The way things work in Cuba


RETURNING TO CUBA in 1996 is a remarkable experience for one born in the island. Once you get over the pangs of nostalgia, you note that you are in a complex country that somehow functions. True, things are rickety and faded, but generally trains and planes leave on time, the national ballet still offers quality performances, classes are taught at the university.

Accustomed as we are to the regular defections of boxers, baseball players and pilots and their subsequent tales of woe, we get the impression that Cuban society has imploded and that the economy is hanging by a string. Not exactly. Life is tough for the average Cuban, but for every one who leaves, many others remain behind -- if not out of love for the regime, at least because that is where their family and friends are.

Where three worlds coexist

The society where they live is a study in contrasts. There are things in Cuba that function at a First World level of efficiency -- the best tourist hotels, the rum and cigar export industries, parts of the military apparatus. Others are throwbacks to the defunct socialist Second World. And there is the Third World underside of crumbling buildings and congested public transport.

You can see all of it on your first flight into Havana. There is no doubt where the ancient Tupolev jetliner came from, but there is nothing socialist or Third World about the glossy airline magazine, Sol y Son, that the stewardess hands you. To glimpse the underside, you must wait until your Turistaxi reaches the old middle-class neighborhood of Alta Habana now decayed into a slum.

Most ordinary Cubans seem to live lives bracketed by Third World poverty, a Second World of government regulations and social entitlements, and glimpses of the developed world supplied by the foreign media and the highly visible presence of tourists and businessmen.

The gap between what tourist or remittance dollars can buy and what can be gotten with a peso salary is one of the prime sources of widespread and open discontent. Emigration in this context is less a way to avoid hunger than to gain access to a living standard so tantalizingly close and simultaneously so out of reach for the average citizen.

Why is there no open rebellion against this situation? The standard answer in exile Miami is government repression. From the inside, however, the answer is more complex.

There is, first, the social safety net constructed under socialism. Though tattered and torn, it still exists. Rationing provides meager but reliable access to basic staples; health care is hampered by lack of medicines, but it is accessible and free; education is free and universal. Most Cubans were born after the revolution and grew up under this entitlement system. Fear of losing it under unrestrained capitalism remains one of the trump cards in the hands of the Cuban regime.

Second, as the economic situation deteriorated, the government compensated with new flexibility in a number of social and economic areas. A new class of immigrants, including thousands of Cuban artists and professionals, is authorized to live abroad without losing their properties or rights of citizenship in Cuba. Food is expensive but abundant in the newly freed peasant markets. Apartments can be bought and sold. Together with free access to the dollar stores, this means that anyone with access to hard currency can enjoy a significantly improved lifestyle.

Grass-roots capitalism

Predictably, such opportunities have triggered an explosion of grass-roots capitalism, evident in proliferating private restaurants, gypsy cabs, tourist services and all manner of informal activities. As a local put it, "with U.S. $500 a month you can live rather well in this country."

There is, finally, nationalism. Underneath the laughter, the rum and the salsa beat, Cuban national identity is grounded, in part, on the struggle for independence from the giant neighbor to the north. Unlike the former East European satellites where nationalism implied anti-communism and resistance to Soviet domination, in Cuba the defense of socialism is closely linked today with national sovereignty.

Passage of the Helms Burton Act thus played right into the hands of the Cuban leadership. There is little indication that the bill will strangle the island's economy as is its intention, but it has re-energized and legitimated the government. Fidel Castro and his closest aides tirelessly blame the American blockade for present economic hardships and evoke the specter of a triumphant Miami bourgeoisie returning to claim its prerevolutionary privileges.

The plane back from Havana is full of families who were granted U.S. visas. After a brief connection in Cancun, Mexico, the charter jet lands in Miami and a flight attendant welcomes the newcomers to the "Land of Freedom." There is polite applause, but no explosion of jubilation, as one might expect of escapees from tyranny.

These are not really exiles from communism; they are immigrants set to make their skills and education pay into a better life. Cuban society furnished them with those skills, but not with opportunities. The dream of a better life, not counter-revolutionary ire, will supply the strategies to vanquish the Castro regime.

Alejandro Portes teaches sociology and international relations at The Johns Hopkins University.

Pub Date: 12/11/96

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