If the Cuban authorities persist in jailing Cuban citizens for criticizing Cuban socialism, they might have to implement a new five-year plan for prison expansion.
I recently spent a week in Cuba. Since the United States embargo against Cuba makes it a criminal offense for Americans to spend money there, I had secured a license from the U.S. Department of the Treasury to travel to Cuba to conduct an informal study of the country’s socialist economic system. I then contacted the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C., and requested a special “fact-finding” visa to conduct an informal study of the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuba. The Cuban authorities issued me the visa and authorized me to interview people on the streets as well as academics employed in “research centers” at the University of Havana.
When I arrived in Havana, tension was in the air. Dissent in Cuba is always dangerous, of course, and the point was being reinforced by the trial of four dissidents who had advocated reform of the Cuban system, especially since portions of the trial were being shown on television. (The four were later sentenced to 3-5 years in prison.)
Nevertheless, perhaps reflecting the desperate economic plight of Cuban citizens, dozens of people on the streets talked candidly with me, as long as they were confident that no one was monitoring our conversation. One thing became startlingly clear: While many of the academics in the Cuban research centers I visited still purport to believe that socialism will ultimately succeed in improving people’s standard of living, the people in the street are disgusted with Cuba’s socialist economic system.
One man, about 35, told me that he could not even afford shoes for his children. When I asked him what he thought about the state’s owning everything and employing just about everyone, he whispered in my ear, “¡Mierda!” ["Shit!"].
A young woman who worked as a museum guide, told me that life is desperate and dreary for her and her little girl. She receives a government salary of 150 pesos a month (approximately $7) to work in the museum every other day. When I asked whether she had another job on her days off, she answered critically: “No, we are not permitted to have two jobs in Cuba and we are often required to perform social service on our free days.”
I asked a taxi driver, who was in his mid 50s, why the buildings in Havana were so dilapidated and appeared as if they had not been painted in 40 years. He paused for a few moments and carefully phrased his answer: “When you are permitted to own your own place, you take care of it. When society owns things, no one takes care of them.”
I asked a 60-year-old retired woman whether she still had hope for the future, and she responded, “I am too old for hope.” I asked another woman, in her early 20s, the same question and she answered: “What can one person do? When the state is the sole employer, resistance means being transferred to a different city. What we need is someone with the courage and spirit that Fidel had 40 years ago to help us. Unfortunately, all of them emigrate to Miami.”
No one in Cuba, except perhaps those at the top of the political hierarchy, can respond in the affirmative when asked, “Are you better off today than you were 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ago?” A society in which people once had a relatively high economic standard of living is today mired in a desperate battle for survival. And Havana, once one of the world’s most beautiful cities, today looks like a ravaged war zone.
Since the basic foodstuffs that the state rations to people are insufficient to live on, people are doing whatever is necessary to survive. One woman who rents a bedroom to tourists under Cuba’s new licensing laws told me that she illegally sells meals to tourists who are not boarders. I met trained engineers who drove taxis to earn tips (in dollars) from tourists. I was told that a Cuban physician is famous for the pastries he sells after work. One woman said that she quit teaching to manage the rental of three bedrooms in her home.
For four decades, the United States embargo (called el bloqueo in Cuba) has only made things worse for the Cuban people. People told me, “Fidel has not been hurt by el bloqueo . It is the Cuban people who have suffered.” I was told that despite Castro’s constant railings against the embargo, it has actually been his biggest asset. Castro has brilliantly outwitted American politicians, people told me, by constantly blaming the embargo and, more recently, the Helms-Burton Act, rather than socialism, for the country’s economic distress. This perception was fortified by hardliners in the research centers I visited, who harped on how successful Cuban socialism would be if it were not for the U.S. embargo and Helms-Burton. One young man said to me, “Lift the embargo so that the people can see that our real problem is socialism.”
Of course, it was always impossible for me to explain why the American people, who proudly proclaim the virtues of economic liberty, nevertheless permit their government to control how they spend their money.
What surprised me most during my trip to Cuba was how Cubans on the street treated me. Every day, I visited with people from all walks of life-waiters, maids, ice-cream vendors, taxi drivers, booksellers, craftsman, museum guides, students, hotel clerks, sales clerks, academics, and many more. To get a better taste of average Cuban life, I ate in paladares (licensed restaurants in people’s homes) and spent one night in a $25-a-night bedroom in an elderly woman’s home.
I had fully expected to be treated rudely and abusively because of what the U.S. embargo and Helms-Burton have done to the Cuban people. I was amazed to discover that it was the exact opposite. I have never encountered people anywhere in the world as friendly and as nice as the Cuban people. I occasionally asked them, “Why are you so courteous to me after what my government has done to you?” Their response was always the same and was revealing: “What fault do you have for what your government does?”
After 40 years, the time has come to end two of the 20th century’s most powerful engines of economic oppression: Cuba’s socialist economic system and the U.S. economic embargo against Cuba. Ending Cuban socialism is the business of the Cuban people. Ending the embargo is ours.