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On the Failure (Success) of Cuban Communism

The first time I visited Cuba, I was just three years old. A young man named Fidel Castro had just graduated from college with a degree in law. Carlos Prío was president of a corrupt Cuban government. Bautista had not yet taken power. Even though I was a small child at the time, I still have some vivid memories of the Cuba of 1950, the narrow streets, the open stores and markets with meat hanging overhead, the sandy beach and a friendly police officer who carried me on his shoulders. This early experience in Cuba undoubtedly had a great impact on my lifelong love and intrigue with this beautiful Caribbean island.

Less than twenty years later, I had embarked on a career as a news reporter, writer and broadcaster. Thanks to the acrimonious relations between the United States and Fidel’s communist Cuba, I could no longer visit the island. Propagandists on both sides of the fence painted lurid pictures of their evil neighbors ninety miles away. As a reporter, I learned pure, unbiased, objective reporting was sometimes a noble goal, but was impossible to obtain. As often as not, it wasn’t even the goal. The news was and continues to be distorted with intent by the government, corporate sponsors and biased news reporters. I can guarantee you that our views of Cuba, the embargo and the people of Cuba are colored by the lenses we’re forced to look through as we try to interpret the island that has been taboo to Americans for more than fifty years.

When I recently had an opportunity to spend two weeks as a professional photographer in Cuba, I lunged at the chance. I wanted to see for myself rather than through the eyes of the propagandists, what life in Cuba was really like. I wanted to meet the people, see life from their perspective. In a word, I wanted to know the “truth” about Cuba.

In my mind, I harbored many questions. I received answers to most, if not all of them. The biggest question of all was “Has Cuban communism failed or has it succeeded?”

The trip was immensely delightful, fun, educational and fulfilling. I would love to go back and spend even more time exploring this beautiful country. Let me share some of my observations and you can judge Cuban communism yourself.

Havana is falling apart. The magnificent old buildings which stood as monuments to free enterprise before Castro are literally falling down. The money just isn’t there to repair and maintain the majority of the structures. Those still standing have people living in apartments that would be condemned in this country. Safety concerns in many cases are luxuries not affordable to the common Cuban. As a result of the shortages of good housing, families live together across many generations. It’s not uncommon to see four generations living under one roof.

Many commodities Americans take for granted are in short supply if available at all. Every Cuban citizen has a ration book. Each person is allotted four eggs per month. Soaps are rationed. Chicken, fuels, vegetables, bread, rice and many other staples are rationed such that everyone has the basic necessities guaranteed at extremely low prices. When the month’s rations have been consumed, Cubans can purchase many items on the streets, but now the free market takes over. For items in short supply, demand drives prices skyward and out of the reach of most Cubans. I found an avocado for $8.00, a bit pricy when considering a typical Cuban might earn $10 per day.

Since replacing his brother Fidel, Raul Castro has taken steps to liberalize Cuba’s restrictions on free enterprise. Most Cubans celebrate what they perceive as progress while silently wishing he would move a little faster. Cubans can now operate restaurants out of homes (paladares). They can buy and sell homes, cars and engage in other activities we take for granted. As they lurch toward a more open economic system, the rules of free enterprise come into play. Shortages cause high prices. A nice meal in one of the better paladares may cost as much or more than a similar meal in a fine restaurant in New York or Los Angeles.

The images of the streets of Havana being filled with the cars of the 50’s is, if anything, understated. They are everywhere. It is a testament to the ingenuity of the people of Cuba that these vehicles are so well maintained and operating. I saw some that could have easily just been driven off the showroom floor. In the United States, this would have been a magnificent antique car show. In Havana, it was just another day in paradise.

In a nutshell, Havana is a city crumbling to the ground with people living with chronic shortages and trying to survive by keeping old, outdated machines of every ilk as their tools of commerce. If you judge the success of Cuban economic policies on these observations, you would have to conclude Cuban communism or socialism has failed dismally. However, I must continue with a few more casual observations of the Cuba of 2011.

Unlike the buildings of Havana, the Cuban people are not crumbling and falling apart. By and large, they are a happy, outgoing, friendly and welcoming people. They seem to have a zest for life lacked by many Americans. While we’re spending all our time working so we can buy happiness, many Cubans understand the power to be happy rests within us, not in the size of our toys. Smiles are not rationed in Cuba; they are in a state of persistent over supply.

Based on my personal observations, Cubans are very well educated. The government has historically given education an extremely high priority. In the early years of the Castro regime, it was felt that a lack of educational opportunities kept the poor in their persistent state of poverty. After spending time in Cuba fifty years later, I’m not sure they didn’t go too far. With everyone well educated, it looks like they have difficulty finding hands to do the menial work. When Castro took power, much of the Cuban people’s lives were tied to working in the cane fields. Now, they have all the managers they need, but too few to do the actual work. There may be an interesting lesson here for our own country. No child left behind? Who’s going to do the work?

I’ve seen many studies saying that despite its economic hard times, Cuba has a medical system that rivals, if not surpasses, the system we have in this country. One person in our group needed emergency medical treatment and was stunned at the high level of care he received. It was also done at a fraction of the cost it would have required in the United States. One of my most interesting discussions took place in a park in Havana where I sat on a bench taking in the sights. I was approached by a married couple who struck up a conversation after they realized I was American. It turned out they were both medical doctors whose jobs were to roam the streets providing medical care and attention to anyone in need. I play hell in this country getting an appointment with my doctor while in Cuba, the doctors are looking for me.

I found that crime in Cuba was nearly non-existent when compared to crime levels in American cities of equal size. People were less aggressive. Chance meetings on the streets were pleasant and friendly. If a car horn was heard, it was never accompanied by the presentation of the middle finger like it often is here. Homelessness was nearly non-existent. The street people found in our cities weren’t to be found there. They were taken in and cared for by the state. Thanks to the rationing programs, no one was starving. The people generally appeared to be healthy. The level of obesity was far, far less than in American cities. We could learn a lot from the Cubans if we were allowed to go there freely, but in this – the land of the free – we are not permitted to do so.

A visit to Cuba is an awakening. Has Cuban communism failed? In its purest, most extreme form, it is apparent to everyone from Raul Castro to the man on the street that it doesn’t work. That is why Raul is making changes. It has clearly failed in the eyes of people such as the Bacardi family, the world’s largest makers of rum. They still proclaim their anger over the loss of $77 million worth of assets and access to the near slave labor they enjoyed when their headquarters were in Havana before Castro. Ask them and you’ll know the communists destroyed Cuba.

But ask the poverty stricken laborers that earned pissy wages harvesting and working the cane fields for Bacardi for three months out of the year while they fought hunger and starvation for the other nine. Now, they get education, medical care and a ration book that assures them enough food to survive. For them, life is infinitely better. For them, Cuban communism gave life. Ask them if it has been a failure.

One final observation is in order and that involves the fifty year, three generation embargo of the island neighbor that continues to this day. On many counts, it is the most asinine policy we could ever dream of implementing. It punishes 11 million innocent people, people that welcome and embrace the American people. They know it is not us that is the enemy; it is a special interest within our government. While we rail against the terrorists in the world, we perpetrate a fifty year act of economic terrorism that has been counter-productive to our own interest. In the early years of the embargo, we left Castro with no choice but to turn to Russia for aid and support. Now Cuba seeks stronger economic ties with China. They do this not to spite us; they do it to survive because we won’t help. This seems to be a supreme act of foolishness on our part.

At a time when our economy is suffering, unemployment is rampant and we see dark clouds on the economic horizon, we cut our own throats with the embargo. We deny American businesses the right to market and sell their goods to an 11 million person market in their own backyard. It challenges me to come up with a tactful adjective to describe the incredible foolishness of this approach to Cuba. The time to end the embargo is long overdue, not just for the sake of the innocent Cuban people suffering shortages of medicine and other goods, but for our own sakes. If we truly want to spread freedom around the world, maybe we should start at home.

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