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Cuba’s socialism a work in progress

March 2009

Fifty years ago, on December 31, 1958, a ragtag band of bearded, gun-toting dreamers marched into Havana and forced the corrupt, Mafia linked regime of Fulgencio Batista to flee. Revolutionary and controversial changes followed, including the nationalization of property and an end to private enterprise.

Thousands fled, but Fidel Castro’s regime ushered in a set of social priorities that serve as a beacon for many who believe in a radical alternative to laissez-faire capitalism. Still, celebrations were subdued in Havana this year because of uncertainty about the ailing Castro’s health and mounting internal pressure in Cuba for change, some of which has begun, albeit somewhat timidly.

Canadians are involved to some degree in this bold experiment, with all its negatives, because we are the primary source of tourism there. Whereas solidarity tourism was for years the main source of visits to the island nation, it is now Cuba’s main source of foreign exchange. And what do we see when we visit its beaches or wander around the historic, albeit crumbling, vestiges of Spanish colonial architecture in Havana? We see mothers and fathers walking home with their five-year-olds in the ballet outfits from their after-school classes. What other country with similar GDP, population and natural resources can boast of 30,000 doctors? What other country in these circumstances has virtually eliminated illiteracy while offering the basic security of food, shelter, health care and education for all?

Yes, there has been a price paid, and there is internal pressure for change. When professors and professionals would rather be tour guides and waiters because of tips, there has to be an adjustment. Salaries will have to be boosted so highly trained people can afford to do their work.

Raul Castro, the new leader, is more of a realist than his idealistic brother. Beans before bullets is his mantra. Among changes he has introduced are the Chinese and Russian buses that have made a huge difference in comfort to Havana commuters. Cubans are now allowed to visit and stay in hotels formerly reserved for foreigners, and they can have cell phones and computers. But information is still tightly controlled and Cubans need special permission to get Internet access. This restriction cannot last.

Ironically, an end to the U.S. boycott of Cuba can only accelerate the pace of change there. U.S. President Barack Obama has other priorities, but normalization of relations is overdue. When it happens it will have positive and negative effects. On the plus side, communication among peoples with differing social values can only be beneficial. Cuba will have access to a huge tourist market 135 kilometres away. But before that can happen the two countries have to talk and Cuba will be asked to compensate Americans for property seized in 1962. Hopefully, normalization will not include the Mafia-run casinos gangster Meyer Lansky was once planning to line Havana’s Malecón oceanfront with. (In The Godfather, Part II, Lansky is portrayed as the mythical Hyman Roth.) And it would be a shame to see Old Havana peppered with McDonald’s and Coca Cola signs.

There is something beautiful about how neighbours help each other in Havana, how Cubans take pride in their culture, how live music thrives in the city’s bars and cafés. Cuban ballet is first class, there are theatres throughout Havana, people actually talk to each other, and the pace of life is leisurely. Some of this may well change in the emerging Cuba.

Other shifts we have noticed: Many Cubans have had enough of the personality cult surrounding Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. They want the social values, and the security that goes with them. They don’t want a society where people have to skim off the top, or cover up for those who do to survive.



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