So Close and Yet So Far: Exploring the “Real Cuba“

“I know that the vision of Cuba in the United States is of a diabolical country. They portray us as being a country with many difficulties, many problems. However, if you come to Cuba you realize that the world press doesn’t tell the whole story. If it did, I would believe that everyone in the States wears a cowboy hat and carries a pistol. But there’s more to the story.” – Alex Castro (Fidel’s son)

Life under blockade is at once both more elemental and more complicated than the frame of reference of the average American. I discovered this firsthand when I lived in Gaza, and again when I traveled to Cuba severalweeks ago with a delegation from CODEPINK.

The two situations are so very different, of course, and yet I found myself repeatedly “connecting the dots”: Two territories squeezed for decades by powerful Western/Western-backed countries, resulting in a myriad of hardships that aren’t truly understood until you immerse in them yourself.

A few cases in point:

1) One of the comments I heard from a number of people before I left for Cuba was that the U.S. embargo couldn’t be that much of a burden, because it only affects American trade. What they do not realize, and that I did not fully understand myself before my visit, is that any product shipped from anywhere that contains at least 10 percent of U.S.-made components – like, say a circuit board or bolts – are banned as well. Think about it. Not only does that prohibit import of a huge variety of goods and equipment, but how many businesses or governments are even willing to go to that much work to track down the origin of every ingredient? In addition, if a cargo ship visits Cuba, it isn’t allowed visit any U.S. port for the following six months. That’s a prohibition that makes trade with Cuba far from cost-efficient for most businesses.

2) Another fact about Cuba that many Americans know, but don’t fully understand, is its relative digital isolation. In 2011, roughly 25 percent of Cubans had Internet access, according to the country’s National Statistics Office and the International Telecommunication Union. But that number is misleading; it includes people who can only log into government-controlled websites. In that same year, only 5 percent of Cubans actually had open access to the Internet, according to Internet freedom watchdog Freedom House.

Home connections are practically nonexistent, and only government officials, academics, doctors, engineers and approved journalists have Internet access at work. For everyone else, there are expensive government-run Internet cafes where an hour of connection can cost US$6-10, a prohibitive amount of money in a country where the average weekly salary is around $20. (Note: In my Havana hotel, by no means ritzy but also not frequented by many Cubans, the cost was “just” $5 an hour.) Why is this the case? Conan O’Brien generated a lot of publicity for becoming the first U.S. late-night talk show host to shoot an episode from Cuba since the embargo began The episode will air on TBS March 4. (The last late-night show to travel to Cuba was “The Tonight Show” in 1959. Host Jack Paar was sharply criticized at the time for interviewing Fidel Castro. Though the embargo hadn’t yet begun, U.S.-Cuba relations were extremely shaky. )

O’Brien talked about his experience on “The Daily Show” a couple of nights ago, and he stated that there is NO internet in Cuba because “they” don’t want people to have access to information. Obviously, it’s not true that Internet is nonexistent. It also is not true that the only reason for the limited connectivity is government censorship. Yes, the latter is true, in part due to paranoia stoked by repeated U.S. attempts at regime change. (The United States has spent $264 million in the last 18 years trying to instigate “democratic reforms” on the island.) However, the low connectivity also can be laid at the feet of the American embargo and its devastating effect on the Cuban economy. Ricardo Alarcon, former head of the Cuban parliament and lead negotiator for the release of the Cuban 5, told us that the Helms-Burton Act, passed in 1996 to impose sanctions on the island nation, prohibits connection to the U.S. undersea fiber optic cable. Cubans thus had to rely on satellite connections that are too slow to be of practical use. It was not until 2010 that Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez came to Cuba’s rescue and facilitated the construction of a cable between the two countries. It finally came on line in 2013.

Nonetheless, computers, routers and other equipment continue to be expensive and difficult to obtain. “We have to ration (Internet connections); it is too expensive otherwise,” explained Alarcon. “We prioritize businesses and social enterprises. Meanwhile, USAID (U.S. Aid and International Development) spends $20 million on propaganda media (Radio/TV Marti and its own version of Twitter). Why don’t they spend it instead on wifi for the people instead?!”

3) Credit cards cannot be used in Cuba (necessitating the possession of large amounts of cash; one of my fellow travellers left a backpack carrying $2,000 on a sofa overnight and of course it “disappeared”) and U.S. telephone services will not work there. That I knew in advance. Bad enough. But I had no idea of the ridiculous extent to which U.S. businesses are forced to take those restrictions. While in Cuba, I went online to check my bank balance; however, I could not even look at my account. When I tried to sign in, I received a notice saying I was barred due to my presence in Cuba and that I should call a toll-free number. But…U.S. phone services don’t work in Cuba! Not only was I shut out from my account, but my credit/debit card was disabled. Two payments I had tied to my account “bounced,” and I received somewhat threatening phone calls from a company that now considered me a “scofflaw.” Yet I can travel to Egypt, Yemen and Pakistan without so much as a blink.

With hardships such as these, it’s not surprising that many youth in Cuba, like those in Gaza, look for opportunity abroad. The GDP of the country is on par with Botswana and monthly salaries averaged US$20 a month. Queues to receive bread rations are common. (It used to be a lot worse, though. Many of the people we met spoke of the “Special Period” — more like “The Illness,” as one individual called it — when the Soviet Union collapsed and left Cuba without its patron. It was a period of “nothingness,” said one of our guides – a time when cupboards were bare, the average Cuban lost 10 pounds and transportation was difficult if not impossible. That’s one reason why Cuba is known for its vintage old cars; parts were and still are simply unavailable, so they make “old” last.

It wasn’t until Hugo Chavez of Venezuela stepped in with aid that Cuba truly began to recover. (However, several officials told us, Cuba has learned an important lesson: never rely too much on one country.)

Soon, hopefully, many of the worst aspects of the U.S. embargo will end. Negotiations have begun between delegations from the two countries, and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced last week that the process of evaluating whether Cuba should be removed from the American list of states that sponsor terrorism has begun. But don’t be deceived. As Kenia Serrano Puig, spokesperson for the Cuban Institute for Friendship with the Peoples, told us, “The U.S. still seems intent on achieving the same goals by other methods.”

It’s easy to understand why. A small group from CODEPINK met with U.S. Deputy Chief of Mission Conrad Tribble. Among the points he made: 1) The return of Guantanamo, the U.S. naval base-turned-torture-center on Cuban property, is not important and is “off the table.” (Yet, he could not cite a legal basis for continuing U.S. control.) 2) Only products and services from the Cuban private sector – which account for 18 percent of the country’s GDP – will be permissible imports. And on top of that, there are many other restrictions.

“So, the State Department will let Cuba export to the U.S. anything made without any input from the Cuban government, except anything that’s animal, vegetable, mineral or constituted by other materials found on the planet earth,” wrote David Swanson, one of my fellow travelers, sarcastically.

In other words, through our economic policy for trade (instead of our previous attempts at “regime change”), we hope to bring about a conversion to a more capitalist, privatized, U.S.-market-friendly state.

“Normalized relations are better than being on the verge of war,” noted Serrano Puig. “But no one has the right to tell us what to do. We are 11 million Cubans with our own brains. We have the right to think for ourselves, including the right to be wrong.”

Alarcon echoed her. “Cuba is not open for sale. When we resume relations, it will be on terms we accept.”

They have a right to be proud. Yes, in many ways the Cuban revolution has not lived up to its stated goals and the people’s hopes. (Very few do.) Inefficient bureaucracy abounds. Censorship and suppression of political dissent is real, although it waxes, wanes and evolves. Inequality and racism persist. But there are many other characteristics from which we could learn and benefit. For example:

Women have achieved a greater degree of equality than in many areas of the rest of the world – including the United States. Forty-eight percent of the members of the Cuban parliament are women. In the U.S. Congress, there are not yet even 20. The same representation of women is found at the provincial and municipal levels. Equal pay for equal work is mandated and all women receive one year of paid maternity leave. (Since 2003, men have been offered the same benefit if it makes more sense for them to stay at home.)

Arts and culture are highly valued, and thus lessons in everything from ballet to guitar are offered free or at nominal charge. Likewise, performances and exhibits are priced to be accessible to the masses, with admission free or as low as $2.

Education is equally prioritized. Cuba’s highly successful literacy campaign is well known. In 1959, Cuba’s literacy rate was 60-76 percent, largely because of lack of educational access in rural areas and a shortage of instructors. At the behest of Che Guevara, the government of Fidel Castro named1961 the “year of education” and sent literacy brigades into the countryside to construct schools, train new educators and teach the predominately illiterate guajiros (peasants) to read and write. By the completion of the campaign, 707,212 adults were taught to read and write, raising the national literacy rate to 96 percent. That tradition continues today, with the Cuban government heavily subsidizing the price of books to make them affordable to all. (That is possible through state-sponsorship of publishers, which does mean a certain amount of control over the titles available.)

While we were in Cuba, its international book was held across the country. The fair travels to every province, attracting an estimated 1 million people of all ages and authors of more than 1,000 books from 35 countries. There were literally long lines of people waiting to buy books – a rare sight in the United States.

“The book is one of the most important symbols of our revolution,” said Zuleika Roman, president of the Cuban Book Institute and a member of the parliament. “Families may be poor, but they are admired because of their knowledge and how they make use of it.”

Cuba is renowned for its free, widely available health care. People there live as long as their counterparts in much richer countries. According to data from the World Bank, life expectancy for someone born in Cuba in 2011 was 79 years, just a little longer than that of an infant born in the United States the same year. But the U.S. economy is more than eight times larger, per person, than Cuba’s. Cuba also stands out in other measures of healthiness. The low percentage of children who die before the age of 5 is similarly unusual, especially in the Americas.

The country’s success, and its good relations in the region, is in part due to its decision to make medical education and care widely accessible. We visited its Latin American School of Medicine, for example, which is possibly the largest medical school in the world (enrollment was approximately 19,550 students from 110 countries in 2013).

All those enrolled are international students from outside Cuba, including Latin America, the Caribbean, Africa, Asia – and the United States. And guess what? Tuition, accommodation and board are free, and a small living stipend is paid to students.

Cuban politicians (at least the ones who addressed us) are amazingly candid and straightforward – a brazenness perhaps born of the country’s long rejection by a superpower in its own backyard. For example, Mariela Castro, daughter of current president Raul and a member of the parliament, spoke to our group about her National Sex Education Center, for which she serves as director. She talked freely (in Spanish, through an interpreter) about her fight against the “macho” culture (referring bluntly to “men and their penises”) and her discussions with adolescents about experiencing joy through creative sex rather than turning to pornography. If an American politician was anywhere near that honest and uninhibited, he or she would be front-page news and out of a job.

Cuba certainly faces new challenges as it increases space for private business and thus more opportunities for jobs and individual initiative, as well as opens up to American trade. The current government knows this, and is intent on continuing to evolve while retaining its socialist identity. And it will continue to need “tourists with consciences” like the CODEPINK group.

“We still need as much solidarity as possible,” said Serrano Puig, who credits the 152 solidarity movements around the world with helping the Cuba revolution survive. “Please don’t give up!”