How not to govern a country.
By Mohammed A. R. Galadari
Khaleej Times, U.A.E.
FIDEL Castro is a giant on the TV screens. And he is a hero to all those
who hate America for one or other reason-because fighting America and
fighting capitalism has been the sheet anchor of his political
philosophy. His rhetoric has takers not only within his country but
outside too. But, the grim fact of the matter is that while he is the
longest-serving ruler in the world today, he is also the villain of the
piece in Cuba's saga of non-development.
Castro swore by Communism for half a century, and yet, his people earn
no more than 10 to 15 dollars a month. This includes a dollar for food
for a month - a few pieces of chicken, some beans, or whatever-and a
dollar for fuel. A packet of cigarettes cost a dollar, and if a person
smokes a packet of it a day, how much will he have to shell out for a
month? How on earth can these people lead a normal life? Nobody lives
with 10 to 15 dollars a month. Black market is active, and corruption is
part of the life. No one says the truth as to how they manage life with
less than 15 dollars a month.
Cubans are not allowed to own a car, and there are fewer vehicles on the
roads and highways, which are meant only for tourists - foreigners,
rather. The less said about public transport, the better. People wait
for five to six hours on some routes to get a bus. Cuban people, under
Castro's Communism, have to do without the luxuries of life. They have
no idea what a modern-day life means. Simply put, can anyone live with
10 dollars a month? That will be a joke even in some of the
under-developed Asian countries.
America is Castro's enemy number one. But, the irony of it is that those
Cubans who lead a relatively better life today are those who have
something to do with America - either the 2 million Cubans who live in
Miami, the southern outstretched tip of the US, that is geographically
closest to Cuba, or those who get assistance from these Miami Cubans by
way of help to their families and relatives back home.
Cuba's own currency, the Peso, is largely sidelined, especially after
Castro legalised American dollar in 1993. It has raised social
problems-between those who have access to it, who could buy what they
want in black market, and those who do not have the dollar. Foreigners
arriving in Cuba to savour the charms of its beaches, like in Havana,
have access to luxuries that the Cubans do not have. From airport down
to the shops and markets, dollar is in circulation everywhere. So much
so, foreigners rarely get to see the peso.
Castro's Cuba is under Communism, an ideology that is no more in
circulation even in its very own fiefdoms, whether it be Russia or
China, not to speak of the Warsaw Pact countries that enthusiastically
followed the Russian dictates for long.
And Castro's Cuba is in the dark ages, so to speak, and literally too.
One doesn't know when electricity goes off in the dead of the night,
when one scrambles around for candles; or in the day when one begins
sweating without the fans functioning. There are officially scheduled
power cuts too, four times a week, lasting four to seven hours. Mind
you, this in a daytime temperature of 33 degrees. Five-star hotels, that
accommodate foreign tourists, too are not immune to the power cuts,
though they have the resources to provide alternative energy by way of
generators. And, still, there would be a few minutes of darkness,
between the time the power goes off and the generator starts working.
There aren't many luxury hotels in Cuba, unlike in Canada or Mexico, or
other places in America, Europe or Asia. There are one or two that can
pass for luxury status. Most of the tourists come in from Europe or
Canada, mostly middle-class, who are part of the budget tourism circuit.
Americans used to come to the shores of Havana in droves, but not any
And, Castro's Cuba lives in the past that is divorced from the present
and holds no hope for the future. The buildings are so old, that they
give cities a ghostly appearance. There is virtually no maintenance, and
little of painting. How do people maintain buildings? Their earnings are
so low, and on top of that, materials are not available in market.
Cocking a snook at Washington meant long years of sanctions; and even
essential materials are not coming in. And Cuba's towns have fewer
numbers of cars as compared to any other country in the Americas. Those
looking for vintage cars (or Collection cars as we call it) may turn
their eyes on to Cuba. Most of them are American cars of the 50's or
60's, the kind we see in old Hollywood movies. The sight of these
vehicles takes us back in time, as if we have landed in a different age
of human existence.
But, there is one contrast, a road lined up with beautiful bungalows,
all of them colourfully painted, and the area padded with trees. A close
look at the signboards will tell you that they are a world apart; they
are buildings of embassies or for the embassies of other countries.
Rents, I learn, fetch as high as 12,000 dollars.
A visit to the Castro government's Commerce Ministry would show how his
dispensation works. It's an old bungalow, and it is as silent as a
grave. Little of activity, and typically, no electricity to light its
rooms or run its fans. Smile is in short supply on the faces of Cubans.
They know the plight they are in, for half a century, and they know
there is no immediate escape from it either. Such is Castro's grip on
power, and that is how a decadent ideology chains its people. But, as
good Communists everywhere did somewhat well, Castro banished poverty
from his land, almost. He has made sure that no one dies of hunger in
his country, as is happening in democracies like India or Bangladesh.
There are no slums. And there is no begging on the streets. Cubans have
passed that stage in human history, thanks to Castro of course. Castro's
government takes care of the basic food requirements of the people.
That Cuba has its own TV should not come as a surprise. It may be a
luxury under Communism, but it serves a purpose from the government's
point of view. It projects what Castro wants to project, and rejects
what Castro hates or is not capable of providing to his people. Its
programmes run for a couple of hours a day lest it should be a
capitalist luxury. And it shows only the bad things that are happening
around the world - an accident here, a bombing there, some crimes
somewhere, and poverty everywhere. TV anchormen would say, see, how Cuba
is the best. Satellite televisions are banned, and so Cubans do not know
there is a different kind of life outside Cuba, or how the new century
is vastly different from the last century. And, no radio, other than
short wave. Neither BBC nor Voice of America can reach up to the shores
of Cuba; they're blocked by the government. Listen only to the
propaganda machine oiled by Castro and Co.
In a country where development hesitates to step in, it is no wonder
Cubans do not know what a laptop computer means. But, the interesting
thing is that Castro has realised the importance of tourism, though the
realisation dawned on him quite late. Nature has bestowed Cuba with its
bountiful charms. Properly developed, it can be a paradise for tourists,
but the infrastructure remains weak. When tourists come in, their
pockets filled with money, they have access to luxury hotels, which are
nice, well maintained, clean, and serving good food. But, Cubans are
banned entry to any of these hotels. Castro has the good sense to know
that if they see good life, they would rather ask for it. It is a human
tendency. And, Castro will have to throw his hands up.
It could be that Cubans are gripped by a sense of fear. There is no
freedom of expression. No way to hold a gathering, as assembly is
banned. And who knows how many are behind the bars for speaking their
minds out, may be by way of a murmur, or perhaps in small circles of
friends. Holding a gathering, or an assembly of five or more, would mean
25 years in jail.
In Castro's land, there is also no way one can own a private business.
It is taboo under Castro's Communism. Communism of the old days used to
frown upon individual enterprise. But this is the age of enterprise.
Without enterprise how can a nation develop? China learned it, and gave
a short shrift to ideology, embraced some of the good aspects of
capitalism, and wedded them into its Maoist principles. But others like
Castro didn't see reason yet. And, perhaps that is what sounded the
death knell for Communism around the world.
Considering Cuba's size and natural wealth, its total population in the
range of 12 million is manageable. It is the largest producer of sugar
in the world. Tobacco, that gave fame to Cuba as the land of Cigars, is
the second largest crop, fetching good money. It has mineral wealth in
the form of nickel deposits, copper, chromites and manganese. If
industry flourished, Cubans would have been in a different, affluent
league long ago.
Many years ago, Cuban farmers had made money from their mango, orange
and vegetable farms. But, under Castro, those lands were turned into
sugarcane fields. He gave sugar to USSR and got oil instead. Now, with
USSR having been disintegrated, and not many orders coming in from there
for Cuba's sugar, what will Castro do with the sugar fields? All other
plantations had been razed to the ground, and how many years it takes to
plant new trees and get them to bear fruits?
Cuba's famous Havana beach faces the United States, though separated by
the Gulf of Mexico, alongside the North Atlantic Ocean. Once these
beaches prided it for hosting the best Casino resorts, where Americans
came in and spent their money. But, when Castro came and overthrew a
dictatorial president, in 1959, came under the influence of the USSR and
embraced Communism, casinos became a thing of the past.
The Commerce Ministry officials have an easy answer why Cuba doesn't try
to get the Americans to withdraw the sanctions? Can't Cuba make peace
with the US? "How? Americans want Cuba to be another of their states. We
are an independent country, and want to remain so. We cannot compromise
on our sovereignty. So (there is) no way (for us to have a patch-up
leading to a lifting of sanctions)", they say.
Cuba is a case study for those who research into how a country shouldn't
be governed; and how life can be dull with state controls. In a land
where everything is rationed, and queues are a common sight because
there is a shortage for everything, it might interest you to know that
it takes three hours of standing in a queue to get a scoop of ice cream
in tourism-friendly Havana's streets.
José F. Sánchez
La Nueva Cuba
August 18, 2004