David and Goliath: T. SHER SINGH
Cuba and The United States of America
Tuesday, July 31, 2012
I felt like Rip Van Winkle -- for more reasons than the obvious one -- when I found myself in Cuba a few years ago. Of course, in this case, it wasn’t I who had been asleep for a few decades.
Cuba, in a sense, has been out of the picture since the mid 20th Century. For those of us who weren’t born before the Second World War, here’s why:
In 1958, after a series of dramatic events, Col. Fulgenelo Batista -- Cuban dictator and American stooge -- was overthrown by a revolution led by Fidel Castro and his lieutenant Che Guevara. The latter two then turned Cuba into a socialist state.
Three years later, the United States was instrumental in an attempted invasion of Cuba, which resulted in a disaster -- for the Americans. Castro fled even further into the Soviet camp and acquired missiles. The US initiated an economic blockade around Cuba. Cuba removed the missiles.
Today, half-a-century later, the US continues to man the blockade. And worse: it passed a law threatening sanctions against any country which did trade with Cuba.
The blockade has been effective. Even though Canada and a few other nations have helped a bit from time to time, Cuba has been isolated from much of the world, with interesting results, some expected and some unexpected.
On the one hand, the US has been able to impoverish its arch enemy -- a small island nation in the economically backward Caribbean!
On the other hand, while nations and empires have fallen like nine-pins before the bullying might of the seemingly almighty US, little Cuba continues to play David to the US’s Goliath.
The first thing you notice when you arrive in Cuba are the automobiles. Chevrolets, Fords, Dodges, Studebakers -- all pre-1959 models. A few are spiffy, most are run-down. But they’re all running and provide a good portion of the local transportation.
If anything symbolizes Cuba’s today, it is its army of antique American automobiles. They are defiant and glorious. And they run on Cuban ingenuity -- each one of them has been repaired over and over again, with make-do spare parts - since there is an embargo on those as well -- and with minimum resources.
The next thing you notice is that the island’s people are proud and dignified, carefree and happy -- a combination not easy to find in modern-day America, which has moved along on the vehicle of “progress” during the same half-a-century.
True, once you get away from the touristy areas and the developed beach resorts, there are poor and run-down sectors galore. But nowhere is the extreme poverty that plagues the inner cities of the US. Nowhere is the US level of achievement in crime.
The ruins of Havana’s magnificent buildings are indeed saddening. Beggars, prostitutes, hustlers abound.
But underneath the decay, if you dig deep enough, there still lies the old charm.
I’ve tried hard to fathom its secrets. Is there an inner strength that the Americans could not gauge when they took on these people? Or was it the extreme hardship that created character?
A lowly employee at our hotel explains that she is paid US $12 per month for a full-time job. She looks at our incredulous glances and explains: of the $12, $4 is taken off each month for her food, accommodation and transportation. Medical and dental services - of a surprisingly good quality! -are provided universally, free. Education is free, all the way through university and professional schools.
The cost of other basic necessities, such as clothing, electricity, gas, etc., are heavily subsidized to the point of being negligible.
The net result is that Cubans have enjoyed a better quality of life than 90% of the population of affluent, “democratic” India! Remember, Cuba hasn’t been “independent” as long as India has. And Cuba has had its hands virtually tied behind its back throughout.
So what does this Cuban hotel employee at the bottom rung of the ladder do with the take-home pay of $8 per month?
Well, some of it goes to help support her widowed mother and the siblings still living at home.
The rest? It goes a long way, and here’s how:
While tourists have to trade with US dollars or the “Convertible Peso” -- which is at par with the dollar -- Cubans use a completely different currency and tariff to which the tourists have no access.
The Cuban peso is a mere fraction of the US dollar. And a peso goes much, much further for a Cuban shopping in the local markets than a dollar for a tourist running wild in one of the fancy shops built specially for his pleasure.
Also, whereas it would cost a tourist US $1 for a one-way bus-ride into town, the Cuban citizen pays the equivalent of US $1 per month for a transportation pass.
Suddenly, a salary of $12 made sense, even though it did not give access to foreign good or luxuries. We could also understand where some of the hefty income from the tourist dollar went: to pay for the socialist state.
True, the quality of life -- in material terms -- for Cubans is, generally, not something to brag about. But neither do they have the slums and ghettos that house millions in the world’s most “affluent” societies, including the US itself.
Here’s another comparison. In the last Olympics -- in Beijing in 2008 -- Cuba won 24 medals. India? Three. In London at the Olympics this year, again, Cuba is ahead.
True, much of the wealth in Cuba ends up in a few pockets at the upper end of the “socialist” hierarchy in Cuba … the Castro family and their cronies, for example.
But hey, how is that any different from the rest of the “progressive” world where an array of megalomaniacs amass hundreds of millions of dollars in personal fortunes, for example, or the wackos who think it is an accomplishment to own half of an entire industry -- such as we have in the “free” society up here.
Standing under the sun in Cuba, it is easy to understand what constitutes real “wealth” and what constitutes real “progress”.
One doesn’t need to condone or endorse the Communist system -- I don’t -- to understand the success of Cuba. Or enjoy its charms.
Everytime I visit Cuba, I take a flight to and from Toronto, Canada. Guess what? Despite the prohibition in the US against everything Cuban, including travel, each time more than half of the plane to and back from Havana was full of Americans! They sneak through Canada to get to Cuba, whether their government likes it or not.
Believe me, it is not a result of the effect of the hot Cuban sun when you start wondering: who's really been the prisoner of the blockade, eh?
Conversation about this article
1: Dr .Birinder Singh Ahluwalia (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), August 01, 2012, 6:45 AM.
I dispute the suggestion that much of the wealth in Cuba has been accumulated in the pockets of a few, such as the Castros, etc. Fidel Castro and his team gave their all to the country and, as described in the article, helped Cubans hold their heads high despite unprecedented trials and tribulations. I wouldn't give any weight to the wild rumours and allegations circulated by Castro's many detractors.
2: Mimulynn (Philadelphia, USA), August 06, 2012, 2:13 PM.
Castro and his regime are as dictatorial as any other dictatorship that ever existed, if not more. Let's not credit his government with any success they haven't earned. The Cuban people built, on their backs, a 500-year history of hard work and dignity, medical advances, superb education, national pride, eradication of institutionalized racism, and putting into effect a joyous and enjoyable culture where happiness and tolerance are primordial. Something only a few other nations can brag about. Castro and his government have tried hard to destroy all these qualities but the strength of the Cuban character cannot be dominated. Yes, the embargo is terrible and a stupid idea at best, but the number enemy of the Cuban people is its own government. Cuba has been independent since the end of the 19th century, when it fought Spain and won its independence as a nation. Gandhi returned to India. Just a bit of corrected history from a Cuban here. We cannot overlook the lack of human rights which is the number one issue with Cuba. Yes, the economy is in disarray, but even worse is the lack of freedoms which most tourists overlook because Cubans are so good at appearing content. But offer any Cuban the chance of boarding a plane and disappearing to another country, and you'll have a hard time catching up with him. There's no freedom of speech or movement, Cubans are not allowed to travel outside of the country without permission from the government on a case by case basis. Not to mention the lack of economic and infrastructural improvement, something no Cuban is happy about. I recommend everyone visit this beautiful country, it is one of the few true gems of the world, with the best beaches in the Caribbean and some of the most beautiful and hospitable people. But please, do their situation justice, go and really open your eyes to their reality.