- First impressions of La Havana
- A struggle for independence
- American Post-Colonialism
- US-Cuban relations today
- The coming about of the Revolution
- The egalitarian Cuban model
- Studying Cuba is a fascinating experience
Cuba. This trip is different to any other I have done so far. Last time I was backpacking South America and the Caribbean. This time I am here as part of my dissertation research (applying Karl Marx´s theory of history to the Cuban revolution), I have spent the last 6 months studying the history, economics and politics of this country. However, I was convinced that no matter how many books I read, as long as I didn’t come here, talk to people of all ages, get a feeling for this unique country, I would not really know what I am talking/writing about.
What most people come to Cuba for is an image created out of pure marketing reasons by the Cuban government: cigars, rum, mulatto beauties, watersports, adventure, relax on white sandy beaches – in short, everything I do not want to see here.
In the next mails, I will try to summarize the vast amount of impressions that I have been trying to process, and which, especially at the beginning, hasn´t been so easy.
First impressions of La Havana
On the plane I had my first direct experience with a Cuban. I had an 80 year old Cuban who spoke for 10 hours straight to me. Three problems with that: first, my Spanish needs a couple of days to get going. Second, Cuban dialect is extremely fast and sounds like one endless word, as they leave out many consonants (my barrio is called “Vedado” which is pronounced Veao). And third, this nice old man didn’t have any teeth left… I just nodded politely for the entire flight.
At the airport I was picked up by Ramon, a 27 year old Cuban doctor who I got in touch with through a common friend before coming here. We took a cab from the airport to Havana and that’s when the next thing struck me: this stereotypical image of old, American pre-1959 cars is more than a tourist attraction. 50% of the cars are of this kind, 30% Soviet cars, 19% post-1990 Asian cars and 1% European cars. However, there are not many cars, and 9 out of 10 are taxis. This is a result of a policy put forward by the Cuban government in what is referred to as the Special Period, which describes the toughest years of recent Cuban history, namely 1990-1996.
Being deprived of 80% of its imports as a result of the collapse of the Soviet-Union, by and large the most important trading partner of Cuba back then, this country had to turn 180 degrees from one day to the other. In order to ensure maximum mobility for its citizens, a law was passed obliging every car owner to stop and pick up anyone from the street until the car was full. This law is not active today, but the principle is still the same, just that you pay a small amount for the ride and the driver makes a living from it. Driving around in one of this very rudimentary old-timers has been among the best experiences here in Havana, it just seems like a film and is actually by far the best and cheapest way to get from A to B.
A struggle for independence
I will use many references to Cuban history in my news, so I will include history paragraphs every now and then: Cuba was populated by various quite primitive tribes before the Spanish arrived. Even after their arrival, it was basically left to itself until the late 18th century, when the price of sugar rose and the colonizers seized the opportunity to exploit a colony which they thought worthless. Hundreds of thousands of slaves were brought to the island, mostly from Africa.
The Americans also joined the Spanish and started buying land on the island and producing sugar and the other main product, tobacco. Unlike other colonies, slaves could buy their freedom on Cuba leading to an increasingly large amount of free slaves, who started organizing revolts against the sugar and tobacco plantation owners. These were usually ruthlessly killed and examples set for the rest of the population. The white population used draconic measures, as they were afraid of a second Haiti, where a slave revolution took over the island killing many whites in quite atrocious ways (1791).
Then in the second half of the 19th century, several mill owners under the leadership of the omni-present, legendary José Martí, managed to start a large-scale movement against the Spanish. But Latin-American history wouldn´t make sense if the big brother from the north didn’t appear at some point. So there you go: in 1898 the Maine, an American ship in the port of Havana blew up. 200 American casualties. US declares war to Spain. US wins and the treaty of Paris signed handing over Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Cuba (no representative of these country were present) to the United States. Some theories claim, quite convincingly, that the US blew up the ship themselves to pursue their geopolitical goals.
In 1902, Cuba became a republic adopting its first constitution, which was drafted by the US and imposed on the island. The most notorious feature of this constitution was the so called Platt-Amendment, which stated among others:
- Cuba has to import most of its products from the US at world market prices
- The US can intervene militarily at any time if Cuba´s sovereignty is in danger (ironic, huh?)
- And the US is handed over Guantanamo Bay. Needless to say, again to protect Cuba´s sovereignty
What followed were 57 years of post-colonial exploitation. Immediately after the War of Independence, with the country still in tatters, US businesses bought vast amounts of land. Already by 1918, 38% of the entire Cuban harvest was pocketed by US investors. Moreover, the entire infrastructure was appropriated by the US: banks, railways, telecommunications, etc. The classic US-imperialistic model which proved so successful in more than a dozen Latin-American countries was applied: install a small local elite, spoil them with all the luxuries of the Western world and prevent anyone who even dares acting against US economic interests from stepping onto the scene.
This worked in Honduras, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Costa Rica, etc. So the presidents were all very favourable, the US kept reaping the profits while a vast landless, extremely poor majority of Cubans lived under unbearable, slave-like conditions.
US-Cuban relations today
As you can tell from the previous chapter, US-Cuban relations have been complicated from the outset. After the post-colonialism described above, the US tried everything it coud to overthrow the Castro government.
- It allegedly tried to kill or hurt Castro in 672 ways (poisoned cigars, bombs, LSD attack in radio studio, straight-forward assassination, etc.)
- It initiated “Operation Mongoose” in 1961, which carried out more than 5000 attacks on Cuba in the 1960s (burning of farms and factories, acts of sabotage, terroristic attacks, kidnappings, etc.)
- The CIA trained and equipped 1300 exile Cubans who tried to invade Cuba at the Bay of Pigs in 1961
- It forced the Organization of American States (OAS) to expel Cuba from the organization in 1962
- It imposed a trade embargo which cost the Cuban government an estimated 60 billion dollars, has been condemned by UN resolutions for 15 consecutive years, but is still in force today
And why was all of this done? To secure American economic interests on the island and after this failed, to punish Cuba for resisting this immense pressure.
I am personally very interested in the development of this controversial relationship, as I see it as one of the key leavers to induce positive change in Cuba. As you can imagine, I expected Cubans to be strongly opposed to anything American. However, the exact opposite is the case. From food (pizza, burgers, fast food), to clothes (jeans and basketball jerseys), to language (queik for cake, uofside for offside, etc.), Cubans love the Yankees!
Long gone are the times when Castro referred to Americans as “gusanos” (worms), nowadays remittances from the US are one of the main source of hard currency and every Cuban I talked to wishes to visit if not live in the States.
Under Obama, some restrictions have been eased: there are daily flights for emigrants and some sort of academic exchange. Nevertheless, the trade embargo is still active, the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF), a lobby with strong financial backing, keeps pushing through anti-Cuban legislation, although the majority of American-Cubans has never witnessed the days of the revolution and would love to be reunited with their families for good.
Also, under American law, a person travelling to Cuba (even via Canada or Mexico), is committing a crime and punishable with up to 10 years in jail.
The coming about of the Revolution
Two days before the Cuban elections in 1953, Fulgencio Batista (who had already been president once before, and had implemented quite good policies), staged a coup and imposed a dictatorship, banning any sort of opposition. A young lawyer, Fidel Castro, who was about to run for parliament, saw this as the signal that change could not have been achieved from within the system: in a naïve, suicidal attempt to overthrow the government, Castro along with 150 other people stormed the Moncada barracks near Santiago the Cuba. The majority was killed immediately or soon after, Castro somehow managed to survive, was trialed and sentenced to 15 years, defended himself (“It does not matter what happens to me today, history will absolve me”), but released after 2 years in an attempt by Batista to get more popular support.
Castro went into exile to Mexico, where he met another familiar character, Ernesto “Che” Guevara. In 1956, along with around 80 other fighters, they took off on a shabby boat and crossed to Cuba. The idea was to arrive after less than a day, while urban revolutionaries would be staging a general strike and insurrections in the city. Well, that didn’t work. The urban ring leaders were arrested before while Castro and his boat got into a storm, losing weapons, food and 3 days. By the time the boat was approaching Cuba, Batista and his men were already waiting with machine guns pointed at them.
Out of more than 80, only 12 survived, escaping into mangroves. They managed to gather up in the mountains of the Sierra Maestra and started gaining support from local farmers. There tactic was quite ingenious: guerilla warfare, recruitment from disgruntled local farmers, creating international awareness, connecting and uniting the many strands of urban resistance and lastly showing mercy with soldiers: all captured soldiers were sent back to the army unscathed.
By the end of 1958, Batista had lost popular support and more importantly the army, his power´s backbone, withdrew its support. On new year´s eve 1958/59 he fled the island and Castro started his 7 days march across the island. When he arrived in Havana, this 6.5 foot tall, bearded guerilla fighter was welcomed by a cheering population, and after a white dove sat down on his shoulder during his first mass speech the path was set: Castro was a deity.
The egalitarian Cuban model
Since I started studying Cuba, and especially since I came here, I am constantly confronted with a simple question: does Western democracy make sense?
I will not start a theoretical debate here. Rather, I would like to focus on the average shape democracy has taken in the Western hemisphere, extract some common characteristics and see to which extend it actually improves people´s lives.
In our democracies, politicians are mostly pushed by one thought: re-election. Despite philanthropic and idealist rhetoric, what drives the vast majority of politicians is: personal economic enrichment and rising the latter of power. This leads to policies being opportunistic, directed at securing as large a share of votes as possible. The impact of these policies, their long-term value, is secondary.
And now I am in Cuba. According to my knowledge, this is the only country, where the leaders were driven by actually improving the life of the worst off as much as possible as quick as possible. Well not the only one where this has been attempted, but the only one where this has proven fairly successful for over half a century.
I have been to many developing countries. And Cuba is by far the one with the highest quality of life. All basics are met:
- education free of charge for everyone including university
- free healthcare for everyone, including dental care, preventive treatments, physiotherapy etc.
- highly subsidized food through a rationing card, which is nothing fancy, but covers the basic nutritional needs of every citizen
- highly subsidized rents, which are never allowed to exceed 10% of the income
- very low level of racism
- hardly any crime (I feel as safe as in Munich, true story…)
- equal opportunities for women
- basic urban mobility, with a bus ticket costing 0.02$
- sport education from young age with free facilities everywhere
- highly subsidized cultural events, from cinema, to theatre to ballet and of course books (a book is around 0.08$)
And now think that all of this has happened in an underdeveloped country, despite US aggressions and is still guaranteed after the fall of the Soviet Union.
So how is this possible? In my view it is a combination of two features of this state: one-party state and socially conscious, altruistic leadership. This is not to say that I support one-party states, I definitely do not. It is just to show how a hand of politicians, with the right intentions and not subject to frequent elections, managed to push through policies that have not been seen anywhere else in the world and at the end of the day ensure a high level of social equality and a basic standard of living.
Studying Cuba is a fascinating experience
So this was an intro to my research trip to Cuba. I know it is very different to how I usually write which is mainly because I am not travelling around or doing a lot of sightseeing here. I am spending my days reading, writing and walking around different neighborhoods trying to get to know people and talk to them about Cuba.
I have a lot of interesting insights, especially with regards to the state today, which I will write about in the next mail. Studying Cuba is a fascinating experience. I am confronted with morally just ideals put into practice, a state trying to fix socialism with capitalism, propaganda, control and a one-party state, a politicized people, etc. It will take me a few more days to order all these thoughts and write them down.
Also, today the Annual Conference on Cuban Research at the Universidad de la Habana starts, which I am invited to and the programme of which sounds very interesting. I will basically be meeting the people who wrote the books I am studying. Quite excited about that.
Now you will probably expect me to finish off with a “Viva la Revolucion, Viva Fidel, etc.” but the reason I started off with many positive aspects of this country is that I want to get people thinking. There are many problems here and I will discuss and analyze them, nevertheless, Cuba is far from the stereotypical image which is made of it and I wanted to present its bright side in the first mail.
Next email will come quite soon. I hope you enjoyed it.