Havana: The State Retreats

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Mark Gong
A woman taking down laundry in the building that houses the Paladar La Guarida in Central Havana shortly after Raúl Castro came to power, April 2008; photograph by Mark Gong

1.

When I picked up my ticket for the only nonstop New York–Havana flight, I was given a list of the goods I could take: ten kilos of medicine and up to twenty kilos of food, duty free. While it’s true that Cuba suffers from the US embargo, it’s also the US and its Cuban exile community that keep the country afloat. The day of the flight, many of my fellow passengers were loaded down with heavy bundles of food and medicine, plasma TV sets in their original packaging, audio equipment, and domestic appliances. In 2010, 324,000 visitors arrived in Cuba on direct flights from the United States like this one, and several economists calculate that remittances to Cuba from the US total more than a billion dollars annually, about 35 percent of the country’s annual foreign exchange inflow.

All that help still isn’t enough. After landing at José Martí International Airport, I find the city in a virtual state of blackout, the celebrated corner of 23rd and L, Havana’s Times Square, empty at 10 PM. It’s as if a catastrophe has struck. There is a constant, ominous feeling of abandonment and crisis. My impression doesn’t much differ from the diagnosis delivered on December 18—days after my arrival—to the Cuban Parliament by the country’s current leader, Raúl Castro: “Either we rectify our course or the time for teetering along on the brink runs out and we go down. And we will go down…[with] the effort of entire generations.”

Certainly the signs of this deep crisis have been in the air for at least twenty years. What’s clear now is that it’s not enough to go on blaming the American bloqueo or the fall of the Soviet Union. Something is wrong with the system itself. This could be glimpsed in the startling comment made by Fidel Castro to the US journalist Jeffrey Goldberg and the Latin American scholar Julia Sweig last August: “The Cuban model doesn’t even work for us anymore.”

What model is he talking about? The Soviet model of forced nationalization. The Cuban Revolution was among other things a cure for the chronic weakness of the Cuban state prior to 1959. The new, postrevolutionary state would take upon itself all that previous governments of Cuba had done so badly. The example of the Soviet Union, with triumphs such as the 1957 launch of Sputnik, seemed to indicate that this was a promising way forward, and it had the added appeal to Cuba’s unelected rulers of calling for government by a single party, virtually without opposition, and the pulverization of civil society.

Now, on my first visit to Cuba in ten years, I had the chance…


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