Havana: The Castros Will Not Be Absolved

"Cuba is decaying at a scandalous pace, physically and morally. The social capital of civil values and mutual trust has evaporated and hatred is taking hold"

Baracoa is what travel books call a “quaint historical town”. Historical it is indeed. Baracoa was the first settlement here, founded as long ago as 1512 near the Eastern tip of Cuba. Quaint it isn’t at all, though, coming close to a slum, admittedly in the midst of a lush tropical jungle with gorgeous views of the table mountain and the bay. Casting a melancholic glance over the calm waters, some days after the Haitian nightmare, one couldn’t help pondering: what if a similar earthquake struck here, no more than 40 miles away from Port-au-Prince? Or a much stronger one, like the one that just now hit Chile? How would this poor place fare?

The car’s the star in Cuba: If it’s broken, you have to fix it, even though it’s illegal to do so (AFP/Getty Images) 

Chile was lucky in that its epicentre was not in densely populated areas, which explains why the death toll was relatively low. But there is more to Chile’s better fate than pure chance. Chile today is a stable and modern country with a functioning government. It has more solid buildings than easily crumbling shacks, and its average per capita income is the highest in Latin America. The situation may be out of hand for a while, but anarchy isn’t around the corner. Haiti, the least developed nation in the Americas, is quite different. Not only has government become entirely dysfunctional, even the most elementary notions of human civilisation seem to have dissolved after the catastrophe. Brutal survival instincts were unleashed. The shocking violence was a consequence of a long record of kleptocratic dictatorships, social chaos and poverty, all eroding morality. In all respects, Haiti is a failed state. 

What about Cuba, then? Frankly, Cuba would fare even worse in the case of a severe earthquake. It would undoubtedly lapse back into another Hobbesian “state of nature”, where the life of man “is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. Right now, the helpless Cuban population is stuck in the choking hands of their socialist Leviathan named Castro (Fidel or Rául, it makes no difference). People are unfree and miserable, and they are painfully aware of it. Government is arbitrary. Human rights don’t count, as the recent death after a hunger strike of imprisoned dissident Orlando Zapata Tamayo demonstrated. In the speculative case that a natural catastrophe occurred here, too fast for the vigilant authorities to react, the derelict homes would crumble no slower than in Haiti, killing thousands of people. And that first catastrophe would imply a second one: it would push society to its tipping point. We would witness anarchy and violence of the most venomous kind. It would be the final step in an ongoing tragedy: the euthanasia of Cuban society. 

Life is already “nasty and brutish” here. Cuba is decaying at a scandalous pace, physically and morally. The social capital of civil values and mutual trust has evaporated and hatred is taking hold. It has become normal to cheat, trick, lie and steal — from each other and from the government. Neighbours, friends and family spy on, blackmail and denounce each other. Solidarity and civil courage have fallen into oblivion. No one dares to move when two men beat up a peaceful drunk in the crowded Parque Cespedes in Santiago. There is a good reason for this inaction: one attacker is a police officer, the other one probably from the Comité de Defensa de la Revolución, a neighbourhood control cell, or the secret police. The victim is left on the ground, crying. This artificial, horrifying edifice of “public order” insured by terror would break down should a natural catastrophe incapacitate the state. As well as scrambling for survival, Cubans would begin settling accounts with each other. In the ensuing abyss of violence, as well as being “solitary, poor, nasty and brutish”, Cuban lives would also become short.

A decade ago, people were already critical and rebellious, but they still had some admirable energy, charisma and curiosity. That spirit has evaporated, gone with the unsuccessful years that have passed, gone with the hopes of betterment. Cubans look as grey, exhausted and unhappy as the Czechs did at the end of the Eighties: no smiles, no politeness, either towards strangers or fellow Cubans. There aren’t even any spontaneous concerts in the streets any more. Everything that is public now means the State, means dollars and has become unaffordable. The government has crowded out most private undertakings. Every interaction with locals now comes in commercial terms. With an empty expression on their faces, people look out for full wallets. The only escape from being approached is a discourtesy one has to force upon oneself. “Where do you come from?” is the standard opening to a conversation in order to sell something beyond value or to beg for a gift. How can one tell the difference? If the person says, “I don’t want money from you”, the reverse is true. Far from taming greed, socialism has turned Cuba into a desperately materialistic society. 

“It’s an outrage that one stubborn old man with a beard and his brother can efficiently deprive 11 million people of the opportunity to live a decent life,” cries out my old friend from Havana — let’s call him Juan. Havana’s old town has been a Unesco World Heritage Site since 1982, with money flowing in to prevent the dilapidated historical buildings from collapsing even without an earthquake. The area around the Plaza Vieja has been restored and looks so picturesque that one could almost forget that, only a block away, Havana displays the dismal features of a stinking, crumbling dump. Juan’s mother still believes in socialism. She even displays the collected writings of Kim Il-Sung, the late North Korean despot, on the shelf in her living room. “It’s too late for her to change her mind,” explains Juan. But he himself is very clear and frighteningly outspoken. He worries about his young son: “How can I let him grow up here?” If he didn’t have to look after his parents, he would leave. His siblings have already gone. 

Most families are similarly incomplete. Since the revolution, almost one million people have turned their backs on the island. Even though Fidel Castro preferred to have the discontented leave and send money home, travel is not free. “Wild” emigration is already limited by nature. People are imprisoned by an ocean that serves as a low-maintenance wall. But in order to leave the country legally, for a single or return trip, residents must first request permission. Without a clean record with the secret police, the answer is negative. If positive, permission can take weeks, months or years. 

Without the expatriates sending money home, Cubans would have starved long ago. The cause is the dramatically inefficient economic system, and the embargo hasn’t helped. Like all socialist countries, Cuba provides few individual work incentives. Private property is suppressed. The only titles of property that exist in Cuba are inherited ones — probably a concession to the fact that at the outset, the revolution was not meant to be socialist. The socialist constitution was introduced only in 1976, mainly as a product of the Cold War. 

Juan owns a flat. His father passed the property on to him. If he had been a little luckier, it would have been one of the heritage buildings with 40ft-high walls. He could then add a floor, double the space and rent it out. That would make him a capitalist. But he isn’t so lucky. The odd property rule explains the multitude of vintage cars in Cuba, all miraculously sustained in fairly good shape. If your inherited car falls to pieces, you will not get a new one, so you’d better learn to repair it, even though that’s illegal. 

Juan’s father is recovering from surgery in a Havana hospital where the sanitary conditions are horrifying. Juan takes him food, drink and medication. But surgery, like all public services, is free of charge — a fact that Cubans repeat, trying hard to persuade themselves that their system is not so unbearable after all, ignoring the simple truth that what costs nothing is worth nothing. The hospitals are yearning for technical equipment and staff. Yet well-trained doctors have been sent to Venezuela, together with military experts and schoolteachers, in a trade for oil and gas. It is better to avoid being ill. 

The stream of emigration has drained the country of the well-educated entrepreneurial classes, and it has sown the seeds of social rupture. In a Marxist sense, Cuba has turned into a truly socialist nation, consisting mainly of poorly-educated workers and peasants. There are still intellectual elites, many of them dissident, some of them dissident in theory but owned by the secret services in practice, and others brainwashed. But the middle class in between, the backbone of every society, is now missing. A further strain comes from the division of society into those who get money from relatives abroad and those who don’t. Ironically, socialist Cuba is a society of unequals and of unequal opportunity. Private initiative is discouraged, merit doesn’t matter. A young girl from Morón, an eight-hour train ride from Havana, sums it up bitterly: “We can work ourselves to death and we will never get anywhere.” If you do, it is with regular cheques from relatives abroad.

In the streets of Havana, Trinidad or Santiago, one can admire plenty of these subsidised nouveaux-riches in glittering T-shirts, brand-name jeans and sunglasses. Some of them venture out into state-run restaurants where they dine for twice the price of the average monthly salary, £15. Their showing-off comes with proto-colonial disdain for the waiters. Privileged as they are, they live in a shockingly different universe from those factory workers who earn their few pesos in places such as Moa, near the Eastern tip of the island, for example, where nickel is processed, poisoning their lungs forever. They also live in another world from the multitude of poor peasants who spend their days in flea-ridden shacks in the countryside, more or less employed as workers in stunningly archaic and inefficient kolhoz-style “agricultural co-operatives”. With its fertile soil and generous climate, this lovely Caribbean island could be rich. If it had more appropriate agricultural structures, Cuba could easily feed its population and earn more from exports. But the co-operatives, together with an inefficient and deeply corrupted system of central allocation, make nothing of nature’s generous endowment. Food needs to be imported, even from the US.

Theoretically, economic and political systems can be mended. But what about society? How to restore the values of Western civilisation? How to re-establish honesty, civility, courage, responsibility, morality, solidarity, trust? In Cuba, they have vanished, and it is hard to see how they could be retrieved. Hardly anybody behaves according to a higher moral imperative or a simple sense of honour — except, perhaps, people in the not-so-quaint Baracoa, remote, isolated and protected by a high chain of mountains, the Sierra de Guantánamo. It is here that a unique miracle occurs: when offered a propina, a tip, the attendant at the petrol station indignantly shakes his head and then smiles — filling up our tank is his job and his honour. Rather than a real glimmer of hope, however, this anecdote probably isn’t more than an exception that confirms the tragic rule. It will take centuries to rebuild social capital in Cuba, if at all. 

“History will absolve me,” said Fidel Castro in his famous defence speech after his first attempt at a revolution in 1953. He was wrong. Cuba is a dramatically failed political experiment. And it is hard to see how the verdict of history on the fatal conceit of his revolución could be anything but devastating.

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