Monday, August 13, 2007

A Bit of Socialism Okay for Cuba

This article of mine appears in today's Australian.

WHAT'S the first thing that springs to your mind when the name of Fidel Castro, the Cuban leader who today celebrates his 81st birthday, is mentioned? Havana cigars? CIA assassination plots? The Bay of Pigs? The first thing I think of is fox hunting. Let me explain.

A few years ago in England we had an enormous debate about fox hunting. Opponents of the proposed hunting ban claimed foxes were a pest and numbers needed to be controlled. Supporters of the ban argued that foxes were sweet, lovable creatures that never did anyone any harm. But the greatest argument for not banning the sport was one that neither the pro-hunters or anti-hunters could make: the fact that fox hunting means more foxes. Foxes are more plentiful in areas where hunting took place for the simple reason that hunts always made sure there were plenty of animals to hunt. But for obvious reasons, neither the hunt nor anti-hunt lobbies wanted to acknowledge the fact.
The debate on Cuba is rather similar. For the Right, Cuba is an example of where socialism inevitably leads to: repression, poverty and enslavement. For many on the Left, including filmmaker Michael Moore, Cuba is a beacon, a socialist paradise in a hostile sea of capitalism, a progressive model whose policies on education and health care ought to be copied throughout the world.
Yet both the Right and the Left hold a picture of Cuba which is far removed from the truth. Cuba is a repressive, poverty-stricken country, yet it cannot accurately be described as socialist, if by socialism we mean a society which is based on egalitarian principles.
The problem with Cuba is not that it's too socialist, but that it's nowhere near socialist enough. But don't expect either its right-wing detractors or its left-wing supporters to admit it.
The Left, rather than own up to Cuba's deficiencies, instead carry on defending it, on the basis that if the Great Satan from across the Florida Straits is so hostile it must be doing something right. And they take the socialist credentials of Fidel Castro, or El Comandante, on his word.
It's true that in the early years of the Cuban revolution considerable gains were made. The government outlawed racial discrimination, enacted land reform, created a low-income housing program and made health care and education free for all. But, nearly 50 years on, the revolution has gone full circle.

Apartheid may have come to an end in South Africa but in Cuba it lives on, only people are not divided by the colour of their skin but whether or not they have access to Cuban Convertible Pesos, the currency all tourists are forced to spend.
Those who have access to Convertible Pesos (an estimated 30 per cent of the population) are Cuba's new elite; those who don't are really struggling. And I mean struggling. There's virtually nothing to buy with Cuban pesos, Cuba's other, second-class currency, except rationed food and street corner snacks and refreshments. All clothes are sold in Convertible pesos, as are all consumer durables.
One of the saddest sights my wife and I witnessed on a recent visit to Cuba was an 800m queue for ice cream in Havana's famous Ice Cream Park. Families who only have Cuban pesos habitually spend all their Saturday afternoons queueing for an ice cream. But for tourists and those Cubans who had Convertible Pesos, there is no waiting at all.
For the majority of Cubans, life is desperately hard: the average salary is about $US13 ($15.45) a month, and even the Government admits the weekly ration is inadequate.

The Cuban Government blames US sanctions for the poor state of the economy, but while it's true the embargo has hit hard, there's no doubt that they have been used as a convenient excuse for Castro and the party elite to keep attention away from mismanagement and corruption.
Back in January it was reported that a Cuban delegation had been turned away from the $US200-a-night Edderkoppen Hotel in Norway as a consequence of the sanctions. (The hotel had been bought by the American-owned Hilton group.)
But while Cuba's supporters protested at the pettiness of the decision, very few questioned what the Cubans were doing booking into such accommodation in the first place. (It transpired that they had stayed in the same hotel five years running.) While its people make the sacrifices, the Cuban elite continue to enjoy the good life: in March, the Cuban Government ordered Series 1, 3 and 5 BMWs for all its ambassadors and a Series5 model for Raul Castro, in charge after his brother's hospitalisation.
Raul is reported to favour adopting the so-called Chinese model of introducing more capitalism while maintaining the Communist Party's strict political monopoly, as the answer to Cuba's difficulties.
Others in the Politburo are said to favour more socialist solutions, such as the scrapping of Convertible pesos.
But while El Comandante is incapacitated, no major decisions will be made. And that means the growing inequality and hardship will continue.

Who knows what will come after Fidel Castro in Cuba? Neither the Left nor the Right will admit it, but a little bit of socialism wouldn't go amiss


Anonymous said...

Good article.
I was born in Cuba, and as you say, there is no socialism only Fidel-ism, Communism is replaced by enslavement and called both socialist and Communist, but people in the know will not be fooled.
Apartheid exists by social class as you said , but Castro has created racism also ,something that did not exist in Cuba, Both Black and whites lived next door to each other, heck in my block we were the only whites, yet those neighbors were like family to us.
Today people from the interior are officially called "Palestinians" because they come to Havana looking for what they can find out in the country side Food.
Isn't that weird that people from agriculture areas have to come to the Capital to have food ?
Unfortunately Cuba is being run by a bunch of Lunatics in green Fatigues.

Ken said...

Just one thing that needs to be made clear. The national peso is freely exchangeable for the convertible type. I think that the rate is 25-1, but that applies to anyone. You can also change convertibles to nationals as well.

So, the problem is really for the 70% of the population who do not have access to money sent from abroad.

A Cuban wage, paid in national pesos, isn't going to buy many convertible ones.

Anonymous said...

There is so much to say about this topic...Worlwide leaders and normal people from all over the world still are fascinated with Cuba " socialism". Strictly speaking, Cuba was building the socialism ( until the soviet block collapsed) but it was far from reaching it. According to the marxism, to reach that stage, the economy must be solid enough to fullfill any material needs. Needless to say, that never happened, nor even during the gloriuos 80's despite the heavy soviet support.
It's hard to define what Cuba is building now and what is going to be. If you talk to common cubans, nobody wants to hear about giving up the free access to the medical services or education, although, of course, people are sick of dealing with shortages, long line and govermment official rethoric and excuses, which doesn't fix anything. Younger generations ( the Fidel's new men?)are dreaming to get out of there and have a fresh start anywhere else. The older ones, specially those who knew the capitalism, are still, in many cases, stuck in old memories and glory ( many of them were very young when Fidel came to power, many gave their better years hoping to build a better future for the nation, many fought or worked in overseas), but the reality is, there are too old to start anywhere else and they are carrying their convictions and proud as old family jewels ( despite they are hit hard by the shortages, unless they have a relative in overseas who send some hard currency).
Fidel's ideals about a fair society has come a long way down. Economic realities have put a lot of pressure on the country and its people. Unfair discrimination ( the ones who has hard currency can get away, the rest is struggling) but also between the tourist and the cubans ( regardless their economic status). Cubans have became second- class citizens in his country, any tourist can stay in a hotel, no worry, SeƱor. If you are a cuban, unless you are living in overseas, forget about it, even if you can afford it. What sort of society is this? Govermment officials reply this is to avoid deep in the differences between the lucky ones ( who has hard currency) and the poorest. But, the differences are already there and it won't make feel them better if more stupid restriccions come in place. By the way, Cuba has the second's largest of hotel rooms available in the Caribean, but so far, a so much lower percentage of hotel room ocuppied ( compared for example, with Dominican Republic, where nationals can enjoy the hotels if they can afford it), just because the stupidity and incompetence of the govermment, trying to show a false idealism and egalitarism.
So, whoever thinks that Cuba is The Paradise or the Hell is wrong, Cuba is both, the first one for foreign investors established there and high-profile tourists ( those who can afford the Melia's and Sol Palmera's hotels), the second one, for most of the normal cuban people whit very limited access to everything, except to the right of starvation and deprivation.