forbidden to Americans for the last sixty years.
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Despite the sudden emergence of Trip Advisor, Yelp, and Airbnb, I hoped Cuba would still offer something different than the rest of the Caribbean. I’ve traveled to many “untouched” destinations before, usually searching for the ultimate backpacker’s goal of wanderlust and vanity. Would Cuba be frozen in time? Would it harken back to an era that I secretly knew never existed, but still hoped to find anyway?
Aspects of Cuba certainly are reminiscent of a Sean Connery Bond film. Checking into the Hotel Habana Riviera, it was easy to picture men in hats being accompanied by women in gloves. Built by the American mobster Myers Lansky, the Riviera was the largest purpose-built casino-hotel in the world outside of Las Vegas when it opened in 1957. Unfortunately for Lansky, barely a year later Fidel Castro deposed President Fulgencio Batista and seized the property.
Today the Riviera remains largely unchanged. Furniture that certainly felt original still sits in the lobby. Elevators, wall furnishings, and other decorations certainly are. The tiles around the pool are cracked and faded. Said pool is in the shape of a coffin, providing a constant reminder to those looking down from their balconies what would happen if they crossed the original owner. The location is still a prime spot along the Malecón, the beautiful seaside boulevard so close to the water that waves routinely crest the wall and wide sidewalk and crash onto the westbound lanes. Floor-to-ceiling windows by the lobby bar allow in abundant sunshine and there are few places more pleasant to enjoy a Cuba Libre. The large fountain outside the hotel, like most in Havana, has been waterless for years. The figurines in the middle of the fountain still stand, paint peeling and presiding over an empty basin.
Yet to say that Cuba is trapped in the 1950s is incomplete. Cuba is not so much frozen in time as subsumed in a mesh of old and new that recalls Toontown, the cartoon city from Disney’s “Who Framed Roger Rabbit”. Instead of an amalgamation of cartoons and live-action, however, Cuba is a combination of two different times, the 1950s and the 21st century. Yes, you may see a man driving a 1954 Ford up to a 1940s-era apartment complex, but there’s a good chance he’s going to be yammering away on a smartphone. Digital cameras and laptops, albeit usually not connected to the internet, are a fact of life. In many ways, Cuba is a country like any other. People are concerned with their daily affairs and are not particularly interested in international realpolitik. I was not going to find in Cuba a Xanadu or place totally different from any other. Havana does provide a unique spot in the Caribbean that should be added to anyone’s travel list, but more because it is one of the few safe cities in the area.
At the same time, there are differences between Cuba and the rest of the world. Whether it was the septuagenarian economics professor who, after delivering a lecture to my class, walked home to avoid paying for a cab, or the crumbling buildings that surround Havana’s fixed-up historical district, it was clear that Cuba was being held back. At the end of the day, the biggest takeaway from an eight-day trip was the broken promise of the Cuban system.
Cuba, for all the international talk of liberalization and entrepreneurship, is still very much a communist society. People do not decide what they want to buy and sell, the government does. It is important to remember that the government was the last military dictatorship in the Americas. As Christopher Hitchens said, “Cuba is not a country with an army but an army with a country.” The Cuban military pulls all the levers and keeps both thumbs on the scale. To advance in life, one has to be either in the military, government, or close friends with those that are. The military/government is the sole arbiter in the Cuban economy.
One unexpected benefit to this lack of capitalism is that Cubans still haven’t figured out how to cheat tourists. After one night in the beautifully gothic Old Havana, a student and I found a taxi to take us back to our hotel. I knew the proper fare should be ten dollars. When I told the driver my destination and asked how much he replied, “Fifteen dollars.” I laughed and said with a friendly but firm attitude, “No, ten dollars.” The taxi driver agreed immediately and we were on our way. There was no haggling for an accurate fare. Even the taxi drivers of Havana aren’t practiced in taking advantage of foreigners. This will not last for long.
It doesn’t take long in Cuba to figure out that resistance to capitalism, at some level, is futile. As long as a government cannot properly allocate resources, individuals will find a way to improve their own economic lot. On a tour of a cigar factory, this fact became obvious to the point of parody. While surveying the factory floor, a nearby cigar roller made eye contact with me. He then held up a hastily scrawled sign that read “5 for $20”. I took out a twenty and when none of the internal security guards were looking, the man walked up to me and we made the exchange. I now had five Cohiba cigars, one of Cuba’s most prestigious brands, at a fraction of the normal price. For the duration of the tour, workers were furtively offering us cigars anyplace out of sight from security. I was later told that workers are paid hardly any money, but get five cigars per day which they are not allowed to sell. Economic theory (and common sense) predicts the rest.
Though Cubans are now allowed to own taxis, restaurants, and other small businesses for the first time, the Cuban government still regulates all sizable economic activity. Their biggest impact is on imports, where the government has an absolute monopoly. Everything and anything not made on the island must be approved by a government bureaucrat before it can be brought from abroad. Cuban heavy industry has never been particularly strong, so many products can’t be manufactured domestically. The results of this policy range from the amusing to the tragic.
There was a (government-run) supermarket near my hotel and I decided to take a look. At first glance it looked like most supermarkets in developing countries. There was an assortment of random boxes on the floor, some shelves were full while others were completely empty. Then I turned a corner and saw something peculiar – an entire aisle of mayonnaise. Every shelf on both sides was the same brand and size. I felt as if I’d walked into a Hellmann’s commercial. There was a glitch, not in the Matrix, but in Havana. I’m not an expert on Cuban cuisine, but to my knowledge mayo is not a staple. It was also rather expensive, more than it would cost in the United States. How did this happen?
The answer, of course, is that a government bureaucrat had decided mayonnaise inventories were running low and it was time to buy a shipping container’s worth. The purchase was made, and now there were shelves and shelves of it. Interestingly, there was only mayonnaise; no ketchup, mustard, or horseradish was in the store. I imagine that should I return some time later there might be shelves and shelves of BBQ sauce. That’s how things work in Cuba. Want mayonnaise? You have to wait months and months to get it, then there will be mayonnaise everywhere, and then none again. Instead of having stores notice that, say, granola was selling quickly and then buying more, it’s up to the government to decide who gets what and when.
It’s not that this is a competence issue; it’s one of feasibility. How can any one individual possibly know how much mayonnaise every store in an entire country needs on any given day? They can’t. That knowledge is never known by one person. In a free market, each individual manager knows when they need more of a product and make their purchases accordingly. The system is not perfect. Grocery stores in America run out of products and throw out unsold food every day. That being said, the mayonnaise aisle is a distinctly Cuban problem.
This extends to countless goods. It’s hard to imagine either having to smuggle something in or ask the government for anything on an island that doesn’t have a large manufacturing base. The neon beer sign at one of Havana’s new bars? It wasn’t purchased in a store anywhere in the country. A woman walking down the street wearing designer sunglasses? There’s no Sunglass Hut to be found. A friend or family member had to bring it in their suitcase. Walking around the streets, one realizes just how much has been brought by plane by friends and family of Cubans over the decades. Any good that will not be approved by a government chronically short on foreign money must be brought in one plane ticket at a time.
At a cooperative organic farm outside of Havana, a farmer lamented to us the lack of a Home Depot because she wanted to build a greenhouse. It wasn’t that she couldn’t afford materials to build a greenhouse – the farm was quite successful. Instead, these materials simply did not exist for purchase in her country. (Side note: At the end of our tour, the farmer told us she knew our country was going through a tough time and wished us well, a total reversal of what I had expected.) Without the right political connections, they were unobtainable. Shopping in Cuba is like trying to get the new Play Station on release day – except instead of leisure products shops are out of all but basic necessities. While it is only a frustration that this government dysfunction includes condiments, extending it to agricultural construction materials has a more damaging impact. Extend it to medicine, as once again any imported medicine must be purchased by the government, and the result is fatal. I was told medicines would often run out for weeks at a time. Cuba does have more than enough competent doctors, but not the materials to keep hospitals going. There were whispers that if you had a disease that ultimately would be fatal regardless of treatment, such as diabetes, those medications would be the first to run out.
This comes to the crux of Cuba today. The social contract originally brokered by the Castro regime is broken beyond repair. Western democracies have social contracts that generally stipulate a large amount of freedom. The press can ask uncomfortable questions and is even encouraged to find evidence of government malfeasance. Citizens give up a healthy but minority amount of their income to fund various social programs. Cuba, in the 1950s, had a different social contract. Citizens were expected to give all control to the state, give up all press freedom, most freedom of speech, and much of their income. In exchange, however, the regime would provide world-class health care, a strong social safety net, and universal literacy. In a country that had always had an underclass that lived in abject poverty and suffered from extreme government corruption, these benefits are not to be discounted. The deal seemed reasonable to many Cubans and it held for some time.
Especially at first, Cuba did have a world-class health system. Within a decade of beginning their literacy program, every Cuban was taught to read, free of charge. Nobody went hungry. All of this, however, was financed by others. The social contract was a mirage, built on the labor of others. In Cuba’s case, the USSR was spending billions to keep Cuba afloat so long as they remained a thorn in the side of the United States. Cuba’s small population made it relatively easy for the Soviets to power the island’s economy. With the collapse of the USSR the truth soon became apparent. The cheap gasoline and goods from Russia stopped. The Cuban economy collapsed overnight. Enter the Orwellian named “Special Period”.
The most illustrative story I heard of the Special Period was from our guide, Luis. In the early 1990s, with food running out and three young children to feed, Luis heard there was a farm inland that would trade supplies for old consumer goods. His wife and he packed up clothes, clocks, and anything else that might have value to take into the countryside. By bus, hitchhiking, and walking he followed rumors and whispers, searching for food. It turned out the farm did exist, and Luis traded all the goods of value his family had for produce, dried goods, and most importantly, several egg-producing chickens. It took two days to get there and back. When Luis finally arrived at his apartment building in Havana, he collapsed on the sidewalk. He was so weak from lack of food and exhaustion that his family had to come down and carry the goods, along with him, back up to their home. He said one of the most difficult decisions afterward was how much to feed the chickens. One more bite for them meant less for his family today, but more eggs tomorrow.
This happened in a country that once had one of the wealthiest economies in the Americas. Pre-Castro Cuba was a very unequal place, but at least the educated urban class was living at a relatively high standard. During the Special Period, the mismanagement of a centrally planned economy became obvious. To keep their deal with the Soviets in the 1960s, the Cuban government forced much of the country to produce sugar cane. With their buyer now bankrupt, a crop that was only plentiful because the government in Havana had decreed it necessary was now mostly useless.
During the nadir of the Special Period the situation grew bleak. Cats and dogs disappeared from the streets of Havana. Front yards were used as vegetable gardens. Cities went dark as there was no fuel to power them. People would use stairs even in high-rise apartments to avoid being trapped in the elevator during the frequent blackouts. The true number of deaths from lack of medicine and malnutrition will never be known. This didn’t last for weeks or months, but for years. The country barely avoided full-scale famine, and slowly re-engineered its economy to be more self-sufficient. Today, things in Cuba are looking similarly grim. Power outages are the norm. Fuel shortages hinder commerce. An astonishing 2% of Cubans have immigrated to the US in just the last year. That’s one out of every fifty people!
The entire Special Period is largely unknown in the United States. There is this persistent myth that while Cubans certainly don’t have freedom of speech, they at least have made strides in equalizing opportunity and outcomes. The media of the United States has largely ignored that Cuba was on the edge of famine for the better part of a decade. It is also omitted that Black Cubans have largely remained in the lower classes, LGBT Cubans were still detained by the government in the 21st century, and Cuba has executed citizens trying to flee the country.
How did the Castros keep ahold of their power? There’s blame to go around, and while I think the biggest reason is the defensive advantage of being an island country, the United States plays a large role. The United States developed a system perfect for the Castros to stay in control. As has been reported many times, the US gave the Castros a boogeyman to blame all their problems on, with some justification. Signs on the highways still protest the “American Genocide” caused by the trade embargo. All the sugar cane produced in the 1990s could have been sold to other countries, but the US banned any ship from using a US port within six months of docking in Cuba. This is not just bad policy and a violation of international trade law, it is vindictive.
The second, and often overlooked, component of US policy that kept the status quo in Cuba is some unique immigration laws. In most nations with a repressive government, especially in the Americas, over time an opposition emerges. Members of the intelligentsia slowly marshal support domestically and abroad to begin incremental change. Eventually somewhat free-and-fair elections are held. The result is far from perfect, but there is identifiable progress. This never happened in Cuba, and will not in the near future because the United States gave the Castros the ultimate pressure release valve: largely free immigration to the United States. For decades, any Cuban who wanted to leave Cuba only had to make it across the Florida Strait. Upon arrival, they would be granted asylum and given a pathway to citizenship. The Elian Gonzalez story shows how willing Americans were to host Cubans no matter what the circumstances. Americans actually protested when a six-year-old boy, the victim of an international child abduction by his now-dead mother, was returned to his father instead of left to live in a strange country with distant relatives he barely knew.
Fidel Castro immediately recognized the benefit of this asylum program. Anytime opposition began to build against his regime, he released the pressure valve and allowed Cubans to leave. Thus the Mariel Boatlift, when thousands of Cubans fled to Florida in 1980. Those most opposed to his regime often left, save for a few diehards that believed change from within is the only way forward. Tens of thousands of Cuban dissidents do not protest the Castro regime from Havana or Santiago de Cuba, but from Miami and New York. This never inspires a wider movement, and no progress is made. This policy more than any other has resulted in the Castros controlling an entire country for the better part of a century.
It is difficult to overstate the importance the government has had on the Cuban people. Because of their colonial history, the Cuban people have had a difficult time establishing a national identity. Their country went from being a Spanish Colony, to an American Protectorate, to a crony capitalist society, to a communist dictatorship. Even some of the characteristics applied to the Cuban people, such as their relaxed attitude, can be explained by the current government and economy. Imagine a life where being a hard worker gained you nothing. There’s no choice but to be relaxed.
One of the most interesting aspects of Cuban culture, to me, was a lack of sense of place in the world. Many countries have a national ethos, such as Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité in France, a sense of duty in Japan, or rugged individualism in the United States. These ideals are then embodied in national heroes and national symbols, such as Abraham Lincoln in America or Marianne in France. (Side note: Abraham Lincoln is also widely respected in Cuba – I saw several busts of his distinctive features around Havana.)
Cuba, on the other hand, has reversed this. Perhaps because of their lack of long institutional memory, instead of individuals embodying national ideals, individuals themselves become the ideal. Cubans do not have symbols that they can keep ahold of regardless of current circumstances. There is no symbol that defines Cuba such as the Statue of Liberty, no motto like e pluribus unum.
Instead, Cubans look toward individuals, like Fidel Castro and their national hero Jose Marti, as the ideal. People look to the statues of Jose Marti as inspiration more than a flag or other everlasting symbol. Castro took it one step further, asking that no statues of him be raised but that Cubans see the entire society as his legacy. Fidel Castro successfully created a system of values embraced by an entire country. He became, perhaps more than any other leader of the 20th century, “l'état, c'est moi". It is now difficult to disentangle Castro from Cuba. This juxtaposition shows the power that individuals can have over history. It will also determine Cuba’s fate for decades to come.
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