CUBA, ITS PEOPLE
by The Traveller
The name Cuba comes from an Amerindian word of the Taino language, either Cubao (“Where fertile land is abundant”) or Coabana (Great Place).
The Siboneys were the first humans who lived in Cuba. They were there since, at least, 4,000 BC, at the time, when according to the Bible, Adam and Eve were created. Oh! Oh! Hold a second. Archeological findings at the northwestern tip of the main island of Cuba tend to prove that long before the Siboneys arrived, the archipelago may have been part of Atlantis, the continent harboring an advanced civilization, that sunk 18,000 years ago.
The Tainos, otherwise known as Arrawaks, arrived in Cuba at the turn of the first millennium, about 500 years before the Spaniards led by Christopher Columbus. The Genoan “discovered” the island, during his maiden voyage to the New World, on October 27, 1492. He immediately claimed it on the name of the Spain Crown.
At the time of the Spanish invasion, an estimated 75,000 to 600,000 Indians were living a peaceful life in Cuba. Fifty years later, only 700 were still alive. They were decimated by hard labor in the gold mines and by weird diseases that the Europeans brought to their land.
The Spaniards replaced the Indians by the Africans. The first blacks were mostly from Guinea and Senegal. In Cuba, black slavery lasted more than 300 years until its abolition in 1886, 113 years after it was abolished in the French colonies. In one century, between 1763 and 1860, 1.3 millions blacks were abducted and committed to slavery in Cuba. If this can be of any consolation, their condition was better that it would be in French Saint Domingue (future Haiti). Outside of the sugar fields, the relationship with the colonists was mostly patriarchal. As in Brazil, due to absence of European women, interracial procreation became the norm instead of the exception.
Today, 51% of the Cuban population is mixed (mestizos, mulatoes), 37% are white, 11% black, 1% Chinese. The Chinese and Filipinos came to Cuba as indentured laborers, workers, to replace black slaves, when slavery ended. (NB: During a Q&A sessions with one of our guides, we were quoted an inverse ratio (60% whites, 27% mestizos) that we used in a previous report. It was wrong.
Post-revolution Cubans officially define themselves as Afro-Latin, with a solid kinship with the rest of the Caribbean African diaspora. This African self-identification or solidarity is clearly stated in the Cuban Constitution and proudly plastered on the walls of Matanzas.
Today’s Cuba is a collection of about 700 islands. Cuba’s total surface area is 110,860 sq km. Officially, it is called Republic of Cuba. It is a unicameral communist republic of about 11.2 million people, with a very low population growth (0.3%). Out of the 242 countries and territories currently on record, its population is listed 74th, ahead of Belgium. Cuba is ranked the 106th largest country in the world, right before Guatemala.
The official language is Spanish. Its literacy rate is above 99.3%, as per the United Nations. That makes Cuba, the NUMBER ONE country in the world, in that category.
Its GDP (gross domestic product, i.e prices of all goods and services) is $60.8 billions, making Cuba the 66th country in the world, ahead of Syria and Lybia (oil countries). Despite the 52-year old U.S embargo, its GDP per capita is $5,200 ahead of China, Jamaica ($5,100) and Haiti ($800).
Cuba uses two currencies. One is for foreigners, the CUC (convertible peso) pegged against the dollar, minus 13% for exchange fee. The other is for Cubans, the CUP, valued at 1/25 of the dollar (or CUC).
Its vital statistics are unexpectedly good: life expectancy at birth (77.8 years), infant mortality (4.8 per 1000), annual deaths from AIDS (less than 200 for the entire country, in 2003).
The imposed equalitarian nature of the Cuban system have beaten back sexism and racism. There is hardly any trace of them in Cuba today. Forty per cent of the unicameral national legislature are women. The graduating classes at the universities are made of a majority of women. Women chair many business and administrative boards.
The U.S influence of official racial discrimination at the beginning of the 20th century had vastly weighed on Cuban society. The Communists, upon taken power, made racial equality a prominent point of their agenda. The best parameter of racial equality in a society is the number of its inter-racial unions. Cuba is faring very well. The percentage of “pure blacks” in the population has halved over the last five decades. Mestizos (of mixed parents) are the largest and fastest growing ethnic group.
Homosexuality is accepted, but not yet integrated in this macho Latin society.
There is no homeless, no beggar in the streets of Havana. Everyone wears decent and clean clothes. No child looks like a victim of kwashiorkor. Obesity is rare. The mastery of, at least, one foreign language is common. Random conversation is sophisticated. Art and culture are everywhere, as they are in Geneve or Prague. Many buildings are ran down, but they are actively renovated.
Since John Paul II’s visit in Havana in 1998, scientific materialism has been displaced, freedom of religion has been restored. More than 50% Cubans claim to be religious. Christmas is again an official holiday. Muslims and Jewish temples are rare and in between. The government is however wary of large gatherings, propitious to propagation of anti-revolutionary ideologies. That is why catholic activities are tightly monitored. Santeria practices, with forever small attendance, are much in favor.
The fundamentals of the communist system, designed by Marx and Engels, are that the state and the people superseed the individual. Therefore, each Cuban is a member of a collectivity, piece of a state machine. This anti-individualistic approach went so far, in some communist countries; it was forbidden to cheer a player, after he scores a goal, at a football game, since the goal should not be seen as a personal achievement, but as a collective realization of the system.
Being a piece of the system, immediately implies that your personal needs are secondary. The state takes care of the five most important needs: housing, food, healthcare, education, and employment. You just don’t have to worry about these. That means no Cuban has to worry about rent payment, grocery list, doctor’s bill, pharmacy copay, student loan, and joblessness, college education for the children, or credit card bills. This is to wonder what is left to worry about…
If they are jobless, they still have all the benefits. When they work, they receive $15 to $22 a month, for extras, such as movies ($0.25), dating, or a visit to the museum. In comparison, many Americans after they pay all their bills for the month, take home less than $15, often having to put their grocery shopping on credit cards that they can never pay off…
Or course, in a totalitarian system, you cannot move, emigrate, change career, without an authorization from the government. Information is heavily censored. Television is tightly controlled. The uses of the Internet and of cell phones are all but prohibited.
Human rights abuses are allegedly committed. Plenty. It is said that 16,000 Cubans were executed after the years that followed the revolution. The number is 30,000 after the Duvalier revolution, and several millions under Staline. The executions were as numerouis under Cromwell in England, and under Robespierre in France. Today, Amnesty International gives bad marks to the Cuban regime, for the harassment, prosecution and detention of political dissenters.
As you may understand, the communist system only works with a deprived, economically disparate population, when the majority thinks that the free-market system is not working for them. They then surrender their rights, all their rights, to the state, to the system that will protect them from the exploitation of the well-of and well-educated.
Now what do you think happens when the playing field is evened out, when the majority of the population is educated and has its basic needs secured? You are right, the system is no longer necessary. It becomes oppressive to individual ambitions and aspirations. Competition should then be allowed. That is what Marx anticipated in the second chapter of the Communist Manifesto titled “Communists and Proletariats”. The proletariat will displace the bourgeoisie, and when the basic needs are acquired and guaranteed, the open-market economy will replace the state-controlled system.
That is where Cuba is today. Ready for transition. It is a third-world country with first-world statistics. Ready to be an economic miracle. In September 2010, Fidel Castro, told Jeffrey Goldberg, an American reporter “The Cuban model does not work anymore”. This is the equivalent of a college senior stating: “I no longer need high school.” He is done, Castro is done, Cuba is done with communism.
When Russia reached the same milestone, in 1989, Gorbachev shed communism and instituted glastnost (openess) and perestroika (restructuring). The Castros are ready to walk down the same path. Since Fall 2010, reforms have been under way.
Cubans are now allowed to open small businesses. Daily bilateral contracts are signed between the Cuban government and Canadians or Spanish firms. Tourism, including medical tourism, is openly encouraged and favored. Cubans can openly received and spend hard currency received by family members living overseas. Nationals are allowed to stay at hotels that used to be exclusively reserved to foreigners. Farms are operated autonomously. Travel restrictions are partially removed. But the most dramatic change is that Cubans are allowed to buy and sell properties. A few millenia ago, that is where capitalism started…
This is the time. This is the moment for the Cuban people to join back the concert of a free-market economy. But this can only be done in a subdued and tightly regulated manner to qualsh the fears of the current Cuban Establishment. They want to avoid that the millions of the Miami exile community don’t become the main acquiror of all Havana businesses and attractions, in a wild gold rush, creating inflation, destroying a securizing societal structure patiently put in place over the last 52 years, bringing back with them drugs, prostitution, homelessness, illeteracy, racism, economic inequality and despair, as they were during the pre-Castro years.
Communism and Castro must go. Before going forward with these changes, the equation of the transition and the specifics of the US economic embargo may need a thorough reassessment…
(The Traveller, Sunday, October 14, 2012)