I was raised to revere Fidel Castro. I grew up in India in the 1970s and 80s, when Cuba’s revolutionary leader was portrayed, by our media and our political leaders alike, as a savior of his people and one of the Third World’s champions in the political contest against the First. As I grew older, and became more aware that he was a communist dictator, I was still inclined to given him the benefit of the doubt, if for no other reason than the fact that he was a friend of India.
It took a trip to Cuba to knock Castro off the pedestal in my mind. It was the summer of 2009, Castro was about to turn 83, and had been out of office slightly less than a year, having handed the reins to his brother Raúl. Castro had ruled the country since 1959, when he toppled the repressive dictator Fulgencio Batista. Given the duration of his reign—and the sheer ubiquity of it—there could be no doubt that the Cuba I saw was entirely the expression of his will, his vision for what his country should be.
And what a dark, depressing vision it was. Cubans were unfree and unhappy, their country decrepit. Poverty was everywhere: the average official salary was around $25, a pittance even when offset by state-provided education, healthcare and subsidized housing. Most people scrounged together a living by working second and third jobs, even though this was illegal. The Malecon, a lovely corniche that is iconic to Havana as Marine Drive is to Mumbai, was full of prostitutes, many of them plainly children. Late at night, many of them relocated to the lobby of my hotel, one of Havana’s finest; some of the girls were being pimped by their fathers.
Most citizens had no internet, and only the élite had cellphones. Never mind imported goods, even some Cuban products were out of reach for locals, usually by official fiat. Invited to the rehearsals of one of the island’s most famous bands, I brought a couple of bottles of seven-year-old local rum, purchased from the duty-free shop in my hotel. My hosts reacted as if I’d brought them the finest champagne: they explained that locals have no access to their country’s best rum. “
In Havana and Cienfuegos, the two cities I visited, shops and markets were poorly supplied. Fish and vegetables were scarce, which was mystifying since Cuba is surrounded by seas, and the countryside is lush. The food in state-run restaurants was tasteless, but you could get a halfway decent meal in a “paladar,” one the private eateries (often no more than a dining room in the cook’s home) permitted by the government to feed tourists.
Although technically on vacation, I had been given some local contacts by friends in New York, and I asked one of them if he’d help me meet some independent-minded people. “The easiest way to do that is to go outside and paint some anti-Castro signs on a wall,” he said, with a mischievous smile. “The police will throw you in jail… which is where you’ll find most of the independent-minded people.”
He did take me to see a prominent dissident who was not then in prison. I was greeted with mock-reproach: “So you’re the one from America, the country responsible for all our problems.” The joke alluded to a long-standing fallacy that Cuba’s wretchedness is the result of the US embargo imposed in the early 1960s. The Castro regime has used this ever since as a ready excuse for its own ineptitude and corruption, but the dissident knew better.
No other major country joined the American blockade, and Cuba had plenty of opportunity to build strong economic relations with other countries that would have compensated for the loss of the US market, goods and capital. Indeed, it could have become prosperous on the strength of its tourism potential alone. The year of my visit, Cuba received over 2 million foreign tourists, enough to create substantial wealth for its population of 11 million. (For context, India, with a population of over 1 billion, received 5.5 million foreigners that same year.) To more efficient exploit tourists, the government requires foreigners to use a special currency, the Convertible Peso, pegged artificially to the US dollar — essentially a form of official price-gouging. But the money thus extorted doesn’t go to ordinary Cubans; someday, when the regime has finally fallen, we will learn where it went.
Castro’s apologists frequently cite the island’s education and healthcare systems as proof that the regime isn’t all bad. The dissident I met gave a hollow laugh when I brought this up, saying, “Slave-owners used to argue their slaves were better off in the plantations, where at least they got food and shelter, rather than in the jungles of Africa, where they could be killed by lions.” These are highly selective indices, chosen to defend the regime’s poor performance in many, many others. Take a broader view, using the UN’s Human Development Index, and Cuba’s performance pales, even against other Caribbean nations. In 2009, it was behind Barbados and Antigua & Barbuda in HDI rankings, and it has only got worse since: in addition to those two neighbors, Cuba now trails Bahamas and Trinidad & Tobago. Needless to say, it brings up the rear in every index of freedom, whether political, cultural or economic.
According to the World Health Organization, Cubans live longer than others in the Caribbean, but I can’t help thinking that they’d all be better off if one particular Cuban had not been blessed with longevity.