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Letter from Havana

The hardest thing about going to Cuba is not getting permission from suspicious officials in the State Department, or persuading the Cubans to give you a visa, or taking the round-about route to Havana via Mexico City, Madrid, or Prague—although all of these are bad enough, and would discourage any but the most determined traveler. These hurdles, however, are merely preparations. The hardest thing is to avoid being seduced by the Cubans.

Anyone can be trained to resist the blandishments of sunshine and palm trees, of art galleries that stay open until midnight, and even of teen-age traffic policewomen who wear their skirts short and hang their handbags on the traffic lights. You can resist being flattered when everyone calls you compañero as though you were just another comrade-in-arms, being uncritically impressed by the new housing projects and schools, and wondering why all countries don’t have free medical care, funerals, and local telephone calls.

You can approach the Cuban experiment critically, and cast a cold eye on the excesses of a revolution that has turned the country upside down and remade it in a new image. You should have grave reservations about the methods of a regime that still incarcerates thousands of political prisoners, that has made some grievous economic mistakes, that has neither a parliament, a free press, nor a constitution guaranteeing civil liberties, and that has become nearly as dependent on the Soviet Union as it once was on the United States. You can deplore the consumer shortages that force people to wait hours for a quart of milk, the propaganda machine that urges them to “volunteer” for hours of extra labor or weeks in the sugar fields, and the absence of any legal alternative to a government that rules by decree.

You can do all of this, and maybe even feel a bit self-righteous as you contemplate the shortcomings of the Castro regime. But if you stay on awhile, as I did last January when I went down to observe the international cultural congress on under-development and colonialism, you cannot help being impressed by the spirit that animates the Cuban revolution and by the people who are carrying it out. Even the most jaundiced Western journalists seem to fall under the spell, if only momentarily, and speak with grudging admiration of the ability of the Cubans to survive the US economic blockade and build a new society that has clearly brought enormous benefits to the majority of the population.

THE LONGER YOU STAY in Cuba the more you become aware that it is not simply a state like any other, nor even a communist bureaucracy similar to the ones of eastern Europe. Rather it is a continual “happening,” a vast and somewhat chaotic laboratory where nothing is taken for granted and experimentation is the order of the day. Everything is subject to analysis and modification: the concept of government, the structure of society, the sanctity of the family, the purpose of work, the justification of art, and even the nature of the human personality. At a time when communism has come to seem like merely another form of bureaucracy, somewhat more rigid and no less heartless than the more advanced varieties of capitalism, Cuba offers something unique. It offers the phenomenon of a revolution in progress.

This is why it seems natural to speak of the Cuban “experiment,” for it is a society in a perpetual state of fermentation. Today’s orthodoxy may well turn out to be tomorrow’s heresy, and none are more ready to admit it than the Fidelistas who run the country on what can only be described as a trial-and-error method. Shortly after ousting Batista they decided, for example, to cut their dependency on sugar by launching a huge industrialization program. This, however, proved to be an expensive failure, and the revolutionaries-turned-economists discovered the hard way that Cuba can produce sugar better than anything else. Today the emphasis is once again on cane as the money-maker which will pay for the modernization of the Cuban economy. This year’s crop will be under 6 million tons—far below the target figure—but the government is reaching for 10 million tons by 1970. If anything like this figure is reached, it would take the edge off the current economic hardship and consumer shortages.

As it is, these shortages are not the result of an economic breakdown, but rather of a deliberate policy to restrict consumption in favor of investment. Food is rationed because beef cattle and citrus fruit are exported to pay for industrial equipment. The government has been investing heavily in agriculture, livestock, dams, fertilizer, roads, and power plants. When these begin to pay off, as they are expected to do within a few years, the Cuban economy could take a dramatic leap forward. Then it could serve as a model to Latin Americans who despair of ever achieving serious reforms by grace of the oligarchies, or through the ballot box. It is the ambition of the Cubans to show that it is not only possible to have an anti-capitalist, anti-yanqui revolution, but that it can succeed on economic grounds. They just may be able to pull it off—partly as a result of Soviet economic assistance, which amounts to about $400 million a year including the sugar subsidy, and because of their own determination to become economically independent.

The Cubans have made a good many mistakes in the past, particularly in the early years of the revolution, when it was assumed that enthusiasm and a dedication to the common cause were sufficient to assure expert performance. That assumption was soon eroded when the economy ran into serious trouble in the early 1960s, and today the emphasis is on technicians rather than upon veterans who won their battle scars in the Sierra Maestra. In referring to the old days, which are still not so very far back, the Cubans tell a story about Che Guevara, who once held the post of minister of economics. When his inexperience became obvious, Fidel reproached his friend by saying: “Why did you raise your hand when I asked which of the comrades was an economist?” “Oh, I misunderstood,” Che replied. “I thought you asked who was a communist.”

Recently the joke has worn a bit thin, particularly since Che has now been deified as one of the martyrs of the Cuban revolution. His name is uttered with profound respect, and even with awe, for the myth of Che has already transfigured his earthly achievements. He has become an international culture hero, a symbol for a generation of young people who reject the bourgeois society of their elders, and despair of ever changing it by the conventional political process. Che is a made-to-order hero for intellectuals: a man of action who was also a superb political theorist, a brave guerrillero who penned an eloquent justification of the Cuban revolution, a romantic figure as agile with a rifle as he was with a pen. A man who made the CIA tremble. His tragic, futile death in the mountains of Bolivia has sanctified the legend, turning the revolutionary hero into the existential martyr.

CHE HAS BECOME more than simply one of the great heroes of the Cuban revolution. He is the symbol of the Fidelista program to bring about revolution in Latin America through guerrilla warfare. The fact that this program has not worked out very well in practice, that the guerrilleros are on the run in Colombia, Venezuela, and Peru, that the peasant insurrection in the Brazilian Northeast has fallen flat, and that Che’s Bolivian adventure was a fiasco—none of this seems to have diminished Fidel’s enthusiasm for world revolution. This has put him at odds with his Russian protectors, who favor working through the traditional communist parties of Latin America; it has also made it virtually impossible for Cuba to reach a modus vivendi with her neighbors.

The Cubans, however, argue that they can survive in a hostile world—just a few minutes flying time from the colossus that is their deadly enemy, and 5,000 miles from their protector—only by identifying their cause with that of revolutionaries everywhere. “Socialism in one country,” they say, is a prescription for encirclement and eventual eradication. Thus the clumsy efforts to stimulate guerrilla insurrection in Latin America, the perpetual “anti-imperialist” pronunciamentos issued from Havana, the formation of the Organization for Latin American Solidarity as a revolutionary rival to the US-sponsored Organization of American States, and the international conferences that are basically exercises in propaganda—such as the Tri-Continental in 1966, the OLAS meeting in 1967, and the Cultural Congress this past January. Thus, too, the inescapable presence of Che in the posters that line the streets of Havana, that decorate shop windows and billboards, that are blown up across the façade of giant buildings. Che proclaiming the continuous revolution and exhorting the Cubans to struggle and sacrifice: “patria o muerte,” “hasta la victoria siempre,” “creer uno, dos, tres Vietnam.”

The vocabulary of Cuba is revolution and its idiom is international. Everywhere there is an earnest, almost a desperate, attempt to reach beyond the narrow confines of this isolated island and find friends in the world outside. The countries that geography would normally decree to be Cuba’s friends—the United States, the islands of the Caribbean, the nations of South America—mostly fear her example and are hostile to her survival. They refuse to buy her products or to sell her their own, and nearly all, under pressure from Washington, have broken diplomatic relations with Havana. Only Mexico, as a gesture to her own revolutionary past, has resisted US pressure and maintains a tenuous air link with the island. Twice a week a propeller driven Cubana plane makes the round-trip from Havana to Mexico City, carrying journalists, diplomats, tourists and refugees along the only cord connecting Cuba to the rest of the western hemisphere.

As a result of this economic blockade imposed by the United States, Cuba has had to find new friends and trading partners. These are, of course, mostly in the communist countries of eastern Europe and, above all, the Soviet Union. They furnish the technical assistance needed to develop the Cuban economy, the oil to make it run, and the sugar subsidy that provides desperately needed foreign exchange. Without the Russians to help fill the gap left by the Americans, Cuba’s economy would long ago have collapsed, and the Fidelista experiment thereby strangled at birth. Although they have grave differences with their protectors, particularly over the strategy of revolution in Latin America, the Cubans are too dependent on the Russians to risk an open break. They bitterly resent Moscow’s efforts to normalize relations with the Latin American oligarchies, while the Russians criticize the Fidelista formula for instant revolution as sheer adventurism.

THE DISPUTE broke out into the open late last January when Castro jailed Anibal Escalante, one of the old-line leaders of the Cuban communist party, and some forty of his lieutenants for spreading “malicious lies” about the revolution and committing “treason.” They were, in other words, threatening the Castro leadership and they were summarily sentenced to prison after a secret trial. The Russians, who were accused of complicity with Escalante, remained calm throughout the affair, and the Soviet oil tankers continued to unload their precious black cargo from Baku. Cuba is to valuable to the Kremlin as a communist showcase to let the revolution collapse. Fidel knows this, just as he knows he can push the Russians only so far before they might feel obliged to put on the screws. He loudly proclaims Cuba’s independence, but he must pay at least formal allegiance to his alliance of convenience with Moscow.

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