"Cuba, I love her. She is impossible." That is the phrase I remember most upon returning from Cuba. I had asked our taxi driver what his life was like. He said an average day of work was about 16 hours. He had two children and his car, a 1954 Chevy. He wore out the original engine and with his own hands installed a 4-cylinder motor from Korea. He was proud of his car. "It feeds us," he said. Cuba, he told me is like a woman. "I love her, but she is impossible."
"It is impossible to live here, impossible to make a living. We go from one meal, one bill, one expense to the next, and have done that all of our lives. It is impossible, but I love Cuba."
It seemed to encapsule the way a lot Cubans feel. They are poor, they work hard, they have little prospect for improvement, yet they have a pride that their island country has "done it my way" and at least they believe they snubbed the corruption, greed and abuses of the "fat cats" who once ran their nation. Their lack of hope for economic gain is off-set by their pride that they didn't let the criminal element dominate their country. They have to live as a poor people, but they have no choice. I found the good people of Cuba to have a straightforward integrity that was refreshing.
QUOTES FROM CUBAN FRIENDS:
"I love Cuba. Cuba is impossible."
"I was in revolutionary square, and we listened to Fidel speak for seven hours. We were so tired. He repeated himself many times, but no one dared walk away while Fidel spoke."
"My son lives in Florida. I cannot go there and see him, and he cannot come here. I have not been able to see my son in 10 years."
“You ask me why we do not travel. We cannot afford a movie, much less an airplane ticket, even if the government would let us go.”
When we landed at the international airport at Havana, there was no "Welcome to Cuba" sign, or even a sky tunnel leading from the airplane. We stepped down the metal stairs off of the plane to the tarmac and said, "We made it to Cuba before Trump closes it down again!"
Havana photo taken by Ben Boothe
CUBA HISTORY, REPEATED REVOLUTIONS, REPEATED EXCESSES
Portugal, France and Spain all brought their concepts of exploiting Cuba with slaves, tobacco, sugar and rum. Then Batista, needing funds for his presidential campaign, brought in the Mafia from the USA. This opened the door for another round of excesses and exploitation. On one side is the beautiful ocean, on the other historic guns and cannons. No wonder there are forts and cannons placed around the Malecon of Havana.
Look at how many "nations" have tried to rule Cuba:
- Cuba was the home of Ameri-indian tribes long before Portugal, France and Spain colonized parts of it in the late 15th Century.
- In 1762 the British sent 4,000 troops to Cuba and claimed the nation. The British vastly increased trade with North American and Caribbean colonies. At that time, Havana was the third largest city in the Americas. The British traded Cuba for Florida.
- In the 1800’s there was so much economic potential there that a large segment of U.S. business leaders (most of them from southern states) formed a group to declare Cuba as a new “southern” state of the USA. This gathered good financial and investment support, but the Civil War ended that effort. In 1898, the Spanish American War gave Cuba independence from Spain, and it was ruled by the USA for a few years. Indeed the USA tried to purchase Cuba, but Cubans resisted and the USA got Puerto Rico and other territories instead.
- Cuba became a fragile republic until Fulgencio Batista took leadership. He actually was in power more than once. Batista needed money to gain power and so brokered a deal with the U.S. Mafia, which financed him in exchange for "no rules or regulations" on the gambling, prostitution, hotel and illicit drug trade.
- On Dec. 31, 1958, the nation’s leadership passed over to Fidel Castro. The nation has been governed by a socialist or communist regime since.
Sadly, a nation that could have been a favored friend was lost to the USA by a policy of the USA to “punish and isolate” Cuba for decades, until President Obama re-opened relations in 2014. This suffered a setback with President Trump's announcement in June of 2017 to revoke Obama's policy of new friendship. Cuba has always needed the help of another nation, and Russia’s Soviet Union sent hundreds of millions in aid. Then Russia ran out of money for Cuba. Since then, Cuba's economy has struggled, and the country has remained a relatively poor nation.
CUBA'S MIXED RELATIONSHIPS AND CONFLICTS:
Cuba’s history shows repeated examples of unrest and power grabs, leading to more conflicts. For example, in 1539 Conquistador Hernado de Soto departed Havana with 600 followers to search for fabled treasure and went directly to Florida and explored throughout the Southeastern USA. While he explored early America, others tried developing Cuba's economy. In the 18th century, Cuba had large-scale sugar cane plantations. Between 1790 and 1820 more than 325,000 Africa and Haitian slaves were imported to Cuba to work the vast sugar cane plantations. Of the 630,000 population of Cuba in 1817 only 281,021 were white, the rest were largely black slaves. There were many conflicts and eventual rebellion, including the “10-year-war,” which involved black slaves, Chinese slaves, and a poor class. The United States refused to recognize the new Cuban government in 1878. Slavery was abolished in 1875, but continued until 1886. The USA, with Teddy Roosevelt, fought against Spain for Cuba, and history shows that five U.S. presidents -- Polk, Pierce, Buchanan, Grant, and McKinley -- tried to buy Cuba from Spain. The USA gave Cuba independence in 1902, but retained the right to intervene in Cuban affairs and leased Guantanamo Bay naval base from Cuba.
In 1924, tourism increased under Gerardo Machado’s Presidency of Cuba and many American-owned hotels and restaurants were built, creating a boom of tourism. Many large investors from the USA, Spain, France, Portugal owned companies and property in Cuba. Unfortunately there was an increase of gambling and prostitution as Havana grew. With the 1929 stock market crash and the great depression, economic pressure again brought unrest in Cuba, and in 1933 there was yet another revolt. The Sergeants’ Revolt led by Fulgencio Batista gave Batista power, and he dominated Cuban politics for 25 years. In 1952, Batista staged a coup, outlawed the Communist Party, and by 1958 Cuba was relatively well advanced. Batista's governing brought more corruption, crime, and big business from his Mafia associates, and he was forced into exile by Castro who had led yet another revolution. The USA supported Castro until the missile crisis and subsequent reports of executions by Fidel's government. Human Rights of Wikipedia reports "Various estimates have been made in order to ascertain the number of political executions carried out on behalf of the Cuban government since the revolution. Within the first two months of the 1959, Castro's government performed more than 300 executions of Batista officials, with Latin American historian Thomas E. Skidmore says that there had been 550 executions in the first six months of 1959. In an April 1961 UPI story, the agency stated that about "700 have died before Castro's firing squads" between 1959 and 1961. The World Handbook of Political and Social Indicators ascertained that there had been 2,113 political executions between the years 1958–67, while British historian Hugh Thomas, stated in his study Cuba or the pursuit of freedom that "perhaps" 5,000 executions had taken place by 1970. According to Amnesty International, the total number of death sentences issued from 1959–87 was 237, of which all but 21 were actually carried out. The anti-Castro Archivo Cuba estimates that 4,000 people were executed in Cuba between 1959 and 2016. Most executions for former supporters of the Batista regime. When Castro seized private lands (many of which were owned by U.S. landowners), the USA imposed sanctions and eventually a total ban on trade and travel. This was partially to keep more Russian military equipment out, but no doubt blocked commerce between Cuba and the USA. When in 1960 Castro signed a commercial agreement with the Soviet Union which led to eventual conflict between the USA and Russia when Cuba allowed Russia to place missiles in Cuba (aimed at the USA). In later years, China and Venezuela and many Latin American nations befriended Cuba through trade and exchange. In 2014, President Barack Obama lifted many sanctions on Cuba and agreed to gradual “friendlier” relations. This brought increased trade and tourism and many large companies indicated they would be doing business in Cuba. Large hotels were purchased in Cuba by American investors, and Cuba became a favorite destination of Americans in 2016-17. In June of 2017, President Trump ordered a renewed “ban” on Cuba, probably because of Cuban Americans' of influence in the Republican Party. Many of their ancestors lost lands and property in Cuba over 50 years earlier.
The Government of Cuba under Fidel had a high level of imprisoned journalists, and as happened under Batista, punished political opposition with prison sentences. Its prison system now includes 40 maximum security prisons, 30 minimum security prisons and more than 200 work camps. Perhaps this is why the Cuban people are fearful to talk politics. On the other hand Cuba has developed an excellent health care system and educational system offering free health care and education for all. Sadly, the economic development of Cuba over the past 60 years has been a failure and most Cubans live with low income and what many consider borderline poverty. To this day, in Cuba's beautiful countryside, we saw farmers still plowing fields with oxen or 50-year-old Russian tractors.
Fidel and Che were empowered by the ruthless power, greed and corruption of Batista's regime which catered to a gang of rich businessmen who used the government to enrich themselves. Batista made his deal with the Mafia that if they financed his election he would give them free and unrestricted reign in business, gambling, hotels, prostitution, drugs, and a host of other criminal profiteering enterprises. They made Havana a boom town. The word went out, "Havana is ours to do and build whatever."
Fortunes were made. Mansions of wealth and beauty sprung up. Hotels, commercial buildings, world celebrities and movie stars came to Cuba. The rich became enormously richer. Nowhere did something like the "roaring twenties" echo louder than in Havana until the 1930's through the early 1950's. Tobacco, rum, and sugar grew with it, and celebrities from Sinatra to Churchill bowed to the kings of fortune in Havana. 1920-1955 saw economic growth ... along with murder, protection rackets, "flesh trafficking," Cuba was cited as one of the richest small nations on earth during that boom period. Some rich created private enclaves of armed body guards. As the rich became richer, the poor made only small advances as they watched ostentatious wealth blossom while the poor scrambled for crumbs. Farmers in the 1950's were still driving horse-drawn carriages and wagons and plowing their fields with oxen. Today, 67 years later, they still do, as we personally witnessed. The economic situation has not improved, regardless of a change from capitalist dictators such as Batista to socialist managers of today.
Batista appointed and empowered rich, greedy, unethical, violent -- some murderous -- politicians and ministers. They freely used government for enrichment and power. We have witnessed this in other nations, and it almost always brings problems and social instability. His council of ministers included powerful and greedy businessmen, some of them known criminals. They used political power of Cuba unethically as they enriched themselves. They brought in new hotels, new country clubs, new casinos, new musical entertainment acts that thinly veiled the industry of prostitution and drugs. Batista didn't deny their goals, and they gloried in this "new day." In doing so, they enabled by their excesses the empowerment of Fidel and Che.
Fidel and Che brought in their socialist/communist ideals. But then when they won, they imprisoned, intimidated and executed many people. They did not realize the depth of their lack of understanding of economics or how to create economic stability and growth. The turmoil of vast property seizures, executions, plus social disruption of new socialist economic systems, created an outflow of business leaders. Thus the nation suffered continual turmoil and chaotic change in the late 1950's. Business leaders and property owners saw their property seized, and a breed of new “poor but powerful” was born.
Cuba suffered a massive "brain drain" as boats set out for Florida almost daily, just to find better living standards.
True economic leaders and business titans that had employed many Cubans left Cuba. Many such as Bacardi Rum abandoned Cuba for other nations. Scores of bright, brilliant people left Cuba's poor in Cuba where those who stayed had to stew in a nation unable to understand or provide free market economics. Socialist or communist ideologues ran the nation. Sadly, 60 years of that "managed economy" impoverished the majority of the nation into a slavery of poverty. A “free” hospital and educational system was put into place, but the economic system never worked well. After Russia poured in hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, into the economy, Russia ran out of money for Cuba. Poor Cuba was once rich but corrupt, then became poor but idealistic, and it is poor still. Were it not for the hotel and travel industry, and agricultural export crops (often owned and managed by foreign investors) the nation would not have enough cash flow to keep order or supply even the basics of needs such as power, food or social stability.
As I enjoyed a good meal of fresh lobster, rum and margaritas in a nice restaurant, my wife reminded me that this meal cost us as much as a Cuban family might earn in many days.
One must wonder how the Cuban people make it in the current difficult economy with their lives often imprisoned by painful poverty. Cuba went from sleepy growth to a booming economy with no rules and wild expansion, to a revolution that brought during more than half a century a lot of new rules, but economically imprisoning its people in an environment of decay, ruin and economic deterioration. It seems that Cuba's political leaders have yet to find a balance between extremes. But the people are ready for economic progress. The slogans and billboards of "Revolucion" are as faded as is the enthusiasm for that old, worn system. I interviewed Cuban after Cuban with the following question:
"Are you socialist, communist, or what?"
The answer almost always came with a shrug, and something like: "I am Catholic," or "I am Cuban, I just want to make a living for my family."
Not one person answered that he was a socialist or communist, nor did any Cuban we interviewed praise the current system.
Cubans don't want to talk about politics. They seem afraid to discuss politics these days. They just want peace and an opportunity for greater freedom and to have financial opportunity. They have learned that a "government-planned and controlled economy" has not worked well for 60 years. They would like to be able to make good livings, with incomes that provides Cubans with a chance to achieve their dreams.
Cubans and many people around the world still admire Castro's and Che's idealism and heroic victories. All know Batista's gang of rich and greedy mobsters were bad. But the entire world, especially Cubans, recognize the abject failure of Cuba's brand of economics. It did not work as socialism, and even Fidel coyly said before his death “I am not a Communist.” His brother, Raul Castro, has introduced more progressive changes in the past four years than anyone, but he has said he will resign soon. Cubans know that the intellectual attempt at a “managed” economy, even when primed by the wealth of Russia, did not work for the majority of Cubans. Ironically, no "outside" entity has been able to manage Cuba well, and no "outside" ideology has managed to make it work well.
Person after person in Cuba sighs in fainting hope of a freer, more progressive Cuba. The sad voice of my taxi driver saying,
"My son is in America. I have not seen him in over a decade," or a hotel manager who said,
"Even if the government would let me travel, I do not have money to go anywhere ... we are trapped in Cuba by poverty."
So a typical family that makes about $300 per month feels like their hopes and aspirations must be pushed aside by more pressing matters of survival one day at a time. The oppression of poverty and lack of opportunity is as heavy as the relentless July humidity and heat of Cuba.
The sandy beaches, music, rum and good nature of the Cuban people are beautiful. Tourists from Europe flock to Cuba. Americans want to flock there, but are inhibited by the current U.S. policy, which most Americans do not understand or agree with. But even the beautiful natural resources, jungles, beaches and mountains cannot overcome a pervasive lack of enthusiasm or hope in Cuba. Incompetent government workers seem to make things worse. Bureaucratic bankers are not much better, and I recall one day waiting almost an hour in a bank lobby to change some currency only to be told after a long wait,
“Sorry Senior, we are out of dollars, we have none in the bank.”
My good hotel had issues providing soap, toilet paper, electric power, or even potable water. One day the toilet seat disappeared. The toilet paper was scant, and the hotel desk said, "We have no more toilet paper or soap today."
Since the hotel “ran out of hand soap,” we decided to make it an adventure to find and buy a bar of soap. One day, so hot my clothes were soaked in sweat and after spending most of a morning searching, I found myself in a crowded line on a sidewalk, waiting to enter a store with soap.
After 45 minutes following the "new procedure" (my back pack was checked and given up to be taken into a locker before I could enter), I managed to wait in another line in the store for 30 minutes more to purchase a bar of soap. Seems that many in the store had a quota book that limited how much toothpaste, soap or supplies they could acquire. I was proud to have my new bar of soap and realized how little Cuban people have been forced to live with. If they are out of cash, and don't have a good “quota book” they simply can't buy toothpaste, soap or toilet paper.
Poor Cubans, such good people ... so near America, Mexico or Costa Rica and so far from opportunity to advance. And even with the efforts of the Pope and Obama to crack the door open a little between Cuba and the United States, now we watch as President Trump announces he will again restrict travel and economic activity between Cuba and the USA.
I could tell you about the beautiful beaches, the magnificent farmlands and mountains. I could quote the tourist leaflets about music, dancing and fresh lobster. All of these things are true. But every time I spent $60 on a nice meal for “tourists,” I felt guilty thinking that this amount might buy groceries for a family in Cuba for a week.
We went to the Hotel National which had every luxury -- rooms from $130 to $300 per night -- saunas, massage, as well as top-flight entertainment. All of the movie producers and actors come and go from this classic hotel. My wife, Saneh, is an actress and producer. She found movie people in Cuba talented and creative, but they have to be careful of censorship. But creativity genius and truth is hard to suppress. We visited dozens of artists and found incredible artistic talent. Below are two paintings, the first Ben purchased, the second Saneh. The prices were great as compared with the quality.
The artists provided a certificate of authenticity which got the work through customs. Freedom of artistic expression is a first front in creating progress.
On the other hand, we tried staying in “particulares,” in Havana and Trinidad, which are rooms people rent in their homes for $20-30 per night. They cook breakfast or even dinner for $5 more, and are thrilled to have the income. One lady told me:
“My grandfather had a ranch and large plantation, and the government took it. We had 12 rental properties and they took those. Our family was allowed to live in two rooms of one of the houses we owned, while poor people got the rest of our home to live in. Now, I am allowed to rent a room out in our home, we are slowly trying to 'rebuild.'"
It was delightful to be there. Another woman in another town said, “We have a four-bedroom house and will rent it to you for $25 per night.” We took it, and they provided two servants, one to clean the house and another to keep the yard and watch the gate for our safety. They were delighted to rent the place to us, because that $25 per night was meaningful to them. We noticed that taxis drivers, many over 70 years old, charged from $7 to $30 for the same trip, negotiating a price is like a free-for-all in Cuba.
One morning I mentioned that it was my birthday. Our cook danced and said, "Fiesta, fiesta!" In a little while six people were in the kitchen. One had some fresh fish, one brought lobsters, another brought fresh "low hanging" tropical fruit, another brought what looked like beef. Another brought a few cups of rice and they cooked up a feast, including a beautiful cake for my birthday. What a joyful and kind people the Cubans are. They didn't have money, but they could come up with food to cook and we had food to share with others as well.
I was glad to go to Cuba to meet the kind and sweet people. I asked many of them what their goals were or what they expected in the next five years. Everyone just shrugged. They are very focused on living and surviving day to day. They didn't want to discuss politics, because it is not a pleasant subject for them. Almost every family has a story or relative who was impacted by the last revolution. There seems to be a fear about speaking of politics that I also observed in Kirghistan, China, Mongolia and Romania. People in nations with authoritarian governments tend to fear political discourse. But, even with all of the large billboards saying "Viva La Revolucion” and so on, we noted many of those signs are fading, old, and got the impression that the enthusiasm and spirit has faded as well. The revolutionary zeal may have died a little when Fidel passed on, but no doubt much of the enthusiasm has ebbed away. Many Americans also admired Fidel and Che for fighting corruption, but later, as the economic system of Cuba stalled and the vast majority of Cubans fell into a poverty style life, people of America, and throughout the world, recognized that the economic leadership simply didn't succeed. They tried to whip up enthusiasm and political support by naming the USA as a devil and the reason Cuban economics didn't work. But realistically, Cuba's economic system was destroyed by poor economic leadership. Only good economic leadership and progressive, intelligent business-minded leaders can rebuild, and that rebuilding of Cuba will take decades to achieve.
Cuba suffers from a lack of hope or faith that things will get better anytime soon. I believe this is because of the slow erosion of spirit caused by never-ending poverty and lack of hope to “climb up” financially. The children of Cuba are happy, clean, healthy and the pride of their families. In their faces we see potential for future progress that has not yet been lost in the realities of life. For them, and the future of this nation, we send our good hopes and encouragement for a better future. We met a few people, dynamic, progressive Cubans determined to make a good future and build good things for their children. Those will be the future leaders of the country, people willing to work hard, invest and make things better. Cuba needs many more like them.
Cubans were very curious about us Americans, especially me being a Texan and Saneh being from Iran.
* They wanted to know about our house in the United States.
* They were amazed that my wife and I and our daughter had a house with so many bedrooms and space.
* One man in his 70's asked me, “How many cars do you have?” I was embarrassed to tell him that my wife and I had four cars.
* He asked, “How old are your cars?” I was again embarrassed to tell him that they were all new are nearly so.
He became very quiet, and after a while, brought me a cold beer, brewed in Fidel's home town.
We sat quietly for a long time sipping beer. Then he said, “I haven't had a car in 20 years. My last car was a 1955 Plymouth.” We saw a lot of those old American cars. They were our taxis. My dad had a 1955 Plymouth when I was 7 years old, living in Texas.
The next morning the elderly man went out early, found a market and bought a variety of fresh tropical fruits. When I got up he had peeled, cut, trimmed and chilled a tropical feast for our breakfast. I asked if I could pay him, and he said, “It only cost me four pesos,” and reluctantly let me pay him. It was delicious. No doubt the source of my diarrhea that night, but it was worth it, so fresh, exploding with flavor. I was reminded that there are rewards above 'how many cars' one might have.
His kind generosity was something that he could do for us, a quiet, simple gift of simple foods. I figured we have things to learn from Cuba, even things we can learn for the simple “equality of poverty” they share.
I remembered my father telling me that, “In the Great Depression we didn't feel poor, because everyone was equally poor. Life was equally hard, and we shared a hard time; we took comfort in the mutual experience.”
Hmmmm, that is worth chewing on, just like those exotic tropical flavors that were a gift to us, from a man of simple means.
As for me, I keep that bar of soap to remind me of how much we are blessed in the USA. I will ever appreciate a bar of soap because of Cuba. Even with all of the faults of the USA, and even with our ability to elect some of the most unlikely leaders, I love my United States, and always when I return home, I breath a prayer of thanks for what we have been blessed with as Americans. We should all have a greater respect, tolerance and understanding of our fellow men and women around the world.
See this article and 800 more articles by Ben Boothe at: BOOTHEGLOBALPERSPECTIVES