The price of pride

HAVANA.  Cuba is celebrating the 50th anniversary of the historic July 26th attack on the Moncada barracks, the failed assault that paved the way for the 1959 revolution and Cuba’s accidental journey toward a swinging socialism.  Yet the mood in Havana is far from celebratory, not only because the main ceremonies are being held in far away Santiago de Cuba, the country’s first capital and the acknowledged birthplace of the revolution, but also because Havana today is going through an interesting and uncertain phase that is bound to shape the future of Cuban socialism.

All eyes are focused on Fidel Castro, the man the CIA had tried to kill more than 600 times.  America may have given up trying to assassinate him, but it hasn’t ceased wishing his early death.  In its eyes, it is Fidel alone who keeps the Cuban socialist project alive.  If he dies, so will the foolish utopianism of its fallen hero, Che Guevara.  Che’s handsome face may continue to live on t-shirts and caps, but the experiment he has come to symbolize will surely come to an end.  That is the American expectation.

For the longest time, the US wish has been for Cuba to implode beneath the weight of its own systemic inefficiencies.  One does not have to look deep to see abundant evidence of the systemic problems of Cuban socialism.

Queues are an integral feature of the daily life of every Cuban.  They line up for hours for food and basic necessities, for transportation, and even for the summer pleasure of a cup of ice cream.  Cubans are intrepid hitch-hikers.  The young attractive women who thumb rides in the fashionable district of Miramar are united in their socialist need with their peasant brethren in Pinar del Rio.  If a Cuban goes anywhere, she must be ready to sit either on the leather seats of a foreigner’s Mercedes or on the bare steel floor of a local hauler’s truck.

The government calls this extraordinary time the “Special Period,” a time of austerity, patience, and sacrifice, but also a time for adaptive loosening of government controls.  It began with the collapse of the Soviet Union, on whose solidarity Cuba had had to depend since the 1960s, after the US embargo effectively cut the island off from the circuits of global trade.

From 1990 onwards, Cuba has had to raise hard currency to pay for whatever it needed, oil being the first of these needs.  Little by little, the government opened its doors to international tourism, only to find that existing government-owned facilities were grossly inadequate to meet the surge in demand.  To remedy the situation, Cuba began allowing its citizens to offer tourists food and accommodation in their homes on a limited basis.  And reluctantly, in 1994, the government legalized the use of the American dollar as medium of exchange.

The immediate consequence of this is, to no one’s surprise, to create a dual economy – one that transacts in low-value Cuban pesos, and another that trades strictly in American dollars.  Domestic prices for Cuban nationals are incredibly low, but beyond basic goods, there is hardly anything to buy.  Dollar prices for tourists and the foreign community, on the other hand, are ridiculously high, but almost everything is available to anyone with greenbacks.  The net result of this is the overnight return of a dollar-wielding class.

At the Hotel Nacional, one may encounter a lucky Cuban local smoking a high-quality hand-rolled cigar costing more than $10 apiece, which is roughly the monthly salary of an instructor at the University of Havana.  A taxi driver who receives an official pay of $10 per month could earn as much as $200 in tips in one month.  This would be the salary for one year of a top medical scientist or specialist.  Young professionals, with good university degrees and who can speak good English, are naturally flocking to the lucrative tourist sector.  This is a waste of talent in a society that boasts of a high-caliber professional sector.

The government is very sensitive to anything that promotes social differentiation.  Thus every instance of relaxation of controls tends to breed new regulations and monitoring mechanisms aimed at arresting the growth of a new privileged class.  This naturally adds more weight to a cumbersome bureaucracy already laden with ritual functions.

Two schools of thought about the future of Cuban socialism are prevalent in America today.  The first says that the best way to erode Fidel Castro’s regime is by lifting existing economic sanctions so as to allow Cubans a taste of the possible life under a post-Castro order.  The second, George W. Bush’s preference, says there is only one way of bringing down the regime, and that is by tightening the sanctions even more until Cubans are compelled by daily hardship to protest the continuation of socialism.  The battle cry of the Miami Cubans is “democratization,” but what they really want is the return of Cuba to its former status as an American playground.

Fidel Castro’s strength does not lie in the repressive apparatus of a police state.  It resides rather in a deep sense of history held by many Cubans. They may groan under the weight of a clumsy socialism that is running out of solutions, but Cubans are proud of their freedom.  They are proud that they have been able to stand up to the bullying antics of their imperial neighbor.  They may even think that Fidel is too old to run the country, but they don’t hate the man.  Fidel personifies the sovereignty of a small country in a world overrun by American arrogance.

A peek at the Cuban situation is instructive for us Filipinos.  We could have been them, and they could have been us.  The parallelisms and the separate routes taken are just so many.


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