Inside Cuba Today (1981)

REASON's editor takes a first-hand look at Castro's workers' paradise.


A visit to Cuba in 1981 is like stepping into a time machine and emerging in the 1950s. It isn't just the vintage American cars—in eight days I spotted a half dozen Studebakers, dozens of classic Chevys and Buicks, and even a blue Frazer. It's also the absence of so many of the everyday conveniences we take for granted.

Take office equipment, for example. On my visit to the main Havana railroad station I was given a tour of the dispatch and reservations offices. In the entire building, not a single electric typewriter or photocopier was in evidence. The status of all trains is monitored by telephone calls to station masters and kept track of with little paper tags hung on a board. I never once saw a piece of electronic gear, not even a $10 Japanese calculator.

Upstairs was the central reservations system, of which the officials were quite proud. At the centerpiece of the system was a "random-access disk drive": a motorized nine-foot plywood turntable, rotating at several revolutions per minute, on which were placed file folders for the various trains. Reservations clerks seated around the periphery answered phone calls, pulling the appropriate folder as it passed by and entering the passenger's name on its log.

As we left, I asked our "Cubatur" guide if Cubana (the national airline) used a similar system. No, she replied, rather sheepishly. They have a computer because they have so much international business.

There was also a computer—an East German Robotron—pictured on some of the PR material for the 1981 Cuban census. But aside from that and the respectable number of late-model Soviet Lada automobiles, the image of the '50s was unblemished. The five-and-ten I wandered into in Cienfuegos was obviously a former Woolworth's, unchanged since nationalization, complete with lunch counter along one wall. Except for the signs in Spanish, one could have been in Peoria in 1955. The hotels, too, though considered "first-class," take one back to the time when hot water and carpets were considered luxuries rather than necessities.

What was I doing in this place? Unbeknown to many REASON readers, I am an ardent railroad fan. My particular love: steam locomotives. So when I saw an ad in Trains magazine last winter offering railfan trips to Cuba, telling of dozens of steam locomotives in regular service, I jumped at the chance. Needless to say, the trip would also provide a unique behind-the-scenes look at the Western hemisphere's only Communist country, a point that did not escape my notice.

Fidel Castro entered Havana in triumph on January 8, 1959. (The scene is engraved on the reverse of Cuba's one-peso notes.) The Cuban Communist Party (PCC) has thus had 22 years to implement its vision of the workers' paradise. How well have they done? To begin with, it helps to remember that Cuba was always one of the more developed countries in Latin America, with relatively high levels of literacy and income compared with such backwaters as Bolivia, Honduras, El Salvador, or Paraguay. And today, after 22 years of socialism, Cuba does rank ninth in per capita income among the nations of Latin America—at least if government figures can be believed.

Nevertheless, the extent of visible poverty is surprising. All basic foodstuffs—bread, milk, meat, rice, even sugar—remain strictly rationed. The typical food shop—this time out of the '30s rather than the '50s—consists of a counter and, behind it, bins of bulk commodities and shelves of East European canned goods. People queue up and file in clutching their ration books, in which are recorded their allowed purchases of the rationed goods. (This way there can be no "gray-market" trading, as there might be if ration coupons were used instead.) Some of the shelves are marked "Venta Libre" to indicate goods in large enough supply that month to be free of rationing.

But rationing is only the beginning. I was not prepared for the Cuban countryside, in which the typical peasant still lives in a tiny frame house with palm-thatched roof, cuts cane with his own machete, and brings it to the railhead in an ox-drawn cart, from which it is loaded onto freight cars hauled by US-built steam locomotives of 1900-1920 vintage. Yes, there are some mechanical harvesters and tractors in Cuba; I saw some. But I was unable to obtain figures on what portion of the sugar crop they account for. It was hand labor and animal power that appeared to predominate.

The Cuban government has spent a lot of money on measures aimed at improving people's lives. In every province I visited there were standardized concrete apartment buildings, painted in pastels. Every state farm has its own concrete water tower, another standard design. Reinforced concrete power poles are replacing wooden poles everywhere. Road construction is proceeding, as is reconstruction of the Havana-to-Santiago railroad mainline with prefabricated 10-meter sections of rails attached to concrete ties.

Yet even in these activities the inefficiency of socialist planning is glaringly obvious. Along one stretch of rebuilt railroad, in the course of a half hour I spotted seven concrete highway overpasses standing there in space, like monuments, connected to nothing. In most of the locations, there was only a dirt road crossing the tracks nearby; in others, the future road must exist only in the Five Year Plan. For some inexplicable reason, all that concrete and labor have been expended years before there is any need for it.

Such waste extends to the labor force, as well. "There is no unemployment in Cuba," our guide, Teresa, told us proudly. And it was easy to see why. Every hotel has elevator operators, even though most of the elevators are pushbutton type. To make sure that patrons use them, the stairway doors are kept locked. (Too bad if there should be a fire!)

Our 12-person tour was provided with two full-time bus drivers, a hostess, and a railroad official—all in addition to our official Cubatur guide and a second guide who joined us for the Cienfuegos portion. Railroad featherbedding seems to be even worse in Cuba than it is here. Our three-car interurban train carried a head-end crew of three plus a hostess and two food-and-drink salesmen.

Despite such outright waste of manpower, Cuba relies extensively on child labor in agriculture. They don't call it that, of course. Instead, it's organized on the basis of "work-study secondary schools." These boarding facilities provide the students with three to four hours a day of agricultural work in addition to their schooling. Our bus several times passed truckloads of these kids on their way to the fields—they looked to be 13 to 16 years old.

Nearly everywhere, even recent construction has an unbelievably shabby look to it. Cuban concrete blocks appeared misshapen and of very poor quality concrete—perhaps they are turned out in backyard molds akin to Mao's backyard steel furnaces. Everywhere paint was mildewed and chipping off even relatively recent buildings. Doesn't anybody care how things look? I wondered.

But then I remembered—virtually all these buildings belong to the State. There have been no landlords in Cuba since the revolution. People can own their own homes if they can afford them. In fact, they can own up to three but may not rent them out. So the only landlord is the State, and apparently paint and maintenance aren't included in the current Five Year Plan.

Here and there the government is being forced to make concessions to economic reality. One example is ads for housing. Having eliminated the landlord and the marketplace, Cuba for a long time had no device for adjusting to changes in people's needs for housing. It's one thing to mass produce an increased supply of concrete apartment blocks but another thing altogether to match individual needs and preferences with individual units.

About two years ago someone in the housing bureaucracy had a brainstorm: classified ads. Consequently, the monthly tabloid Opina, begun in 1979, features a classified ad supplement. A few of the ads offer items for sale—refrigerators, radios, a '49 Oldsmobile ("8-cylinder, in-line, automatic, good shape")—but most of them are for permutos, that is barters. People couldn't be allowed to sell each other apartments, could they?

Thus, if you have a 2½-room apartment in one part of Havana and need a place somewhere else in the city, once a month you can place a "permuto" ad, along the following lines:

Offered: private apartment, terrace on street, 2½ rooms, 2nd floor, with phone: 29-5337, Lucila.

Need: similar or less in center of city.—and hope for the best. Some of the ads offer two-for-one or one-for-two trades. Needless to say, the inefficiency of such a system for matching supply and demand boggles the mind.

At a sugar mill I remarked to Teresa how proud of his machine one of the locomotive drivers seemed to be. It was highly polished and obviously in excellent repair—no small achievement where all spare parts have to be free-lanced. She explained that for some months now this man had come in first in the competi—no, she corrected herself, the emulacion among the drivers. Prizes for having the best-maintained locomotive include plaques, being first on the list for vacation trips, and sometimes incentive pay. Probing a bit, I asked Teresa why they had only introduced incentive pay in the past few years. "Because the economy before was not strong enough to permit it," she explained, neatly inverting cause and effect.

Whatever the rationalization, incentive pay is now a fact of life in Cuba and is likely to be far more effective than the standard mode of encouraging work: propaganda posters. Everywhere you go in Cuba you are continually assaulted by billboards, signs, handbills, and posters. The typical American billboard-hater would go bananas!

"Work harder and better, like never before," reads one ubiquitous poster. "Ever vigilant!" proclaims another, beside the watchful figure of a member of the Committee for the Defense of the Revolution, the neighborhood gestapo. "The Party is our Teacher, our Guide, our Vigilant Conscience," reads yet another sign, this one on the lawn at the entrance to a sugar mill. Virtually every enterprise has some sort of sign out front or on its roof proclaiming support for the goals of last winter's Second Party Congress, among them "Production and Defense—Our Fundamental Objectives."

But my favorite of all remains a neon sign in downtown Havana. Lighting up a phrase at a time, in red, white, and blue, it reads:

We welcome/the new Epoch/
the Epoch/of Solidarity.

It was obviously put up prior to the creation of the Polish workers' union. We debated whether the officials didn't want to spend the money changing it or—more likely—whether the Cuban people have never heard of Solidarity in Poland.

The Party (PCC) has very cleverly turned Cuban nationalism into its own cause, making José Martí and other early Cuban patriots into de facto Marxist-Leninists. "José Martí urged one party for the independence of Cuba—not two, not three, only one," reads one poster, enlisting poor Martí behind the cause of a one-party state.

And as if 19th- and early 20th-century instances of "Yankee imperialism" were not enough, Castro has gotten incredible mileage out of the Bay of Pigs invasion, known by its local name of Girón. Four or five different posters allude to the "spirit of Girón" or the "heroes of Girón." This year is being celebrated as the 20th anniversary of Girón; Fidel uses the prospect of an imminent US invasion as an excuse to continue a high level of militarism and sacrifice.

The Catholic church, once ubiquitous in Cuba, has all but ceased to exist as a factor in people's lives. On several occasions we walked past large old church buildings lacking identifying signs. On closer inspection, what had seemed to be the front doors turned out to be plywood panels sealing off the entrances. Teresa was a bit defensive about the churches, pointing out several that did have name plates and explaining that few remain open because only the old people still attend.

The PCC, of course, has created a substitute religion with itself as the established church and Martí, Miguel Gomez, Fidel, and Che as its saints and gods. Busts of José Martí can be seen in little shrines at the roadside and in people's gardens. On the wall of the front room in a peasant house I saw not a crucifix but a picture of Che, martyr of the revolution. For 22 years this State religion has been inculcated by the government schools and reinforced by the government radio, the government TV, and the government press.

I browsed at several newsstands and bookstores in both Havana and Cienfuegos. Each newsstand was like the others, with the same very limited selection—Granma (the daily paper), Opina (the monthly tabloid), Pionero (a kind of weekly reader for kids), and a few Cuban magazines, along with the Soviet magazine America Latina. Nothing at all from the West.

The bookstores featured more variety, including a few books in English (mostly classics of literature). But all carried what looked to be the complete works of Lenin and much of Marx, together with books by various Latin American communists—all at obviously subsidized low prices. Consumer goods in general may be scarce and high-priced, but the right kind of reading matter is plentiful and cheap.

The Marx and Lenin books are among the many signs of the Soviet presence in Cuba. It hits you the moment you land at José Martí Airport in Havana. On the far side of the field were two huge silver TU-95 Bear reconnaissance bombers, with the red star of the Soviet air force as their only markings. Every plane at the terminal, including the entire Cubana fleet, was Soviet built. Between Aeroflot (USSR), CSA (Czechoslovakia), and Interflug (East Germany), one can fly from Havana direct to Tripoli, Berlin, Prague, Moscow—and Managua, a much-traveled route in recent months.

Havana itself was crawling with tourists, mostly Soviets, Czechs, and Germans. The tallest building downtown is an apartment structure housing "foreign technicians," complete with a radar dish on top. Of all the tourists, the Soviets proved easiest to spot—heavy-set, dour, and sticking close together. (One night, in Santa Clara, a group of 20 Soviets got up from a long dinner table—in unison—and were gone in an instant.) Cubans we met tended to assume we were Soviets until they heard us speak English. Then, without fail, they became quite friendly. On several occasions school children told me they were learning English in school, a point Teresa confirmed. Some are learning Russian, as well, but they're all learning English.

Although Soviet-built military trucks and jeep-like vehicles were in evidence everywhere, we were kept away from any military bases. In our two days at Cienfuegos, nobody even mentioned the Soviet submarine base located nearby, let alone allow us to go anywhere near it. It was bad enough that we were allowed to see the country's "strategic industries." Every sugar mill manager forbade us from taking any photos that showed the mill structures themselves; all we could shoot was the rail equipment. Likewise at the Havana locomotive shops—"no fotografia" was the rule as far as buildings were concerned.

We didn't try to explain about the capabilities of US SR-71S with side-looking radar. Instead, we very politely pointed our cameras where told, wide-angle lenses and all. And we always dazzled the manager by taking his picture with a Polaroid SX-70—apparently nobody except the Cubatur people had ever seen such a thing before.

Flying back to Miami across the Straits of Florida, I reflected on my eight days under communism. How had this backward philosophy sold itself to these people? What kind of a future do they have in store?

I reminded myself that Latin America is not the United States. Cuba, like nearly all its neighbors, had been an essentially feudal society before the revolution. A hereditary aristocracy controlled most of the land—"given" to it by the king of Spain—and most of the commerce, and the Catholic church encouraged and legitimized passive acceptance of the status quo. And US policy, sadly enough, sided with the feudal overlords. For all its expropriation, bureaucratization, and institutionalized coercion, the PCC has—in fact—broken the power of the aristocracy and the church and given the people hope.

When the Cuban people, like the Poles, figure out that communism cannot deliver the goods, perhaps the Cubans will be ready for the next stage, a free society. To turn Marx on his head, in the feudalistic Third World, perhaps it is communism that can be a way station on the road to capitalism, rather than vice versa.

The plane droned on, and I cast about for a metaphor, some way of summing up how Cuba looks and feels to an outside observer. I thought back to days and days of sugar cane fields, the railroads fanning out into the countryside to bring in the crop, billboards urging a better harvest, the little mill towns with their dorms and shanties, elementary school, playground, and company store.

And then it hit me—the company store. Cuba's economy is based on sugar; the crop today accounts for more of Cuba's exports (over 80 percent) than it did before the revolution. And the whole country is organized around the need to bring in the harvest. In the old days people worked for a specific company—or they moved to the city and did something else. Today, though, a single conglomerate, Cuba, Inc., has taken over all the mills and all the other businesses as well. You work for Cuba, Inc., or you don't work. Remember, "There is no unemployment in Cuba." The whole island is one huge plantation.

It may be many years before the Cuban people realize how they've been tricked. But eventually, I'll wager, they will. And then there will be a real Cuban revolution—a revolution based on liberty.

Robert Poole is the editor of REASON and the author of Cutting Back City Hall. He lived in Florida at the time of the Bay of Pigs incident.