Last year, I spent a week in Cuba with the official permission of the U.S. Treasury Department and the Cuban Interest Section in Washington, D.C. (the diplomatic agency that is “hosting” Elian Gonzales’s father, Juan Miguel Gonzalez). The purpose of my trip was to conduct an informal study of both Cuba’s economic system and the effects of the U.S. embargo on Cuban life. The Cuban authorities arranged official visits for me with various think tanks at the University of Havana and gave me permission to freely interview people on the streets. (I speak Spanish fluently.) The Cuban Interest Section official who prepared my official itinerary even told me that I would find that Cubans were freer than Americans!
I have studied communism and socialism for more than 20 years. I have also traveled extensively throughout Latin America, where government intervention dominates the economic affairs of the citizenry. But I was unprepared for what I encountered in Cuba.
In Cuba, the state effectively owns all the places of employment. All the food-ration stations, service stations, restaurants, radio and television stations, hotels, museums, schools, pharmacies, and clinics. Therefore, practically everyone in Cuba works for the state. Imagine what that means. If a person upsets his employer and loses his job, he is not able to obtain alternative employment because, for all practical purposes, there is none.
This was driven home to me by a young woman who was surreptitiously showing me her national identity card, making fun of it. I asked her why she didn’t express her ridicule more openly, and she replied, “If I resist, the state [her employer] will transfer me to another city on the other side of the country – away from the man I am engaged to marry.”
Another young woman, a law student at the University of Havana, said that her biggest dream in life was to own her own business. When I pointed out to her, “But that’s not legal in Cuba,” she responded, “Yes, I know but there is always hope.”
At an open-air (state-owned) restaurant, a group of (state-employed) musicians was performing for the patrons. When the musicians approached my table, I asked them if they would sing “Abriendo Puertas” (“Opening Doors”), a song made popular by Cuban-American Gloria Estefan. They declined to do so. I later learned that the musicians were not permitted by their employer to sing Estefan’s songs.
My visits with Cubans on the streets confirmed that there is a very real fear for anyone who wishes to display any independence of mind or spirit, a fear not only of losing one’s job but also of landing in jail. Keep in mind that it is a severe criminal offense for anyone to question or criticize Cuba’s political and economic system. During my visit, the point was being emphasized by the criminal trial of several Cuban dissidents, which was being shown on national television on Cuba’s official government version of “Court TV.” (The dissidents later received prison sentences of 3-5 years.)
After the Soviet Union’s subsidies to Cuba were terminated, the Cuban authorities reluctantly began permitting people to engage in a few (licensed) self-employment enterprises. It was fascinating to see how Cubans’ entrepreneurial talents and spirit of independence had surfaced so quickly albeit in a very limited way.
For example, I asked a newly licensed young bookseller at an open-air market, “How do you know how much to charge for your books?” He responded in the finest entrepreneurial fashion, “It is my job to know.” An old woman, about 80, who was selling ice-cream on the streets, told me that she had to pay income taxes at the end of the year on top of her licensing fee of $250 per month. I asked her, “How do they know how much you have earned?” Looking around to make sure no one was listening, she smiled a toothless grin and said, “Yes, how do they know?”
Not surprisingly, my visits with the officials at the state research centers were quite different from my visits with people on the streets. At the think tanks, people (purport to) continue ardently believing in Cuba’s socialist system. When I asked them how they could justify their continued, unwavering faith in socialism in the face of its horrific economic results, their response was to blame Cuba’s economic woes on the U.S. embargo.
After I returned home and published some articles critical of Cuban socialism, the Cuban Interest Section official who had facilitated my visit wrote me a scathing letter stating that I had misled him about the purpose of my visit. Perhaps he was disappointed that I had not discovered that Cubans were in fact freer than Americans. But from the tone of his letter, I have no doubts that if I were to return to Cuba while Castro and his cronies are still in power, I might find myself residing in a Cuban jail because of my critical articles.
It is not difficult to understand the arguments of those who wish to see a father reunited with his son. On the other hand, appreciating the passionate opposition of Cuban-Americans to returning a 6-year-old boy to a communist society requires an insight into a country in which those who fail to conform either don’t eat or end up in prison.
A detailed account of Hornberger’s trip to Cuba, both in English and Spanish, is posted on the Foundation’s website.