An Island of Mystery

By Jim Smith

Many of us in Venice wish there were none of those developers in town who tear down perfectly good homes and bungalows just to make more money. If only all Venetians had affordable rent and lived without fear of landlords, speculators and developers.

Suppose I told you that there is a place on this Earth where there are no profit-hungry developers or speculators at all? In fact, there is an entire island in the Caribbean without a single capitalist or greedy developer. It is Cuba.

Last month, the Beachhead sent reporters to the ends of the earth (not quite) to find solutions to our problems. We journeyed to a land without American tourists.

We found the buildings of Havana to be just as they were in the 1950s, the 1850s and earlier. In 1519, La Habaña became the first major city to be created by the conquistadors in the new world. Today in Old Havana, there are some new apartment buildings and a sparkling new art museum amid the ancient buildings. But much of the effort in this historic area has been to rehabilitate the existing old, but beautiful, buildings instead of replacing them with new, more utilitarian, structures. 

It is illegal in Cuba to make a profit off peoples basic needs, such as housing, health care, education and transportation. The result is that excellent health care and education are free to all (Cuba’s infant mortality rate is lower than the U.S. rate), housing rents for less than 10 percent of a person’s income, and the cost of a ride on Cuba’s shiny new Chinese-made buses is approximately two cents.

Things could be better in Cuba. The island is still struggling to pull itself out of the third world. Cuba’s ability to meet people’s needs is hampered by an economic blockade around Cuba that has been maintained by the United States since 1960, in spite of world wide opposition. Because of this it is impossible to get U.S. building supplies, machine parts, medicines and other essentials. Likewise, it is impossible for Americans to buy Cuban imports.

Cuba is a mystery to most Americans because the U.S. government allows only journalists, researchers and those who were born on the island to visit. At the same time, most media outlets from the New York Times to CNN keep up a steady stream of propaganda against Cuba. As a result, when many Americans think of Cuba, they imagine a gray dictatorship without any freedom. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What is our government so afraid that we will see if we go to Cuba? Is it that poor people in a third world country can make a revolution that will provide for people’s needs? Is it that we will see the hardships that average Cubans face because of our country’s blockade. For instance, many things that we take for granted, from toothpaste, disposal razors, aspirins and diapers, are in short supply in Cuba, even though the source of these goods lies only 90 miles away. Are they afraid that Americans will see that people can be happy when they are not driven by consumerism, advertising, and the creation of false needs?

In this last respect, Cubans are much like many Venetians. Both of us value the arts, music, poetry, learning, and having a good time, more than the drudgery of slaving for some corporate boss. Many Venetians have to work too hard at someone else’s business in order to maintain a small apartment within walking distance of Ocean Front Walk, the drum circle, the canals, etc.

Cubans certainly work. And many work very hard. Yet they seldom get fired, and if they do, they can easily obtain another job. After work, they can attend a concert featuring some of Cuba’s top musicians for the equivalent of about 20 cents a ticket. Or they can attend the many free outdoor concerns around La Habana and other cities and towns. But Cubans seem to most enjoy making their own music. This is a place where nearly everyone seems to play an instrument or sings. A great many Cubans can recite verse after verse of poetry. 

Some comparisons might be useful in explaining Cuba. In Venice, we have hundreds of homeless people. In Cuba, there are none. Everyone has the right to a home. In fact, 85 percent of Cubans own their own homes. They achieved home ownership by paying rent for between eight and 20 years, after which they received the deed to the property. 

There is a shortage of cars and spare parts, again from the U.S. blockade (perhaps a good thing since this encourages Cubans to walk and ride bikes). This hasn’t stopped Cubans from innovating. There are ‘50s Chevrolets with Ford engines and Dodge rear ends, and vice versa. Diesel engines, that never saw Detroit, power a good part of this wonderful fleet.

Our trip coincided with the 50th anniversary of the Cuban revolution. As Che, Fidel and the other rebels were making their way into Havana on Jan. 1, 1959, the dictator Fulgencio Bastista fled the country. Also leaving in a big hurry were the mobsters who ran the casinos, the developers and the fat cats. Most of them only made it as far as Miami where they proceeded to run U.S. Cuban policy for the next 50 years. Some may even have been involved in the assassination of President Kennedy because he was not to their liking. In any case, they had to leave their new Caddys, Roadmasters, Imperials and many other fine convertibles behind. Little could they have imagined that these cars would outlive most of them, and they are are still in daily use on the potholed streets of this tropical city.

Also left behind were the fine hotels and casinos owned by Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante, and representatives of every Mafia family in the U.S. The casinos are long gone, but the hotels are still in use, many of them sporting their 1950s decor. The elevators are creaky, most don’t have room service or telephones, but who wants to stay indoors when you are in what seems like another planet. Besides, if you don’t like hotels, you can stay in a room rented in the home of a Cuban family for $20-$30 per day.

Cubans must be among the friendliest people in the world. They are particularly well disposed to “norteamericanos” and hopeful that Obama will lift the blockade. They are also among the most musically innovated, having created several new forms of music, including Afro-Cuban, Cuban jazz, Nueva Trova, Timba, Boleros, and more. These forms and variations can be heard daily, and nightly, on the street, in outdoor concerts and in “teatros” that look like opera halls.

Cubans are also film addicts. This addiction is fed by the low ticket price, the equivalent of a nickel, at the many movie theaters. Cubans are also fanatical about baseball. All teams are amateur, but are as good or better than U.S. major league teams.

It is impossible for a visitor to say how committed Cubans are to their current form of government. Fifty years ago on Jan. 1, Havana residents went on a rampage, smashing slot machines and other mob gambling equipment that infested their city. The next day, Che Guevara (Saint Che, the icon of the revolution) and an army of rebels entered Havana. Fidel Castro followed on Jan. 8. More than a million people turned out for the celebrations.

Do Cubans still feel the love and admiration they felt for the revolution in the early years? In 2006, Fidel stepped down as president. That position went to Raul Castro, Fidel’s brother, who was another leader of the revolution 50 years ago. The Cubans I talked with – not a random sample – acknowledged many problems in the country (see for criticisms by young Cubans). On the other hand, they seem loyal to the revolution and all of them said that Raul seems to be doing a good job now that he is no longer in his brother’s shadow.

There are reasons why Cubans would support their socialist government. Everyone has a job, a home, some money, enough to eat, affordable cultural and sporting diversions. The government has not been oppressive to the average citizen. There are far fewer people in jail, per capita, than there are in the U.S. Before the revolution, Black Cubans were second-class citizens. Today, they are fully integrated into the Cuban society. Most families that I observed included a rainbow of colors among their members from lily white to all shades of brown and black. While 50 years is not enough time to eradicate racism – or sexism – Cuba is on its way in both respects. Today, women play an equal role in most aspects of the economy.

With a depression descending on the capitalist world, Cuba may receive some breathing room to further develop it’s unique alternative to capitalism. Barack Obama has an opportunity to do the right thing and normalize relations with Cuba, as has been done with such “dreaded” communist countries as China and Vietnam. The Cubans say they are ready for immediate talks, as long as they are treated as equals and with respect. Raul Castro recently said he is willing to trade Cuba’s political prisoners to the U.S. if it will release five Cubans it is holding as political prisoners.

Unfortunately, there are many irrational critics of Cuba in Miami, and even in California. Many of them are the wealthy, or their descendants, who left Cuba because of the revolution. Others are old-fashioned right-wingers who can’t stand the thought of a society existing that doesn’t worship the almighty dollar. But none of them are young Black Americans who daily suffer harassment from police and are routinely put into the “criminal justice” system. None of them are homeless people or those who live in RVs. And none are renters who face being kicked out on the street if they get layed off. These are the Americans who can learn from the Cuban experience and from the remarkable achievements of the revolution.

For more information about Cuba from independent sources, see:

Categories: International