A Glance at Cuba, April 2010

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Just back from Cuba where the sun was shining and temperatures ranged from 25-30 degrees. Very nice, thanks.

More than two years following the retirement of Fidel Castro, some change is apparent in Cuba.

To begin with, Fidel’s successor, his brother Raoul Castro, has overseen a mild lessening of consumer constraints in the Cuban socialist system. Mobile phones are ubiquitous. Markets for crafts and garden produce are increasingly evident in the cities.

Darker aspects of Cuban life also appear more transparent than in earlier visits. Prostitution is much more visible.  Based on my non-scientific observation, it would seem that a certain class of European, often German, tourist now freely considers Communist Cuba a sex destination. This must gall survivors of Fidel Castro’s revolutionary generation which took aim at the infamous flesh trade of the 1950s as a primary target for social reform.

Black marketers trade in rum, cigars and coffee wherever tourists congregate, offering prices that undercut the government run shops. In my experience, this has always been the case, but not to the extent I witnessed in April.

Print journalism and information television are generally woefully weak and subservient to the government’s point of view. While satellite television brings signals in many languages from across North America, Europe and China to many parts of Cuba, there is precious little access to publications that contradict the official view. Communist party publications such as the newspaper Granma have some interesting, intellectually valid content, including often fascinating columns from Fidel Castro himself. Sadly, Granma and related regional publications, also publish vitriolic nonsense of a Stalinist tinge about the Communist Party’s opponents.

On the political front, there were signs of how Cuba maintains its uneasy consensus over the government’s revolutionary, read authoritarian, goals. Although you may never read about them in North America’s mainstream English language media, elections of a kind do take place in Cuba. Last month elections for regional municipal representatives were held. In a one party state, these elections largely only offered choices between Communist Party members, or those approved by the authorities.

I was allowed access to one polling station in the Caribbean city of Trinidad de Cuba where it appeared voters marked and deposited their ballots secretly. Such political practices are but an antidote of a limited kind in a country where freedom of expression is severely curtailed, and in which prisoners of conscience molder behind bars for ‘crimes’ of political thought.

Of course, everything in the previous paragraph is true to a greater or lesser extent in many countries, including China, which does not suffer the demonizing that North American and European media and political spokespersons regularly visit on Cuba. Perhaps it’s the production of cheap consumer goods for North American and European voters that is the charm in the Chinese instance.

I am not an expert on Cuba. I have a broad understanding of its history; comprehend and speak Spanish in a middling manner; and have visited the country about seven times over the past 15 years. For me, certain truths emerge. The social successes of the revolution cannot be dismissed out of hand. Strengths in general health, nutrition, literacy, education and the omnipresence of a diverse cultural heritage in music, dance and visual arts are undeniable. There also exists a patina of fear. Intellectuals palpably hesitate to utter even mild criticisms of the system to a foreigner.

Cuba’s Revolution has entered its 52nd year. To date, the transition of power from Fidel Castro is occurring without cataclysm for Cuban socialism or an overt opening to North American and European political mores.

Editor’s Note: For more on the transitions in Cuba over the past couple of decades see Yves Montenay’s paper comparing Cuba and Vietnam since the fall of the Soviet Union.

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One thought on “A Glance at Cuba, April 2010

  1. A.J. Rowley

    James: expert or not, you’ve hit all the major points (my current project is on Cuba).

    Cuba can be difficult to describe to others and I really enjoyed this piece — particularly, your depiction of the island as both troubled and strong at the same time. It’s a nuance many often elect to ignore.

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