For anyone who lives outside the United States, a trip to Cuba is no different than a trip to any Caribbean country like Jamaica, Aruba, etc. For those living in the U.S., this has not been the case. Three years ago the Obama administration made it a little easier, but travel to Cuba still involves a lengthy and costly procedure. First, one has to find a tour company that has an ” umbrella ” license from the U.S. Treasury Dept. for educational and cultural trips to Cuba. At a cost of anywhere from $300 or more per week, on top of the round-trip airfare, you get the “privilege ” to travel to Cuba. Once you are in Cuba, the U.S. government demands that you stay in “approved” (more expensive) hotels that have arrangements with the tour agencies and you are expected to participate in all the officially sanctioned programs of the tour group. The U.S. government calls this a “people-to-people exchange,” however, as with most representations presented by the U.S. government, what they say and what they do or try to do are opposites. The REAL intended effect of the above restrictions is to LIMIT contact between U.S. visitors and the Cuban people. Finally, when people return to the U.S., they are not allowed to bring anything with them from Cuba except “items of communication,” like: books, CD’s, DVD’s, paintings and posters.
When one arrives in Cuba, a first noticeable difference emerges on the 5-mile ride into Havana from the airport. One begins to see billboards within a few minutes on the road, but unlike the U.S. and other places I have been in lesser-developed countries (Mexico, Jamaica and Brazil), they are not for Coca-Cola, cell phone companies, and condom advertisements. Instead, one sees billboards with revolutionary slogans with pictures of Che Guevera, Camilo Cienfuegos, and the Cuban Five imprisoned in Florida. This is when it hit me that I was actually in Cuba.
My trip was under the educational auspices of a conference at the University of Havana, and was put on by an organization called ” Global Justice.” The theme of the conference was, “Socialist Renovation and Capitalist Crisis.” The conference had attendees and presenters from both Cuba and the U.S. Most were academics, but in addition to myself–a Carpenter by profession–there was a baker from the San Francisco Bay area. Much of the conference centered on problems in the U.S. and responses to these problems, like the Occupy Movement. In one case, the baker from San Francisco gave a presentation about the successful cooperative he has been a member of for almost 40 years; they started with 5 people and now have 53 members.
Presentations from the Cubans focused on the problems they have faced due to the U.S. embargo, their successes and failures in the economy past and present, and ideas about the future restructuring of the economy. The topic of converting state-owned enterprises into worker-owned cooperatives was repeatedly discussed, with emphasis on topics including agriculture, construction, retail, and hotels/restaurants/bars and nightclubs. There was also the very contentious topic of allowing Cuban-owned, small private enterprises to begin operation and hire employees. This was a very hotly debated issue, since this would begin the process of worker exploitation. Currently, the only private enterprises allowed in Cuba are individuals/family rented rooms for foreign visitors (Casas Particulares), individuals/family run restaurants (located inside their homes), individuals who use their vehicles for taxis, and street vendors–everything else is owned and operated by the State, even most restaurants and bars. Some idea of the significance of this issue emerges in looking at the man who drove me from the airport to my hotel. The driver shared that he had been an engineer who worked for the Cuban government, but now drives his own taxi because he earns five to ten times as much as in his previous engineering job.
There are problems, in particular the general condition of housing and infrastructure in Havana. But Cuba has a much higher standard of living than any of the neighboring countries in the Caribbean and Latin America, particularly Haiti and Honduras. Its main economic revenue comes from tourism, tobacco, and sugar. Recent years have brought significant advances in alternative energy (wind, solar and hydroelectric) for both domestic use and export. The overall economy has grown in the last two to three years, including a 24% increase in tourism. Ironically though, the tourism infrastructure has been barely able to keep pace.
While in Cuba, I wondered if they really need the U.S. for anything. They already have economic relationships with Europe, Latin America, China and Japan. I was told that ending the embargo would result in cheaper food prices, and that some medicines with US patents and a larger variety of other products would become available as long as there were no political and economic “strings” attached. Of course, if U.S. corporations were allowed into Cuba with no restrictions, how long would it be before the IMF and World Bank would begin to move in? If that happened it would only be a matter of time before they would try to privatize everything and the Cuban people would lose their free health care and educational system. This type of upheaval is devastating.
My wife’s cousin experienced first-hand what a total transformation from a state-run economy to a capitalist economy is like. In Poland in the early 1990s, almost overnight, half the citizenry lost their jobs, rents doubled and food prices tripled. This has since been termed the “shock therapy.” In Russia, the shock therapy put in place with the cooperation of Communist Party government officials led to individuals becoming very rich via bribes and kickbacks while the populace suffered. Several Cuban presenters at a conference I attended spoke of this and stated emphatically that current Cuban government officials have said they will under no circumstances allow this to happen. I hope this is true.
Not only is Cuba fascinating and its people engaging and friendly, but it has something very special about it that is difficult to describe. Although I was only there for seven days, I saw that what I had been told about Cuba all my life via the U.S. government and the corporate media was an absolute and total LIE! I hope that the Cuban people are able to keep the best of what they have while they address their problems. Today Cuba is in transition. The next five years or so will be interesting as to how, and to what extent, Cuba changes for the worse or the better. I am both worried and hopeful, as probably are many Cubans themselves, for their future.