Despite the beautiful plants, animals, and people, there is something quite unnatural about Cuba. Imagine a country without billboard advertisements, television commercials, Starbucks, and McDonalds — no more golden arches of obesity — and if I want to buy something nonalcoholic to drink, my choice isn’t between a Coca Cola/Pepsi product or water, which is quite often bottled by the aforementioned companies and sold as a commodity. Very strange indeed.
As soon as I entered Cuban airspace, I was delivered from the tyranny of the bottom line. (North) Americans tend lose their respect for life as their respect for capital grows. Cubans are in a different boat (called the “Granma”), fighting through the storm, which came in the form of political, economic, and even military pressure from the United States ever since the island dared to chart an independent course more than a half century ago. With this year’s breakthrough diplomatic move that saw the Cuban flag raised at its embassy in Washington, D.C. for the first time since the Kennedy administration, the storm has seemingly subsided.
Viva la revolucion!
The modern Cuban “revolution,” which is invoked in just about every public speech or event as if it omnipresent, is not led by bearded guerillas with long rifles and fat cigars, but by doctors, professors, and civic leaders — some of whom I had the pleasure to meet (and argue with) prior to the rapprochement. Their central message goes something like this: this revolution will not be commodified; it will not be bought to you by Xerox and/or the greedy Yankees. It will not be co-opted by people unworthy. It is the spirit of a nation, once viewed and treated as the footstool of the giant that is the United States, that would go on to become its greatest ideological adversary. Despite overwhelming odds, Cuba has endured. It survived the Bay of Pigs invasion, several acts of Miami-based terrorism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a still-existing economic blockade. Its values, while derided in the capitalist world, have stood the test of time.
Yet, Cuba is far from an anti-capitalist utopia. While attending a graduation ceremony for the Latin American School of Medicine, which trains doctors from all over the world to help the neediest members of their home countries, I met a Cuban actress who criticized the flagrant propagandizing throughout the island. Yes, there are few advertisements, but I am sick of seeing quotes from Fidel, Che, and José Marti telling me how to think, she said. I had also noticed that Che was presented as a Jesus-like figure throughout Havana — I did not have the opportunity to explore much beyond the capital — and Marti, the legendary poet, philosopher, and martyr of the Cuban war of independence against Spain, was the equivalent of Socrates.
The most annoying thing about Cuba for me, however, was the lengthy, nationalistic speeches that all seemed to hark back to Fidel’s famous 1953 “History Will Absolve Me” speech, which took five hours to deliver. I also had to wake up every morning in the (not forced) labor camp to the sound of Fidel reading Che’s 1965 farewell letter and Guantanamera. I learned to accept that hero worship, incessant anti-Yankee diatribes, and exultations of Cuban nationalism were par for the Cuban course — a national religion almost. This extended to the glorification of the tiny but noble Cuban military for its sacrifices in Africa in the fight against fascist regimes backed by (who else?) the United States.
I happened to be in Cuba on July 26, a significant day in Cuban lore. I use the word “lore” instead of “history” because it was a foiled assault that did nothing to destabilize the Batista regime. At best, it was a setback that set the grounds for later success. It also gave a name to Fidel’s fledgling band of revolutionaries: “The 26 of July Movement.” A big rally, work-stoppage, and celebration mark the date each year in Cuba. Perched in front of a barely functional television set, I saw highlights from President Raul Castro’s keynote and noticed that every one of the thousands of spectators had a miniature Cuban flag. I want to re-emphasize that they were there in commemoration of a failed assault that left hundreds tortured, imprisoned, and dead.
Speaking of tortured and imprisoned, I had the bad luck of being one of only two people in my delegation to question the ethics and legitimacy of the so-called “Committees for Defense of the Revolution,” one of which we visited in Havana. The cold response I received was slightly terrifying as was the effusive welcome we received from said committee. Soon thereafter, I read that these committees were a Stalinist means of sniffing out potential counter-revolutionaries within Cuba. The assumption was that the Yankees were sponsoring said counter-revolutionaries all over the country. I do not recall an attempt to distinguish U.S.-sponsored subversion from genuine political opposition. They were treated as one in the same.
I could go on, but my intention is not to be critical of Cuba and repeat the tired rhetoric of the U.S. press and the Cuban émigré community. I am also not attempting to celebrate Cuba for its socialist ideals or advances in the way that many of my leftist friends do — sometimes one-sidedly. What I took away from my short time on the island — other than a newfound love for old Russian cars — is not that it was heaven or hell but that it was, somewhat disappointingly, of this earth. I will sum up my sobering revelations as follows:
1) At the backbone of every state (including a socialist state) is coercive power;
2) Power, in the context of statecraft, is exercised almost exclusively by men and usually by tyrannical men, despite high ideals and revolutionary rhetoric; and 3) The majority of people accept this status quo as standard, natural, or inevitable
Whether you agree with its particular goals or ideology, a state is a state is a state. Every honest traveler should beware.