Havana: The Last Communist City

Tuesday, May 13, 2014
Author and journalist, Michael Totten, describes Havana in City Journal.

It is entitled, "The Last Communist City."

(To be fair, we'd note Pyongyang is also one of the last Communist cities.)

Here are some excerpts:

Outside its small tourist sector, the rest of the city looks as though it suffered a catastrophe on the scale of Hurricane Katrina or the Indonesian tsunami. Roofs have collapsed. Walls are splitting apart. Window glass is missing. Paint has long vanished. It’s eerily dark at night, almost entirely free of automobile traffic. I walked for miles through an enormous swath of destruction without seeing a single tourist. Most foreigners don’t know that this other Havana exists, though it makes up most of the city—tourist buses avoid it, as do taxis arriving from the airport. It is filled with people struggling to eke out a life in the ruins.

In the United States, we have a minimum wage; Cuba has a maximum wage—$20 a month for almost every job in the country. (Professionals such as doctors and lawyers can make a whopping $10 extra a month.) Sure, Cubans get “free” health care and education, but as Cuban exile and Yale historian Carlos Eire says, “All slave owners need to keep their slaves healthy and ensure that they have the skills to perform their tasks.”

Even employees inside the quasi-capitalist bubble don’t get paid more. The government contracts with Spanish companies such as Meliá International to manage Havana’s hotels. Before accepting its contract, Meliá said that it wanted to pay workers a decent wage. The Cuban government said fine, so the company pays $8–$10 an hour. But Meliá doesn’t pay its employees directly. Instead, the firm gives the compensation to the government, which then pays the workers—but only after pocketing most of the money. I asked several Cubans in my hotel if that arrangement is really true. All confirmed that it is. The workers don’t get $8–$10 an hour; they get 67 cents a day—a child’s allowance.

The maximum wage is just the beginning. Not only are most Cubans not allowed to have money; they’re hardly allowed to have things. The police expend extraordinary manpower ensuring that everyone required to live miserably at the bottom actually does live miserably at the bottom. Dissident blogger and author Yoani Sánchez describes the harassment sarcastically in her book Havana Real: “Buses are stopped in the middle of the street and bags inspected to see if we are carrying some cheese, a lobster, or some dangerous shrimp hidden among our personal belongings.” Perhaps the saddest symptom of Cuba’s state-enforced poverty is the prostitution epidemic—a problem the government officially denies and even forbids foreign journalists based in Havana to mention. Some Cuban prostitutes are professionals, but many are average women—wives, girlfriends, sisters, mothers—who solicit johns once or twice a year for a little extra money to make ends meet.

Education is free, and the country is effectively 100 percent literate, thanks to Castro’s campaign to teach rural people to read shortly after he took power. But the regime has yet to make a persuasive argument that a totalitarian police state was required to get the literacy rate from 80 percent to 100 percent. After all, almost every other country in the Western Hemisphere managed the same feat at the same time, without the brutal repression.
Cuba has two economies now: the national Communist economy for the majority; and a quasi-capitalist one for foreigners and the elite. Each has its own currency: the Communist economy uses the Cuban peso, and the capitalist bubble uses the convertible peso. Cuban pesos are worth nothing. They can’t be converted to dollars or euros. Foreigners can’t even spend them in Cuba. The convertible pesos are pegged to the U.S. dollar, but banks and hotels pay only 87 Cuban cents for each one—the government takes 13 percent off the top. The rigged exchange rate is an easy way to shake down foreigners without most noticing. It also enables the state to drain Cuban exiles. A million Cuban-Americans live in south Florida, and another half-million live elsewhere in the United States. They send hundreds of millions of dollars a year to family members still on the island. The government gets its 13 percent instantaneously and most of the remaining 87 percent later because almost every place that someone can spend the money is owned by the state.

Shortly before I left Havana, I met a Cuban-American man and his wife visiting from Miami. “Is this your first time here?” he asked. I nodded. “What do you think?” I paused before answering. I wasn’t worried that I would offend him. He lives in Miami, so his opinions of Cuba are probably little different from mine. But we were in a crowded place. Plenty of Cubans could hear us, including the police. They wouldn’t arrest me if I insulted the government, but I didn’t want to make a scene, either. “Well,” I finally said. “It’s . . . interesting.” He belted out a great belly laugh, and I smiled. His wife scowled.

“I hate this place!” she near-shouted. Fidel himself could have heard, and she wouldn’t have cared. She wasn’t going to be quiet about it. Tourists who visit Cuba and spend all their time inside the bubble for the “haves” could leave the country oblivious to the savage inequalities and squalor beyond the hotel zone, but this woman visits her husband’s family in the real Cuba and knows what it’s really like.

“His family is from here,” she said, “but mine’s not, and I will never come back here. Not while it’s like this. I feel like I’m in Iraq or Afghanistan.” I visited Iraq seven times during the war and didn’t have the heart to tell her that Baghdad, while ugly and dangerous, is vastly freer and more prosperous these days than Havana. Anyway, Iraq is precisely the kind of country with which Castro wants you to compare Cuba. It’s the wrong comparison. So are impoverished Third World countries like Guatemala and Haiti. Cuba isn’t a developing country; it’s a once-developed country destroyed by its own government. Havana was a magnificent Western city once. It should be compared not with Baghdad, Kabul, Guatemala City, or Port-au-Prince but with formerly Communist Budapest, Prague, or Berlin. Havana’s history mirrors theirs, after all.