By Nicholas Partyka
The following is Part Three of a multi-part project entitled, “ A Crossroads for Socialism: Cuba in Transition .” This series of analyses, observations, and dispatches of Cuba focuses on the country’s unprecedented, post-Fidel transition. With a heavy reliance on macroeconomic, geopolitical, and foreign policy analysis, Hampton contributor Nicholas Partyka seeks to pinpoint the nuanced economic, political, and social changes that are occurring on the island nation, and how these changes are impacting everyday Cubans.
Part One: Introduction
This is not the place for a full history lesson. I can only recommend to the reader several books that I think are excellent resources on the history of US-Cuban relations, especially since 1959. To those more familiar with the particular details of the story between the US and Cuba, this statement will likely be less controversial. To those less acquainted with the details of the story, the follow statement may be more controversial: the US blockade of Cuba, including the travel ban for US citizens, has been, and continues to be a total failure. More than that, it is now an embarrassment for the US. It is a Cold War relic that has never been worth the time and money put into it by successive US administrations.
To see how and why the US blockade policy has been a failure, we should begin by thinking about something a cab driver in Santiago de Cuba told me and a couple of friends in response to a question about the blockade: “life under the blockade is like living with fleas.” I think this is a great metaphor. It is completely apt. Fleas cannot kill one, though they make everyday life rather annoying. The blockade, while not totally debilitating, stops Cuba from doing some otherwise easy things, makes others more costly to do, and in general, just makes life difficult for not only the government, but for everyday Cubans. This is where the old American cars come into the picture. In order to facilitate as much transportation as possible, it has been absolutely necessary for Cubans to keep these old cars running because the US blockade makes it difficult to nearly impossible to import new cars or spare parts.
One obvious question here is ‘why do we continue this policy?’ One quick answer to this question is to say that, in the main, it is the Cuban American National Foundation (CANF) and its hardline allies in Congress that keep it going. The wealthy Cubans who fled Cuba in the wake of the revolution in order to preserve their wealth and privilege went to Miami to wait things out. Time passed and Castro didn’t fall out of power. More time passed, and same result. Eventually, the Cuban exile community based in Miami established themselves and their businesses in the US, and many remained and became prosperous. They then acquired political influence through the CANF by distributing political campaign contributions. The sole, or at least primary, aim of this institution is to maintain the US blockade with hopes that, by causing distress and hardship for the Cuban people, they can be thus encouraged to rise up against the Castro brothers and their government.
The general silence about Cuba in the US media, combined with large amounts of misinformation, make it easy to perpetuate lies and outdated stereotypes about communism in regard to Cuba and the lives of Cubans. This, of course, makes Cuba-bashing (like China-bashing) among the lowest hanging fruit for political grandstanders and point-scorers. Thus it is that the CANF and its congressional allies find little opposition to their desired policies. One important factor in the political clout of the CANF has had nothing to do with their organizing efforts or political savvy. Instead, US population demographic changes that saw a great many northerners move to Florida, increasing its population, and hence congressional representation, has made Florida much more important in Presidential elections as it now has twenty five electoral votes.
In the main, the basic framework of US policy toward Cuba has been in place since the Johnson administration. After the spectacular failure of the Bay of Pigs invasion, and the assassination of JFK, Johnson ordered that the aggressive pursuit of what we now call “regime change” in Cuba be terminated. Programs like Operation Mongoose would no longer be a priority for Johnson. What Johnson did instruct his administration to do was engage in as much of what he called “nut-pinching” tactics as we could. This included things like putting pressure on shipping companies to suspend business relations with Cuba by restricting access to US markets and ports. This also includes going after banks that do business with Cuba and levying outlandish fines, sometimes in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Put it this way: if we fined Wall-Street criminals in the same proportion of severity and with the same unrelenting frequency, we would likely have a much more stable and orderly system of financial markets.
Another important answer to the question of ‘why still keep this blockade policy’ is to remind ourselves of Wayne Smith’s remark about Cuba being ‘the full moon to the US werewolf.’ Cuba, and its revolution, are simply too much of a bad example to the rest of Latin America; indeed the whole of the colonized world. The Cubans set an example of how to be an independent sovereign nation with dignity, and one that is not subjugated by US imperialism. The Cuban slogan “patria o muerte” summarizes and publicly displays the attitude of people who value their liberty and not being dominated deeply. This is a dangerous example to set from the point of view of US imperialism.
Cuba’s revolution, contrary to what the US media wants to portray, has achieved many things, and has – in very tangible ways – made the lives of the Cuban people much better. And again, contrary to US media perception, the Cuban people not only recognize the achievements of their revolution, but are very proud of them and loathe to give them up. And these feelings appear justified. One cannot look at the differences in the pre- and post-revolutionary statistics on social indicators in health and education to see what monumental achievements the Cuban revolution has brought to Cuban society.
First on this last would have to be the Cuban healthcare system. Cuba maintains first world-level social indicators, e.g. life expectancy, infant mortality, rates of prevalence of certain diseases, etc. on a third world countries’ budget. And the nation has managed this in the face of more than fifty years of a US blockade, the loss of very generous annual subsidies from the Soviet Union a little more than two decades ago, and several devastating hurricanes within the last decade. Cuba has also managed (through all of this) to not only be able to meet its domestic needs in healthcare, but to also be able to send doctors – very often free of charge – to some of the poorest (and hence, most underserved) areas of the planet. Only in the US, where the propaganda machine is centered, is this fact lost sight of. The Cuban healthcare system sets a bad example with how well it works and how well it is able to deliver healthcare services to the population; all for a fraction of the money that the US spends to achieve roughly similar, and sometimes worse, results. Furthermore, the Cuban healthcare system is free for all Cuban citizens. Healthcare is a right in Cuba and not a for-profit commodity like it is in the US.
I want to take a second here to have us think about the following dichotomy in foreign policy. Cuba’s school of the Americas (ELAM) produces doctors for some of the poorest communities on the planet, in many cases totally free of charge. In contrast, the US’s School of the Americas (formally known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation) produces torturers, and special military forces for right-wing regimes in Central and South America. This dichotomy exposes something very basic, but also very profound, about the differences in attitude toward foreign policy of the two governments. This fact, should it become common knowledge, would surely cast the US and its foreign policy agenda in a bad light, especially when juxtaposed to Cuba’s.
The US engages in foreign wars largely to benefit itself. History, especially recent history, shows the US involved more with Iraq or Libya-style profit opportunities than with Kosovo-style humanitarian interventions. When the Cubans went to war in the 1980s in Africa it was to defend Angola from being invaded by the apartheid government of South Africa. Cubans have a saying about their time in Angola; they say, “We brought nothing back but our dead.” In other words, the Cubans went to help people achieve independence and freedom and got nothing out of it for themselves, except the pride of those who sacrificed to help others achieve the independence due all free peoples on this planet. The US government and its corporate-handlers profit immensely from those countries it has helped “liberate.” Therefore, the comparison of what we now call “nation-building” by the Cubans in Angola and by the US in Iraq and Afghanistan is also a very unfavorable comparison for the US government and its foreign policy.
A close second on this list would have to be the Cuban education system. Before the revolution, Cuba had a near- 40% illiteracy rate in the general population, with even worse rates of illiteracy found in rural areas. Within a decade of the revolution Cuba had a literacy rate of over 98% in the general population. To this day, Cuba continues to be one of the most educated populations on the planet. Everywhere one goes in Cuba, and seemingly whomever one meets, one encounters persons with college level degrees in a variety of disciplines, from mechanical and biological engineers to psychologists and doctors to agronomists and economists. Cuba manages to have an extremely well educated population without having the kind of student debt crisis that is fueled by profit-hungry universities and banks in the US. This, too, sets a very bad example for the US government. This is the same reason why US media decided not to give much if any coverage to the two-year-long student protest movement for education reform in Chile. It might put the wrong kind of ideas into the heads of US-Americans. Namely, the idea that through conscious mobilization and organization, citizens can force changes that result in a more equitable society with greater opportunity for those not lucky enough to be born into financial privilege.
Next on this list would have to be the robust social security system in Cuba. In general, the Cuban people have a very strong sense of the social mission of their revolution. This becomes obvious as one walks the streets, discussing such issues with everyday citizens. As far as they are concerned, the point of the revolution was and still is to improve the lives of the Cuban people, all Cuban people. For this reason the Cubans have invested in measures to ensure this social mission is carried out. This is one of the reasons why Cuba does not have a homelessness problem like we do in the US. In the US, like most everything else, housing is a for-profit commodity that is subject to the market. Thus, the US has millions of people who are too poor to be able to pay market prices for housing. As of 2014, there are enough empty (unused) houses in the US to give each homeless American five. While the blockade makes it difficult and more expensive to acquire building materials in Cuba, Cubans must sacrifice quality. However, despite the debilitating effects of the blockade, there is no permanent homeless population in Cuba forced to live and die on the streets like in most large US cities.
Another aspect of social security in Cuba has been the development of uplifting senior and disabled living standards and quality of life. Due to Cubans, especially young Cubans, finding more economic opportunities outside Cuba, many elderly Cubans have no one to take care of them. In response to this, the Cuban government opened up spaces for seniors to come during the day for activities and company, as well to get meals. By having the seniors come to one of these centers, Cuban society can be assured that seniors receive the medicines they need, the meals they need, and the medical as well as some of the personal attention they need. While in Cuba one of the places that our group visited was a school for children with severe intellectual disabilities. Some children come and go from the school each day, while others live at the school. Both sets receive specialized education and training suited to their particular level of development, all aimed at helping them to become functional members of society with as much independence as possible. The senior centers and specialized schools are free. One merely needs to show up. These are just a few examples of the kinds of social programs Cubans spend some of the few financial resources they have to provide for the well-being of the Cuban people.
Moreover, Cuba has a very low crime rate, as well as a low recidivism rate; under 10%. There is a joke in Cuba that ‘it is so safe there, if you fall asleep on the beach someone will come and put a blanket over you.’ While this is, of course, humorous because it is exaggeration, it does reflect a strong sense of public safety and unity that is felt amongst the citizens. And it is an extreme source of pride. One Cuban I met was shocked over the problem of gun violence in the US, and very thankful his country had nowhere near such a problem, especially among its youth. Cuba is, in general, a very safe country. Tourists very seldom are attacked or robbed, and when they are, the culprits are often discovered and sent to jail much more quickly than is typical in the US. I walked alone on the streets of old Havana more than once late at night and never felt unsafe.
Again, these kinds of strong social protections and social programs portray the US in a negative light when compared side by side. The knowledge of such, were it to be exposed and accepted for what it is, would force some uncomfortable questions among our own population here in the US. How is it that a small Caribbean nation has such a healthy, well-educated, well-cared for population? How do they manage this with the resources they have? And, maybe most significantly, how is it that we in the US do not enjoy such protections despite being much better able to afford those kinds of programs? Why does Cuba appear to take better care of its people with a GDP of about $100 billion, than the US does of its people with a GDP of around $15 trillion? These are the kinds of questions that bring people to challenge power and the status quo.