From visiting Cuba recently, I realized when I returned that I was so in disagreement with their system and policies that I would likely be a guerilla, fighting for a new political system, much the same as Fidel Castro did 50 years ago. Except I would be fighting for democratic freedom AGAINST Castro. It would either be that, or leaving on a small raft for Miami. I’ve written this to try to explain why I feel so strongly about the situation in Cuba.
My perspective on Cuba may be a little unique because:
- When I visited, I was staying with normal Cuban families, spending 100% of my time with real Cubans and zero government intervention
- I have lived in the Dominican Republic for 5 years and understand Caribbean culture
- I am a huge fan of Ayn Rand and objectivism
- I truly wanted to learn about the Cuban system and what makes it work.
- I speak very fluent Spanish • I’ve traveled to over 50 countries and lived in 6.
- I’m an Australian citizen with no family ties to latin america
Dominicans and Cubans have a similar background and people, but the two countries took sharply different political directions in the 1960’s. Today the DR is a totally free country, almost to the point of being a libertarian’s paradise. You can do anything you want here. And Cuba is a socialist police state run by Fidel Castro. Since Cuba is a police state, by publishing this piece means it will not be a good idea for me to return to Cuba until the socialist regime is gone.
When I first arrived in Cuba I was pretty impressed. The streets are cleaner than the DR and people are very well educated. I also felt Cubans have a higher level of integrity than Dominicans.
Economically speaking compared to the DR, it felt like the top half and bottom quarter of income earners were removed, and all that were remaining was from 1/2 to 3/4, ie the lower third quadrant. This meant that everyone was lower middle class while not working very hard. I found this idea intriguing because in the DR there is true poverty, and if that could be eliminated completely, it seemed like it might be a reasonable tradeoff.
At this point I was rather unconvinced by Ayn Rand and really felt like I had some investigations to do.
The Cuban mindset
Cubans don’t like the US. A large part of that is due to the propaganda they are constantly shown (see further below). Their view of the USA is like an episode of the TV show COPS – very violent with lots of crime, drugs and gangs. Cubans have a much softer view of the world and value empathy over almost anything else. Even though they don’t like their current economic situation, most of them still like Fidel and would like to see him succeed. Quite a few Cubans told me they want “the best of both systems”, i.e. they want the economic power of the USA, combined with the humanist policies of Cuba. While the two systems seem fairly contrary to me, it was pointed out to me that Canada and Australia might be good examples.
The turning point
After my second day in Cuba, I had spoken to a lot of people and seen a lot of impressive things. I was starting to be really convinced that the Cuban system is better than the capitalist system in the DR which leaves so many people in poverty. Then came the turning point.
I was chatting with a taxi driver and he told me that NOBODY likes the Cuban system and anyone that says they do is lying. He said this is especially true for someone owning a casa particular, because they are working as an entrepreneur to earn tourist dollars. He said that if they were truly happy with the socialist system they would be quietly earning their $20/month working as a good socialist.
This statement really shocked me, and caused me to go back and talk to some more people. Thus you have the conversations that follow..
Conversations with Socialists
When I arrived, I was surprised to meet some people who told me they are socialists. I’ve never really sat down and talked with someone with those kinds of views before and I was expecting people to be telling me how bad the Cuban system is. But it turned out they still think their socialist system is the best.
With each one as I was talking with them, I got the feeling that they were being intellectually dishonest. They were tying themselves up in so many knots trying to defend a system that just doesn’t work. I was also impressed how each of them were incredibly nice people and truly wanted to share their views with me.
In the early days of the founding fathers in the US, Ben Franklin talked about how he wanted an educated US population so they would make good decisions for democracy. I found it surprising how such educated people as these would still support an obvious failure such as Cuban socialism.
1. The Marxist philosophy teacher One of the most interesting was a former philosophy professor. She had been teaching Marxism at the university for 37 years but was now running a casa particular (having tourists stay at her house, a common business in Cuba). When I mentioned I would like to record her talking with me, I was surprised to find out that she was uncomfortable with being recorded. I found later this was fairly typical with Cubans as they don’t want to get in trouble with the government.
She explained to me that socialism is currently not working well in Cuba because of the US global trade embargo. Not only is the US blocking all business with Cuba, but they are also blacklisting businesses in other countries that try to do business with Cuba. According to her, North Korea is actually doing really well and we are being fed misinformation by our government. And Venezuela is also another country that is doing well.
She told me that Cuba worked well until 1990. Once the USSR collapsed, things started to get quite difficult. She said that things have started to get better again recently, possibly due to the help of Venezuela.
She was firmly convinced that once the US lifts its global embargo against Cuba that socialism will work perfectly.
I asked her about the contradiction of her running a private accommodation business while having spent 37 years teaching Marxism philosophy. She told me that she is forced to do it in order to survive. She said that the government has legalized businesses such as these in order to generate more revenue for the country, that she doesn’t like to do it, and hopes to stop in 7 months time.
The Marxist philosophy professor
What struck me from this conversation was that what defines failure of the Cuban system? So if the US drops its embargo and socialism STILL doesn’t work properly, what does that mean? From my conversations with her, I felt like there would be yet another round of convoluted explanations of why Cuban socialism was still the best.
2. The two 80 year old socialists in their mansion
I was pretty amazed by the massive houses in the Vedado area of Havana. They are huge and have been totally neglected for the past 50 years. I was really interested to see how they looked inside. The taxi driver who was showing me around managed to talk his way into one of them. So we got to spend an hour with two 80 year old brother and sister that have been living together in the same house since the early 1950’s.
They and several other siblings rented the house in the 50’s for 79 pesos/month, before the Cuban revolution. The taxi driver was shocked at that amount of money; apparently it would be $2000 – $3000/month today.
From asking about Cuba before Castro’s revolution there were clearly many problems and change was needed. The elderly brother and sister told me they were both happily socialist and that things were much better now than they were before. I found this interesting since they had clearly been part of the upper class before, and were now living in a house which had not been improved since they moved in 50 years ago, including having the original refrigerator.
They told me that while they first rented the house, that once Castro took over he made a law that everyone could only own one house. So if you owned 6 houses and were renting them out, you had to pick one for yourself and the rest would be seized by the state. And, as residents of the house in 1959 paying 79 pesos/month, they became the owners. It’s unclear what happened to the original owner, but it’s assumed they moved to Miami.
3. The socialist taxi driver
Later on in the week I caught a taxi, and was surprised to learn that the driver was a proud socialist. Since I still had some questions I wanted to ask, I paid him (!) to sit down with me to talk things through. He was very proud of the system in Cuba and wanted to explain things clearly to me. By this point in the week I was getting a bit tired. I’d also had a mojito or two so I started asking some very direct and probing questions to him.
We went to an outdoor café. About 5 minutes after we arrived at had sat at our table; the police came and spent 15 minutes questioning him. It turns out they were concerned he was drinking alcohol during his taxi shift (he wasn’t). He was surprised when I told him that random police questioning wouldn’t happen in the US or Australia.
One of the things he told me was that socialism is great because there is no poverty. So I showed him this photo:
He was shocked when he saw it, and explained that there was a deposit paid by the government on bottles and cans and most likely the guy was collecting them to make money. He was a bit embarrassed by this. I also mentioned that I had seen an aggressive car window washer (as is common in Latin America). Now, I have to admit that while in Cuba I only saw one person doing this, while in the DR you will see about 5 at every traffic light. Nonetheless, in the land of supposed eliminated poverty, these things do exist.
At the end of our conversation it was time to take me to my destination. I was surprised to find out that he wanted to keep talking! I was losing interest in spending time with socialists by this point, as I found them quite wishy washy. So I told him we could possibly schedule it another day. I got the feeling that I had made some points that may have started him to change his views of the world. I hope so.
Jorge my host, the [non] socialist
The last person that really influenced my views in Cuba was Jorge, the late 50’s psychiatrist, former director of a Havana hospital and the owner of the casa particular where I stayed. His parents were strong supporters of the revolution, and he told me that as he was growing up he was a big supporter of Fidel. He told me the story of how Fidel visited the US in the early days of the revolution and slept on the street in some political protest. Jorge as a 10 year old boy also slept outside on the street so he could be in solidarity with Fidel at the time.
Today things are a little different. Jorge told me he doesn’t like the socialist system at all, and that it has been a huge failure for Cubans. But he also told me how most Cubans still really like Fidel and want to see him succeed. I found this very surprising. He told me that he really isn’t interested in politics or anything else; he just wants to live a quiet life with his wife and children. And in order to get by he runs a Casa particular, hosting tourists. This is in addition to his job as a psychiatrist at the local hospital where he earns a top salary by Cuban standards of $30/month. This was the highest Cuban salary I heard of during my time in Havana, others made $15 – $20/month.
In my 5 days staying with Jorge and his family I paid them about $180. And they had other tourists staying with them during this time as well. Jorge told me he continues to be a psychiatrist because that is what he loves and was born to do – but that he runs the casa particular in order to pay the bills. He is effectively working his day job for free because the money he earns from it doesn’t bring any real economic benefit to the family compared to the income he makes from hosting tourism.
And this is what bothered me a lot. This guy is almost the same age as my father, also a highly trained medical professional, yet he’s running around fixing problems with my TV, emptying my trash and arranging my mealtimes. I asked him to borrow a marker pen, and he was looking through his work bag for a pen – I was disgusted to see that he had just a couple of old ballpoint pens, hardly any paper and everything was old and in bad condition. This is how Cuba treats its highly trained professionals? A 12 year old kid in the US would have 100X better writing resources for going to school.
After all his years working for the Cuban system, Jorge has almost nothing, no savings or possessions. He doesn’t need a lot since nobody pays for rent or healthcare in Cuba, but it became clear to me that once socialism is gone and capitalism comes in, that people like Jorge are going to have trouble adjusting – if you have zero savings or possessions, and you’re getting older and now have to pay for your healthcare, how will you do it?
Catching a ride on the bike-taxi
One afternoon I decided to get a ride on a bicycle taxi. These are generally used by Cubans for getting around. I thought it might be a fun way to see some different parts of Havana. But then something happened..
The bike-taxi I caught
After about 10 minutes he saw the police a block away
So, I had to get off and walk until we get around the corner, otherwise he could be put in jail. Actually this kind of fear of the police happened 8-10 times during my week in Havana.
The Havana Capitol building
As part of my sightseeing, I decided to visit the Havana Capitol building. I didn’t really have any idea what it would be like and assumed it wouldn’t be anything special. I was shocked when I saw it:
This short video gives a better feel for how impressive it looks:
Inside it is absolutely magnificent:
This building was built in the early 20th century when Cuba was a democratic country. They built it in just 3 years. It’s a similar design to the US Capitol building and is actually a bit taller! But the terrible, terrible thing about it is that the building has been totally unmaintaned. Here’s an example of water seepage into the walls:
I walked away really sad to see such a strong symbol of our democracy being totally wasted. And I am certain that it will be used for democracy again before too long.
The Museum of the [Cuban] Revolution:
The museum of the revolution would be better renamed as the museum of Castro propaganda. I found that I really reacted strongly to it, more than anything else I saw during my time in Havana. All the things being showcased as successes for the revolution was just total failures and they had achieved virtually nothing – yet people were still visiting the museum and being impressed by what they saw.
One that really bothered me was this sign, talking about how the Spanish colonials “tricked” the local indigenous people, implying that today’s Cuba held no responsibility for what happened in the past.
This one was also of the same theme:
I was really startled to see that Castro didn’t take any responsibility for settlement actions that happened before his time and just labeled it all as “before”, and therefore not his problem. I haven’t heard about any Cuban land grants to indigenous people, so this felt rather disingenuous to me.
Another quote that really struck me was this one:
“No cause will be lost while there is one revolutionary and there is one gun” – Fidel Castro.
This would be true – except that as a guerrilla himself, Castro has made it virtually impossible for revolutionaries to stand up against him in Cuba. It’s well known that anyone that stands up to the current regime gets in a lot of trouble and eventually vanishes. He was treated far better by the government while HE was a revolutionary.
This display was just a typical piece of Cuban propaganda that you see everywhere, and is typically stupid:
“To Ronald Reagan: Thank you cretin for helping us to STRENGTHEN THE REVOLUTION”
Examples of how Cuba doesn’t respect its people:
- A popular activity in Cuba is deep sea fishing. Cubans cannot go, in case they try to leave.
- I have to blank out faces of people or they may get into trouble by the government
- Monthly official Gov income in Cuba is $15-$35, monthly cost of living is $200 – $400.
- Public water turns on once per day and filling tanks in houses, providing water for the rest of the day. I found it ironic that a centralized socialist system can’t even maintain a entralized water service and requires houses to maintain their own tanks for proper service.
- Since every business in Cuba is government run, Cuba is a bit like an 11,000,000 company run by CEO Fidel Castro. This means that to succeed in business in Cuba, you have to succeed in politics. • The only people with nice houses are those in politics.
- The Cuban airline has a first class section in front of economy class in supposedly egalitarian Cuba
- Cuban citizens are second class citizens in their own country. Because they depend so heavily on tourism, they take extra special measures to protect tourists. If I walk up, hit a Cuban guy and then call the police, the CUBAN guy will go to jail with no questions asked.
- Dominicans travel freely across their island. Cubans need a permit to spend time in Havana
Things that really stood out to me while I was in Cuba:
- There was lots of foreign technology (TV, computers, etc), but none of it was made in Cuba. If there was no innovation outside of Cuba none of this would have reached the country, effectively meaning Cubans are parasites off the world economy.
- Why are there still so many 1950’s cars and unrepaired houses in the country if the socialist system did so well from 1959-1990?
Cubans cannot easily access the internet. Here’s a screenshot of the tourist internet
This is the “ministry of finance and pricing” building. The concept of a central pricing center just seems insane.
This bathroom has no running water so the bathroom attendant in the photo pours his bottle full of water on to your hands so you can wash them clean. Yes, I’m serious.
Walking around Havana you see lots of propaganda. It falls into two groups – supporting the revolution and against the USA. Here’s some examples:
”Bush’s Plan: He’ll take away the morning kiss, he’ll hurry up leaving for school and he’ll put an angry look on your face. Thanks, now we live in Free Cuba”
“We can make the most just society in the world” (taken in a shopping mall)
“Working for the social revolution in America isn’t a utopia for crazies or fanatics. It’s working for the next stage of advancing history”
Atlas Shrugged was the book that inspired me to visit Cuba and to see the results of socialism in action. I found that about 90% of what she wrote about was correct. Here’s some examples:
This philosophy foundation is typical for the terminology used in Atlas Shrugged:
“Fernando Ortiz Foundation. Science, conscience, patience”.
Surely if a philosophy is so good it doesn’t require tons of patience?
Rand writes about men with convictions and values. This is exactly what I saw in Havana, that the socialists are very wishy washy always making excuses for the failure of their system.
I found that Cubans get emotional about negotiating and money. I was impressed that Ayn Rand made the dollar sign her personal symbol and my feeling is that she wanted to focus on disconnecting money from emotion and creating true value for value deals.
One thing that really impressed me was how most of the “builders” left Cuba in 1959 after Castro gained power, with the remaining leaving in the following 2 years. This was the exact theme of Atlas Shrugged and was very powerful to see that it actually happened. The difference was that John Galt wasn’t required – people just left on their own.
The only major difference I saw from Atlas Shrugged to the reality in Cuba was the lack of confidence that was demonstrated at the end of the book. Everywhere in Cuba you are shown strong political presentations and a lot of confidence that the system works even though it clearly does not.
Anyone visiting Cuba should read Atlas Shrugged before they go.
Returning home to the DR
One of the things I noticed about passing through Cuban immigration was that as you present your passport and visa to the immigration officer, there is a closed door that you cannot pass through. Only once they have reviewed all your papers do they open the door with a buzzer allowing you to pass. I haven’t seen this anywhere else, certainly Australia and the US have open booths which psychologically feels very different.
I had a scary moment as the computers were blocked and the immigration officer had to get her supervisor.. But finally things were working, the buzzer sounded and I was allowed to pass.
I’ve always found it a bit cheesy that some people clap as the plane lands. This was the first time I really felt like I wanted to do that.. I was VERY happy to be back in the Dominican Republic, a capitalist country with true freedom.
Why the US Embargo is a good idea
Before I went to Cuba, I felt that maybe the US should lift the embargo. After I visited Cuba I became quite convinced it’s a good thing and that it should continue. Maybe I’ve become a hardened Miami Cuban without even knowing Miami Cubans personally? 🙂
The more pressure the embargo puts on Cuba, the higher the local cost of living becomes. And this forces more people towards entrepreneurship. As more people are forced into finding alternative ways to earn an income, the entire country will be gradually moved into a capitalist economy. In turn, this will cause the socialist system to become irrelevant. As the US Embargo helps this process along, I think its a good thing.
Why do people say Cuba is a great place for a holiday?
I found this article by an orthopedic surgeon that visited Cuba and actually met Castro:
This seems typical of the experience some people have with Cuba. They take a superficial vacation and come back saying “its a nice place, just rather poor”.
I am now strongly against this kind of assistance for Cuba. If their socialist system is so good they shouldn’t need any outside help. I am aware this is rather non-humanitarian, but I just found so much of the Cuban system repelling that I feel it needs to be blocked completely until it breaks down.
People taking a casual vacation to Cuba are helping the repressive socialist system to survive. IMHO you should only visit Cuba if you are seriously interested in socialism and want to understand how it works. Otherwise there are plenty of other Caribbean countries you can visit instead that would love your tourist dollars and aren’t police states that repress its citizens.
In the end I am quite convinced that socialism would be a great solution if it actually worked. I think Castro has good intentions, but this doesn’t matter since what he has done is a total failure and has ruined the lives of 2 generations of Cuban people. His famous quote of “history will absolve me” is garbage. The Cuban system totally destroys technological advances, an area I spend my life in.
While what I have written may come across as rather emotional, I really feel strongly that this isn’t an over-reaction. What is happening in Cuba is real and is ruining people’s lives right now. This is something serious.
I also gained a huge amount of respect and gratitude for those who held off Communism during the cold war, and also our veterans from WWII. People with “angst” just don’t realize how good things are today. We have generations of soldiers to thank for the liberties we enjoy today.
From spending time with people that still believe a failed system is working, please make sure you ALWAYS think for yourself about what you are being told by your government. A capitalist democracy isn’t perfect and needs a smart population that thinks for itself to run effectively.
And this is why, if I had grown up in Cuba I would either become a guerilla fighting Castro or trying to escape to Miami on a small raft.
So, as Forrest Gump said, that’s all I have to say about that.
If you want to see the photos that influenced this article, look here:
Other articles about Cuba: