Over a million Canadians, including many from P.E.I., escape our winters by going to Cuba; Canadians account for 40 per cent of that country’s tourists. So as I put back another Cuban rum I want to share a few observations and thoughts about Cuba.
Let me put my biases up front: I am an unrepentant supporter of the Cuban Revolution and make no apologies for it. My family’s involvement in Cuban politics goes back to Mexico in the summer of 1958; we happily listened on shortwave radio as Fidel Castro’s Rebel Army successfully entered Habana on Jan. 1,1959. In June 1970, I made a life-defining decision as to whether I would go to Cuba to join the international brigade harvesting the sugar cane crop or work for a trade union. Reluctantly, I choose the later.
Since 1977 I have been to Cuba 17 times. I have visited resorts, universities (including their new IT university), rusted out sugar mills, dilapidated factories, rural schools and medical clinics, a high school for gifted students, housing projects, watched great baseball, talked with art students at a special institute, have seen barren shelves in stores, talked with companeros, and was admitted to a hospital as a seriously ill ER patient. I have seen the best and worst in Cuba.
The Cubans are justifiably proud of the revolution’s achievements, including eradicating illiteracy, free access to education including university, an innovative pharmaceutical industry, and universal heath care resulting in an infant mortality rate which, according to the UN, is better than the U.S.
Cuba calls itself a Third World country and does not pretend to be a mass-consumer society. While Cuban children may wear worn school uniforms they are washed and ironed and the children are neat, clean, and well mannered. More importantly, the children are loved. I have never seen a Cuban child cry.
When I was up in the mountains I talked with a peasant, who had five children, and an immaculate wooden bungalow with a dirt floor. He pointed to his TV and said, “The revolution gave me that.” People do not make a revolution for themselves, but for their children.
Cuba’s economy, badly hurt by the 50 year American embargo, requires modernization and more consumer choice. Paradoxically, a world of limited consumer goods is easier to manage than one of infinite choice. There are small indications that the economy may be recovering from the draconian Special Period when Russian aid was withdrawn. Today there are significantly fewer hitchhikers, better quality shoes, more smartphones, and even orthodontics (braces).
Whether the critics of the Cuban Revolution like it or not, Cuba has served as a progressive beacon for other South American countries. Fundamentally, the Cuban Revolution has attempted to evenly distribute “life chances” in the interests of the many, rather than a small elite.
The U.S. has intervened and invaded Latin and Central American countries at least 100 times since 1900. And Cuba’s human rights record is certainly no worse than the many vicious dictatorships supported by the U.S. over the years, including that of Cuban dictator Batista and General Pinochet in Chile. Most Cubans that I have talked to about the normalization of diplomatic relations with the U.S. are at best suspicious of American motives. Given that the U.S. toppled the democratically elected Arbenz government in Guatemala in 1954, organized the mercenary invasion of the Bay of Pigs in 1961, and overthrew the democratically elected Marxist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, they have every right to be leery. Cuba is no longer willing to be, as C. Wright Mills put it, “the whore house of the Caribbean.” The genie cannot be put back in the bottle.
The economic and political differences between the Fidelistas and the Raulistas are real. The memory of “Che” Guevara, the romantic and idealistic hero of the Cuban Revolution, has been reduced to T-shirts and key chains. Walking on the beach it finally hit me: over the past few weeks I never heard a chorus of “Commandante Che”, or the gentle lyrics of “Guantanamera.” Times change and everyone loves a dead hero.
- Richard Deaton, lives in Stanley Bridge and has a Ph. D. in Industrial and Business Studies from the University of Warwick, U.K.