[News] Cuba Libre, 2017

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Wed Nov 22 11:08:57 EST 2017


  Cuba Libre, 2017

by Lee Artz <https://www.counterpunch.org/author/lee-artz/> - November 
22, 2017


In early November this year, I was invited to participate in an 
international conference in Havana on Global Capitalism in Latin 
America, co-sponsored by the Cuban-based Asociación de Historiadores 
Latinoamericanos y del Caribe. More than 75 scholars gave presentations 
on a wide range of topics from transnational trade and investment and 
the impact of capitalism on the environment, social inequality, and 
indigenous rights to the resurgence of social movements across the 

Much of the work will soon appear in /Third World Quarterly/, /Monthly 
Review/, and other journals. The conference was intense and engaging, 
but participants also had ample time to witness Havana and interact with 
Cuban citizens outside the tourist areas.

I was also personally fortunate to meet with Juan Jacamino from Radio 
Havana Cuba and Ovidio Acosta, senior international editor at ACN 
(Agencia Cubano Noticias—the Cuban national news agency). In addition to 
some informative exchanges about the Cuban media practices and the 
cultural adjustment occurring with increased foreign investment and 
licensing of small business, we spent almost two days walking Havana and 
its diverse neighborhoods. Having been to Cuba several times before, 
most recently during the “special period” following the collapse of the 
Soviet Union, several things stood out as I witnessed Cuba today.


Perhaps most striking was the widespread, large-scale construction 
appearing across Havana. Cranes everywhere. Scaffolding everywhere. One 
obvious and significant part was the United Nations’ restoration 
projects in and around Old Havana—both small homes from the Spanish 
colonial days and major projects on former colonial edifices, 
castle-like structures and former colonial institutional structures.

The other noticeable major construction projects were Chinese and 
Spanish hotels going up, especially near El Malecon, the main 
thoroughfare by the Caribbean Sea. Again, multi-story buildings with 
construction equipment, scores of workers, and cranes operating—even at 

The third noticeable construction activity around Havana was all of the 
individual homes and apartments that were in various stages of repair 
and improvement. Walking through most neighborhoods, there was a 
remarkable number of homes with residents painting walls, refinishing 
doors, laying floor tile. Given that most Cubans are economically 
challenged, the level of home improvement was significant. As several 
Cubans expressed along our journey, the socialist system in Cuban still 
provides all with exceptional healthcare, education, housing, and basic 
nutrition—but resources available for personal consumption are in short 

Increased spending on home improvement and consumer goods reflects the 
expansion of tourism (which brings dollars to those working in the 
industry) and the licensing of small businesses (which also provides 
additional income for some).

*Small business*

This was the second noticeable change in Cuba since the late 1990s: 
individual Cubans can start and profit from small businesses, including 
hiring employees. In almost every neighborhood, there are barbershops, 
auto repair shops, food stalls, street vendors, tutors, and bars and 
restaurants—and hundreds of self-employed taxi drivers.

Both Jacaminio and Acosta expressed some ambivalence with the new 
“opening” of small enterprise, noting the nudging of social inequality 
resulting from the increased income for some in a socialist cultural 
economy that shares public resources with all. Acosta explained that all 
small businesses need to be licensed, and a primary requirement is for 
each enterprise to provide a social service to their local neighborhood.

Barbers in one neighborhood fund the local park—callled “barbeparque”—as 
well as recreational and cultural programs in the park for families and 
children. One bar we visited established a cooking 
school—“gastronomique”—for local youth to learn culinary trades.

In every case, the enterprise applicant must meet with representatives 
of the local neighborhood to discuss and agree on what programs or 
projects will be provided. The local CDR (Committee for the Defense of 
the Revolution) then monitors to assure the small business fulfills its 
commitment. A small, perhaps even symbolic, recognition of the 
collaborative culture of human solidarity that Cuban leaders (including 
Raul Castro) still promote.

*Cultural diversity*

One of the most startling characteristics of Cuban society for visitors 
unfamiliar with the dramatic changes following the Cuban Revolution is 
the manifest desegregation of daily living. From tourist streets to 
every neighborhood, the separation of black and white does not exist in 
Havana. Sure, there are some more predominately black neighborhoods, but 
none solely black streets, no exclusively “ghetto-ized” sections where 
only blacks live and work. Likewise, there are a few remaining primarily 
white sections, due to some families who have maintained the residence 
of their ancestors from before Batista. (Contrary to US propaganda, 
Cubans did not have their homes confiscated by the revolution. There is 
no real estate market for home sales, but some Cubans still live in 
their family homes).

More manifest and transparent is the natural interaction among Cubans of 
all ethnicities as intermingling socially and culturally is common. 
Couples hold hands, multiracial families share park benches and public 
transportation, work together, laugh together, dance together. Truly 
inspiring for the future of humanity—once the economic incentives (e.g., 
rent gouging, race-based pay scales, unemployment) and institutionalized 
racism has been dismantled, citizens gravitate to each other in mutual 
respect and exchange.


Following the loss of its primary trading partners in Eastern Europe and 
the Soviet Union in the 1990s, Cuba suffered economically. It is not 
possible to build a socialist paradise—even on a tropical island—if your 
primary products are sugar and tobacco. Making matters much worse has 
been the concerted US blockade that both threatens and undermines Cuba’s 
ability to normalize relations for trade and finance—given US threatened 
sanctions against those too friendly with Cuba. With the explosion of 
tourism, Cuba has found an additional source of revenue, but serving 
tourists does not serve domestic equality.

So Cuba is poor by many economic measures. Not poor in the Mexican 
maquiladores, Brazilian favela  or US urban blight social inequality 
sense, but poor in the public appearance and private goods sense. It is 
obvious everywhere. Streets are clean; kids are cheerful; but there are 
severe limits on resources, so buildings and streets are in disrepair 
(even as increased refurbishment takes place) and the notorious 1950s US 
automobiles are everywhere. No luxury sports cars are around.

Free health care, free education, no rent, affordable public 
transportation, and nutritional basics—but after that things are tight. 
Art is everywhere. Museums, libraries, and schools are everywhere—even 
if not posh. Music is everywhere, so local entertainment is available 
and affordable. Almost everyone seemed to be carrying a cell phone. 
Rice, sugar, flour, and milk for children is ample and available for 
all. We had lunch of spaghetti, pizza, fruit, and pru (a Cuban fermented 
beverage) for less than a dollar. Still the consumer goods, shiny 
technology, and latest fashion options are in short supply.

The appeal of self-gratification offered by visiting relatives from 
Miami and seen on television stands in quite a contrast to the adequate, 
but seemingly mundane, bare necessities of Cuban daily life. There are 
visceral, visible signs of shortages for décor, appearance, and 
consumerist leisure, but the streets are safe, the quality of life is 
high (educationally, public health, mortality, or most any other measure 
from the United Nations).

*Security and democracy*

In my week in Havana, I saw very few police of any sort. A few walked 
past a public park, stopping to kiss the cheeks of several 
acquaintances. Each morning a couple of police chatted and rested at the 
end of one main tourist street. This is no police state. No black youth 
get shot down. One sees more cops in any US city before lunch than can 
be seen in Havana in a week. Safety and security and resolution of 
conflict is usually handled by citizens themselves, often through the 
neighborhood CDRs with local residents who are known and respected.

Cuba is a democracy. In a few weeks, citizens will vote in local 
elections for mayors and council reps. Acosta, the senior editor at ACN, 
reported that there are more than 20,000 candidates in the 168 local 
elections. Anyone can run; anyone can be elected. (A few years ago, a 
Presbyterian was elected to a local city council, upending the US charge 
of no religious freedom in Cuba). After the local voting, elected 
representatives will vote for the National Assembly, a variance from 
most other models, but still emblematic of democratic, representative 


As a media critic, I had some extended conversations with both Jacaminio 
from Radio Havana Cuba and Acosta from ACN. Jacaminio explained his role 
was different from commercial reporters—he does not write of spectacles 
or the lives and pastimes of entertainers or politicians. Instead, he 
writes of Cuban citizens, to “find the heroic meaning in the daily life 
of the bricklayer.” Acosta, as senior editor for international news, on 
the other hand, reports on global events, particularly as they affect 
Cuba, including the Paris Accords, NATO and UN decisions, global trade 
activities, and similar stories. Both of them agreed that public access 
to Cuban media was limited—there are no community radio stations in 
Cuba, like those that have sprung up as part of the socialist stirrings 
in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.While public and community media 
across Latin America has been a site for educating and mobilizing social 
movements for change, that recent history has not spurred changes in 
Cuban media. Jacaminio and Acosta agreed that the lack of more direct 
public participation in media is a missed opportunity to engage Cubans 
in critiquing, proposing, and ultimately strengthening the revolution. 
Both tempered their assessment with real concerns about US intervention, 
the anti-Castro Miamians, and the general conditions of insecurity and 
intimidation caused by the US blockade. Cuba is so close to the US and 
such a target of North American intervention that caution and control 
over communication are to be expected and almost justifiably the default 

*Cuba Libre 2017*

On the day of departure from Cuba, the US announced further restrictions 
on trade and travel. It will be harder in the future for US residents to 
visit Cuba, even for academic and educational activities. While 
continuing to brutalize Cuba, the US policy is intended to prevent 
Americans from witnessing what has been achieved on a small island 90 
miles away. The threat of a good example is perhaps more disconcerting 
to the Democratic and Republican party than any immediate challenge Cuba 
might pose. They fear that if more Americans witnessed the cultural 
diversity, education, health care, quality of life in Cuba—all under the 
illegal US blockade that creates serious problems for further 
improvements—more Americans might reject claims that more equitable 
policies are possible in the US. They might ask why the richest country 
in the world cannot provide adequate health care, free college 
education, decent housing, and environmentally sustainable nutrition to 
all. As pat of the conversation for which way forward for the US, we 
have a vested interest in defending the Cuban example.

/Cuba Libre!/

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