CUBA A MIRROR OF DYSTOPIA: Excerpt from ZEN IN A SUITCASE by Namaya

I am grateful that the USA finally is lifting the embargo on Cuba. Bravo to Obama for having the courage to do this. Now I am waiting for the prison camp in Guantanamo to close. Here is an an article I had written on Cuba in 2011!

Cuba a Mirror of Dystopia
Cuba is a dystopia, a poor egalitarian society that valiantly clings to the tattered dreams of a Marxist revolution while courting private capitalism and catering to tourism to save the dream. In the twilight hours of the Castro rule, I was able to visit Cuba and witness the aspirations, the merits, and the reality of this country. From this vantage point, I could also see the successes and shortcomings of Western capitalism.
I flew into the Bahamas airport, where a young Cuban woman from Havana Tours processes visas and documents for Cuba at a glacial pace, reminiscent of customer service in the Soviet Union. The plane I boarded to Cuba, a relic of the Soviet era, looked like it could have been a troop ship transporting soldiers to Angola; it rattles and shakes almost violently, protesting the notion of flight. The bathroom was an open metal pit on the floor – does the waste flush out to the open sky? The interior metal looked like it had been made in a local machine shop. Most passengers nervously took photos of the plane saying out loud they hoped they would live to share them. I was trying to recall any prayer from any religion that I could invoke, to guarantee safe passage. I had long ago vowed not to fly on Aeroflot because of their safety record, yet here I was on Aeroflot plane that was at least fifty years old. The seatbelts were difficult to open and close. I wondered which option would be safer: forgo the seatbelt, or take the chance that if we crashed I wouldn’t be able to get out. I opted to leave the seatbelt unbuckled, and I looked around nervously for the nearest exit: It was the same way I had come in, through the tail of the plane. If we were to crash, there was no hope and, at best, I would tumble out of the rectum of the plane. What an inglorious end! It was a nerve-wracking, three-hour, three-hundred-mile flight in a prop plane that was more than fifty years old, and I was most grateful to land.
With sublime weather, forests and verdant mountains surrounded by ocean, and the largest ecological preserve of the entire Caribbean; Cuba is a tropical paradise despite the centuries of colonialism. oAs we drove into Havana from the Jose Marti airport, the traffic was sparse and a handful of vintage American cars from the l950s–Buicks, Fords, and Chevys–plied the roads. Small trucks are used as jitneys–hoards of people jump on them, and every person is helped on board by the other passengers. People guardedly look at us in our private taxi with the longing of a hungry child at the door of a bakery. It was as if the world had stopped in the late l950s, at the time of the revolution when Fidel seized power from the dictator Batista. Cuba has the fewest cars of any Latin American country, but the aging trucks and autos that make up the vehicle population belch heavy dark fumes. Every avenue has long lines of people standing on the curbside, waiting for buses or other forms of public transportation. The new Chinese buses are a welcome change from the old diesel monsters that used to lumber along the main avenues. There are rickety bicycle-powered rickshaws and yellow banana shaped contraptions for tourists. Also, with the nascent opening of private business, taxis are available at Western prices.
The memories and icons of the Cuban Revolution abound. The Plaza De Revolution one of the world’s largest plazas, with a monument to Jose Marti the father of the Cuban Independence, is to our left as we drive into the city. Adorning the front of the Ministry of the Interior is a two story iconic picture of Che Guevara, who famously signed off his last letter to Fidel Castro with the words, “Hasta la victoria siempre” (Forever, until victory). Che died in 1967 but his image is omnipresent on everything from T-shirts to public buildings, and represents a youth and an idealism that has long since vanished from the revolution.
Havana is a living history book, with buildings and plazas dating back to the 1500’s. In the downtown area many structures have been restored, but the majority of the old city is filled with decaying and abandoned buildings. Though old Havana at first glance has a lovely charm, like any colonial city, it’s impossible to escape the painful knowledge that it was built by slaves, indentured servants, and Taino Indians, who were slaughtered, enslaved, or wiped out by disease. While there is a justified obeisance for the Holocaust, there is no memorial for the genocide of indigenous populations here or elsewhere in the Caribbean or the Americas. I cannot think of the Spanish occupation of Havana and feel any sense of wistfulness for the Spaniards. I cringe as I read the name of one street, Calle Inquisador (Street of the Inquisition), and recall the barbaric Inquisition during which innocent people were burned alive at the stake. The Spanish and US occupation of Cuba was a rape by the rich for the rich; in other words, quintessential colonialism/ capitalism. I can understand why Fidel has such an allergy to capitalism. In the l959 Cuban Revolution most of the farms, mines, and infrastructure were owned by American companies, and within a few years all had been nationalized. However, capitalism is creeping back. In the Plaza Viejo, in the heart of the old city, a United Benetton store will open soon, and the chic clothing store, Paul Shark, sits on the south side of the plaza. While there are models of successful democratic socialist countries that are viable, such as Sweden, Cuba, unfortunately, is not one. The Cuban political system, despite its merits, is a sclerotic monument to a beautiful ideal.
Cubans I’ve met abroad are gregarious and animated, but here they are subdued, when the conversation turns to politics or economics, whether the conversation is in Spanish or English. Ironically, the most candid political conversation I had with a Cuban was in Frenchand conversations that veer even remotely towards politics are met with bewilderment. I wanted to talk to writers, poets, and artists, but speaking out against the state, or questioning it, will cost you years in jail.
According to the 2010 Amnesty International Report on Cuba:

Freedom of expression continued to be severely restricted. All mass media and the internet remained under state control. The authorities continued to block access to the websites of bloggers and journalists critical of the government. Criminal charges such as “dangerousness” continued to be used to restrict dissidents from exercising freedom of expression, association and assembly. Independent journalists and bloggers faced harassment. Some were threatened with criminal prosecution and a number were detained.

While this policy is severe, the United States’ human rights record also leaves much to be desired. Consider Jose Padilla, a US citizen imprisoned for five years without charges; the host of human rights abuses by the “rendition program,” the detention program at Guantánamo; and the fact that seventy percent of the US prison population is Black or Hispanic.
Cuba is a country of paradox. The majority of Cubans receive a tiny fixed income from the state, barely enough to survive, but everyone manages to get by. Cuba has free healthcare and an infant mortality rate better than that of the US which is ranked 33rd even though medical doctors in Cuba earn only about $28 a month. Cuba provides more doctors and medical workers to third world countries than does any other country, and it has the largest contingent of foreign medical workers in Haiti. Operation Milagros (the Miracle Operation) provides free eye care for all of South America; their goal is to reverse blindness and vision loss for 6 million people in Latin America and the Caribbean by 2016. There is free education for all and Cuba enjoys one of the highest literacy rates in the world, but there is no free press and very limited internet access. The US is 22nd in world literacy and Cuba is second. Though poor, Cuba has one of the lowest income disparities in the world. Because it is an autocratic police state, there is no drug problem and no drug trafficking, and there are no urban street gangs. Possessing a marijuanajoint will get you a twenty year prison sentence. Though people are poor, everyone has a home. Though food is too often scarce, everyone eats. The healthcare system doesn’t have an abundance of modern medicines and amenities, but everyone has free basic healthcare. In the USA, 30% of the population has no access to healthcare, and many more are underserved. Which country is more civilized? Cuba has the lowest economic disparities of the western hemisphere, and there are not the extremes of poverty that can be found throughout the rest of Latin America. However, the centrally planned Marxist economy of the last fifty years is suffocating from its own inertia. One glaring example is the fact that eighty percent of food commodities are imported, according to a 2008 CNN report. Yet, Cuba is tropical and verdant. Even Fidel has said that this kind of a planned economy is not viable, and the government has taken the first tentative steps towards an open market economy.
Cuba provides a fascinating perspective on a Marxist-based economy and Western Capitalism, in both its successes and its failures. The failures of a capitalist society are vivid– three million homeless people in the USA; twenty-five percent of the elderly living below the poverty line; the majority of US wealth controlled by less than one percent of the population; consumption by the USA of twenty-five percent of the world’s resources, despite having only 5% of the world’s population; and an ever-growing list of social and economic disparities. The failures of a Cuban Communist, centrally planned state, controlled by Fidel and the military, are evidenced in the egalitarian poverty; nevertheless, would it have been a different story if the USA had supported Cuban independence and not imposed an embargo that forced Cuba to flee headlong into the welcoming embrace of the Soviet Union?
Despite the economic hardships, Cubans look fit and healthy, and I rarely met anyone who was overweight, let alone obese or undernourished. The mixed blessing of scarcity has lead to a healthier country: With fewer cars and modes of transport, people are compelled to walk; a lack of junk food and soda minimizes the incidence of obesity and diabetes; modest caloric intake keeps people slender. In the USA and England obesity is a leading cause of morbidity. The lack of over the counter medications like Acetaminophen (Tylenol), cold medicines, and other OTCs virtually eliminates iatrogenic illness (illnesses caused by treatment). Limited financial means translates to less money spent on cigarettes and more spent on basic necessities like food. A restricted consumer culture and the limited availability of consumer goods results in less waste. Everything is used and reused in Cuba. AThe 2006 World Wild Life study suggested Cuba is one of the most sustainable countries in the world, while the USA is one of the least sustainable. Cuba is one of the few countries that doesn’t use chemical fertilizers and, therefore, doesn’t have the problems of aquifer contamination or despoiled ecosystems; yet, its agriculture, compared to that of the west, under-performs because of a lack of investment, incentive, and infrastructure. On the road from Havana to Trinidad, an area that made a lucky few fabulous wealthy in the 18th and 19th centuries, there was little evidence of agriculture on fertile lands.
On every downtown street corner someone is politely asking, “One peso or one dollar please? Baby formula? Shampoo? Soap?” As a tourist I can’t ignore the poverty around me, the sullen quiet faces, and the eyes that look yearningly at the tourists with their $500 cameras, and luxurious nutritious the restaurant meals, which can cost a tourist more than most locals make in a month. Cuban men sit on the curbside playing a game of dominos, talking quietly, and avoiding eye contact with the tourists. There are two distinct worlds here: TheNtourist and native. The official state supermarket is in an old, dark building with a small assortment of worn and bruised fruits and vegetables strewn on the stained concrete counters. Yet, there are super-markets and stores that cater to foreigners in the residential Miramar district, where all the embassies and all the diplomats’ residences are located.The Downtown pharmacies carry pharmaceuticals from the state and a few herbs like chamomile and arnica, but they represent only a tiny fraction of the drugs that would be found in a European pharmacy. Other items, like soaps, perfumes, powders, ointments, bandages, etc., simply aren’t available to the average Cuban unless they are purchased on the black market. It is only recently that the basic opportunities of a free market with private businesses have been available to the Cuban people. The government plans to release some 500,000 people from the state payroll and set them loose as entrepreneurs in an economy that is moribund; yet, there doesn’t seem to be any viable avenue for these new entrepreneurs to work or to gain employment. In Trinidad, in the middle of Cuba, I encountered a burgeoning entrepreneurial class – people who had opened their homes as restaurants, or set up shops, but in Havana this free market concept was still a novel idea.
I found myself comparing the western capitalist societies to Cuba. In the western world, we are drowning in consumer junk from China: the eye lash curlers, the dozens of pedicure kits, and the ship loads of Chinese goods that enter the USA every day. We’re like the Manhattan Indians, trading $24 dollars’ worth of beads and trinkets from China for our future.. The Cubans are legendary for surviving with little or nothing: a bicycle with pedals made out of a scrap of wood, a stove made from old sheet metal, a fried steak made from grapefruit rind; nothing is wasted in this society. Is paucity the foundation to a sound environmental policy? According to the WWF study cited earlier, one reason Cuba has one of the world’s most sustainable environments is its lack of industry and the absence of a private sector. In the Marxist state everyone is equal, though, as Orwell points out, some are more equal than others. While the revolution guarantees housing, it means there can be up to several families sharing a one-bedroom apartment, and often a common filthy toilet in the hallway must serve all of them. Electricity is sporadic and the water supply inconsistent in a city that was originally designed for 800,000 people but is now home to more than 2 million. There is no homelessness in Cuba, yet, in the far wealthier US there are more than 3.5 million homeless.
In the old city of Havana there is a mighty effort to save the old historic buildings with the assistance of the European Union (EU). A great number of buildings have been restored, but many are crumbling: Hallways are filthy from decades of neglect, there are no lights in the hallways, cement and stucco are falling, and kilometers of streets forged in colonial times are in various states of ruin. I see a young man scamper up a flight of crumbling steps in an apartment building. In the dim light, I can see he is jumping over the steps that are broken as if he were playing hopscotch, and I watch as he disappears up the pitch black interior stairwell. I venture into buildings that haven’t been maintained or cleaned in decades: factories with their roofs torn off, the central electric power station—a relic from colonial times that is now an empty ruined shell, the train station with falling plaster, layered with decades of grime and filth. The world here came to a stop in the late 1950s. There are a few rare instances of new construction from some years ago, a Ministry of Finance building and occasional government building, but no private residences, as it is still prohibited to own private property. However, in the midst of dilapidated buildings stands the immaculate modern Cuban Museum of Fine Arts, with a splendid collection that reflects the complex history, from Ccolonialism to modernity. Across the street is the famous boat that took Fidel and the revolutionaries to Cuba from Mexico in 1956.
I was in the belly of the beast, a revolution that had become stagnant: a: aA country that provides for all of the most basic needs of its people, except the dignity of human rights and the freedom to choose their own government.
Yet on our last night in Havana, I heard excellent jazz at the Café Paris, then caught a free clarinet concert at the Franciscan CCchurch, and that evening I saw a performance by the brilliant,flamenco Alma de Flamenco. The Cuban arts and music scene is flourishing, but Alma de Flamenco can’t leave Cuba to perform. The cultural vibrancy is inspirational, but the governmental restrictions are suffocating.
I was privileged to see Cuba is in transition, emerging from the long sleep of the revolution and taking nascent steps to true liberation.. Fully achieving taspirationtaspirationaspirationaspirationaspirationaspirationaspirationThis will require the United States to end the embargo, normalize trade relations, and engage in an honest partnership. True transformation will require Cuba to move to a pluralistic democratic society while keeping the best aspirations of a humanistic socialist one. It will also necessitate that the European Union assist in the transition; after all, considering the fortune in sugar cane, gold, and slave labor that Spain pillaged from Cuba, it would seem a just reparation. The government is trying mightily to make Cuba a tourist destination with its beautiful countryside surrounded by oceans, and a world class culture, including an internationally-famous music scene. If Cuba can capitalize on its educated population and plan for a future that fully embraces the diverse Caribbean ecosystem, and if they are able to create a sustainable agriculture, then the ideals of the revolution may at last be realized. With the wealth and talent of the US Cuban population, combined with the efforts of those who remain in Cuba, there is the potential to create a truly equitable society. B. B, but it must be an economic path that does not embrace the rapacious free-market capitalism that caused the US economy to collapse, or the suffocating totalitarianism of a centrally planned economy. A middle economic path based on humanistic values, that respects and cherishes the environment, and creates work and enterprises that ennobles the human spirit would be most advantageous for the people of Cuba. The spirit of the revolution was best stated by Jose Marti: “We light the oven so that everyone may bake bread in it.”
I sat in Plaza Viejo drinking a cold beer and smoking a very good cigar at sunset. As I listened to the marvelous live Son music like in the Buena Vista Social Club.coming from the tavern, I raised my glass to toast the memory of Che Guevara and the young revolutionaries, and their ardor to create a more just world. Through the smoke rings of a Cohiba cigar I peered into this uncertain future for Cuba.
Namaya
2011

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