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Cuba—A Retrospective

by Stephen Kaye
Tue Jun 14th, 2016

This donk, a familiar figure in Trinidad, charges $.50 if you take his picture. Donks are not regulated in their business activities. Most everyone else is.

Our Cuban adventure had two legs.

The first was as followers and supporters of the Bard Conservatory of Music’s orchestra, which performed in two provincial cities before two full days in Havana. There we attended rehearsals, two programs with young Cuban musicians, and a final performance with Peter Serkin at the National Theater of Cuba.

The second was as observers building our own understanding of a small Communist nation struggling to enter a new era without a clear plan as to how that will happen. The United States is going to play an important role, as Cuba is only 60 miles across the water, but the script has not been written. There is the possibility that the process will be improvised.  

Meanwhile, Cuba is hurting. Cuba made the mistake of having only unreliable friends—first the Soviets and then Venezuela. The Soviets left a legacy of brutalist architecture and aging tractors and not much else. Venezuela leaves a hole in the Cuban treasury that must now be very large indeed. Cuba imports almost everything. Local manufacturing seems limited to cigars and rum, the legacy of a plantation economy based on sugar and tobacco. It is said that 60 percent of Cuba’s food must be imported—a real paradox, since there is ample land and ample labor.  The problem would seem to be a total absence of capital with which to buy tractors, seed and fertilizers. There is no banking system and no system for supplying credit to business or to individuals who might want to start a business. So there are no tractors or trucks or cars except the antiques that keep on running.

Despite this general scene of decrepitude, the hotels in Havana are more or less up to date (they have hot water and functioning elevators). Ours I would call first rate.

The buses devoted to transporting tourists all seem to be of Chinese origin and are excellent. The tour guides supplied by the bus company speak passable English, but their patter is politically correct. Our guide was personable, but he admitted he longed to go to America. He lived on tips, not his pathetic salary. He showed us his ration book, which purportedly entitled him to enough food for each month but lasted barely three weeks. There were no supermarkets, no food stores, no distribution networks, no wholesale markets—no markets of any kind. Farmers sold to the government at prices fixed by the government. Now that is a system bound to fail absolutely, and fail it did. We saw no farms that produced vegetables or chickens.

The avenues of enterprise are limited. One can open a restaurant, and many have.  One can start a small band, and many have. One can engage in gray or black markets, and many do. It is hard to walk along main thoroughfare without being approached with an offer of cigars or something else. The people making the offer do not often have the cigar in question, but they know someone who does. Good cigars are available in this market at small discount off the price at the government cigar outlets. This is not a viable business.

The countryside we passed is one of large fields, either cultivated for sugar cane or used for grazing cattle. In the hilly sections, the fields looked poor and overgrazed, and the cattle were poor. In the center of the country, off the main road, the land is flat and the soils deep and rich looking; the fields are bigger, and the cattle look much better. It looks as though individual farmers with one or two head have grazing rights along the roads and in small plots at the edge of the bigger fields. We passed many tethered cows and horses grazing in these areas, probably the only food the animals get. 

Horse and oxen were seen plowing, with plowmen walking behind. Horse carts abounded, even in Havana. Horse-drawn taxis and miniwagons carrying six or eight passengers were also common. Bike-cabs were everywhere.

Crops of corn (and other grains) need machines, fertilizer and seed, and these need a credit facility. It may be too hot and damp for most grains, but corn might be a viable crop.  We saw rice fields.

Everyone is asking: what happens next? No one knows. No one knows who is going to make that decision, or how. What body of experts is studying the situation? There are precedents—East Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Russia, China and Vietnam. Cuba may fit none of them. Cuba has no obvious talent pool: it fled long ago. Will the Miami Cubans want to return? Will they make claims for the land and businesses they lost? Will they bring the needed capital with them? Will the laws change to protect investments? Will the country open up to all corporate enterprises? Will we see McDonald’s franchises in the downtowns? Will we see American beer, Apple Stores, malls and supermarkets? Eventually all this seems inevitable.

What we saw was a period of indecision. The country is ripe for picking. The land is inviting. The cities are desperate for capital for renovation, for rebuilding infrastructure, for systems to develop, for modernization. The Cubans are anxious for change, but, on the other hand, they do not want to give up what they have—universal free education and a healthcare system that is accessible to all. 

I also detected a sense of equality and dignity. Cubans do not want to be anyone’s vassal, or to be beholden to a foreign power. They have been there, and they don’t want us back. It did not seem they were ready to embrace a free-market capitalism.  Some kind of mixed capitalism seems likely, but what kind of mix is an open question.  

We visit a garden—really an arboretum. A guide—knowledgeable, friendly and articulate—talks about the treasure in trees that made Cuba’s forests famous. Mahogany and ebony are the ultimate furniture woods.  She shows us the trees. Mahogany can be harvested at a hundred years, ebony at two hundred. A balsawood tree that grows tall, to 160 feet, is a statue in the forest. We see bamboo and ficus, flowering trees and orchids. The place is full of bromeliads. It is an impressive collection, an example of the benefits of biodiversity. Our guide is proud of the collection and takes obvious pleasure in showing it to appreciative visitors. There would seem to be a future in growing these trees in a diversified tree farm. The bird life (and the insect life) in the garden is noticeably richer than in any other place we have visited.  It is a refuge, and a symbol of hope.