The Last Communist City, A visit to the dystopian Havana that tourists never see
Cuba Brief: The Last Communist City, A visit to the dystopian Havana
that tourists never see
Cuba Transition Project
(www.miscelaneasdecuba.net).- Neill Blomkamp’s 2013 science-fiction film
Elysium, starring Matt Damon and Jodie Foster, takes place in Los
Angeles, circa 2154. The wealthy have moved into an orbiting luxury
satellite—the Elysium of the title—while the wretched majority of humans
remain in squalor on Earth. The film works passably as an allegory for
its director’s native South Africa, where racial apartheid was enforced
for nearly 50 years, but it’s a rather cartoonish vision of the American
future. Some critics panned the film for pushing a socialist message.
Elysium’s dystopian world, however, is a near-perfect metaphor for an
actually existing socialist nation just 90 miles from Florida.
I’ve always wanted to visit Cuba—not because I’m nostalgic for a botched
utopian fantasy but because I wanted to experience Communism firsthand.
When I finally got my chance several months ago, I was startled to
discover how much the Cuban reality lines up with Blomkamp’s dystopia.
In Cuba, as in Elysium, a small group of economic and political elites
live in a rarefied world high above the impoverished masses. Karl Marx
and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto, would be
appalled by the misery endured by Cuba’s ordinary citizens and shocked
by the relatively luxurious lifestyles of those who keep the poor down
Many tourists return home convinced that the Cuban model succeeds where
the Soviet model failed. But that’s because they never left Cuba’s Elysium.
I had to lie to get into the country. Customs and immigration officials
at Havana’s tiny, dreary José Martí International Airport would have
evicted me had they known I was a journalist. But not even a
total-surveillance police state can keep track of everything and
everyone all the time, so I slipped through. It felt like a victory.
Havana, the capital, is clean and safe, but there’s nothing to buy. It
feels less natural and organic than any city I’ve ever visited.
Initially, I found Havana pleasant, partly because I wasn’t supposed to
be there and partly because I felt as though I had journeyed backward in
time. But the city wasn’t pleasant for long, and it certainly isn’t
pleasant for the people living there. It hasn’t been so for decades.
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.
Marxists have ruled Cuba for more than a half-century now. Fidel Castro,
Argentine guerrilla Che Guevara, and their 26th of July Movement forced
Fulgencio Batista from power in 1959 and replaced his standard-issue
authoritarian regime with a Communist one. The revolutionaries promised
liberal democracy, but Castro secured absolute power and flattened the
country with a Marxist-Leninist battering ram. The objectives were total
equality and the abolition of money; the methods were total surveillance
and political prisons. The state slogan, then and now, is “socialism or
Cuba was one of the world’s richest countries before Castro destroyed
it—and the wealth wasn’t just in the hands of a tiny elite. “Contrary to
the myth spread by the revolution,” wrote Alfred Cuzan, a professor of
political science at the University of West Florida, “Cuba’s wealth
before 1959 was not the purview of a privileged few. . . . Cuban society
was as much of a middle-class society as Argentina and Chile.” In 1958,
Cuba had a higher per-capita income than much of Europe. “More Americans
lived in Cuba prior to Castro than Cubans lived in the United States,”
Cuban exile Humberto Fontova, author of a series of books about Castro
and Guevara, tells me. “This was at a time when Cubans were perfectly
free to leave the country with all their property. In the 1940s and
1950s, my parents could get a visa for the United States just by asking.
They visited the United States and voluntarily returned to Cuba. More
Cubans vacationed in the U.S. in 1955 than Americans vacationed in Cuba.
Americans considered Cuba a tourist playground, but even more Cubans
considered the U.S. a tourist playground.” Havana was home to a lot of
that prosperity, as is evident in the extraordinary classical European
architecture that still fills the city. Poor nations do not—cannot—build
such grand or elegant cities.
But rather than raise the poor up, Castro and Guevara shoved the rich
and the middle class down. The result was collapse. “Between 1960 and
1976,” Cuzan says, “Cuba’s per capita GNP in constant dollars declined
at an average annual rate of almost half a percent. The country thus has
the tragic distinction of being the only one in Latin America to have
experienced a drop in living standards over the period.”
Communism destroyed Cuba’s prosperity, but the country experienced
unprecedented pain and deprivation when Moscow cut off its subsidies
after the fall of the Soviet Union. Journalist and longtime Cuba
resident Mark Frank writes vividly about this period in his book Cuban
Revelations. “The lights were off more than they were on, and so too was
the water. . . . Food was scarce and other consumer goods almost
nonexistent. . . . Doctors set broken bones without anesthesia. . . .
Worm dung was the only fertilizer.” He quotes a nurse who tells him that
Cubans “used to make hamburgers out of grapefruit rinds and banana
peels; we cleaned with lime and bitter orange and used the black powder
in batteries for hair dye and makeup.” “It was a haunting time,” Frank
wrote, “that still sends shivers down Cubans’ collective spines.”
By the 1990s, Cuba needed economic reform as much as a gunshot victim
needs an ambulance. Castro wasn’t about to reform himself and his
ideology out of existence, but he had to open up at least a small piece
of the country to the global economy. So the Soviet subsidy was replaced
by vacationers, mostly from Europe and Latin America, who brought in
much-needed hard currency. Arriving foreigners weren’t going to tolerate
receiving ration cards for food—as the locals do—so the island also
needed some restaurants. The regime thus allowed paladars—restaurants
inside private homes—to open, though no one from outside the family
could work in them. (That would be “exploitative.”) Around the same
time, government-run “dollar stores” began selling imported and
relatively luxurious goods to non-Cubans. Thus was Cuba’s
quasi-capitalist bubble created.
When the ailing Fidel Castro ceded power to his less doctrinaire younger
brother Raúl in 2008, the quasi-capitalist bubble expanded, but the
economy remains heavily socialist. In the United States, we have a
minimum wage; Cuba has a maximumwage—$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.
The government defends its maximum wage by arguing that life’s
necessities are either free or so deeply subsidized in Cuba that
citizens don’t need very much money. (Che Guevara and his sophomoric
hangers-on hoped to rid Cuba of money entirely, but couldn’t quite pull
it off.) The free and subsidized goods and services, though, are as
dismal as everything else on the island. Citizens who take public
transportation to work—which includes almost everyone, since Cuba hardly
has any cars—must wait in lines for up to two hours each way to get on a
bus. And commuters must pay for their ride out of their $20 a month. At
least commuter buses are cheap. By contrast, a one-way ticket to the
other side of the island costs several months’ pay; a round-trip costs
almost an annual salary.
As for the free health care, patients have to bring their own medicine,
their own bedsheets, and even their own iodine to the hospital. Most of
these items are available only on the illegal black market, moreover,
and must be paid for in hard currency—and sometimes they’re not
available at all. Cuba has sent so many doctors abroad—especially to
Venezuela, in exchange for oil—that the island is now facing a personnel
shortage. “I don’t want to say there are no doctors left,” says an
American man who married a Cuban woman and has been back dozens of
times, “but the island is now almost empty. I saw a banner once, hanging
from somebody’s balcony, that said, DO I NEED TO GO TO VENEZUELA FOR MY
Housing is free, too, but so what? Americans can get houses in abandoned
parts of Detroit for only $500—which makes them practically free—but no
one wants to live in a crumbling house in a gone-to-the-weeds
neighborhood. I saw adequate housing in the Cuban countryside, but
almost everyone in Havana lives in a Detroit-style wreck, with caved-in
roofs, peeling paint, and doors hanging on their hinges at odd angles.
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
Cuba is short of everything but air and sunshine. In her book, Sánchez
describes an astonishing appearance by Raúl Castro on television, during
which he boasted that the economy was doing so well now that everyone
could drink milk. “To me,” Sánchez wrote, “someone who grew up on a gulp
of orange-peel tea, the news seemed incredible.” She never thought she’d
see the day. “I believed we would put a man on the moon, take first
place among all nations in the upcoming Olympics, or discover a vaccine
for AIDS before we would put the forgotten morning café con leche,
coffee with milk, within reach of every person on this island.” And yet
Raúl’s promise of milk for all was deleted from the transcription of the
speech in Granma, the Communist Party newspaper. He went too far: there
was not enough milk to ensure that everyone got some.
Even things as simple as cooking oil and soap are black-market goods.
Individuals who, by some illegal means or another, manage to acquire
such desirables will stand on street corners and whisper “cooking oil”
or “sugar” to passersby, and then sell the product on the sly out of
their living room. If they’re caught, both sellers and buyers will be
arrested, of course, but the authorities can’t put the entire country in
jail. “Everyone cheats,” says Eire. “One must in order to survive. The
verb Ωto steal≈ has almost vanished from usage. Breaking the rules is
necessary. Resolví mi problema, which means ‘I solved my problem,’ is
the Cuban way of referring to stealing or cheating or selling on the
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.
Castro created the convertible peso mainly to seal off Cuba’s little
capitalist bubble from the ragged majority in the Communist economy.
“Foreign journalists report on the creation of ever more luxurious
hotels, golf courses, and marinas,” Eire says, “but fail to highlight
the very simple and brutal fact that these facilities will be enjoyed
strictly by foreigners and the Castronoid power elite. Apartheid,
discrimination, and segregation are deliberately built in to the entire
tourist industry and, in fact, are essential to its maintenance and
Until a few years ago, ordinary Cubans weren’t allowed even to set foot
inside hotels or restaurants unless they worked there, lest they find
themselves exposed to the seductive lifestyles of the decadent
bourgeoisie from capitalist nations like Mexico, Chile, and Spain. (I
cite these three countries because most of the tourists I ran into spoke
Spanish to one another.) A few years ago, the government stopped
physically blocking Cubans from hotels and restaurants, partly because
Raúl is a little more relaxed about these things than Fidel but also
because most Cubans can’t afford to go to these places, anyway.
A single restaurant meal in Havana costs an entire month’s salary. One
night in a hotel costs five months’ salary. A middle-class tourist from
abroad can easily spend more in one day than most Cubans make in a year.
I had dinner with four Americans at one of the paladars. The only Cubans
in the restaurant were the cooks and the waiters. The bill for the five
of us came to about $100. That’s five months’ salary.
The Floridita bar in downtown Havana was one of Ernest Hemingway’s
hangouts when he lived there (from 1940 until 1960, the year after
Castro came to power). He was in the Floridita all the time—and, in a
way, he still is. There’s a statue of him sitting on his favorite bar
stool, grinning at today’s patrons. The décor is exactly the same, but
there’s a big difference: everyone in the bar these days is a tourist.
Cubans aren’t strictly banned any more, but a single bottle of beer
costs a week’s salary. No one would blow his dismal paycheck on that.
If he were still around, Hemingway would be stunned to see what has
happened to his old haunt. Cubans certainly aren’t happy about it, but
the tourists are another story—especially the world’s remaining Marxoid
fellow travelers, who show up in Havana by the planeload. Such people
are clearly unteachable. I got into an argument with one at the
Floridita when I pointed out that none of the patrons were Cuban. “There
are places in the United States that some can’t afford,” she retorted.
Sure, but come on. Not even the poorest Americans have to pay a week’s
wage for a beer.
Cubans in the hotel industry see how foreigners live. The government
can’t hide it without shutting the hotels down entirely, and it can’t do
that because it needs the money. I changed a few hundred American
dollars into convertible pesos at the front desk. The woman at the
counter didn’t blink when I handed over my cash—she does this all
day—but when she first got the job, it must have been shattering to make
such an exchange. That’s why the regime wants to keep foreigners and
Tourists tip waiters, taxi drivers, tour guides, and chambermaids in
hard currency, and to stave off a revolt from these people, the
government lets them keep the additional money, so they’re “rich”
compared with everyone else. In fact, they’re an elite class enjoying
privileges—enough income to afford a cell phone, go out to restaurants
and bars, log on to the Internet once in a while—that ordinary Cubans
can’t even dream of. I asked a few people how much chambermaids earn in
tips, partly so that I would know how much to leave on my dresser and
also to get an idea of just how crazy Cuban economics are. Supposedly,
the maids get about $1 per day for each room. If they clean an average
of 30 rooms a day and work five days a week, they’ll bring in $600 a
month—30 times what everyone else gets. “All animals are equal,” George
Orwell wrote in Animal Farm, his allegory of Stalinism, “but some
animals are more equal than others.” Only in the funhouse of a Communist
country is the cleaning lady rich compared with the lawyer. Yet elite
Cubans are impoverished compared with the middle class and even the poor
About half the dinners I had were acceptable, and a few were
outstanding, but the breakfast buffets in my hotel, the Habana Libre,
were uniformly disgusting. Bacon was half-raw, the sausage made from
God-knows-what. The cheese was discolored, the bread hard and
flavorless. Yet the grim offering was advertised in the lobby as
“exquisite.” Maybe if you’ve spent your entire life on a Cuban ration
card, it’s exquisite, but otherwise—no. The question wasn’t what I
wanted to eat, but what I thought I could eat without my stomach rising
up in rebellion.
Leftists often talk about “food deserts” in Western cities, where the
poor supposedly lack options to buy affordable and nutritious food. If
they want to see a real food desert, they should come to Havana. I went
to a grocery store across the street from the exclusive Meliá Cohiba
Hotel, where the lucky few with access to hard currency shop to
supplement their meager state rations. The store was in what passes for
a mall in Havana—a cluttered concrete box, shabby compared even with
malls I’ve visited in Iraq. It carried rice, beans, frozen chicken,
milk, bottled water, booze, a small bit of cheese, minuscule amounts of
rancid-looking meat, some low-end cookies and chips from Brazil—and
that’s it. No produce, cereal, no cans of soup, no pasta. A 7–11 has a
far better selection, and this is a place for Cuba’s “rich” to shop. I
heard, but cannot confirm, that potatoes would not be available anywhere
in Cuba for another four months.
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,
An advertisement in my hotel claimed that the Sierra Maestra restaurant
on the top floor is “probably” the best in Havana. I had saved the
Sierra Maestra for my last night and rode the elevator up to the 25th
floor. I had my first and only steak on the island and washed it down
with Chilean red wine. The tiny bill set me back no more than having a
pizza delivered at home would, but the total nevertheless exceeded an
entire month’s local salary. Not surprisingly, I ate alone. Every other
table was empty. The staff waited on me as if I were the president of
some faraway minor republic.
I stared at the city below out the window as I sipped my red wine.
Havana looked like a glittering metropolis in the dark. Night washed
away the rot and the grime and revealed nothing but city lights. It
occurred to me that Havana will look mostly the same—at night,
anyway—after it is liberated from the tyrannical imbeciles who govern it
now. I tried to pretend that I was looking out on a Cuba that was
already free and that the tables around me were occupied—by local
people, not foreigners—but the fantasy faded fast. I was all alone at
the top of Cuba’s Elysium and yearning for home—where capitalism’s
inequalities are not so jagged and stark.
Michael J. Totten is a City Journal contributing editor and the author
of five books, including The Road to Fatima Gate.
**Previously published in City Journal. Spring 2014.
Source: Cuba Brief: The Last Communist City, A visit to the dystopian
Havana that tourists never see – Misceláneas de Cuba –