Seeing socialist Cuba with a critical eye
A mural of a Cuban flag and revolutionary hero Che Guevara with the Spanish message "Onwards to victory, always," covers a wall where boys play in the street in Havana, Nov. 27, 2016. | Desmond Boylan / AP

The people of Cuba care little about the stricter travel laws, the recent absurd withdrawal of American diplomatic staff, and the Trump administration’s Cold War tone. They are angry, perhaps unexpectedly, about Puerto Rico.

On a recent evening I spent in Cuba, rain in enormous, gelatinous drops was steaming the streets, even in late October. European tourists raced for prix fixe restaurants, each one promising the best Cuba Libre in Havana. Groups of wolfish European men on vacation stumbled through the humid dark to bars that provide cover for sex workers that the government long claimed not to exist.

Now, the state has accepted the occupation as a fact of economic life, if not one they want seen in the open. Unfortunately, but not unexpectedly, street seguridad forces sternly ask the sex workers to move along. They do not harass the turistas or the euros they pour into an economy strangled by America’s continued attempts to isolate the island nation that dared reject neocolonial rule.

I came to the Republic of Cuba wanting to look with a critical eye, despite my political affiliation as a member of the Communist Party USA. Trump’s renewed effort to cut Cuba off from the world, and the complete lack of logic behind such a move, has been much reported on. I hope to speak about this while also worrying the reader a bit with the dangers of romanticizing what is, arguably, the world’s most successful socialist experiment.

This would be no simple task for me. I have long admired both the people of Cuba, their revolution, and, indeed, Fidel Castro himself. How can one not stand in awe of the revolutionary fervor that found expression in years of struggle against the brutal and cartoonishly rapacious Batista regime? Agrarian reform and the nationalization of industry, including of piratical American companies like Westinghouse and General Electric, represented the greatest blow to imperialism in the Caribbean since the Haitian Revolution of 1791, the most impressive effort since José Martí’s struggle in the late nineteenth century.

Moreover, the Commandante’s ability not only to survive the CIA’s numerous assassination attempts, but to rally the people to create public services where none existed, including an enviable public health system, remain a wonder. This is especially true given the unremitting hostility of the greatest superpower on earth glowering ninety miles away.

However, I also knew that early revolutionary regime’s treatment of dissidents fed the Central Intelligence Agency’s vicious propaganda campaign to destroy the Cuban people’s experiment, even if it paled in comparison to the vast and growing number of people the United States imprisons out of racist fear. Still, “really existing socialism,” to borrow that now anachronistic European phrase, seemed to sometimes replace the dream of the Sierra Maestra and the vision that Che Guevara had so eloquently communicated.

Fidel Castro, late in life, reversed his position on the treatment of gay men (and lesbians to the degree that they received recognition as an actual social group in the 1960s). This does not erase the draconian measures taken against them in earlier decades, exercises of machismo that had nothing to do with socialism.

But Cuba does have a record today on LGBTQ rights that puts the United States and most of the world to shame, indeed makes a mockery of American claims that it seeks to punish Cuba for “human rights abuses.” The Cuban National Center for Sex Education, under the leadership of Raúl Castro’s daughter Mariela Castro, works for the rights of LGBTQ people and indeed pushed for legislation (that passed in 2008) that provides free sex reassignment surgery for transgender persons.

So, on my recent visit, I must say that my critical eye saw much less to critique than I had planned, and not because Fidel is gone or because I was seduced by plentiful rum, mambo, or Communist Party officials. I purposefully chose not to meet the latter, in part because of my own allegedly “free” government’s absurd rules about where its citizens can go, what they can do, and who they can talk to.

Instead, I spent a lot of time interviewing, or simply talking with, bartenders, fellow drinkers, AirBnB operators, a Reiki master in the Miramar district, a group of sex workers confused about my interest in them (I did pay them for the time it took to interview them anyway, and they were most pleased to find out my actual motivation), and the young man who guided a bicycle tour across two provinces and through some of western Cuba’s small fishing villages and farming towns.

I knew that people would want to talk Trump and they did. Everyone I spoke with, at least those who could get beyond their utter disbelief that Americans elected him at all, universally damned him. An older gentleman (the Reiki master) seemed genuinely baffled, even with presidents like Nixon and Reagan in his memory. How could Americans do such a thing?

They are shocked by us…still. It’s important to note that, perhaps surprisingly, the Cuban people generally like Americans and admire some elements of American culture. Havana car culture helps explain some but not all of the romantic view of mid-century America; it’s a nostalgia that sometimes gives parts of Havana a David Lynchian atmosphere. Our history further fascinates them. The Museo de la Revolución itself has a bust of Abraham Lincoln that joins Simón Bolívar as an image of a great emancipator. A monument to the men who died in the accident that destroyed the U.S.S. Maine overlooks Havana harbor.

Perhaps because of this somewhat inexplicable admiration, Cubans speak to Americans rather freely and, though I continually meet skepticism on this point, are often open about criticism of their own government’s policies. I must add, however, that even in sometimes heated discussion about the upcoming elections, there’s little doubt that the future they want to see is a socialist one.

But other than the election, and the surreal nature of the Trump presidency, everyone I spoke to, especially as the Havana Club rum flowed and tongues wagged freely, wanted to talk about Puerto Rico.

Not a single person mentioned to me the Trump Administration’s new travel restrictions, and indeed when I tried to explain them, they showed little curiosity or interest. Cubans have a long experience of America’s astringent economic policies toward them and the effect it has had on, particularly, wages.  The bellicose statements of the 45th president and the intelligence community’s absurd claims about “sonic blasts” suffered by American “diplomats” raised no eyebrows. If the Cuban people are subjected to government propaganda, it’s mainly ours and they stopped listening a long time ago.

So why did Puerto Rico, above all, animate the discussions? Let me just say I cannot overemphasize the anger a bartender expressed about how the government of the United States has ignored the humanitarian disaster or, worse than ignored it, made it seem as if the Puerto Rican people somehow deserve it and have to figure out for themselves the results of the Hurricane Irma disaster.

This anger, rage might be the better term, might come from the Cuban people’s long memory of their own relationship with the United States, how their country could have been Puerto Rico—an annexed “territory” (colony, obviously) without representation. Most readers are familiar with the U.S. government’s abuse of Cuba as a colonial possession, a history that stretched from the Spanish-American War in 1898 until 1959.  Not only did the U.S. government prop up dictators, American companies and organized crime extracted all the wealth they could from the island, leaving the people in impoverished, premodern conditions before the rise of Castro.

They are perhaps also aware of their own response to disaster. Parts of western Cuba, as much of the island in the past, was in the path of the most recent storm. Small collectives are organized and ready to race to even the most isolated rural areas to provide help. I bicycled with one young Cuban who expressed disbelief at the deaths of the abandoned residents at a Florida nursing home during Irma.

Bus passengers watch a gay pride march file past, in Havana, May 13, 2017. | Ramon Espinosa / AP

In Cuba, there’s a “people’s brigade” organized for each province specifically to care for the elderly during such storms. “State planning,” the boogeyman of the American right, means both direct intervention from Havana during times of need and hundreds of people’s collectives who care for their neighbors. In other words, a living, organized effort of concern, focus on public welfare, and genuine neighborliness that actually puts into practice the values that Americans believe themselves to embody.

I sought to experience Cuba in a way that would absolve me of the expected charge of red romanticism. What I found instead was a people themselves bound together by a Cuban identity forged by the revolution and the almost sixty-year struggle to preserve it against overwhelming odds. A place where street graffiti, not official state propaganda, celebrates a socialist past and future.

Their experiment continues and indeed grows more democratic, more open to reform. But as they look to their hostile neighbor to the north, they ask what we have done with our democracy, indeed with our humanity. “Americans are good,” one of my bar mates said to me, “but they vote like they have half a heart.”


W. Scott Poole
W. Scott Poole

Scott Poole is Professor and Associate Chair, Department of History at College of Charleston. He is the author of Wasteland: The Great War and the Origins of Modern Horror.