Summer is here in Cuba and with it tens of thousands more American visitors. More than 150,000 Americans visited in 2015, and this year seems on track to surpass even that figure. The growth in American visitors is no doubt related to the warming of relations between Havana and Washington and the dramatic internal reforms that the Cuban government has implemented, sweeping aside many of the Soviet-inspired economic policies that dominated, and afflicted, the lives of everyday Cubans for half a century.
When you talk to enough Americans about Cuba, especially those on the political left, someone will inevitably say those words that are like nails on a chalkboard to Cubans and Cuban Americans alike: “I have to go before they ruin it.” Admittedly, most who use the phrase are well-meaning, and they do not represent the American left as a whole. Nonetheless, it hurts to hear this phrase thoughtlessly repeated time and again by people who should know better. A year and a half ago in The New Republic, Ryan Kearney noted that such a use of the word “ruin” implies a fetishization of Cuban poverty. But the sentiment also evinces a colonialist vision of Cuba, revealing the underlying entitlement of those who see the island as their own personal Tropical Museum of the Cold War.
To understand what is being “ruined,” you have to first understand what came before. After Raúl Castro became president in 2008 many Cubans initially responded with skepticism to his promises of reform. Many had spent their entire lives under the Soviet-inspired system that Fidel had built. A mere eight years later, the difference is as stark as that between night and day. Private businesses had existed under Fidel, such as family-run restaurants known as paladares or some small landowners who had avoided cooperativization, but these were small groups, difficult to join, and beset on all sides by countless bureaucratic restrictions and onerous fiscal exactions. Before the reforms, much of Cuba’s major cities simply shut down after five or six in the afternoon, except for a handful of state-run venues directed towards tourism or Cuban nightlife. Now there are pizzerias, sandwich shops, hair salons, computer-repair shops, and people selling digital media by the megabyte at every corner.
Raul’s reforms are not unlike Vladimir Lenin’s New Economic Policy (NEP) of the 1920s, aimed at reversing the near-complete negation of private industry that characterized the “war communism” of the Russian civil war. The NEP permitted and taxed certain forms of private enterprise, which rebounded with economic growth, greater taxable income, and thus more resources for the state to redistribute. The policy was reversed under Joseph Stalin, but while it lasted it created its own small and medium bourgeoisie, known as the NEPmen. Now Cuba has them as well, under the euphemism of cuentapropistas (on-their-own-ists). While these fundamental reforms have not been without their critics, many are simply the implementation of long-held popular demands for greater liberalization of the economy and attempts to push the gargantuan resources of the black market into the light of day and the scrutiny of tax collectors.
Support for these changes has not been unanimous and even defenders of the reforms will privately lament some of their unintended (but not entirely unforeseen) consequences. Many bristle as they notice that compañero (comrade) is slowly and quietly displaced by señor (the more bourgeois “sir”). Countless more feel frustrated by the uneven way the reforms are implemented, ignoring or doing too little for state employees, such as teachers and doctors, while numerous policies help the growth of Cuba’s new cuentapropista bourgeoisie. The results of the USSR’s own attempts at reform, which spiraled into the collapse of the Soviet State, is present in Cubans’ minds every step of the way. This is especially apparent in the case of President Castro, whose deliberate but measured pace illustrates how much Havana wants to make sure that it is in full control of the changes at all times.
Whatever concerns they may have, one thing that few Cubans contest is that these changes were necessary. Fidel’s economic system was born broken. Even some of the men and women who had helped implement it now privately confess that they feel it has largely been a failure, though they are proud of its achievements in education and health care. It is, indeed, the failures of the old system that propel the current reforms.
Many on the American left share these concerns with their Cuban counterparts. There is a real fear that in trying to break down useless walls Cubans will accidentally bring the whole structure down, and with it all the good that was achieved after 1959. Cuban education is free, of a surprisingly high quality given its limited resources, and is accessible to an extent that is almost without precedent for a developing country. Cubans enjoy health care as a right, while a single illness can still spell economic ruin for many Americans. Before 1959 Cuba was a center for pornography, while after the revolution it began producing outstanding films, including Memories of Underdevelopment (1968), which has been included in many lists of the greatest films of all time. The government’s support for sports has led to countless medals in regional and Olympic events. Even the stains on Cuba’s record, such as its deplorable record on LGBT rights, have of late been reversed, in no small part thanks to the relentless efforts of Mariela Castro, daughter of the president.
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The problem does not lie with those who worry that in the push to modernize Cubans will forget how precious these achievements are. The problem lies with those who see Cuba’s leaving behind its economic backwardness and relative isolation as an opportunity to plant their flag in its soil.
For these Americans, Cuba exists solely as an idealized socialist paradise, in almost complete stasis since the Cold War, which has yet to be befouled by the corrupting influence of other Americans. For them, the island nation is the land of the noble savage on the verge of contact with the advanced but impure outside world, sure to despoil its backward, but charming, ways. These people don’t want to see the real Cuba. They want to be able to say that they were there before it got Americanized.
This hipster-colonialist vision of the island isn’t new. Americans have been projecting their vision of what Cuba is and should be onto the real Cuba for centuries. Historian Louis Pérez Jr. showed in his 2008 book Cuba in the American Imagination how Americans viewed Cuba through the lens of political cartoons, first as a damsel in distress to be rescued from vile but ultimately masculine Spain, then as a small black child who needed to educated and civilized by a paternalistic Uncle Sam. These depictions of Cuba articulated the flawed and presumptuous way in which many Americans perceived the island and reinforced such notions by giving them form and reproducing them through mass media.
Today the American colonialist vision of Cuba is more tactful and therefore more insidious than before. Instead of promising to fulfill the “white man’s burden” by elevating Cubans to the higher realms of civilization, it insists that Cubans remain as they are, even as economic backwardness results in immense human suffering. Because it views Cuba in terms of its own needs, as an open-air Cold War museum, and not in terms of Cubans’ well-being, the hipster-colonialist mindset resents that Cubans are working to change their circumstances.
The idea that late-20th-century Cuba was isolated is largely a myth based on the fact that it was isolated from the United States. It was quite well-connected, however, with the rest of the developing world and especially with the Soviet bloc until the 1990s. Since then, tourists from Europe and Canada have regularly visited the island in the hundreds of thousands each year.
While there is certainly a lack of personal experience of First World capitalism on the island, this does not equate to an innocence of extreme poverty. The so-called período especial (Special Period) that followed the collapse of the USSR was characterized by rolling blackouts, near starvation (vitamin deficiencies that led to blindness), and widespread scams. In the early years of this century life had gotten better, but everyday Cubans without family to send remittances from the First World or a job with access to tourist money still had an extremely difficult time. Doctors in an ostensibly free health-care system relied on “gifts” to supplement meager incomes. Mathematicians and physicists became taxi drivers or began selling peanut brittle as an illegal side business just to get by. Others lived by reselling black-market cheese or meat at elevated prices, which benefited from and worsened the already-existing misery and scarcity that characterized everyday life. Sex tourism continues to plague Cuban society, with underage boys and girls caught up in distressing numbers. Countless Cubans were involved in scams, considered part of the lucha (struggle), which they perpetrated on their fellow citizens and tourists alike; they were both victims of poverty and participants in worsening the problem. All of these means of survival carried the danger that on any given day they could get arrested, their black-market income and property seized, and the possibility of years behind bars laid before them.
Increasingly, private businesses (with state-mandated minimum wages) pay employees enough to survive with no danger of arrest and no need to stoop to prostitution or exploiting their fellows. This taxed income is now used to raise the salaries of doctors and other state employees, though not quickly enough. The state is even experimenting with increased cooperativization, granting state businesses autonomy in exchange for higher fiscal exactions, which can be seen as a late, partial fulfillment of what socialist societies were supposed to look like: businesses in the hands of workers, not parasitic bureaucrats. These changes allow the Cuban state to continue its social programs, while also allowing its citizens the right to live with a modicum of dignity and quality of life.
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It is unreasonable to demand that Cuba stay as it was, yoked to a broken system that has failed to fully serve the Cuban people for so long. To say that Americans will “ruin” Cuba through tourism implies that the island had not already experienced all the ills of tourism, when in reality it became more than familiar with them during the 1990s. To say that the presence of private businesses will “ruin” Cuba implies that the island should maintain giant state-run and state-owned businesses that exploited their workers and burdened public finances because of their dysfunction and corruption. It is also unreasonable to oppose reforms that promise to provide the resources for struggling education and health-care programs that have been functioning on shoestring budgets for decades now. Hipster colonialism implies that Cubans can’t be trusted to decide what works best for themselves.
The reforms being implemented in Cuba are not the result of the US government’s imposing change on the island, as happened in Guatemala in 1954 or, less directly, in Chile after 1973. They are being implemented from the top down; but as demands, they originated at the grassroots level.
If anything, these reforms are an attempt to preserve the best of the Cuban Revolution and not to change the essence of the system. They are a tacit admission that the old reality was unsustainable. “Everything needs to change, so everything can stay the same,” observes a character in the classic Italian novel The Leopard. So that education, health care, and other programs may continue, the system must be reformed. It is possible to worry that reforms could accidentally erase the achievements of the revolution without fetishizing the poverty that resulted from the system’s own failures or viewing the process with a sense of entitlement about how Cubans should run their own country. The future of Cuba is in the hands of Cubans.