Havana Then and Now

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Cars and the Maine Monument

This blog has endeavored to engage policy and politics without injecting personal observations and life. Perhaps you’ll indulge us this once. Bernie Sanders a major power in the Democratic Party (though not a member) and Jeremy Corbin the leader the UK Labor Party have both been lavish in their praise of Castro Cuba. When asked at a press conference while he was mayor of Burlington Vermont, “Do you stand by your qualified-but-fulsome praise of the totalitarian regime in Cuba? “Sanders answered “Yes.” Apparently his opinion hasn’t changed. When asked after Fidel Castro’s death in 2016 about the leader’s legacy, Sanders replied,

You know, I think what we can say—and I’ve been to Cuba two or three times. I think Jane and I went in 1989 for the first time, and I’ve been back a couple of times, and Jane had some educational work in Cuba. A lot of positive things that can be said. Their healthcare system, for a Third World country, is quite good. It’s universal: All people have healthcare without any expense. Last time I was there, I visited a hospital, where they do very, very serious and good work. They come up with a lot of new drugs, actually, in Cuba, I believe. Their educational system is strong. But in truth, their economy is in pretty bad shape. And in truth, you don’t do very well if you dissent in Cuba

Sounds like faint damnation with lavish praise.

Corbin echoed these sentiments,

“Fidel Castro was a massive figure in the history of the whole planet, ever since the revolution in 1959.

“There are stories of his heroism while living in Mexico in exile and then the boat to Cuba, the march to Havana and the revolution in 1959.

“He managed to bring good quality health services to all the people of Cuba, good quality education to all the people of Cuba and, of course, he had a foreign policy which was global, but particularly important in Southern Africa in supporting Angola against the apartheid regime.

One might say old socialists stay the same, but these are important figures in two major countries today.. Indeed, one or even both could find themselves leading their respective countries. Neither seems to acknowledge where full socialism leads. Rather than cautionary signs, the Soviet Union, Cuba & Venezuela get praise from Bernie and Jeremy and their multitude of followers.

This was on my mind since visiting Havana in May.  A family occasion meant a trip to Florida’s Gold Coast. We noticed Norwegian Cruise Lines had just started round trip cruises from Miami featuring an over nite stay in Havana. We had hoped to take a trip to Cuba and this was too convenient to pass up.

This wouldn’t be my first trip to Havana. During spring break 1958, I and some fraternity brothers decided to escape rain and high prices in Miami by hopping on a cheap 20 minute Havana flight out of Key West. We spent a great 49 hours in that vibrant city. The revolution had already begun but other than some bombings hadn’t yet reached the city . Other than heedless college kids, Havana was pretty devoid of tourists. Still, there were crowds of locals everywhere and the city seemed never to sleep. A beautiful well maintained place with crowded streets and cafes with music everywhere, we were stuck by its cleanliness. Over drinks some of our group expressed pro revolution sentiments but the locals would have none of it. They pointed out while those in the countryside working the sugar cane fields had tough lives, those in the city were increasingly doing better. They feared they would lose their gains. After all, Cuba back then lead the Caribbean in per capita income.

With these memories in mind, I toured today’s Havana. Much the same buildings and cars I saw then.  Just the buildings were crumbling with some restorations and new builds interspersed. The American Cars on the other hand the  were beautifully maintained. Private cars must be pre 1960 and through heroic efforts are still up and running.  I had one similar to this in the 1950s.

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Even beyond the cars, the city seems in a time warp. Wherever you go from the Hotel National to Sloppy Joe’s, there are walls of pictures of people and events pre-revolution. Everything from the Monument to Jose Marti  to EL Malecon was built before the revolution.  The Christopher Columbus cemetary was a wonderland of family tombs whose offspring no longer live on the island. A million Cubans fled the island since then, most leaving everything behind. Where did all that wealth go?

A night walk through the old city was illuminating. Where we went, much had been restored for the Pope’s visit last year. Charming except for one thing, virtually no locals. A few small restaurants called Paladars were filed with people but as we passed by the musicians were playing Guantanamera a dead giveaway the patrons were tourists. Those tourists weren’t just Americans but people from all over the world. While we’re recent visitors, Canadians, Europeans and others have been coming for decades. They haven’t made much difference for the Cuban people and I doubt if we will either. The lovely Plaza de la Cathedral where the Pope spoke contained only tourists.

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So where are the locals?  We were there on a Tuesday night so one could hope the weekends are livelier.  However, with an average monthly income of $20-25 Cubans more likely simply can’t afford much nightlife. We were told a night out for most consisted of friends getting together over cheap Cuban Rum. Beer is a luxury. Things are much better for those connected enough to be in the tourist trade. Closer to hard money such as Dollars or Euros, they even have their own currency. Their pesos (CUC) are 1  to 1 to the Dollar while the peso used by everyone else (CUP) are 25 to the dollar. The government takes in dollars and Euros and pays their non-favored workers with the CUPS and pockets the difference. Do you think you might need party connections to get those tourist industry jobs with the CUC and tips in Dollars or Euros? We’ve been places with a class society but never one that actually used different currency for each class.

Before you blindly follow Bernie and Jeremy towards their promised Socialist Paradises, I suggest you spend a little time in Cuba or its Satellite Venezuela. Forget the canned speeches from their tourist industry workers. They’re privileged and they’ll do anything to stay that way.  Just look around. It’ll give you a new appreciation of our Capitalist Society. Miami never seemed more alive than ever when we returned.

Thanks for bearing with me.  I just had to get this off my chest.

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