Cuba Frozen in Time
Paul R. Pillar
April 16, 2017
A week-long visit to Cuba reveals a tropical country of 11 million
people that is stuck in a kind of time capsule. The anachronistic
aspects of the country are symbolized by the 1950s-era U.S.-made
automobiles that cruise city streets—and the resourcefulness of Cubans
is symbolized by whatever they do to keep those old cars running.
Also within the time capsule are long-obsolete ideas of Fidel Castro
that continue to shape Cuba's economy. Salaries are meager and not
linked to productivity. People commonly work multiple jobs to get by.
Many well-educated professionals spend less time on their professions
than on something else, such as driving a bus, that pays better. Some
basic consumer items are heavily subsidized but not in the necessary
quantities. A system of two different currencies, one convertible and
the other not, adds to the jury-rigged quality of the economy.
Comparisons between Cuba and the United States provide some
illustrations of the strengths and limitations of, on one hand,
collective endeavors mounted through government and, on the other hand,
reliance on free markets. In making such comparisons, however, one must
be aware of other factors in determining relative performance.
Transportation infrastructure, for example, is in bad shape in both
countries, but for different reasons. In the United States, it is
largely because of anti-government sentiment that affects the allocation
of resources to what is inherently a public endeavor that requires
government. In Cuba, where problems of transportation infrastructure
include bone-jarring pavement even on major highways, the cause is
simply not enough resources to allocate in the first place.
The most revealing contrasts involve not potholes but people, and the
attitudes and energy that the systems in which they live inculcate. In
Cuba it is easy to find examples of unmotivated workers, in situations
where one could say that some more market incentives could do a lot of
good. But in contrast there are the positive outlooks and abilities
produced by Cuba's comprehensive system of public education, which is
one of the success stories of the revolution.
Cubans do not exhibit any widespread and unsettling discontent. Maybe
this is partly because they just don't know of any better alternatives,
with at least two generations having come of age since Castro took
power. But with much less inequality than in the United States, even
the more ambitious and upwardly mobile Cubans define their aspirations
in terms of what is realistically attainable through hard work in school
and university, however different the end goal may be from the kind of
wealth that many better educated Americans crave. With most basic needs
met, the most talented Cubans find satisfaction and self-realization in
things such as arts and sports, both of which are areas of emphasis in
the educational system. The enthusiasm of young people participating in
the performing arts is obvious and infectious.
Related to all this is a near absence of expectations for major
political change, and of any appetite for the kind of political activism
designed to produce such change. In short, no counterrevolution is in
sight, and not just because of the current regime's use of its coercive
power to ensure that it stays out of sight. Cuba's modern political
history is a factor. The nation achieved independence later than most
other Latin American states, (and when it did get independence, it was
with the U.S.-imposed, sovereignty-compromising Platt Amendment that
went along with it) and has not had as much time to work through stages
of political development as, say, Mexico. Most Cuban presidents in the
first half-century after Spanish rule ended were not commendable
leaders, with Fulgencio Batista being the last of a corrupt and
ineffective lot before Castro ousted him.
But the popular attitudes involving personal fulfillment are a factor as
well. Along with the instances of insufficient motivation it also is
easy to find Cubans who throw themselves into their work with energy and
commitment, whether the work is bartending or city planning. On the
Isle of Youth (which sees very few tourists), in the island's only city,
Nueva Gerona, is a beautiful pedestrian boulevard which makes creative
use of the marble that is extracted from nearly quarries. The park
benches in the town are made of marble. Someone with the drive and
leadership ability that in other circumstances may have been applied to
making a political revolution instead applied those talents to
beautifying the city, even though he or she probably was paid only a
pittance for doing so.
The external influences of globalization can greatly change attitudes
and aspirations in any country, but for Cuba the biggest single external
reality is the anti-globalization U.S. embargo. With the embargo having
been in effect for half a century and with it not leading to even the
possibility of significant political change in Cuba, one can safely
declare the embargo to be a complete and utter failure. All it has done
is to embarrass the United States each year with United Nations
resolutions condemning it, in which every member of the General Assembly
joins the condemnation except for the United States, Israel, and usually
a couple of the Pacific micro-states.
If the embargo were to end—and this would be a major economic event for
Cuba, given the size and significance of the colossus to the north—this
would inevitably mean significant change in Cuban attitudes and, because
of that, Cuban policies. Whoever was ruling Cuba at the time would
almost be forced to pull a Deng Xiaoping regarding modernization and
freeing of the economy, because the ineffective anachronisms could not
survive either the direct competition or the competition in the minds of
Cubans who would see a new range of possibilities.
If significant political change were to come to Cuba in our time, this
is the route it would take. There are no guarantees, of course, and
Castro's heirs, like rulers in a lot of other countries, would look to
the China model with the hope of loosening the economy while maintaining
tight political control. But it is too early to tell whether that sort
of dichotomy between the economic and the political can endure.
Source: Cuba Frozen in Time | The National Interest Blog -