Like most of the Cuba debate, recent contributions by Times-Union guest columnist Javier Garcia-Bengochea lack context.
Garcia-Bengochea explains that when he attended a Cuban neurosurgery meeting in Havana, “the audience swarmed me…to beg for help defecting.” I’ve met physicians with similar aspirations in Havana.
But these doctors aren’t would-be “defectors” fleeing communist tyranny—they’re would-be emigres. Having been educated for free in Cuba and paid by the Cuban government to go to medical school, they want to come to America, where doctors earn vastly more. This is understandable. Yet imagine how we would feel if a group of American doctors sought to skip out on tens of millions of dollars in student loan debts to move to another country. The newspapers’ letters sections would be overflowing with outrage.
Garcia-Bengochea tells us “Cuba’s cities resemble Hiroshima.” No, but they are often run-down, as is common in underdeveloped countries. When I visited a relative in Havana I was dismayed at the condition of her apartment building. Would I want to live there? No. But if this single mother working at her unskilled job were living in practically any other country in Latin America, she wouldn’t be unhappy over the condition of her apartment because she wouldn’t have one. Like millions of others, she would be living in a corrugated metal shack in a crowded, unsanitary shantytown as she struggled to find work. The guaranteed job, free medical care and quality education she and her children now enjoy in Cuba would be a dream.
Garcia-Bengochea is correct when he criticizes the Cuban bureaucratic elite’s privileges. Much of the political repression in Cuba is done in order to protect this elite’s position.
There is also an increasing racial polarization in Cuba. Cuba’s post-revolutionary government abolished the segregation prevalent in Cuba at the time, and made a large-scale effort to educate and uplift blacks and bring them to full participation in society. In some ways it was similar to efforts made by the US government in the South during Reconstruction, though those efforts were largely aborted after 1876.
The 1961 Cuban Literacy Campaign was a massive effort to educate Cuba’s poor peasantry, and it succeeded in raising Cuba’s literacy level from 65% to 96%. Oklahoma State University Assistant Professor Denise F. Blum says today Cuba enjoys a 99.8 percent literacy rate and that “Cuba has developed one of the world’s most successful free education systems, admired everywhere, from the UK to Canada to New Zealand.”
Yet while Cuba’s post-revolutionary government’s effort to uplift Afro-Cubans is impressive, it is far from perfect. The difference in living standards between white Cubans and Afro-Cubans has significantly widened in recent years. Many Cubans receive precious cash remittances from their families living in Miami and other places abroad. Because it was largely the upper-class and middle-class which left Cuba after the Revolution, and those classes were overwhelmingly white, there are relatively few Afro-Cubans aboard, and even fewer wealthier ones. (I lived in Miami during my youth and had no idea that there were any Afro-Cubans, when in fact 20% of the Cuban population is black.) Without hard currency/dollar remittances, Afro-Cubans often lack the ability to buy the nicer products that are difficult to find in the regular, soft-currency Cuban stores.
Just as racial disparities in the United States bring police profiling of blacks, Cuban police are noticeably more suspect of blacks, particularly regarding panhandling or gaming tourists. For example, while in Havana a few years ago I went to a salsa club with a young Afro-Cuban gentleman I’d met who was giving me salsa lessons. Twice the club’s security guards thought he was harassing me and wanted to throw him out. Twice I explained he was giving me salsa lessons and the security guards let him go, but they did not look very happy about it. Such treatment is familiar to blacks throughout the US and Latin America, and growing wealth disparities have helped bring it back to Cuba.
Contrary to America’s narrative about Cuba, Cuba’s economic problems aren’t caused by socialism’s alleged failures. They are instead problems almost all underdeveloped countries face. Moreover, few of these countries have faced the threats and punitive economic measures Cuba has endured.
Unlike the vast majority of underdeveloped countries, Cuba’s post-revolutionary government has made a large-scale effort to pull up the poor. These efforts have largely succeeded. Life is hard in Cuba, but Cubans at least now have the basics needed to live a decent life.
This is an expanded version of the original piece.
- Florida Times-Union11/27/15