In Cuba they are commonly known as ‘gusanos de seda’ - silkworms. Over the last 18 months more than 100,000 of them have made their way back home on the twice-daily charter flights from Miami. From the point of view of the Cuban government the decision to open the country to ex-nationals was a hard-headed and practical one. The visitors would bring much-needed foreign exchange. Combined with the release of the last anti-Castro political prisoners the gesture was also a clean-breasted rebuke to Western human rights critics.
But visits by the émigré Cubans, although officially blessed by the government, seem to have backfired. Decked out in $300 suits and finery unknown in the austere Cuban economy, the visitors have lived up to their nickname. Many Cuban homes have been adorned with gifts from Americanized relatives: digital wrist watches, electric fans, and cassette tape recorders. The enormous influx of European, Canadian and American tourists over the last five years also brought intimations of affluence to a society desperately short of consumer goods. Both these moves have had their impact, especially for a small minority of the island’s ten million people lured by the wealth and higher standard of living only 90 miles away.
The discontent came to a head this past April when eighteen people commandeered a bus and rammed the gates of the Peruvian embassy in Havana in a dramatic bid to gain exit visas. They were part of a group of 3,000 political prisoners released a year earlier who had still not received visas from the US. In an unusual turn-about President Castro announced shortly after the event that all Cubans who wanted to leave were completely free to do so. The guards at the Peruvian embassy were removed and over 10,000 people quickly massed in the embassy’s compound. Castro also stated that boats from Florida were welcome to transport refugees. With that thousands more Cubans flocked to the port of Meriel on the outskirts of Havana ready to join the ‘freedom flotilla’.
Never a recipient of ‘good press’ in the West, Cuba’s ‘mini-Dunkirk’ was all the proof needed to justify continued vilification of Castro’s socialist government. The reasons for the exodus, according to the Western press, were painfully evident. At the top of the list was a ‘freedom-choking government led by a Soviet-puppet dictator’. Like most Third World countries Cuba has its share of economic ills and the government was pilloried repeatedly for its failings.
Consumer goods are almost nonexistent; 90 per cent of the tobacco crop was lost to ‘blue mould’; despite record prices sugar yields are down; industrial productivity is low and featherbedding is rife in the top-heavy bureaucracy. All these assertions by themselves seem reason enough for 60,000 Cubans queueing up at the exits.
Still, there are at least 9,900,000 who remain in the country and one wonders why they didn’t join their fellow citizens in the rush to ‘freedom’. Part of the reason may have to do with memory. Cuba may not be the US, but neither is it Peru or Guatemala. Before Castro’s takeover from the corrupt Batista regime in 1959 Cuba was known in not-so-polite terms as the ‘whorehouse of the Caribbean’.
Life expectancy was low, infant mortality high. Half the children were malnourished. Most of the land and industry were owned by a small, wealthy elite. Housing, water, sanitation and health care were wretched, inadequate and available only to the rich. With oneeighth the population of France or Italy, Cuba had more unemployed than either.
Castro himself summed up the problem eloquently in his now famous speech from the dock during his 1953 trial for subversion: "Eighty-five per cent of the small farmers in Cuba pay rent and live under the constant threat of being evicted from the land they till. More than half our most productive land is in the hands of foreigners. In Oriente, the largest province, the lands of the United Fruit Company and the West Indies Company link the northern and southern coasts. There are two hundred thousand peasant families who do not have a single acre of land to till to provide food for their starving children…
Ninety per cent of the children in the countryside are consumed by parasites which filter through their bare feet from the ground they walk on. Society is moved to compassion when it hears of the kidnapping or murder of one child, but it is criminally indifferent to the mass murder of so many thousands of children who die every year from lack of facilities…
That was freedom in Batista’s Cuba when the island was run as a virtual fiefdom of US business and organized crime.
Today, Cuban society is by no means perfect; there is much to criticize. But at the level of the most commonly accepted measures of development there are few Latin American or Third World nations that have progressed so much in so little time.
Meat may be rationed and the choice of food narrow, but there is no hunger. Health care is freely and widely available and the literacy rate is the highest in Latin America. Housing is tight, but there is a great surge of effort to provide decent, affordable living space. Infant mortality is the lowest in Latin America. Cuba’s birth rate, is as low as that of a developed country yet family planning is not even part of state policy: a startling example of the link between economic security and population growth.
To those familiar with the endemic poverty in the rest of Latin America the transformation of Cuban society in the last 20 years is remarkable. Despite the changes, the twisted economy so heavily dependent on cash crops has not been bent back into shape. Sugar and tobacco remain the main foreign exchange earners. Faced with full-scale economic boycott by the US, Soviet foreign aid has also been important. But it’s not aid that’s enabled Cuba to overcome the worst aspects of underdevelopment. If that were true one could ask why many of the Central American countries which have gorged as much on US aid, through the Organization of American States, have not accomplished as much.
Still there are tens of thousands of Cubans who want to leave, to gamble on reaching the good life of Florida. And despite Dr. Castro’s disclaimer, they are not all ‘loafers, layabouts and criminals’. (However, it should be pointed out that even American immigration officials and the mayor of Miami are alarmed about the number of ex-prisoners among the ‘freedom- loving Cubans’.)
The US government and the Western press have done their best to make ideological capital out of the Cuban exile. But ideology has little to do with the reasons for leaving. With the exception of the former political prisoners, few of the exiles are bona-fide ‘political refugees’ - in danger of persecution for their political beliefs.
Mostly they are ‘economic refugees’ looking for a bigger slice of the pie. Just like the millions of Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Jamaicans and Europeans who preceeded them. They are not so much fleeing from a nightmare as running towards the dream of a more affluent standard of living.
In that light the Cuban exodus is a reflection of the disparities and inequalities between the rich and poor nations. You only have to ask what would result if Mexico City, Bogota or Lima made the same offer to their dissatisfied citizens as Havana. The numbers lining up to board the transport planes and boats to the US would be in the order of millions, not thousands.
The Cuban government meanwhile is likely to continue encouraging the exodus. It has everything to gain and little to lose - except bad press,which it had anyway. The ‘silkworms’, though, may, find the government’s hospitality somewhat tempered in the future.