By Noaman G. Ali
When I went to Cuba quite briefly last year, I don’t know what I was expecting. I wasn’t exactly a tourist of the resort variety, because I was there for an academic conference and I wasn’t particularly interested in sitting on a beach and drinking. Nor was I there on a political exchange. I mostly just wandered the streets of Havana on my own, pretty much covering the breadth of Havana from its east to its west.
I met a lot of people, randomly, communicating in sometimes broken, sometimes better formed English and my quickly learned (and quickly forgotten) toddler’s Spanish. When they heard me speaking English, Cubans thought I was an American, a notion I quickly disabused them of by yelling “Soy Pakistani!” and then sometimes some of them made fun of me being a terrorist. Which, of course, I thought was hilarious.
On one of my first nights there, I somehow met a couple of African-American sisters and their white American friend outside some “hip” art spot (they supported Clinton over Sanders and I didn’t understand why) and when we couldn’t get in there we ended up at some kind of club (it was a house) with well-heeled, lighter-skinned locals speaking English, barely dancing to the music, and drinking very expensive imported alcohol. It felt weird.
On my last night there, with some academic colleagues and local youths, I ended up in a very local, mostly Afro-Cuban club (it was a proper venue), with cheap rum and cheap beer, and bumping reggaeton and bumping dancing. The contrast between these two spots was pretty great, and in walking through Havana it became clear that there was a considerable gap in wealth in many of its spaces.
Lo, there is inequality in Cuba, certainly in Havana. Indeed, many people, especially the young and the poor, are unhappy about their lives. They want more money, they want more things, they want to see the world, they want to get out of the onerous ruts that their neighbourhoods and lives seemed to represent to them. Everyone seemed to be running some kind of side hustle, trying to earn money outside of their government-mandated salaries. (I got bamboozled once by a charming elder who managed to make me buy him and myself a hella overpriced drink even after I insisted I don’t drink.) Some received remittances from relatives abroad, finding themselves well-enough off or not quite yet there, sitting around WiFi hotspots using some of that remittance money to talk to relatives over the Internet, others made much of their money from their side hustles (tuition, renting out rooms to tourists, opening up a restaurant in their garages, etc.) and failing that finding themselves condemned to that distinctly Cuban brand of poverty.
And yet, the most vocal of these disaffected that I met at an open-air rock concert at the Tribuna Antiimperialista, a young Afro-Cuban nurse who made about $25 a month, couldn’t fathom living in a country where education wasn’t guaranteed and where healthcare had to be purchased. After complaining about his life to me, he was taken aback, his mind couldn’t process, could not compute, a reality in which everyone didn’t just obviously get an education and healthcare. Others asserted to me, genuinely I think, that despite themselves doing relatively well due to their side-hustles, they still maintained a deep sense of solidarity with all Cubans and were willing to make sacrifices.
And it hit me then, I’ve been through a lot of Pakistan, plenty of India, enough of Nepal, enough of Egypt, to see dirty ass children in the streets cleaning cars, hawking wares and just begging, while others (myself) sat in expensive fast food chains and nice cafes. I’ve seen enough people complain of empty schools, schools where teachers don’ts how up, schools so far away that even people of some means cannot afford to send all their children there, having to make difficult choices about who to send to school. I’ve seen enough empty healthcare centres where doctors don’t show up, public clinics where people are gouged for what ought to be free medicine, people walking around with makeshift crutches or, simply, dragging themselves around. I’ve listened to enough people trembling with indignation about their desperation trying to find the money to pay for transport and doctors to look after their ill relatives.
It’s so easy to take these things for granted if you’re in Europe and Canada, if you are rich enough anywhere else. You cannot take this for granted if you are from the lower middle-class or poor anywhere else in the world. You can’t. It’s not possible. So much money has to go into it, money that people just don’t have. And in so much of the rest of the world the attitudes of those who do have concerning those who don’t have come not from solidarity and common purpose, but come from utter apathy, contempt and disdain, or from utterly condescending feelings of charity.
At that outdoor concert where I met the young nurse, it felt like there were more cops than there were emo goth punk Cuban kids. At some point there was a roar in the crowd and all of a sudden the police moved in on some kids and started dragging some of them away. The concert went on. I asked my newly made friends about police brutality, they said it almost always extended to locking the rowdies up overnight, if that. The cops seemed barely older than those kids, and frankly, I’d be suspicious of any non-white person who preferred that kind of music over, you know, salsa, rumba or reggaeton. But that’s okay, musical tastes, like political affiliations, and social realities, can be layered and complex.
Browbeating Cuba for not being the socialist paradise it ought to be seems so smug and misguided. People want to leave Cuba? Well, obviously. What person in any part of the Third World doesn’t want to leave for America or Canada? Why is this a surprise?
Racism continues to be a thing? Homelessness hasn’t been wiped out as claimed? Access to education and healthcare isn’t all that even? There are political prisoners in jail? Those in the halls of power have more than those who aren’t? Again, why is this a surprise? In what country on earth are all these things not just obvious realities?
Would these benefits and wealth be more evenly spread if Cuba was a free market paradise? Would it be more even if those Miami exiles were in charge? Would all Cubans have all the things they do have now if it was kowtowing America’s line? Would “free and fair” elections give Afro-Cubans more things than white Cubans?
You know, or, at least, you ought to know what the surprise actually is: That those in power in Cuba fought more than just about any other group of people in power in the world against illiteracy, against hunger, against racism, against sexism, against inequality, against disease, against ignorance. And no, they have not won, no these battles have not culminated in some kind of grand egalitarian and libertarian society (you know, communism); and yes, even those gains sit at the precipitous edge of reversal because those in power are conflicted about what to do next, and yes, people are constricted and feel restless; and no, this is not what we want socialism to look like, but no Cuban socialist or communist I’ve ever met pretends for even a minute that this is what socialism ought to look like, so get over it.
There is probably no better place, in the Third World at least, to be poor.
And for the role that Fidel Castro played in all of that, for the ruthlessness he demonstrated against the enemies of the people, and to the love he showed for the people, we have to be clear if we have any sense of moral compass, that hell yes — Vas bien, Fidel.
CUBA. 1959. Times of euphoria as Fidel Castro and his army tries to drive through the city of Cienfuegos, on their way to liberate Havana.