Cuba: creative, complex and contradictory

by Geoff Olson

… If we followed the way of possessions, we would have disappeared a long time ago. We Cubans are very fortunate. In that regard we are very small, but well, we are strong. We have learned to resist both the good and the bad. – Cuban musician Ibrahim Ferrer, Buena Vista Social Club, 1997

It’s an unnaturally cold, cloudy afternoon in Havana. Horse-drawn carriages and Pedicabs share the road with Plymouths, DeSotos, Studebakers and other pre-revolution antiques, which rumble along in loud defiance of Detroit’s planned obsolescence. The busy street scene is embedded in a crazy quilt of architecture, from European Baroque to American neoclassical to Soviet brutalism. Most of the buildings appear to be in a state of elegant decay – and some not so elegant. Ornate light standards from the Batista era stand askew in The Capitol’s plaza, where stray dogs lick themselves and beg from tourists. The faces in the streets are white, black and mulatto and the fashions range from Miami chic to spontaneous grunge.

The Cuban travel experience is otherworldly. It’s like falling into a Caribbean Stargate, constructed from rusting Russian tank parts, vacuum tubes and Marxist boilerplate, and stumbling out into a Terry Gilliam fever dream.

On the surface, Cuba would seem to have little to offer the rest of the world, other than a lesson in stubbornness and staying power – especially considering this nation of 11 million people is only 140 kilometres from its erstwhile enemy, the US. But with today’s contentious issues of diminishing resources, food security and healthcare, Cuba may have a hard-won lesson for westerners about getting by in hard times.

The nation has already had its own “peak oil.” Up until 1989, Cuba’s superpower benefactor, the Soviet Union, granted the nation easy credit terms, cheap fuel and ready access to Soviet technology and aid. With the fall of the Soviet Union, 80 percent of Cuba’s imports and exports – mostly with East Bloc nations – evaporated. Without Russian fuel, and still under the US trade embargo, the nation fell into crisis. Cuba’s food production system collapsed and the average Cuban’s caloric intake dropped 30 percent.

Then-president Fidel Castro euphemistically referred to this time of crisis, from 1990 to 1994, as the “Special Period.” With only a trickle of fuel to transport the diminishing foodstuffs into the cities, Castro abandoned the top-down Soviet model for agriculture and called on urban Cubans to grow their own food on any available plot of land. The result was the largest program in sustainable and organic farming ever undertaken. It was goodbye to the centrally planned agricultural system, with its heavy energy inputs into machinery, oil, pesticides, herbicides and animal feed.

Today, 80 percent of Cuba’s food production is organic. As of 2006, there were 10,000 urban gardens in Havana and other cities across the nation, according to the CBC documentary, Cuba: The Accidental Revolution. Schools, hospitals, seniors’ homes and even factories grow these “organiponicoes.”

The US/Canadian agricultural model takes 12 calories of energy to produce one calorie of food. Cuba produces 12 calories of organically grown food with one calorie of energy. Urban farmers use as little as five percent of agribiz energy inputs. The nation has also introduced privately owned farms and cooperatives, in effect incentivizing agriculture and making it an attractive career option for younger Cubans.

Gregory Biniowsky, a British Columbian lawyer and environmentalist, has lived in Cuba intermittently since 1993, working on Canadian-Cuban development programs. Sitting in his apartment in Old Havana’s Malecon district, Biniowsky tells Common Ground that Cuba never had a subsistence economy under Soviet aid. “It was as mechanized as California’s agricultural system. The cows gave milk as long as there was Russian cow meal. When that ran out, everything collapsed.” Ironically, the Soviet approach mirrored the agribiz “Green Revolution” food production model of western nations.

During the “Special Period,” Cuban agronomists and scientists learned how to feed cows with protein-heavy plant diets, and in the absence of pesticides, insects were bred to control pest infestations from other insects. Cuban doctors discovered natural plant remedies to replace some pharmaceutical drugs. Out of sheer necessity, Cubans began to work with nature rather than against it.

Despite some successes with adapting to the Soviet absence, the nation was still economically hamstrung by a relic from the Cold War, the US trade embargo. Western consumer items we take for granted, like pens, pencils and household tools, are still hard for some Cubans to come by, especially in rural areas. Dial-up Internet access is available at schools and universities, but otherwise limited. Yet the Cuban constitution still guarantees every citizen the “right to health protection and care.”

“It depends on how we want to evaluate Cuba,” says Biniowsky. “If you look at GDP, efficiency, sure. This is a centrally-planned bureaucratic economy, with lots of wastage.” But, by other measures, – being healthy, having a guaranteed place to live and having strong community networks – Biniowsky says Cuba is unlike other developing nations. He draws a comparison between Cuba and other Third World countries he has visited, where the social contract has been broken, resulting in mass suffering and Darwinian squalor. “Community has broken down because everyone is a competitor.

“I could see the fundamental difference between poverty and misery. There’s lots of poverty in Cuba. There’s no misery. In the Dominican Republic and Jamaica there’s rampant misery – misery being tarpaper shantytowns, kids with the swollen bellies, no doctors, rampant violence, corruption. That’s misery. Cuba is the only country that can boast that they have no street children. And we’re talking about tens of thousands of street children throughout Latin America.”

With the 1959 revolution, Castro’s peasant army chased out President Batista’s cronies, along with a clutch of Miami/Vegas-based mobsters. At that time, one quarter of the people were illiterate and half died before the age of 60. Cuba now has a 99.8 percent literacy rate, according to UNICEF statistics from 2007. The nation has the longest life expectancy and lowest infant mortality of any developing country. UNICEF’s figure for overall life expectancy for the average Cuban – 78 years – puts the nation on a par with the US.

Cuba also has more doctors per capita than any other country. General practitioners examine their patients twice a year, practising what they call “Integrated General Practice Medicine.” The focus is preventative medicine, and interpreting the patient as a whole person, rather than a patchwork of disconnected organs. In seeking treatment, Cubans have their choice of traditional or alternative medicine.

The impact that Cuba has had on healthcare around the world is an incredible, and largely untold, story. At the Latin American School of Medical Sciences, described by The Economist as possibly the biggest medical school in the world, there were 10,000 to 12,000 students from between 27 to 29 countries enrolled in 2007. The students hailed from Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. To be accepted, a student must be too poor to finance his or her own medical education. The Cuban government pays for all accommodations, books and training. In exchange, students agree to perform two years of community service in Cuba.

The school even accepts students from the US. IN 2006, 95 American students, unable to afford a medical education in their homeland, were enrolled in the school, according to the Washington Post. LASMS’s mission is to train general practitioners and primary healthcare providers for impoverished communities outside of Cuba. As of 2007, Cuba had 25,000 doctors in 68 countries. “We are learning that every human being has the right to be healthy,” Colombian native Daniel Phillip Marie told the CBC in halting English. “We are the army to help them. We have to be any place in the world, not with terrorism, not with war, but with help and care.”

Blame it all on Ernesto “Che” Guevara. While he isn’t much more than an iconic (and ironic) T-shirt character to westerners now, he remains a martyr figure to Cubans – a revolutionary doctor who believed healthcare was an essential part in liberating the world’s poor.

Cuba dispatched thousands of doctors to Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, and to Southeast Asia after the 2004 tsunami. In 2005, Fidel Castro offered to fly 1,100 doctors into Houston, to provide medial attention to the victims evacuated from New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Castro’s public offer included 26 tons of equipment, according to an online CNN report. “They brought a thousand doctors and mobilized them. They were assembled at a stadium, the airplanes were on the tarmac and the US turned them down,” says Biniowsky. (Actually, US officials simply ignored Castro’s offer.)

According to The Canadian Network on Cuba, at the time of the recent earthquake disaster in Haiti, “…402 Cuban internationalists, 302 of them medical personnel, had already been helping Haitians. These, together with many of the 500 Haitian doctors who had been trained in Cuba free of charge, formed the essential early group of lifesavers, attending to 1,102 Haitian patients in the first 24 hours after the earthquake.”

Through international medical and foreign aid programs, Cuba is focusing on a knowledge-based service sector. In a deal made with Hugo Chavez, Cuba has dispatched hundreds of doctors to the slum barrios of Venezuela in exchange for oil.

With its paradoxes and contradictions, Cuba is like a Latin American magical-realist novel, Biniowsky observes. The most potent symbol of the debauchery of the Batista era was the big burlesque show, yet Cuba has kept the Tropicana nightclub act going. The quintessential symbol of Wall Street fat cats is the giant stogie, yet the best producer of cigars in the world is the last communist holdout. Further, Cuba has the biggest collection of antique cars in the world and the national sport is baseball.

But it’s hardly a workers’ paradise. Cuba has an autocratic culture, with no free press to speak of. Private complaints about the leadership are tolerated, but public criticism is not. Dissenters are exiled, jailed or harassed. Neighbourhoods have citizens’ groups called “Committees for Defense of the Revolution” – snitch networks organized for the reporting of suspicious activities to authorities.

Doctors working in Cuba don’t make much more money than the average citizen: a meagre salary equivalent to $15 to $25 Canadian a month. Every Cuban is guaranteed spartan monthly food rations from the government, but lineups and shortages are the norm. The cramped, crumbling living conditions are initially shocking to the visitor. A housing shortage necessitates several generations living together under one roof and many Cuban couples are forgoing family as they wait for the elders to pass on. Eighty-five percent of Cubans own their own home, which can be inherited or traded, but not sold. The scarcity problems have increased in the past few years, several Cubans told CG, described by one as “frightening.” In many places, the Cuban infrastructure looks like it’s been picked up several feet off the ground and dropped down, hard.

Citizens must apply to their government for permission to travel, which is not always granted. “It depends which ministry you work for,” says Gabriella, 29, who works in the tourist industry and is dubious about her own chances to travel.

Maria, 47, is a Havana surgeon who lives with her teenage daughter in a sparsely furnished, small apartment that would not seem out of place in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. She told CG the government would not permit her to leave the country to visit her brother in Florida, for fear she won’t return. She can only travel internationally for medical conferences. Her father, now deceased, left Cuba for Puerto Rico when she was young. Her daughter has told her mother that if she can get a job overseas, she will not return. Maria may be facing old age alone, stranded in her homeland.

Ramon, 42, is a former mechanical engineer who has taken a more profitable job as a cab driver in the tourist district to support his family. Asked if he would ever consider leaving the country, he shakes his head sadly, saying it’s impossible, given the necessity of supporting his family. His eyes fill with tears. Most Cubans still support the goals of the revolution, he adds.

“There’s a lot of frustration in the general population to see more economic liberalism in terms of small businesses, notes Biniowsky. “Some old-school party members admit the biggest mistake of the revolution was to try to nationalize everything. They’re realizing that small businesses or medium sized businesses, whether they’re owned by cooperatives or privately, are much more efficient than a centrally planned economy. So Cubans want to see that economic liberalization happen sooner rather than later, but the government has been very slow doing that, because they’re afraid of the equity issues, and they’re also afraid a very radical change in their economic system will create instability. And they know the United States will take advantage of any opportunity to wreak havoc here.”

One source of instability is of the Cuban leadership’s own design. Once a playground for the wealthy comprador class, Varadero is now a string of all-inclusive hotels. Tourists from Canada, Europe and Asia get to party like it’s 1939. They dine at buffets, drink at poolside bars and recline on the beaches of the Caribbean coast.

Beginning in the seventies, in desperate pursuit of hard currency, the Cuban government ventured into the tourist market. In effect, they created a two-tiered economy. The first uses the standard peso. The second uses the new convertible peso, which is worth 25 times more, for the tourist market. The result has been a slow progression toward income disparities, with many Cubans seeking out jobs in the lucrative tourist industry. There is a thriving underground economy among the inventive citizens, who finesse the system and its paltry rations, to better themselves and their families.

Marx held that capitalism is eventually undercut by its internal contradictions, but the Cuban revolution has a few oddities of its own, if store window displays in Havana are any indication. Surely, there was no place in Marx’s “withering of the state” for a shirt that costs several months of a doctor’s wages. The nation in its geographic entirety is a contradiction. At the western end of the island, the socialist leadership does a cautious tango with capital, by maintaining a string of pleasure palaces for currency-loaded tourists. At the eastern tip of the province of Guantanamo, the US maintains a concentration camp for alleged terrorists, on land they’ve staked under a disputed 99-year lease.

The half-century long US economic blockade, which began under the Kennedy administration, is not the only source of Cuba’s economic troubles – but it’s a huge factor. (Imagine how well Canada would perform if the US suddenly declared a trade embargo). What would the Cuban experiment look like today without US intransigence? We’ll never know, though many Cubans are hopeful that more private initiatives, both foreign and domestic, can work alongside the ideals of social welfare embodied in Castro’s revolution.

Yet the old guard are fearful of losing control of the revolution, and understandably so. According to writer Fabian Escalante, there have been many documented instances of state-sponsored terrorism over the years against Cuba, including an alleged 638 assassination attempts against Fidel Castro. Some of the early CIA assassination attempts were worthy of a Pink Panther film. These included placing an explosive device activated by remote control inside a seashell left inside in an area frequented by Castro, and a gift of a diving suit impregnated with toxic substances.

Given the past dangers, and Washington’s refusal to remove Cuba from its list of terrorist nations, the aging Castro brothers’ hermit crab lifestyle seem more practical minded than paranoid. On a tour of Havana, I asked Gabriella where the aging ex-president resides. “No one knows,” she replied with a shrug. “He goes from house to house.”

With all its contradictions, cock-ups and cautious concessions to a global economy, the Cuban revolution stumbles on, only 90 miles from the Florida Keys. In a long-running, real-world Survivor series, Fidel Castro has somehow managed to outlast and outplay 10 US administrations and outlive six US presidents. A succession of Caesars have been voted out, with Fidel and his brother Raul left standing on the island they conquered back in the Sputnik era, with a rebel army that grew from 12 to 10,000. Who could have ever predicted such a turn of events? Cuba is like the most unlikely reality television production ever conceived, or a bizarre mash-up of a Tom Clancy potboiler and Gabriel Garcia Márquez fantasy. But the Castro brothers will not live forever.

Through sheer necessity, Cuba has become a crucible for sustainability: a test case of how to survive without mortgaging costs into the future, whether monetary or environmental. The economic blockade may have even had a silver lining. Freezing Cuba out of the IMF and the World Bank may have allowed the nation to adapt itself to crises without racking up ruinous debts to outsiders.

Gregory Biniowsky and his wife Dane have a brand new daughter, Savannah, and he is obviously betting on a better future for the island. “Through the process of living here and living like a Cuban, and going through all the hardships, the long lineups, the shortages and bureaucracy, and all those other things that are difficult, I became less romantic about the Cuban revolution,” he observes in The Accidental Revolution.

“…But it’s this little, stubborn island that’s challenging the status quo, and it’s trying to think outside the box. It doesn’t have all the right answers, but the fact that it’s this kind of irreverent, rebellious little place that’s challenging the huge establishment of global capitalism is an attractive thing, and I want to live here and be here and see how this David and Goliath battle turns out.”