August 07, 2004
Socialismo o muerte
As the reader is no doubt aware, I like to keep this blog updated on a regular basis. I’m running out of things to talk about here, I’m just so damn prolific. So it is only meet that I give an account of what I’ve been up to over the last few weeks.
I’ve just got back from Cuba, having spent an eye-opening two weeks there on holiday with friends. I’ll leave the more unsavoury elements of the trip to the reader’s imagination in the interests of keeping this blog family-friendly…
After having spent an excruciating 14 hours travelling, including a simply delightful layover in Madrid (I am unequivocally NOT a good flyer), I get off the plane in Havana only to be confronted with the sight of…NO machine-gun wielding military types on the lookout for blackshirt interlopers, NO intrusive customs control with full internal cavity search, and a Stars ‘n Stripes prominently displayed amid the ‘flags of the world’ hanging from the ceiling of José Marti airport. So much for my absurd preconceptions, but, y’know, it would’ve been nice.
Of course, I didn’t really expect my vague ideas about the stifling, repressive, propagandist nature of the communist régime to be borne out. But I did expect to be able to come to a better understanding of how it all works. No chance of that: I’m more confused than ever.
Things have no doubt changed a lot since Cuba started to welcome tourists in the 90s. Without checking official statistics, I would think it likely that tourism is by far the biggest industry in Cuba today (at least in Havana and – definitely – Varadero, the two places we visited). Other than the cigars and rum, apparently they also do a roaring trade in pharmaceuticals. And the obvious natural resource is oil: impossible not to notice the flares as you drive east from Havana (my sources tell me that flaring off the natural gas is a no-no for the like of Shell and Esso, owing to the damage it does to the environment; don’t think Castro’s too bothered about that though).
So can tourism, and the capitalist dollars it brings with it, exist harmoniously with the socialist ideal? I have no idea. If I’d gone to Cuba with no prior knowledge of the revolution, I might well have come away with no inkling that it was a communist country at all (notwithstanding the inspirational slogans and images of Che you see painted on every wall). The guide books tell you that there’s two-tier system: the dollars flow straight into the hands of the state (the US dollar has been legal currency there for a few years now) and the Cubans themselves get by with their ration books and pesos. Well, I’m sure that’s the idea in principle, but if you’re a taxi driver, a barman or a waiter (or a jintero or a prostitute) then you’re gonna see a hell of a lot of dollars. Taxi drivers in Havana, nine times out of ten, don’t log their journeys, tinker with the metre and charge you an arbitrary amount, all of which goes straight into their pockets. Perhaps I’m being unfair: of course, it’s possible that they declare every cent of their income and hand it over to Fidel, but…well, would you? If you go into a club having paid the cover charge, chances are that the barman will studiously ignore you if you’re not tipping the greenbacks like a Rockefeller. Perhaps that cash all goes to the State, too…
OK, it must seem like I’m being a right self-righteous arsehole, expecting these people to ignore the lure of the almighty buck and work for the good of El Pueblo. But I just can’t understand how it all works. Do taxi divers really have more disposable income than doctors? Does the proprietor of a casa particular earn more than a cop? The other thing that the guidebooks tell you is that the dollar (and the ‘peso convertibile’, which is pegged to the dollar) is the ‘tourist currency’ whereas your average Cuban buys stuff with his pesos. Why, then, do you see Cubans at every bar and club in Havana (well, not the cheesy tourist haunts, but some) spending the benjamins like they’re going out of fashion?
I’m not trying to make light of the poverty that is, undoubtedly, the condition of many Cubans (although the problem of poverty is trivial in comparison to most Latin American countries). It’s just that, as I sat in my hotel room sipping Coca-Cola and watching HBO on cable (yes, really), I realized that I just don’t understand how this is supposed to work. Is this the transition phase to a truly capitalist Cuba – which will come to fruition when Fidel buys the farm and the CIA pile in – or is it really an attempt to keep the socialist ideal intact, with the dollars pouring into the economy strengthening the hand of the workers? If the economic base determines the ideological superstructure, then what hope is there for the Glorious Revolution, now in its 45th year?
More later (maybe).