Reflections on Cuba ... and the rest of Latin America

Despite its dismal commercial sector and well-documented tyrannies,
Cuba is remarkably free of the violence, poverty and lack of education
that plague Guatemala, Haiti and other countries in Latin America. As an example, Cuba offers real hope for the rest of the region.

By Don Lotter, Ph.D.

The Shanghai-Havana organiponico crew: Currently a million tons per year of food is produced within Cuba's cities, much of it in intensive "organiponicos," which are essentially low cement tanks iwth soil for growing vegetables. The Shanghai-Havana organiponico grows lettuce, onions, celery, peppers and other market garden crops. The organiponico was developed with the help of the Chinese government.

The impression that I was going to a place where things are done differently struck me before I ever arrived in Cuba, as I entered the vintage early '80's Soviet-made airliner that Cubana Airlines flies to Havana from Costa Rica. It was the jet-age equivalent of getting on to a milk-run Mexican bus - worn but clean seats, jerry-rigged repairs, and an infornal, chatty atmosphere.

I shared a Soviet-made Lada taxi into Havana with an Israeli couple and a vagabonding Swiss doctor. My plan was to get into central Havana and find a telephone to call around for a room in a casa particular, in which a local family rents out a room or apartment and provides meals. I parted with the others and started off with my backpack to find a phone.

About a hundred yards down the street some young men, who were mostly what Cubans call "mulatto" and who, along with fully black Afro-Cubans, make up about 70% of the country's racial mix, were playing dominos at a table set up on the sidewalk. "Esta lejos" - it's far - was the friendly answer to my query for a public telephone. I knew things in Cuba didn't work like they do in the capitalist world, but a public phone being "far" in the middle of Havana took even this jaded traveler by surprise. After the usual series of where, who, what questions, one of the men asked me if I was looking for a casa particular. I gave it about a second of thought and told him yes.

On the way to the casa, my experience, which had been typical of any place in Latin America, took a fundamentally different turn from what happens in the rest of the continent. Joao (pronounced Yo-ow) said he had to go up to his apartment and call his uncle, who owned the casa particular. The neighborhood was made up of a mixture of old and not-so-old apartments, mostly five to ten stories high. Joao led me into the dark stairway and began to climb.

My instincts immediately stopped me -- no traveler in a Latin American city ever follows an unknown person whom they had just met on the street up a dark, isolated stairway. But as we stood there on the stairs, it became obvious to me that robbing me was not even a shadow in his thoughts. Cuba's street crime rate is a small fraction of what it is in other Latin American countries.

Even in comparatively well-off Costa Rica, in the capital San Jose, you would never go up those stairs without first taking out your pepper mace. Street-crime, exacerbated by the drug epidemic, is rampant there. A German scientist friend of mine, a 7-year resident of Costa Rica, was recently mugged there on a well-traveled street by youths, who choked him to unconsciousness. Passersby did not lift a finger. On the streets of San Jose, the night before I left for Cuba I was followed by a threatening-looking man saying "Hey gringo, how about some money", until I got to my hotel.

The freedom from fear of being robbed, along with the profound impression that the destitute poor are missing from Cuba, was like the lifting of a huge weight off of the subconscious. Having just spent two months in Guatemala where malnourished and destitute people ply the streets and pester travelers, that weight was heavy. Just six months previously, I had visited Haiti, an island with a similar history of colonization and slavery and similar ethnic composition as Cuba. The situation there is dismal. The most basic government services like road maintenance and garbage collection, not to mention healthcare and education, are non-existent. Sewage often flows into the dirt streets, dries up, and is blown around as dust. U.S. and other foreign aid money meant to remedy these problems almost completely disappears into beaureaucrats' pockets before it ever reaches its target. Cities and towns close up after 7 PM and one is confronted with nothing but walls and empty, unlit streets.

Nighttime on the Cuban streets is for playing dominos under the street lights and hanging out on doorsteps that are open to the sidewalks. These are a people who have enough to eat (albeit boring food), shelter over their heads (albeit often crowded), free education and health care. This accomplishment, in my opinion, far outweighs the well-known litany of deficiencies and tyrannical habits of the Cuban government. I have no illusions about Cuba being ideal. The deficiencies and repressions are real. However, in my opinion these problems don't amount to a hill of beans when compared to the accomplishment of alleviating grinding poverty and ignorance.

We in America ignore the continued poverty and destitution in our backyard, i.e. Guatemala, Haiti, and scores of other countries, at our own peril. It is like having an arm with a massive infection that will turn gangrenous without systemic intervention. However, instead of systemic intervention, we go with the status quo (free trade, tourism etc.), apply a tourniquet (tight borders), and focus on the good life for the rest of the body. It's not sustainable.

The other side of the Cuban experiment: Miriana Ruiz chats with a griend in her apartment. Miriana desparately wants to go to North America, where she can earn more money and have what she feels is a better life.

Many Cubans are unhappy and want to leave for Europe and the U.S, especially those who, in one way or another, run afoul of the powers that be in the government. Options are few in such circumstances. Their state-paid salaries are as low as $20 a month, and they can do little with that. The food is unexciting, the housing often spare and crowded, and the options for a livelihood often limited because of the government control of everything.

But there is a huge difference between this and the kind of destitution I have seen for 25 years now in Guatemala and on my recent trip to Haiti. The life expectancy of Cubans is the highest in Latin America, 75 years, while that of Guatemala and Haiti is around 50.

It's hard to decide which factor is most responsible for the dismal Cuban commercial sector, the U.S. embargo or the communist system. For sure the U.S. embargo has hurt them badly. Latin America buys most of its imported goods from the U.S. and the commercial shipping routes are set up for that. Cuba has to buy its goods from Europe and pay for the special, low volume shipping.

There is a, however, silver lining to the U.S. embargo. Without it, Cuba would never have developed the world's most comprehensive organic food system. Cuba's systemically different food production system is a remarkable example for the rest of the developing world. (See accompanying article.)

Cuba is poised to join the roster of developed countries. With its educated and healthy population (95% literacy, the highest in Latin America), it is just a matter of time before Cuba develops high-technology and biotechnology industries - and in fact they have already embarked on these endeavors. The loosening of government control and growth of democracy are inevitable in a country that is economically developed and educated, as Cuba will soon will be.

My conclusion is this: it takes 50 years of major socioeconomic structural intervention to overcome 400 years of colonialism, imperial dominance, slavery, and tyranny in those countries that have suffered these historical forces. Major structural intervention is what Cuba's revolution was all about, and it is now in its 44th year.

Let's face it, structural intervention creates some unhappy people, especially those who lose property, status, and income. These are also the most vocal people, and we've heard plenty from them in Miami. But for the lower 50% of the population in those countries with high rates of poverty, a Cuban style revolution would bring freedom from destitution, hunger, and ignorance. This is far more important than the loss of luxuries suffered by the top 10-20%.

I have no idea how to go about this, because the U.S. has just spent the past 50 years successfully preventing all efforts towards structural intervention in Latin America, beginning with the infamous CIA-led coup in Guatemala in 1954. In this watershed event, the democratically elected leader, who wanted to implement some moderate land reform policies that affected the unused land belonging to the United Fruit Company, was deposed and replaced by a dictator who would do the bidding of the U.S. The result was a 30-year war in which the victors, the U.S. backed Guatemalan military, used scorched earth policies and death squads to suppress a popular movement, to better the lot of the poor and destitute. The tens of thousands of politically motivated murders, at the hands of death squads, of people even remotely associated with grassroots organizing, far outnumber Castro's victims in Cuba. Yet do we ever hear this in our press?

A couple of decades ago, there was fear that revolutionary movements would become part of Soviet communist hegemony. This is no longer possible. Latin American countries that undergo revolutions will need to trade with us. So what do we ordinary Americans have to fear from revolution in our backyard? Revolutionary bananas, coffee, and sugar would cost us the same in our stores, and we would have the spiritual relief that we are no longer supporting a system that allows people in our backyard to live in poverty and desitution.

Change begins with non-mainstream news. Try the www.commondreams.org website for starters.