Here are a few words about my recent trip to Cuba with my partner Claire. Although it was just a holiday undertaken in a personal capacity (not any kind of political delegation or solidarity mission), standing in the last great cold war city west of Hanoi I found myself coming away with some strong impressions, political and otherwise.
We don’t speak Spanish beyond asking for basic directions and ordering a beer (and even then, poorly) so the level of insightful conversation we managed was fairly limited – although plenty of people were willing to chat with us as best as we could manage.
As tourists, we mostly interacted with extremely cosmopolitan Cubans and we didn’t exactly travel out to any rural sugar plantations to get the unvarnished opinions of the agricultural working class. So some of the impressions described below will be coloured by the kind of people we met in Havana, Santiago and on the paradisiacal Holguin coast.
Via Cuba’s many museums and sites of historical interest we learned a great deal of their history, and its really impossible to make sense of anything in Cuba without having some appreciation of it. So this is where I’ll begin, apologies to those well versed in Cuban history, just skip down a bit!
The Origins of the Cuban Nation
Since its discovery in the very late 14th century by Christopher Columbus and right up until the turn of the 19th, Cuba was a colony of the Spanish Empire. In true imperial form, the Spanish successfully butchered the indigenous peoples down to the last man, woman and child, proceeding to use Cuba as a clearing house for slavery, a plantation for tobacco and sugar and a naval base to threaten Spain’s British and French military rivals in the Caribbean – a fact attested to by Havana’s awesome colonial fortifications, which are the largest of their kind in the whole of the Americas.
The Spanish population in Cuba became divided between imperial loyalists and those that began to see themselves as Cubans and over the centuries an independence movement emerged. After years of bloody struggles a coherent movement began to form around the political ideas of exiled dissident and poet, José Martí. Similar to Venezuela’s Simon Bolivar before him, Martí developed a strong sense of Latin American and Cuban identity – around which a unified independence movement could coalesce.
Martí and his followers did indeed succeed in returning to Cuba, raising up a bloody rebellion and kicking out the Spanish, for which he is venerated as Cuba’s first and greatest national hero, both by the current communist regime as well as those opposed to it. In many ways, he takes the place of Lenin in Cuba’s communist mythology. Despite being governed by a Marxist-Leninist one party system, it is images of José Martí that appear everywhere in Cuba, from giant monuments to friendly murals, not Marx and Lenin.
Despite it’s eventual victory in 1898, Martí’s rebellion left Cuba a smouldering wreck, its economy destroyed and its population exhausted. Martí himself died heroically while charging towards Spanish artillery in his trademark black suit and on his huge white horse. The USA, keen to see the imperial Spanish driven as far away from their territory as possible vocally supported the new Republic, although provided little physical or military aid during the war itself. However, they were able to exert considerable influence over the vulnerable new state and insisted that their founding constitution exempt the USA from rules of national sovereignty, effectively turning the island into an American military base.
Although spirited attempts were made to create a functioning democracy – and the early Cuban governments were deeply progressive compared to the reactionary Spanish – the requirement for American approval for any kind of serious decision making quickly turned Cuba into a puppet state, its leadership degenerating into a brutal and corrupt class of landowners, untouchable as long as they acted on behalf of American interests. A similar story that would play out again in South Vietnam some 50 years later.
A famous high point of this era is the 1946 conference of the North American mafia, under the pretext of a Frank Sinatra concert, hosted by Havana’s Hotel Nacional with the blessing of Cuba’s then dictator, Fulgenico Batista.
This era of Cuba being used as a shared playground for both the American mafia and military, while its own leadership inflicted political repression, exploitation and misery on the semi-literate working class proved absolutely intolerable to many Cubans. Most especially to one idealistic young lawyer, Fidel Castro.
Revolution and the Birth of Modern Cuba
There’s tonnes of material out there already on the Cuban revolution and the exploits and adventures of Fidel Castro and his loyal second-in-command, Ernesto Che Guevara, so I won’t go into any detail here. Suffice to say they succeeded in turning a small guerrilla war against their own government into a full blown uprising and revolution. One subtle but extremely important point is that this was not a communist revolution – it was a nationalist one. Although Che had long been a committed Marxist, and Fidel also converted to socialism through his political life leading up to the revolution, the basis of the war itself was one of national liberation from United States imperialism, with a strong current of pan-Latin American internationalism thrown in for good measure. Unlike in earlier revolutions in Europe, which were planned and lead by established communist parties, the Communist Party of Cuba was formed nearly two years after the revolution had been won. This goes some way to explain the Cuban government’s strenuous efforts to draw a direct link between José Martí and themselves, with the heroic image of martyred Che Guevara (which is almost as omnipresent as the image of José Martí) providing a constant assertion of this legacy.
Cuba’s early alignment with the Soviet Union was partly ideological, and partly pragmatic. The USA couldn’t countenance the existence of the new socialist government, and began a long period of subtle and not so subtle aggression. This included assassination attempts, sabotage, invasion, trade embargo, the introduction of diseases into food and tobacco crops and the occupation of the far eastern corner of the island – an occupation which goes on to this day in the form of the American concentration camp at Guantanamo Bay.
Although the young Cuban government would have benefited hugely from a good relationship with the superpower on its doorstep it found itself forced into deep military and economic ties with the distant Soviet Bloc. During this period Cuba also maintained a strong sense of its own place in the world, playing a leading role in third world liberation struggles via organisations like OSPAAAL and its support for Latin American and African liberation struggles, up to and including taking part in a land war against apartheid South Africa in defence of Angola.
Cuba’s strong sense of both nationalist self determination and ideological internationalism combine to create a very strong impression, even today. Having never been a oppressor country, Cuba’s deep patriotism has a progressive flavour unattainable to the old imperial powers. It does provide an example of what separatist movements like those in Scotland and Catalonia might aspire towards however.
Although communism is the guiding ideology behind the Cuban system, and the government is organised on Leninist principles, it draws its legitimacy from its revolutionary legacy, as well as by the sweeping reforms brought about by the revolution. These include the transfer of both land and homes from landlords to tenants, massive anti-illiteracy drives (Cuba went from some of the lowest to the highest literacy rates in the whole world in a very short time), improvements in hygiene, huge advancements in racial and gender equality and the rapid creation of comprehensive and universal healthcare, education and social security systems. This was accompanied and paid for by mass nationalisations, especially of the holdings of American companies and the assets of the small landowner class – in an unsurprising parallel with the problems of inequality in today’s global order, over 70% of Cuban land was in the hands of about 5% of the population during the time of the revolution.
The Fallout of the Special Period: Eating Out in Modern Cuba
The collapse of the Soviet Union and the enduring hostility of the USA caused Cuba to go into what it refers to as “the special period”; a protracted period of austerity and self reliance undertaken in an attempt to survive the loss of its main economic benefactor. This caused enormous hardship upon ordinary people, and set back the course of development and modernisation by decades. The scars of the special period are still there to see today, most strikingly in the form of the dysfunctional railway system, which they had neither the fuel nor industrial capacity to maintain during the special period and have yet to properly revive.
Another legacy of this period is the bizarre cuisine. Despite being an extremely fertile island, much of Cuba’s collectivised agriculture is invested in the production of cash crops like sugar and tobacco. Its lack of agricultural diversity and subsequent reliance on foreign trade for food caused enormous shortages during the special period, which lead to rationing and deprivation.
Although food and fresh produce is now relatively plentiful, packaged goods fill up supermarket shelves, outdoor markets are piled high with meat and veg and a huge chain of state bakeries provides daily bread, Cuban cuisine is still mostly dull and uninspiring. Although there are plenty of innovators and pioneers in this field, and we ate some fantastic meals served by talented and enthusiastic Cuban hosts, the overall culture towards food is still overwhelmingly bland (ketchup is not a garnish, no matter how artfully you decorate the plate with it, comrades). Although Cubans are now free to travel abroad as they please, a long period of restriction on foreign travel and a lack of meaningful inwards immigration means that Cuba hasn’t benefited from the culinary delights of multiculturalism. There’s not even much influence from other Caribbean island cuisines.
One feature of our trip was our regular visits to state owned canteens, which serve almost nothing other than ham sandwiches, cheese sandwiches, “Cuban Specials” (ham and cheese sandwiches) and soggy fried chicken. These places are plentiful and utterly unpretentious, existing solely to keep the population well fed on the cheap. Whether you see this as a marker of the banality of communist failure, or a triumph of the will to survive is really up to your own prejudices.
A particular highlight of the socialist dining experience was our visit to the Coppelia ice cream parlour in Havana. A large, open-plan restaurant ringed by a massive bar with tall chairs arranged along the inside edge. Cubans from all walks of life queue up to enter the enclosure and take a seat at the bar, which serves ice cream of various flavours so cheap it may as well be free. Afterwards they sit in the shade of the palm trees in the large courtyard or the surrounding pedestrianised area, kicking around balls, listening to people performing music and chatting among themselves. Although socialism has yet to deliver the staggering diversity and wasteful abundance of the free market it does provide other unique forms culinary experience, of which Coppelia is a particularly joyous example.
Cuban Democracy Today: General Election 2018
We actually arrived in the middle of a general election, between votes being cast a few days before and the results coming in.
In western democracies we view political parties as representing different policy platforms based on one ideological premise or another, on a broadly left/right axis. The central democratic principle behind a communist state is the idea that political parties actually represent the interests of antagonistic class forces. This idea was objectively true in the age of Marx and Lenin (when people would discuss the “propertied interest versus the labour interest) and arguably true today, depending on your view of the world.
Following this logic, a society which has eliminated conflicting class forces and installed a government of the working class (“dictatorship of the proletariat”) has also eliminated the need for oppositional party politics. The one party state can work as a collaborative venture for the shared interests of the whole of society. A communist would look at the democratic system in the USA and conclude that it is also a one party state, representing the interests of capital (“dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”), for which elections were just noisy factional disputes at best, but more like empty propaganda in reality. Since the USA has never had a non-millionaire President, and doesn’t have a dedicated party of labour, it’s hard not to sympathise with this view.
Cuban democracy is considerably healthier than what used to take place in the former Soviet Union. Cuba began its democratic development in the mid 1970s, waiting over a decade after the revolution to allow for reconstruction to take place: “If we had an election today, who and what would we vote for? We need to build a country first” Fidel Castro remarked when quizzed by an American journalist about how quickly he would call a general election after his victory.
Cubans vote for delegates from their local area to send to the “National Assembly of People’s Power”. This assembly is the supreme legislating body that signs off on new laws and policy. It also elects the President, so although Cuban people do not elect their leader directly, they elect the assembly that then elects the government (this is more or less what we do in Britain too by the way).
Delegates to the assembly are not paid and membership is a responsibility – not a job. Election campaigns are forbidden and election funding is especially forbidden. Candidates are required to post their biographies on public noticeboards for the electors to review and base their decision upon. A candidate has to be endorsed by over 50% of the electorate to take their seat in the assembly, if they cannot get that then the seat is left empty. Cuban democracy is therefore a much quieter and arguably a more dignified affair than that which takes place in the west.
Most of the possible candidates in the polling district of central Havana were members of the Communist Party, although the two youngest candidates were recent graduates and not full members. One suspects this is because they had some way to go before qualifying for full membership, rather than because they had refused it.
Political change in Cuba is slow and measured, often taking one tentative step forward and then a quick half a step back. However reforms do happen, as evidenced by their steady transition from state sponsored homophobia to being the most LGBT friendly place in whole Caribbean (and possibly the whole of the Americas). The National Assembly boasts of having recently welcomed its first transgender delegate.
This democracy looks and feels nothing like our own, and is based on principles we more readily associate with the sham electoral systems of the old Eastern Bloc. However, democracy is indeed happening in its own unique way. Raul Castro has announced his intention to retire this year, so it will be up to the new assembly to install new leadership, which may have profound consequences on the future economic and social policy direction of the island. There is a certain amount of speculation that the next president will be a woman, as both Raul’s and Fidel’s daughters have strong political records of their own (Mariela Castro was the driving force behind Cuba’s progressive change in direction regarding LGBT issues), although whether or not Cuba will welcome a third consecutive Castro into the highest office remains to be seen.
Signage outside the Havana office of the PCC
Banner celebrating “Unity, Compromise and Victory”, the slogan of 21st Cuban Trade Union Congress.
Although Cuba has long since given up the habit of imprisoning dissenters, the system leaves few avenues open for directly oppositional political expression. However, a keen eyed observer looking out for such things will notice the occasional Orwell reference crammed between the more enthusiastically socialist street art, as well as people defiantly displaying their religious identity despite the state’s officially atheist policy. Havana does boast an absolutely massive statue of Jesus occupying a commanding view of the city though. Finished in 1958 and blessed by the Pope himself, the completion of the Havana Jesus rather unfortunately coincided with the advent of communism. Whether the decision to leave it standing was out of tacit respect for the people’s religious feeling, or simply because communists love a good statue is unknown.
Of course there are also the “ladies in white”, a conspicuous religiously aligned protest movement agitating for greater political freedom, who can be seen going about their business in Havana quite regularly but reportedly often receive official and semi official harassment.
A huge portion of Cuba’s landowning class fled the island to the USA after the revolution, especially those descended from slave owning or criminal families, who had retained much of their hoarded wealth up to that point. This initial exodus, combined with Cubas historical restrictions on foreign travel, have been used strongly in evidence that Cuban people are entrapped, with parallels being drawn between modern Cuba and what used to be East Germany. However, travel restrictions have been lifted for over a decade now, and no significant emigration has taken place. Maybe its national pride, maybe its communist brainwashing – or maybe leaving Cuba’s strong social safety net to live in squalor as second class citizens in the USA, alongside the descendants of traitors, isn’t so appealing in big 2018.
The CDR: Your Friendly Neighbourhood Stasi
Soviet secret police forces traditionally represented themselves as The Sword and Shield of the Party. The Committee for the Defence of the Revolution (the CDR) can likewise be recognised by its emblem of a figure brandishing a Cuban flag shield and a large sword. However, this is more or less where the similarities begin and end. Like many aspects of Cuban culture, there appears to be an element of implicit good humour in it and the figure is waving a slightly absurd pirate sabre above its head. Rather than a terrifying and secretive bureaucracy, the CDR is organised along the lines of a neighbourhood watch. It’s purpose is to maintain and promote the values of the Cuban revolution at a grassroots level and members paint the logo on their front doors or on the sides of their houses. One particularly charming example I noticed in a very working class district had the letters “C D R” picked out in seashells on the front garden path. Tellingly, they were facing inwards, giving the impression they were picked out in pride by the householder rather than to intimidate the rest of the neighbourhood.
Whether or not the CDR is an admirably open and tolerant expression of political commitment and vigilance, or just another sinister expression of communism’s totalitarian instincts is once again down to your own preconceptions.
Cuba is described with extraordinary rhetoric by hysterical foreigners, but in reality Cuban attitudes can broadly be summed up as moderate and progressive. Despite the complete absence of a free press, Cubans are well informed about the state of the world and under few illusions about the issues of their own society. In fact, so calm and measured are they that you start to wonder how much positive influence our reactionary, cartel owned “free” press is even bringing to our own society.
The two main narratives projected onto Cuba is that is either a heroic worker’s paradise, defiantly standing up to a hated American enemy, or that it is an oppressed slave state who’s population is desperate to open its arms to capitalistic freedom. The truth is actually rather more sane than either, although possibly closer to the first than the second. Cubans recognise their economic problems and many wish for more rapid development in many areas, however they take a deep, nearly spiritual pride in their social achievements, particularly around education and health and would not like to see their society made less compassionate by the ravages of the free market.
Anti imperialism and Latin American unity is still a dominant theme in Cuban politics, although most regular Cubans hold the USA itself in no great antipathy and there are signs that some Cuban youth culture fetishises hispanic Americana.
Without wishing myself fetishise action driven by lack of means, there is something heroic about the innovative spirit of Cuba. In Havana classic American cars from the 1950s are still kept lovingly on the road and in splendid condition, alongside vintage heavy trucks, Czech motorcycles with side cars, Soviet Ladas and a smattering of modern imports. The architecture of the colonial era is maintained in a sort of permanent managed decline, giving the overall impression of being in the whole of the last hundred years of history all at once.
Cuban society, lead by the communist party, takes women’s issues extremely seriously. Like many third world countries in which women participated in an armed struggle, revolution brought instant leaps forward in gender equality. That said, many feminists of the new left in the 1970s remarked how quickly business as usual was implemented with regards to gender roles in socialist countries. In her 1970 polemic The Female Eunuch, Germaine Greer goes as far as to quote Fidel Castro imploring woman to take the greater part of the burden of domestic duties and child rearing as an example of such regression. However, in modern Cuba no such rhetoric is now present – the government’s central newspaper calls for the advance of woman’s rights as “the revolution that continues within the revolution” and woman make up 50% of the public sector, both in menial and management roles – which in a communist country is the majority of the workforce! In a country in which public advertising is almost non existent, the billboards that line the approach to Havana instead show campaigns against domestic violence. Pornography, like drug use, is completely illegal and from what I could tell the official position of the PCC is to treat woman in prostitution as victims in the first case.
Having not lived a life as a working woman in Cuba, I can’t really comment on the real day to day experience of sexism there. However Claire remarked on more than one occasion that the overall climate felt much less sexist than in the UK, with no intrusive attention on the streets or in shops and no apparent discomfort seen on the faces of woman going about their business. I am given to understand that domestic violence is more of an issue in the rural heartlands, where some tobacco and sugar farmers are known to drink rum like it was water all day while working, and then mistreat their families upon returning home.
Additionally, as of the 2018 general election I understand that Cuba is now the second nation in the world to elect a majority female government, although I have yet to see the official statistics to confirm that.
Police are very present in large numbers on the streets, although unarmed. Gun crime is almost non existent and we didn’t even see a gun in the hands of soldiers – other than the ceremonial AK47 held by the guard outside Fidel Castro’s tomb.
Sport is incredibly important to Cuban people and, like politics, it is illegal for it to be undertaken professionally. This is a double edged sword in many ways – high participation in the national sports of boxing and baseball by huge numbers of the population mean that Cuba produces some of the best sportspeople in the world, and access to high level training is available at small scale clubs on street corners and in parks. On the other hand, a lack of commercial funding means that clubs are often under resourced and have to make do, as Cubans so often do, and high level players are regularly poached by other nations offering massive salaries in return for their prowess.
A neighbourhood boxing club, kids in training after school
For a nation often depicted as a brutal military dictatorship, progressive politics and peaceful coexistence abounds, both officially and in the attitudes of citizens. Community values are cherished, and no one seems particularly overworked. At 5pm each day, the streets of Havana turn into bustling street parties, with people playing ball games and hanging out of doorways and balconies to drink and talk together. Internet access is easily available, but not in people’s homes. Most urban dwelling Cubans have smartphones and wifi can be accessed in parks and town squares – so although Cubans can be seen busily conducting their online business in public, the vast majority of life is conducted away from the glare of a screen.
Private Enterprise and Public Infrastructure
Somewhat ironically, its on this communist island fortress that expressions of capitalistic initiative most closely match capitalism’s own preferred self image. With the commanding heights the economy in public control, private business is small in scale, owner operated, highly enthusiastic and resourceful. In the west, capitalism’s chief virtues often negate themselves – the family business becomes the faceless corporation and the children of pioneering business owners form a new class of lazy aristocrats, indolent and useless with their piles of inherited wealth. No signs of this are yet present in Cuba.
There is much apprehension both in the capitalist world and within Cuba itself about what large scale changes economic liberalisation will wreck on Cuba’s unique society, with many people telling me that I was “lucky to be going before it changes too much”. However my impression is that economic reforms are being undertaken cautiously and strategically with the specific aims of improving living standards without impacting on the wealth of the public realm as well as diversifying the nation’s revenue streams of foreign currency, shielding it from any potential fluctuations in the value of its primary exports of sugar and tobacco. There is some talk about plans to improve the financial position of the working class by unifying the dual currency system, merging the low value “national” peso used for domestic economic affairs, with the internationally convertible peso, which carries a much higher value. I won’t go into the mechanisms and rationales behind the dual currency system here, as even if you’ve got this far, I doubt you’re up for a long discussion on the financial systems of command economies by this point.
For all the progressive attitudes, safety, highly educated population, beautiful cars and general lack of squalor it’s sometimes easy to get carried and forget that Cuba is still part of the third world. However in those areas that require more industrial and financial resources than can be provided by the good will of the citizenry its still painfully obvious that Cuba has some way to go, and has suffered from its isolation from more heavily industrialised economies. You can’t drink the tap water, and you are encouraged to fold toilet paper up and use the little bins to be found even in the poshest bathrooms, rather than risk clogging the inadequate sewer system. Although constant construction work, repair teams and general activity gives Havana the air of a city on its uppers, the streets are still potholed and some buildings are visibly crumbling.
None the less, there is enormous national pride, collective spirit and a general feeling of cautious optimism. Signs of (slow) development overwhelmingly outnumber the signs of decay. In today’s world of dangerously unsustainable economic advance, built on the brutal exploitation of the environment and the worker, at the expense of social security, its hard not to feel the Cubans are forging ahead on the better path.
¡Viva la Revolución!