Before you read, please understand the
I am not an expert on Cuba, so all, some, or none of my information may be incorrect. The following is my opinion based on observation.
I’m an American Capitalist and detest the horrible effects of a socialistic country. I don’t think everyone should have the same stuff, live at the same level of comfort, or have the same creature comforts. I do think that everyone should have the “opportunity” to pursue and achieve those things that they desire. If they are willing to work hard enough and do enough right things right, then success should follow. I don’t resent the rich or the poor. So, a socialistic Cuba is unacceptable for the people of Cuba, but they have to change it themselves.
CUBA January 2015
The following is a sharing of my observations and opinions on my recent visit to Cuba. Coincidentally, Cuba has been a hot press item with the normalization talks initiated by the Obama administration. So, the timeliness of the talks, the imminent death of Castro, and strong Cuban influence in Florida have made Cuba an interesting topic of discussion.
I traveled to Cuba, along with my wife, Melanie, as part of a delegation of politicians and business people from the Tampa Bay area. I was invited to go through happenstance. I befriended Albert Fox while sitting at the same poker table over the past year or so. We have had many conversations about Cuba and he shared his experiences, opinions, and efforts to eliminate the current US embargo against Cuba. Mr. Fox is the founder of the Alliance for Responsible Cuba Policy Foundation. While I may disagree with some of his positions, I respect him and was interested in increasing my personal knowledge of the situation. Essentially, Cuba is just another third world Caribbean island to me, but I resent that I, as an American, cannot freely travel to this country while citizens of our allies, like the Canadians, can. This disconnect reeks of emotional influences in US policies that were established over 50 years ago.
Due to my experiences abroad, my viewpoint on Cuba is probably a bit skewed compared to most Americans that develop their opinions from the comforts of their communities without ever really traveling abroad. I have been fortunate to travel the world, including spending a lot of time in China, a country that does not hide that they are an oppressive Communist country. However, China has spent the past 30 years transforming themselves into a powerful nation by developing a mixture of open capitalism (which offsets a closed state-owned economy) while maintaining the control of a single party communistic country. The story is not over, but my experience with the entrepreneurs of China provided a foundation of expectations with the Cuban people. I have travelled to China as a business man developing relationships for my company, as well as, part of a delegation representing the US. We traveled through China meeting with dignitaries to enhance relationships between our countries.
Overview of Trip
For this trip, we spent a Thursday through Sunday in Cuba. It was a structured agenda, however, we were free to travel around as we desired.
We flew into Havana. We arrived at a dedicated airport terminal for air traffic between the US and Cuba. It was very busy. This was the first bit of confusion about the embargo and the perceived lack of interactivity between the countries. They have several flights that arrive and depart between the US and Cuba daily. There are 100’s of people (Americans and Cubans) traveling back and forth. The Cubans going back to Cuba had a ton of items (bicycles, microwaves, etc.) they were taking home. So, either the embargo has some major loopholes or I don’t understand what it means…I’m going with the latter.
During our visit, we stayed in the Cohiba-Melia hotel. It is a partnership between the Cuban government and Spain. The hotel was rated a 5-star hotel that was far from 5 stars on quality and upkeep, by American standards. It worked, but resembled the rest of the city in regards to lack of maintenance, attention to detail and customer service. It was clearly a way to trap the tourists and then squeeze out the dollars on pricing. Regardless, it was mostly clean and worked for our visit.
We ate at several restaurants in the city, which was a mix of state-owned and privately-owned restaurants. In the past few years, the Cuban Government has opened up the business laws to allow for private or citizen owned restaurants and renting your spare bedroom. So restauranteurs are picking places and setting up shop. Of course their attention to customer service and quality is better than the socialistic influence of the state owned restaurants.
We travelled to Veradera beach on Saturday. This is about 100 miles east of Havana and took a couple of hours. We were traveling around in a big, comfortable, Chinese manufactured touring bus. Veradera is primarily the part of the country developed by the DuPont’s in the early 1900’s. They had invested millions of dollars in infrastructure, buildings, etc. that was taken away from them in the revolution and given to the state to basically destroy over the past 55 years. It was not that special but in relation to the rest of Cuba that we visited, it would be considered elaborate. While the tour guide pushed that the locals vacationed here all the time and it was part of their lives, I don’t recall seeing very many Cubans anywhere near the place (except for the workers) and a newly married couple walking the beach.
We departed on Sunday on an easy bus ride to the airport and a normal experience of checking in to the airline (Sun Country); paying a $25 Cuban peso departure tax; going through customs; and waiting for our flight. Similar experience as any other country heading back to the USA. Arriving in the US was basic as well, and customs was a breeze.
Ron’s Opinions- Top 3 Perspectives
The following is a compilation of general observations and opinions based on my trip. They are prone to be incorrect, misrepresented, or have other fallacies that goes with an opinionated person taking a trip to a Socialistic nation that has been considered a non-friendly neighbor (they did allow themselves to be prostituted by the Russians and have nuclear missiles installed on their land to threaten the US) for my entire life.
History Lesson- It WAS a Beautiful Country
It is obvious that there was a point in time when Havana was a modern, gorgeous city. The architecture is fabulous and some of the buildings were obviously advanced for their time. However, there has not been any maintenance, innovation or development in over 55 years, and it is very obvious. Our tour guide was very proud of the architecture, fortresses and statues, all the while referring to how they used to be. Yet there is no obvious acceptance that prior to the Castro revolution, Havana was prosperous, and since that event, the city has been in continuous decline. We heard the story of the Hilton Hotel that was built in Havana and complete right before the revolution (late 1950’s) and being one of the most advanced in the world (at that time) with its own energy creation system (generators) and eco-system. Before it was open for business, Castro had taken over the country, took over the Hilton, and claimed it as his headquarters and home. Now, it’s another dilapidated building that the Cubans (or at least the tour guide) is proud of discussing how it used to be without any thought about what caused the hotel to have been built (economic prosperity) and what caused the hotel to be destroyed (socialism). This is what I view as illogical thinking.
It was apparent, at least to me when I compare to my experiences in China, that the long-term effects of socialism have taken hold of the society. There is a lack of industriousness, hardworking, motivated, energetic people. You don’t see people working hard. Most are lollygagging around, gently pushing their wares or just doing nothing. It seems that the equality promised by socialism has worked and now everyone is poor. While we didn’t see the entire city, it was not obvious that there were a huge gap in classes for the masses. There was the poor that had run down homes and then the “very poor” that had shanties for homes. While this is not abnormal for any country, however, one would expect to see more dispersion between the economic conditions of the people. I expect that this the case and we did not go to the right places to see where the government officials live and hang out.
One thing that was continuously pointed out to us was that the government provides for its people. They give food, healthcare, and education. There was some confusion as to what was free or subsidized but regardless, it is considered a perk. However, it’s easy for a country to declare that it gives great perks, like food, to the people and the reality is that it only provides one slice of bread per day (or some other paltry amount). The declaration is still true, “we feed our people”, but the reality is that their people are still hungry. I suspect this is the case for many citizens when it comes to food, healthcare, and education.
As we are taught, but seldom appreciate, history is written by the victors. In this case, the people want to believe they are better off now than before the revolution. In discussion about the obvious prosperity of Havana in the early 1900’s and how the economy must have been great. They agree but quickly point out that it was only good for the very few. One guy (a Cuban that had defected to US but a defender of the revolution, I think) said that while 20K may have been living well, there were 4 million people starving and that is why Castro took over the government. He could take care of all of the people and he would do this with a socialistic model that made him the president. I’m not a Cuban historian anything, but do think that rising tides raise all boats. As such, I have to believe that things in Havana had to increase opportunities for most people if they were willing to change their lives with appropriate skills and relocation. If the starving people were insisting on living out on the farms with no support and then starving, then that is a choice. The point is that history for Cuba has been written for the past 55 years that things are better now since the people all have food, healthcare, education and what is called private ownership. This is where they own their houses (but they don’t own the land). It was never very clear how someone actually gets a house since the government provides housing, but you own it if you got it. There is no intellectualization of opportunities that may have existed before, just that the perception of economic equality is paramount.
It’s was also an interesting observation how the government is motivated to protect the people from themselves. For instance, there is no gambling anywhere and it was emphatically declared to us that there never will be. I personally think that gambling can be a societal pariah, but also think one should make their own choices. It’s not clear as to why gambling is not acceptable. When it comes to vices, however, it was interesting that prostitution was seemingly rampant. I was told that the girls were very aggressive in their pursuits of a customer and for a 100 Cuban pesos, one could pick their activity from some young ladies. When you take her to your hotel, then you pay the hotel a “tax” for her to visit you. Again, prostitution is part of life in most countries so not a unique blight on the Cuban society, but I did find irony in the government collecting a tax for such a debilitating activity. This activity was not validated by me, just repeating what I was told. It is possible there is not a prostitute within 100 mile of Havana, but highly unlikely.
In summary, to be able to actually visit a country some 50 years after a revolution that was to make the country better is fascinating when you can actually see the results, or lack thereof, of the changes promised in the shift of power. It could make one think that the country was stolen by a gang of revolutionaries that were masters at taking (stealing) and horrible at building, leading, and innovating. So, they spent the past half-century leeching off the prosperity that they were committed to absolving.
2. No Real Work being Done
There was no visual validation of progress or real work being done as you travel through the city and country. You don’t see cranes, workers, bulldozers, or other signs of infrastructure being created, which is a clear sign of a healthy economy and/or willing workforce. Construction is the backbone of a healthy economy as the infrastructure of the country must expand with success. So the lack of this activity is a sign of the real situation. When we saw some scaffolds, the tour guide would point out the progress being made in the restoration of buildings. When you ask how long until they are done, or when they started, the answers were nebulous and there would not be any manpower at the work site. As a comparison to China, you always saw 100’s of cranes with 1000’s of workers doing something. They would be constructing a road, building, bridge, something that helped expand infrastructure and create jobs, as the natural results of an expanding economy.
3. Blame Game
Okay, the obvious question is why there is a lack of infrastructure in the country. This was asked of a government official, who quickly said it was due to the bullying tactics of the US with the US “blockade”, which is what I called the US embargo on Cuba. They call it a blockage because the US has negatively influenced other countries from doing business with Cuba (while an embargo would just impose restrictions between the US and Cuba). I’m not an expert on anything Cuban so this may be true. Wikipedia is a great way to read all of the legislation with regards to Cuba.
Anyway, the high level government official reminded me of meeting with the upper level communist Chinese officials that were of an age (40-50’s) that had been totally immersed in the communistic regime and they believed the propaganda without questioning the logic.
The summary of his discussion was that Cuba was doing well, and that the people were happy and healthy. Cuba has some problems but they are working on them and many of their problems are created by their neighboring bully, the US. The US keeps them from getting food (he said they have to buy their milk from New Zealand) and investments from other countries. He ignores that the US can (and does) provide them food. After some digging, it seems the issue is that the US companies do not extend credit to Cuba, so they have to pay cash. As for the investments, it was hard to get more information since they ignored that we stayed in a Spain-partnered hotel, traveled around in a Chinese manufactured touring bus, drove past a couple of Chinese and Canadian oil rigs, could drink Coca-Cola with our lunch and have Macallan before my dinner, all the while one can see the tall, drab, Russian embassy from many parts of the city. There is no doubt that the US embargo, which does have sanctions for countries doing business with Cuba, has a negative effect. My point is to not ignore the obvious that these embargoes are only an excuse or rationalization for the lack of development when there is external involvement. Having poor relations has not stopped other countries, including China, from developing their infrastructure.
When asked about Internet, they say they have it and it is open to all to use. However, when I tried to do a Google search from my hotel, Google would not come up and it had some Spanish comment about it being unavailable along with the name of Che Guevara, one of the revolutionaries. So, I am suspect as to how open the Internet actually is to all of the citizens. Of course, the use of computers and mobile phones was not obviously widespread (there were some mobile phone users) so it doesn’t really matter if you don’t have the tools to use the Internet anyway.
In summary, it was an excellent experience to visit a country that has such a complex relationship with the US. A country that could have thrived as a close US ally, but instead chose to become the antithesis of the United States. A country that allowed itself to be prostituted by the Russians to serve as a launching pad for nuclear weapons. A country that subsequently suffered, and continues to suffer, at the demise of socialism in the Soviet Union.
Should the embargo be removed? Absolutely. While it made sense when it was implemented, the times, people, and world have changed. I think a modern approach to sanctions or restrictions are more appropriate in order to strategically drive the change that the US wants to care about. It’s not about trying to make Cuba an ally because they are geographically nearby, but about being smarter with our weapons to protect and influence. I think if the embargo had been lifted in the early 90’s after the demise of the Soviet Union, there would have already been change in Cuba. The excuse of the US causing their problems, which is used by their government for their own ineptitude, would not be available and the people would be forced to accept more reality than they do today. It’s easy to blame others of your own failures.
What would you consider some the good things observed? There were many good or positive observations, which helped create a positive experience.
Very convenient travel from the US. With an hour flight from Tampa, it was very easy to travel to Havana on a commercial airliner. They have a dedicated terminal for the US traffic and it was as efficient as any other airport.
Traffic and roads were good. There were very little, if any, traffic related issues during our stay. Of course this is the result of the limitations of getting more cars to the country, which has created a situation of limited traffic issues and the creation of a classic car niche (1950’s American cars) that still operate mostly as taxis. Some of these cars are beautiful in their upkeep and restoration. The roads we did travel on were good. It appeared that the basics of the roadway system had been established for a while and one could assume that they were built by the Russians in the cold war days for transportation of their hardware or the result of the vibrant economy prior to the revolution.
What would you consider some the less favorable things observed?
Poor or no maintenance of buildings. There were some amazing buildings that are dilapidated due to negligence. It’s like a time warp where the maintainers of the city just disappeared overnight and the results of time are apparent.
Lack of infrastructure. It’s hard to quantify the investment in infrastructure, so this could be my lack of knowledge, but one could reasonably expect to see an expansion of cell phone towers for communication, proliferation of Internet technology for global connectivity, modern water (and perhaps sewage) system for rural areas; and other modern-day conveniences.
People lack motivation. The people seem content to live as they are and lack any ambition to innovate or change. They accept their current state as being normal or better than others because that is what they are told by the government.