If you have never been to Cuba, you cannot really imagine it. Any American steeped in 55 years of anti-Castro rhetoric cannot begin to dream up the real Cuba. Sure, part of it takes one into a time warp with beautifully maintained 1950s vintage cars and old broken down trucks spewing diesel fumes, but that's only one of the many sides of Cuba.
Tropical socialism is how our guide described their economic system. Although we had very informative lectures by university professors, former diplomats, and artists, our guide was a wealth of information, especially regarding Cuban history.
He told us that in 1762, the British navy occupied Havana and took over Cuba. However, their hold was short lived. After only 11 months, Spain drove out the British and its influence remains to this day.
In our lectures, we heard the Cuban perspective, something that is almost impossible to get in the U.S., where the embargo and Batista émigrés in Miami have influenced our propaganda for as long as most of us can remember. The 20th century revolutionaries under Fidel, one speaker told us, targeted the gambling casinos, the Mafia riddled businesses, prostitution, and other corrupt parts of Cuba that thrived under the dictator Batista. I reflected on the long-known adage, that revolution only happens when a critical mass of people feel they have nothing to lose. That was clearly the case in 1959 Cuba.
Fidel was and is widely supported and seen as the hero of the people. Even if their wages are abysmal and they know they need economic change, they still seem to appreciate what they have. Before Fidel, the literacy rate in Cuba was between 60 and 75%. Today, it is 99.7%. Public education is free through the PhD. level. There is a doctor for every neighborhood and healthcare is free. Immediately after coming to power, Fidel build big block apartments to house people and claimed housing as a right, not a commodity. Many promises were acted upon immediately. People don't forget such things, even when times are difficult.
The 1960 Urban Reform Law converted at least half of the city tenants into homeowners and many tenants were given long-term leases rent-free. The US embargo hindered the development of this track in some ways, but it's an interesting model to examine. To view housing as a right instead of a commodity is almost impossible for an American to fathom. Capitalism is built on private property rights.
The US embargo, coupled with the fall of the Soviet Union has had a devastating effect on the Cuban economy. But, the miracle is that they still persist, even with the USSR gone and the U.S. trade embargo still in place. Cubans are a proud people. They do not want to be controlled by outside interests or governments. So, how they negotiate their economic future will be most interesting.
Before leaving on this trip, a few Americans told me that Cubans don't have access to the Internet, that the Cuban government was hindering freedom because it didn't want their citizens learning about the outside world. Of course, that is a simplistic view, as the Internet is being established in Cuba (I used it), though I expect with some controls. In a similar way, the American corporate media defines the parameters of what we see and hear everyday.
That said, the freedoms I felt in Cuba were the freedoms "from" --- freedom from a constant barrage of ads every time I accessed the Internet, freedom from the ubiquitous chains that make every US city look the same. There are no McDonald's, Wendy's, Starbucks, KFC, Carl's Jr., Pizza Huts, or big neon signs advertising gas stations in Cuba. The cityscape and freeways intersecting the Cuban countryside are free of billboards. I relaxed because for one week I had escaped the capitalist harassment of relentless advertising.
And, how do the Cubans feel about Obama's more open policy with their country? "We open our arms," one man told me, "but not our legs."