BY ANDREW KOVTUN
When I arrived in Havana this past December, I had just nibbled off my last morsel of a complimentary, gluten-free cookie, waved goodbye to the Keys as we flew over the Florida Straits and happily signed off from the in-flight Wi-Fi on the aircraft. A few steps into the airport, the lights shuttered off due to power failure – something that would happen three times in the span of an hour – and it was clear that I was entering an entirely new world.
This article is not about how I did not have a free cookie or Wi-Fi in Cuba. Instead, it’s about a visit to a country that is historically rich, culturally vibrant and well-educated, but whose potential is unfortunately stunted by the grossly unfair American economic embargo and the mismanagement of the Cuban economy under an inflexible system of poor choice and efficiency.
Cuba is a nation of incessant contradictions. Take the international airport in Havana for example: it was constructed using foreign aid from Canada and appears to meet all minimum requirements of a successful transit hub. But, as the Soviet adage goes, “one bought a ticket for the tram, but decided to go walking instead.” Aside from the faulty power supply, the up escalator looked like it hadn’t worked since it was installed. The international arrivals hall had two baggage carousels with only two attendants. When a bag fell off before coming out on the carousel, it stayed there. On my return trip, an airport customs official chose to wave me through rather than bother to get apparently scarce scissors to open a package he had previously deemed suspicious.
As one enters the city of Havana, it is striking how the architecture is indeed stuck in the period of the 1950s-1970s, and crumbling. Yet, in a city where streetlights fail to illuminate much beyond the face of the person walking next to you, street crime was virtually nonexistent. Most people would embrace the evening, and laughter and dancing could be heard no matter how desolate the neighborhood may have appeared.
Other oddities quickly threw the priorities of the Cuban government versus our own into stark contrast.
The shining beacon of halogen light illuminating the end of the road with state-of-the-art facilities? The Havana Institute of Cardiology and Cardiovascular Surgery. The UNESCO-protected palace on the other side of the street? The local elementary school. The stately mansion complete with a courtyard and magnificent statues? A birthday club by day and teenage discotheque by night. The white grandmother and black grandmother crossing the road? They were holding hands and sharing a smile.
The 21st century had embraced Cuba whether or not the feeling was mutual; those who could afford them, especially the younger generation, were all glued to the screens of their smartphones, cellular data be damned.
Yet, the lack of internet across most of the island threw me back in time to when most interactions were face-to-face, when your immediate surroundings influenced your mood and mindset, and awkward moments were filled with conversation instead of hunched necks and silence. I felt a real sense of nostalgia for that world. It’s not such a crazy existence. We often forget that we, the advanced capitalist West, inhabited that world just ten years ago, and with great pleasure.
There was no hunger in Cuba. But, in a country that lies only 90 miles from the U.S. mainland, it was unacceptable that stores were filled with endless rows of the same product while the average Cuban diet covered just the bare minimum. The management of Cuba’s domestic supply left much to be questioned. Notable highlights of the Cuban commerce experience included: rotting chunks of unrefrigerated beef sprawled out on the counters of a former Woolworth’s ten-cent store; a store security manager offering to trade the rum on the shelves for old Nike flip-flops; Partagas cigar factory employees spending their free-time selling the product they were tasked with manufacturing; and a delivery truck arriving to both purchase and take away crates of soda from a government-run café.
Moreover, the island operates on a distorted dual-currency system that depends on internal pesos (CUP) and ‘convertible pesos’ (CUC). Though Cuba has one of the highest per-capita concentrations of doctors, teachers and engineers, a taxi driver can easily make several times the monthly salary of state-employed professionals by driving tourists to their destinations.
In addition, the internal currency is practically worthless, as almost all products of any value are purchased using the convertible peso. Those with black market businesses, family in the states, or access to tourists live and prosper, while those pursuing an education, but with little presence outside the formal system, eke out a living of subsistence. In essence, the absolutely wrong social behavior is incentivized by the Cuban monetary system. Such examples directly point to the failings of the Cuban administration and indicate a need for change.
And yet, how can we, as Americans, stand by as an entire society is forced to rely on commercial airlines to import objects as absurd as car wheels just to fix their cars? How cruel must we be to know that a removal of the Cuban economic embargo will improve the living standards of innocent, hardworking Cubans, but choose to let the status quo remain in place in an act of national grandstanding?
The misguided notion that we once had as a nation, that depriving or humiliating a people can lead them to embrace us, needs to be dismissed in favor of opened borders for trade in goods and culture. It’s shocking that many of those who extol the wonders and beauty of capitalism fail to recognize the addictive effect it can have on those it touches. If our national leadership continues the rapprochement with Cuba begun under the Obama administration, I sincerely hope that the allure of Nike flip-flops will be surpassed only by our understanding of the Cuban appreciation for the basic social services that enable us to study, dance, laugh and expand our love of life.