Ruins after revolution
Decaying Havana is a mirror of Cuba’s economy.
By JOHN FENTON WHEELER
Published Friday, September 29, 2006
A giant poster of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s face covering the front of
Sears, one of Havana’s many empty stores, had begun to fade. Everything
in Cuba but salt was rationed. Life was hard for everybody. Yet by my
imperfect count, hijackers still brought an average of three planes a
month to Jose Marti International Airport.
A lot of those people who hijacked planes to Cuba were misinformed or
uninformed about their destination. At least that was my assessment,
backed up one day by a Black Panther who walked into my office in Havana
and asked for help, something I felt sure he never would have done in
the United States. He had to be upset to do so, and he was.
First, he gave me a name, not his Black Panther name, and said he was a
Panther party member and that he had hijacked a plane to Cuba a few
weeks earlier. I asked him to wait a minute and started my tape
recorder. I recalled, without saying so to him, a skyjacking that would
fit that time frame and the description of the hijacker by the plane’s
crew after they and the hijacked passengers had safely returned to the
United States. His description had come on the AP news wire, dateline Miami.
My visitor knew what he said was being recorded. He looked directly at
the tape recorder and began. He was concerned because he had lost
contact with other Black Panthers who had come to Cuba. He said he
feared they might have been imprisoned, or, as he put it, been made to
disappear. I told him it was more likely they had been sent to work in
agriculture, perhaps to cut sugar cane. He acknowledged that possibility
but said there were other problems. The government, he said, would not
allow “brothers” to make public statements. Officials also had suggested
they get rid of their afro hairstyles. And food, he said, was as meager
as his social life. In short, he had not received the welcome he
expected. He said he hoped that by speaking out to the U.S. press in
Cuba that his unsatisfactory situation could be made known to Black
Panthers back home. I was the only American reporter in Cuba he knew about.
I did not tell him that non-hijacking Black Panthers who had been
invited to Cuba and who arrived via Third World countries had been
welcomed by the government and allowed to speak freely to Cuban
reporters. In fact, two of them, George Mason Murray, identified by the
Cuban Communist Party newspaper Granma as education minister of the
Black Panther Party, and Joudon Ford, New York leader of the Panthers,
had held a news conference in Havana. They were guests of the OSPAAAL,
the Organization of Solidarity of the Peoples of Africa, Asia and Latin
America, a Castro-organized entity that did not live up to its
intentions. Granma quoted Murray as saying the Panthers had “vowed not
to put down our guns or stop making Molotov cocktails until colonized
Africans, Asians and Latin Americans in the United States and throughout
the world have become free.” This seemed much stronger stuff than the
hijacker sitting in my office had in mind when he said his efforts to
speak out had been ignored.
I advised him the Cuban government probably expected him to integrate
into Cuban life, work in agriculture or wherever needed and not
complain. I also told him I would do a story on his concerns, wished him
luck and bade him goodbye.
Within minutes, I discovered I hadn’t run the recorder properly and
hadn’t captured a word. I went to the small hotel where he told me he
was housed, left him a note and waited. He called the next day and
agreed to repeat the interview but suggested we meet somewhere other
than the AP office. Perhaps he was catching on that I was somewhat
persona non grata. We met at a downtown park bench where he repeated his
story, and I taped it with the recorder in plain view. Two men who were
from their appearance and clothing, especially the heavy shoes, either
from the Soviet Union or one of the East Bloc countries, watched from
about 30 yards away. They followed the hijacker, not me, as he left the
park. They apparently knew where I would be going.
His story got out via Western Union without much delay, and the next day
I got a call from a California radio station asking whether the Black
Panthers were planning to revolt against Fidel Castro. It was a silly
question, but I answered no, not a chance. The station offered to pay me
for talking about it, but I said no thanks and later regretted it. It
might have been interesting to see them try to get a dollar check into Cuba.
Most hijackers probably did find life in Cuba more difficult than they
expected but eventually settled anonymously into Cuban society without
public complaints. Not every hijack to the island was for political
reasons. I knew of two cases where fathers involved in domestic disputes
brought children with them to escape adverse legal action in the United
States. One was a U.S. major, a Vietnam medal winner stationed at Fort
Sam Houston, Texas, who had flown a private plane to Cuba, bringing his
son with him. For unexplained reasons, he received better treatment than
most hijackers and was given a house in a Havana suburb, a car, a maid
and a job teaching at a government language school. Perhaps he had
denounced U.S. intervention in Vietnam. That would have brought a good
response from the Castro government. Whatever the situation, it remained
his secret. He refused to be interviewed by me or anyone else.
The other case involved a black man from Philadelphia who had brought
his daughter with him when he hijacked a jet to Havana. The Cuban
government allowed his wife to come to Havana and take the child back home.
For the most part, trying to cover a hijacking was an exercise in
futility. A lot of the hijacked planes seemed to come from Miami.
Traveling at 500 mph, they could cover the 150 or so air miles to
Havana’s Jose Marti airport before I could weave my way through perhaps
10 miles of Havana pedestrian and vehicle traffic on Ranco Boyeros
Boulevard at 30 mph. Even if I was alerted to the hijack by a message or
telephone call from the AP in New York in time to beat the hijacked jet
to the airport, the chances of even seeing the hijacker were slim. The
chances of talking to anybody on the hijacked plane were nil. Cuban
airport security saw to that.
Only the Western press in Cuba seemed interested in covering hijackings,
and UPI’s man, being a Cuban who wanted to leave the country, did not
concern himself with something he knew the government would not like.
The correspondent for Agence France Presse, who always liked to please
his hosts, suggested both AP and Britain’s Reuters news agency should do
like he did and quit covering hijacks. Such coverage, he contended, was
largely useless and, of course, of little interest in France. But
Reuters correspondent James Pringle and I deferred. We worked out a
system that was somewhat successful. Taking turns, one of us would
boldly go in the main entrance to the airport, thus attracting most of
the security. The other would go to an outside window of the Salon de
Honor, where the hijackers usually were debriefed and questioned by
Cuban security. Kneeling down, either Pringle or I could look under a
gap in a curtain. Sometimes it paid off, mildly. My big score from
window peeking was being able to report a hijacker who had arrived
carrying not a bomb or a gun, but a saxophone. Another time, at the
excited urging of the New York foreign desk, I sped, probably at 35 mph,
to the airport to cover the arrival of a hijacked plane with American
comedian Flip Wilson on board. If he said anything funny in Havana, it
remains unreported. I never saw him.
Some days were busier than others. I remember seeing a hijacked Pan
American jet roll to a stop beside a hijacked Eastern airliner one
weekend. One of the few officials at Foreign Ministry Press section who
enjoyed a little humor once remarked to me: “Hey, Wheeler, when are you
going to hijack a plane to the United States. Why not, if it’s a Cuban
plane, they won’t prosecute you, either.”
The Swiss Embassy, representing U.S. interests, said in late 1968, not
surprisingly, that so far none of the hijackers had contacted it for
help. The majority settled into Cuban life. Some went on to other
countries. In a few cases, the government gave the names of hijackers
who asked for political asylum, and they were not heard about again. But
Havana’s policy leaned toward discouraging hijackings because of the
delicate diplomatic and political problems they could produce. A crash
or the death of a passenger on one of the jets could have brought a
political crisis with the United States.
With each plane’s turnaround at Havana’s airport, the Cuban government
collected a landing charge estimated at $10,000, not a great amount but
badly needed hard currency for Cuba’s hard times.
And hard they were. Castro admitted this publicly several times in his
speeches. But details and figures described the situation better. Nearly
10 years after the Cuban Revolution, a Havana family of four with a
monthly income of $260 was spending 73 percent of its income on food.
This compared with 46 percent in pre-Castro, unrationed Cuba, according
to figures from the then defunct theoretical journal, Cuba Socialista.
The lopsided figures on food spending, however, were somewhat misleading
because there was little to buy except food, and many other expenses had
been eliminated. Rent was free. So were medical services, education,
weddings, funerals, public telephones — when they worked — sports,
cultural events and nursery care.
There were virtually no income taxes and absolutely no need for lawyers,
including Castro. Government appointed officials and judges handled
legal matters. But almost everything was rationed: bicycles, soap, beer,
cigars, toilet paper and food. A worker was entitled to two shirts a
year and was asked to forget overtime by working 12 hours for
eight-hours of pay. Men were urged to give office jobs to women and go
to work in industry, agriculture or construction. Students were expected
to spend their vacations working in the fields.
Considering these hardships, it becomes clearer why Castro was so
willing to trade Czechoslovakia’s sovereignty for Soviet financial
support in Cuba. But I didn’t see it that way at the time. I was too
busy looking at the long lines of Cubans trying to get enough to eat.
Getting details on the daily food struggle required going into small
shops and stores taken over under nationalization and run by Committees
for the Defense of the Revolution members. One day a CDR militant
followed me from a store back to my office and demanded to know what I
was doing asking all those questions. For a moment I wanted to waggle my
forefinger at him, give him the words I heard so often — “companero, los
documentos, por favor” — and tell him he needed permission to enter AP
premises, then perhaps order him out. But I didn’t, and he departed
after a handshake and an explanation that I was seeing how well
nationalization was working.
Nearly 40 percent of the population in the late 1960s was younger than
15, and some of Cuba’s youths in those hard times reacted to the
nationalization with disgust and “unrevolutionary” behavior. Castro
complained in a speech of juvenile prostitution, vandalism and
delinquency and said some youths were tearing down posters of Che
Guevara. A 19-year-old who told me he wanted to play American rock and
roll music and live in the United States complained: “I can’t talk with
the Cuban government.” An eighth-grade dropout said: “We don’t have a
word; we don’t have money; we don’t have a future.”
One complaint frequently whispered about was that if you were not
revolutionary, you could not get into Havana University, no matter how
good your grades. Certainly, it seemed to be an unofficial requirement
because on campus it was hard to find a student publicly against the
government. Mayra Vilasis, a Havana University junior, was glad to talk:
“What communism means to me is really dignity. Now I’m proud of being a
Cuban. I wouldn’t change my citizenship for anything.”
Revolutionary feeling seemed extra strong on the Isle of Youth — ex-Isle
of Pines — off Cuba’s south coast. Along with about a dozen other
invited journalists and diplomats, I visited the island in the fall of
1968. It was a guided and controlled tour. But I got a close-up look at
the young people Castro hoped would embody Cuba’s “new communist man.”
I talked to a 20-year-old mother putting in a 48-hour workweek as a
grapefruit packer. Her salary was the equivalent of $75 monthly. “I
would work for nothing,” she said. The official communist party
newspaper Granma published a photo of me interviewing a citrus worker
At the 13th of March Internado, an elementary school named after the
date when Havana University students were slain trying to overthrow
dictator Fulgencio Batista, there was plenty of emphasis on the Vietnam
War. “This is the school of the future,” a teacher said proudly as her
students clapped and sang about killing “the Yankee assassins.” A
fourth-grader told me “the Americans are killing children in Vietnam.” A
fifth-grader declared, “Capitalism and imperialism are the enemies of
all the peoples of the world. We are brothers of the Vietnamese.”
All the grade school students knew who Che Guevara was and the country
where he had been killed, even if they were unable to locate Bolivia,
New York, London or Beijing on a map. Cuban officials guiding the
journalists through the school dismissed such educational shortcomings,
saying if it weren’t for the revolution, many of the students would
never have seen the inside of a classroom, let alone a map.
Had I had been consciously keeping score on Cuban communism as an
economic system at the time, I would have given it a failing grade, an
F. It did not meet communism’s oft-stated, utopian formula: from each
according to his ability; to each according to his needs. There still
were a lot of slackers in the cane fields, on the Isle of Youth, in
factories and in the government. There was absenteeism from work. Castro
had said so.
The “moral incentives” once proposed by Che Guevara to replace “material
incentives” were not working. So the ability part of the formula clearly
was not being fully met. Castro continued, however, to try to pump up
what he called the country’s “revolutionary conscience.” The needs part
of the formula in Cuba was self-evident. Everbody in Cuba wanted and, to
a certain extent, needed more material things than they were getting.
Krhruschev’s aged threat that communism would “bury” capitalism would
never come true at the rate Cuba was going.
I couldn’t see how communism as an economic system could frighten
anybody, and I was living in the middle of it. Why were Americans so
Years later as I looked at the massive poverty, corruption, lack of
medical care, education, housing and the great disparity between the
wealthy and the poor in the rest of Latin America, I decided my judgment
of Cuba’s economic health was too simplistic. It deserved, even in its
worst days, a D, perhaps even a C. “El Maximo Leader,” and in the hard
times he certainly was that, rated an A for effort. The rest of the
country did not always match his fervor.
Sunday: The ax falls.
John Fenton Wheeler is a former foreign correspondent and bureau chief
with The Associated Press who covered Cuba, Spain, Portugal, Peru,
Ecuador, Colombia, Algeria, Morocco and Angola. He has lived in Columbia
since 1994. This series was adapted from his unpublished manuscript
about his Cuba years.