Having just visited Cuba to deliver a paper on the dangers of United States corporate media, one impression I took from my trip is that we should never underestimate the intrinsic positive significance of social equality.
Does Cuba have significant problems and contradictions? Seguro!…of course it does. Paint is peeling off many of the buildings in Havana. Many structures there seem to be crumbling and in various states of disrepair. Sidewalks and streets are full of cracks and potholes. Technical infrastructure is very limited. Large number of people live on dark grey streets and blocks of stone and concrete without a hint of greenspace.
People drive ancient (but remarkably well-preserved) General Motors cars from the 1950s, vehicles that can’t get more than 9 miles a gallon, along with old Russian cars (Ladas were the most common brand I saw) that Cubans also miraculously manage to keep running in the 21st century.
There is a very narrow range of basic consumer goods in local stores. Politics and media are under state control, even while foreign visitors with valued tourist currency can watch CNN (UK) and ESPN along with national French, German, Italian, and Chinese television networks, TeleSur, and (of course) Cuban state television in their hotel rooms. (After viewing government posters celebrating Cuban socialism, I returned to my room and turned on my television to hear an obnoxious British CNN broadcaster tell viewers that “The economic gap is getting bigger every day. The question is, how can you get your slice of the pie!”)
Government elites have access to media, communications, some luxuries and foreign travel not available to the broad populace. The elites seem to have little reluctance to coordinate and otherwise rule over less privileged and less educated Cubans, including waitresses, bellhops, garbage-pickers, taxi drivers, custodians, and the like. Racial prejudice and inequality has not been abolished in Cuba.
Despite an abundance of fertile soil and rainfall, Cuba imports 70 percent of its food. This reflects a shortage of fuel and up-to date technologies for planting, harvesting, and transporting food and farm supplies.
Happiness in Havana
Still, what struck me first and most consistently during my stay in Havana was the vibrancy, happiness, warmth, kindness, sociability, health, and free spirit of the people. Havana is the most broadly jovial and high-spirited – the most alive – city I’ve ever walked. I spent many hours hiking its often dingy yet brightly colored streets. It is nothing like the dark Stalinist and Orwellian nightmare one might imagine from standard right-wing US media depictions: a closed society where cowed, sickly, and silent subjects citizens crawl through the streets with eyes averted, cringing in fear of Big Brother. It’s quite the opposite, in fact.
Havana is the safest city I’ve ever visited. No matter what corner I turned, I never had the slightest sense of fear that someone might try to mug me. I’ve never seen a slighter police presence. (One of the first things I noticed in a new way upon my return to Chicago was the ubiquity of heavily armed high-tech police in the “free world.” I reflected back to a 2010 visit to Ecuador, where national gendarmes and local police were much more visibly present. The bank outlets in Quito and Cuenca were guarded by heavily armed private security contractors employed by the global mercenary and prison firm Wackenhut. That is common across much of Latin America, especially in Mexico and Columbia.)
The Socialist Spirit Level
What’s it all about? Part of the explanation is that, for all its disrepair, Havana is a magically beautiful and history-rich city adjacent to the magnificent, windy Caribbean. A bigger part is that while Cuba is not a perfect radical utopia (how could it be?), it is in fact a socialist society. There are no oligarchs – no Rockefellers of the United States’ first Gilded Age and no Jamie Demons of its current Second Gilded Age – in Cuba. Cuba lacks the desperate shantytowns and extreme poverty that are so evident in other “developing nations” (the former “Third World”). Its inequalities do not come remotely close to what exists in other Latin American nations or the US, where six Wal-Mart heirs possess as much wealth themselves as the bottom 42 percent. While there is deprivation in Cuba, it is “poverty with security,” thanks to a wide social safety net that includes a remarkable governmental health care system with universal free care and an abundance of doctors so great that Cuba exports medical personnel around the great peripheries of the world capitalist system.
Thanks in great part to the absence of extreme class disparities, racial inequality is mild in Cuba compared to the US, where median black household wealth is less than five percent of median white household wealth. Social and personal relations between Black and lighter skinned Cubans are much more relaxed and democratic than in the US.
There’s a considerable health and social science literature on the alienation and sickness (both physical and mental) that people (even privileged persons) experience in radically unequal societies like the US. In their groundbreaking book The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger (2009), the British health researchers Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett provided hard evidence showing that numerous key measures and indications of human well-being and (conversely) human dysfunction – life expectancy, mental illness, healthy body weight, disease rates, friendships, social cohesion, trust levels, educational performance, literacy, violence, racial and ethnic conflict, child abuse, status-seeking, soulless consumerism, civic engagement, teenage pregnancy, domestic violence, incarceration, environmental destruction – are affected less by how wealthy a society is than by how unequal it is Societies with a bigger gap between the rich and the poor do far more poorly on all of these measures and traits than do more equal societies. They are worse off for everyone in them, including the well-off.
More equal societies produce healthier, happier people than do less equal societies whether comparisons are made between “rich nations” (i.e., egalitarian Norway vs. the hierarchical US) or between “poor nations” (egalitarian Cuba vs. hierarchical Brazil).
A Remarkable Accomplishment
Cuba stands out among all nations (rich and poor) in a critical way. The makers of the United Nations’ Human Development Index (UNHDI) have found that Cuba is the only country on the planet to combine a quality of life consistent with “high human development” with a globally sustainable carbon footprint. A report by the World Wildlife Foundation includes a graph that shows two features for the nations of the world: the UNHDI (including measures of life expectancy, poverty, literacy, health care, and the like) and “ecological footprint” – the energy and resources consumed per person in each country. Only Cuba received a passing grade in both areas.
This remarkable accomplishment is an achievement of no small significance in an age of ever more imminent environmental catastrophe resulting from capitalism’s addiction to fossil fuels. It is no mere accident. Beyond a fuel and currency shortage, it reflects considerable eco-socialist innovation in the use and development of alternative fuel sources, technologies, and practices on the part of the Cuban state.
Another part of Cuba’s magic, I think, is the pride its people rightly feel in having survived to build an independent nation under and against the murderous hostility of the Yankee superpower 90 miles north. The murals and signboards one sees all around Havana honoring Che, Fidel, the Cuban Revolution, and “Socialismo” resonate with ordinary Cubans to some degree because everyone there knows that Cuba owes much of its technical “backwardness” precisely to the US economic embargo, implemented with the explicit intent of collapsing the Cuban experiment in national independence and social equality. Condemned by the entire world minus Israel, the embargo and isolation Uncle Sam has imposed on Cuba has helped keep the spirit of the revolution seem relevant more than half a century later.
Cuba Leads the United States in Democracy
In the original draft of the talk I gave to academicians in Cuba, I included a quote from the noted Left US media analyst Robert W. McChesney writing nearly twenty years ago on what he considered the three top conditions for a democratic society:
“First, it helps when there are not significant disparities in economic wealth and property ownership across the society. Such disparities undermine the ability of citizens to act as equals. Second, it helps when there is a sense of community and a notion that an individual’s well-being is determined to no small extent by the community’s well-being. This provides democratic political culture with a substance that cannot exist if everyone is simply out advance narrowly defined self-interests…Third, democracy requires that there be an effective system of political communication, broadly construed, that informs and engages the citizenry, drawing people meaningfully into the polity…While democracies by definition must respect individual freedom, those freedoms can only be exercised in a meaningful sense when the citizenry is informed, engaged, and participating…[thanks to popular]…control of the means of communication [media].”
(I would add three additional requirements: a radically democratic educational system; abundant free-time or leisure for popular participation in culture, society, and politics; and the participatory-democratic structuring of workplaces and the labor process.)
By my observation, Cuba scores far better than the United States on at least two of McChesney’s three criteria (socioeconomic equality and sense of community) and may even do better than U.S. on number three, thanks to the abjectly propagandistic, mass consent-manufacturing, and thought-controlling nature of US corporate-commercial mass media. The United States, the self-declared homeland and headquarters of democracy (which happens to be the world’s leading prison state), swings and misses badly on all three of McChesney’s criteria (it does the same on the three criteria I added in parentheses above). That’s a strike out, to use a metaphor from baseball, the sport that the US and Cuba share. To stay with the baseball analogy (to use some language shared by both nations). Cuba has at least two hitters on base. Despite its elite-controlled and state-run media, its communication system may actually come closer than to meeting McChesney’s third criterion than that of the US (and here it helps that Cubans now get TeleSur on their televisions – a Venezuelan station that widens the scope of regional and global information available to the Cuban people without undermining the strong and related senses of equality and community that are very pronounced in Cuban political culture and media.)
“A Better Outcome for the Cuban People”
I traveled to Cuba easily and directly thanks to changes introduced by US President Barack Obama in the name of “engagement” last December 17th. It is at once fascinating and disturbing to read Obama’s recent comments to New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on why he is moving towards normalized travel and diplomatic relations between the US and the socialist island in the Caribbean. “You take a country like Cuba,” Obama told Friedman last week: “For us to test the possibility that engagement leads to a better outcome for the Cuban people, there aren’t that many risks for us. It’s a tiny little country. It’s not one that threatens our core security interests, and so (there’s no reason not) to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn’t lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies.”
Note the president’s doctrinal failure to acknowledge the remarkable positive outcomes of a socialist revolution made over and against US opposition. Note also the implicit and related assumption, made explicit by the president when he rolled out his Cuba changes, that the only thing wrong with the previous US towards policy towards Cuba – driven by “the best of intentions,” Obama said last December – was merely that it didn’t succeed in its goal of “empower[ing] the Cuban people.” The reality, deleted from the official historical record as usual, is that Washington’s embargo and its long terror war against Cuba (of which repeated CIA attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro were just one part) were intended to punish the island for having effectively flouted Uncle Sam’s presumed (Monroe-) doctrinal right to rule the hemisphere.
Speakers at the Havana gathering I attended agreed that Obama’s recent changes reflect a shift in means, not ends. The US goal remains the same: to destroy the threat that the example of Cuba’s independence and social egalitarianism – socialism – poses to US capitalism and empire within and beyond the Western hemisphere. The challenge before socialist Cuba is how to turn the dramatically increasing influx of US and other foreign global visitors and money to its overall advantage while preserving its egalitarian, solidaristic, and environmental accomplishments and culture against the corrosive, alienating, sickening, atomizing, demobilizing, regressive, repressive, and eco-cidal forces of the profits system.
Postscript (April 17, 2015): After visiting Cuba and noticing the much greater happiness of people there than in the US, I was very struck by this passage in a recent Tariq Ali essay on Counterpunch: “Many people in Eastern Europe feel nostalgia for the societies that existed before the fall of the Soviet Union. The communist regimes that governed the Soviet bloc after the arrival of Khrushchev could be described as social dictatorships: essentially weak regimes with an authoritarian political structure, but an economic structure that offered people more or less the same as Swedish or British social democracy. In a poll taken in January, 82 per cent of respondents in the old East Germany said that life was better before unification. When they were asked to give reasons, they said that there was more sense of community, more facilities, money wasn’t the dominant thing, cultural life was better and they weren’t treated, as they are now, like second-class citizens….The reason the Germans were so shocked by the Snowden revelations is that it was suddenly clear they were living under permanent surveillance, when one of the big ideological campaigns in West Germany had to do with the evils of the Stasi, who, it was said, spied on everyone all the time. Well, the Stasi didn’t have the technical capacity for ubiquitous spying – on the scale of surveillance, the United States is far ahead of West Germany’s old enemy.”
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)