New Internationalist 354 March 2003
Havana molders. The thin balconies above Old Havana's streets are deeply stained and crumbling. The same is true of the city center and virtually everywhere else. An estimated 300 buildings fall each year in Havana. They become open-air parking lots and gardens. The colonial and neoclassical architectural heritage of this grand city is literally eroding. The famed Malecon Boulevard traces a graceful arc at the entrance to Havana's harbor but the faded pastel facades of its fine buildings facing the sea are pocked and exfoliated. The sea wall protecting the wide promenade is blasted open at points. Nothing, it seems, can be repaired, as the foibles of aging concrete outpace the money needed for restoration.
Cuba lives. Into the narrow streets of Old Havana hip-hop music blasts through open windows while fiberglass-patched 1950s Chevrolets cruise slowly beside horse-drawn carts with people of every age and hue coming, going, waiting. It is as if the people are floating in a kind of timelessness, somewhere between 1959 and the present. This city and this country are indeed suspended, halfway between the Revolution and capitalist globalization.
Cubans endure. Surviving the dissolution of the Soviet system has been a heavy burden. Fidel Castro calls it a 'special period' and he exhorts Cubans to shoulder the shortages, to brace themselves against declining sugar prices, to share the physical and psychological isolation, to shore up the eroding gains of the Cuban Revolution. 'Socialismo o muerte' ('Socialism or death') a billboard proclaims. But as the growing 'dollar economy' puts most manufactured goods beyond the reach of ordinary Cubans and they are excluded from the best hotels, bars and beaches, one gets the nagging impression that the Revolution is becoming a mere series of slogans.
While Cubans today have less earning power than they did prior to the loss of Soviet aid in 1989, they have rebounded from the severe shortages and austere rationing of the early 1990s. In the first five years after the cut-off of Russian aid, the economy contracted by a third. Though food rationing staved off even worse nutritional and public-health calamity, Cuban caloric intake also fell by a third or more.
At the same time the US tightened its economic embargo. Both the 1992 Cuban Democracy Act and the 1996 Helms-Burton Act were designed to prevent the international banking and business community from doing business with the island. It was a calculated, callous attempt to undermine Castro and the Cuban Government, essentially bludgeoning the Cubans to the point where the country would become ungovernable. The consequences of this hardened policy were noted by an independent group of physicians and health workers in 1997. After a year-long investigation, the American Association for World Health concluded that 'the US embargo has dramatically harmed the health and nutrition of large numbers of ordinary Cuban citizens... and has caused a significant rise in suffering and even deaths in Cuba.' As recently as November 2002, a UN vote overwhelmingly denounced the embargo as a violation of international law and the UN Charter. Only Israel and the Marshall Islands supported the US embargo.
It is difficult to overestimate the insidious impact of a sustained policy to isolate and punish a small, poor nation like Cuba. Since the fall of the Soviet Union more than a decade ago, the US has systematically undermined Cuban efforts to obtain new financial and commercial support to replace Soviet aid. Daily life, in turn, has become a struggle to obtain basic commodities. In an average household in Havana there is no toilet paper and little running water most days. The electricity often shuts down. One smells sewage on many blocks. In 2001 dozens in Havana were infected with dengue fever and television ads now exhort children and adults to be wary of mosquitoes and to cover standing water. Given these onerous living conditions, it is understandable that growing numbers of Cubans are tiring of Castro's attacks on capitalism and the US.
At the moment signs of discontent and resistance can't be openly expressed. The struggle to make ends meet, the dearth of economic opportunity and the Government's constant exhortation to forbearance and greater sacrifice have given birth to a moral lassitude that may well confound future government efforts to regulate market forces. Prostitution has returned to the Malecon. It is yet another source of livelihood that Cuban authorities choose to ignore, perhaps because such sexual opportunities are also an attraction to foreigners with dollars. Residents speak of young girls consorting with aging foreign men for the opportunity to dine in restaurants and buy clothes - or perhaps to marry and go abroad. While one can still walk Havana's streets at night, tourists need to be alert to thieves. Near the tourist zone foreigners are hustled by touts selling black-market cigars. The US dollar, legal tender since the early 1990s with a value 25 times greater than the Cuban peso, is fueling black-market activity and pushing up prices. Since the average salary is equivalent to $8 a month, virtually all Cubans participate in a nominally illegal black market.
Unfortunately, such conditions have turned the island into a kind of theatre of the absurd. In the prodigious struggle to make ends meet great irony and tragicomedy attend daily life. In a small town in the central province of Las Villas, about four hours east of Havana, a man reported a horse stolen to the local authorities. The police investigated and fined the owner of the horse for not being more vigilant. In the same town a young man with a pregnant wife is working off three years of hard labor at $5 a month, macheteing puckerbrush in fields no longer used. His crime? The possession of a weapon - the pellet gun he inherited from his deceased stepfather.
This warping of reality extends beyond the local and the individual. In recent years physicians have stopped diagnosing certain illnesses because there are not enough resources to treat the patients. What good is universal healthcare, goes a typical conversation, if the clinics and hospitals lack resources as basic as sutures, tape and antibiotics? Of what value is a free education if there are no opportunities to practise a profession after training?
In these turbulent times the Cuban authorities have little space to negotiate the nation's way in the globalizing economy. A post-11 September drop in remittances, the devastation wrought by Hurricane Michelle and low export prices have tightened the economic noose. In addition, the sugar harvest is about half what it was in the 1980s and dozens of sugar mills will close as a result. The island's main exports - nickel, sugar and its famous cigars - are suffering low prices. To worsen the economic plight, tourism tailed off in 2001 and 2002. And Cuba carries a national debt of $12 billion, not including the estimated $20 billion it owes the former Soviet Union.
But the world cannot allow Cuba to implode economically the way many former Soviet states have. Castro's revolutionary claims may seem hollow to many Cubans and outsiders, but in a world riven by great inequities Cuba has shown that socioeconomic equality and improved lives can happen simultaneously. Indeed Cubans appear healthy and adequately nourished. The State still provides milk to children under five and liberal maternity leave. The infant-mortality rate is equal to that of the US. By any basic living-standard or quality-of-life measurement, Cuba is leagues ahead of most developing nations. Recently UNESCO cited Cuba for some of the highest achievements on international tests administered to school-age children. In mathematics and language achievement many Cuban elementary students scored higher than their counterparts in the US, Europe and Japan.
Unfortunately many political analysts dismiss Cuba as a model for the Majority World. They point to the human-rights record of the regime and see one-party rule as an indication that 'socialist planning' leads inevitably to totalitarianism. It is true that the Castro administration has countenanced injustices in the name of the Revolution. But the country's political evolution since 1959 is not an unambiguous march toward a government of absolute power. People across the island - in every hamlet and city - have benefited from the changes that the Cuban Revolution made possible. In addition Cuba's social progress represents a concrete counterweight to 'terrorism'. Socioeconomic progress, pursued as equitably as Cuba has since 1959, is the only basis on which democracy and civil liberties in the developing world can be achieved. Freedom from hunger and poverty are the essential human rights on which all civil liberties are built - democracy means very little when infant mortality is high, disease rampant and poverty endemic.
While an end to the US embargo is the sine qua non of Cuban economic recovery, it is equally clear that 'free trade' and market economics do not have enough safeguards to protect the interests of the poor. Without vigilant regulation of private corporations, Cubans would suffer in the way that poor farmers in Chiapas, Mexico, did when the North American Free Trade Agreement allowed cheaper US corn to displace the livelihoods of whole Mexican communities. For example, Old Havana with its colonial architecture and beautiful, historic plazas is one of the most densely populated areas of the city. Its balconied facades lead into overcrowded rooms and flats where there is often not enough water or electricity. But limited as these amenities may be, they would be far beyond the reach of the majority of Old Havana's residents if, as has recently happened throughout Latin America, an infusion of foreign capital led to the privatization of services.
As Cuba reintegrates more fully into the global economy, it must not follow the prescribed route of the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank, whose privatization schemes have undermined living standards of the poor throughout the world. If the American embargo is completely breached by the US business community, as it appears that it may be in the next few years, Cuba will need to articulate carefully the massive direct-investment potential that would become available to it. At that point it is to be hoped that the Cuban Government will use its partnership with private sources of capital to shore up the important gains in healthcare and education - the very model of development needed by more than half of the world's people.
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