Castro's Cuba: Stranger in a Strange Land

A soldier in khakis-- that was the first thing I saw, or at least the first thing I noticed. A machine gun strapped to his side, he had stationed himself by the exit of Cuba's Jose Marti International Airport, only a few miles from the base where a Soviet brigade allegedly practices its maneuvers.

His cold grey eyes scrutinized without recognition. In a glance, a number of half-truths about totalitarian societies coalesced in my mind. For even those who travel to a communist state with an "open mind" find themselves suspicious, expecting that the reports of a police state circulated so presumptuously by the American media will prove to be true.

Later, after a two-week tour across the island with total freedom to see whatever I wished as long as I stayed in the same city as the tour, I would spend a lot of time laughing at my initial impression and its outrageous incongruity with the rest of my experience. Except for a small group of soldiers guarding the national monuments in Havana, which the government fears may be targets for counter-revolutionaries, Cuban streets were generally unpatrolled, even by policemen. Even so, there was little rowdiness or theft and no sense at all of the menacing atmosphere that enshrouds so many American cities.

In Havana, it is not unusual to see a 1958 Chevy; in fact, it is rare to see a car that is any newer. To an American, much of Havana looks as though it has been preserved cryogenically for the past 20 years. The old Havana Hilton, built in the late fifties and a white elephant by our contemporary standards, is now the Free Havana and operates in the sweltering heat of the Caribbean climate without working air conditioning. Awkwardly heavy shoes, shapeless polyester pantsuits, and two-piece bathing suits that conceal instead of reveal make it obvious that the island has remained relatively insulated from the influence trends in the West since the U.S. broke off relations in 1962. Yet the appearance of stagnation is just that: a deceiving appearance that masks the profound revolutionary transformation of an entire society.

Two decades ago, the leader of that revolution, Fidel Ruiz Castro, was under attack at home and abroad. Today Cuban schoolchildren, when asked about their nation's leader, call him "padre," and he is one of the acknowledged, albeit controversial, leaders of the Third World.


The Cuban government now owns and runs just about every enterprise from the largest sugar refinery to the smallest poolside bar. It guarantees every citizen a job, free hospital and dental care, free education, a month's vacation, housing at low rent, or the opportunity to purchase a home. The work of the society is carried out by large organizations like the Federation of Cuban Women, which keeps the streets clean and provides volunteers for factories, microbrigades, factory workers who build housing for their fellow workers, and, of course, the Communist party.

"Todo es mejor" ("Everything is better"), says one old man, dismissing my question about life after the revolution with a wave of his knarled hand. For much of this century he tilled the land, and, like many Cubans, was able to work only sporadically. Now he is a member of the self-contained rural cooperative Jibacoa, a dairy farm outside Havana with its own shops, schools, and health care facilities. Farmers who decide to join these rural communities receive payment for the sale of their farms and move to the state farms, where they are paid by the state.

Private farmers are still a large force in Cuban agriculture, working 19 per cent of the land and producing 30 per cent of the tobacco, 25 per cent of the sugar, and 40 per cent of the fruit crop. So far, the decision to sell has been a totally voluntary one. Nevertheless, because an independent farmer can sell his produce only to the government, which unilaterally sets prices, the state can make a community like Jibacoa a farmer's only viable economic alternative. It seems clear that the state eventually plans to control all agricultural production.

The workers at Jibacoa live in apartments contained in four- and five-tiered slablike structures that dot the Cuban landscape like Levittowns, their mass-produced white facades disrupting Cuba's naturally palmy beauty and aesthetically appealing Spanish architecture. The country's massive new construction efforts have little to do with aesthetics and even building quality. Instead, their purpose is to provide minimum standard housing to all Cubans as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Improvement in social services, and not in material goods, has bettered the lives of the masses of Cubans. Cuba appears to have suffered enormously from the American trade embargo declared after Castro nationalized American enterprise without compensation. A simply dressed woman who works as a seamstress in central Havana said that although no one is starving, there are no high quality foods and inadequate supplies of what is available. Strict rationing provides her and her fellow workers three cans of condensed milk each month, five pounds of rice, and one pound of meat every nine days. Well into her sixties, she recalled the times when middle-class Cubans could purchase a touch of luxury. Today there are no perfumes, she lamented, no cosmetics, and no bathpowder. She said she has money, but there is nothing to buy.

Salaries in Cuba range from 200 pesos a month for the least skilled laborer to 1200 for top professionals. There is a rough-hewn egalitarianism based mainly on the universal availability of social services, the disappearance of the foreign elite, and the nationalization of luxurious private homes, which are now available at moderate rents to vacationing Cubans. Much of the egalitarianism is symbolic, but it still has a perceptible effect on attitudes. Senor and Senorita have been discredited as the preferred form of address in favor of companero[a], comrade. Castro is never seen publicly in anything other than army fatigues, and other government officials wear work clothes.

Although there is a certain homogeneity--from city to city, hotels are designed alike, restaurants often use the same china, waiters and waitresses wear the same austere black and white uniforms--the government maintains diverse economic establishments that cater to different Cuban clienteles. There is the local bar in the town of Trinidad in which the only barstool is a concrete stoop. And then there is the Tropicana nightclub, still perhaps the most lavish in the world, where dancers in glitter and feathers parade across an outdoor stage set amid a grove of palm trees.

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Cubans are a patriotic people, proud of the accomplishments of their revolution. But their feelings cannot be assessed only from the formulaic wall-posters which spout platitudes like "We confront the future with the experience of 20 years and the enthusiasm of the first day." One must witness, as I did many times during my visit, joyous occasions when audiences broke into spontaneous cheers and the singing of revolutionary songs. On July 25, the eve of the anniversary of the revolution, a boisterous nightclub hushed to a reverential silence as a popular singer began the national anthem. The audience displayed only rapt attention and, a moment later, spirited participation. To them, this obviously was not an empty ritual.

This sentiment is fostered by a constant barrage of revolutionary rhetoric in the press, schools, and other institutions. But Cubans have not turned their cultural heritage into a revolutionary bludgeon, preferring that classical ballet and folkloric songs and dances serve to link the revolution to the cultural roots of the past.

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