By Polly Cleveland
Mike in hand, our tour guide stands at the front of the bus. “This will be my last tour,” she announces. “I am not the same person I was six years ago. Then I was hopeful. There was so much work I didn’t have time for a break. Now it’s different. My generation, we feel betrayed. Ten years ago they promised reforms. But nothing changes.” She and her boyfriend will get Mexican visas to go to Cancun on pretense of a vacation. There they will meet up with a “coyote” who will take them to the US border, where they’ll claim asylum. After a year, they’ll be eligible for US residency.
I’m with a much-postponed Nation Magazine group trip to Havana. Conditions here are indeed grim compared to my last visit in 2016. Then, President Obama had restored diplomatic relations with Cuba and removed many of the barriers to visiting and trade. (He could not lift the US embargo, imposed by Congress under the Helms-Burton Act of 1996.)
Cuba has since suffered a triple whammy: Covid-19 has driven away the tourists, who are only now beginning to return. The Trump administration imposed more severe restrictions than had existed before Obama. And the Cuban government has coped poorly with the crisis. People are going hungry, as they did in the early 1990s when the Soviet Union cut off support. On July 11 2021, riots broke out in a suburb of Havana over food shortages and electrical outages. The government responded by indiscriminately imprisoning protesters and bystanders and by shutting down the internet for a period. No wonder young people are leaving!
Led by Cuba guru Peter Kornbluh and Nation publisher Katrina Vanden Heuvel, we’re here for a week at the end of March 2022 to learn what we can and to enjoy the scenery, the arts and the food. Under Trump rules, US visitors cannot have any dealings with Cuban government institutions or officials, which puts hotels, museums and the beach off bounds. Fortunately, Cuba Educational Travel has arranged for us a spectacular program that meets the rules of the Orwellian-sounding OFAC, the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control.
Our group is spread over five private “casas” in the Vedado district of Havana, elegant bed-and-breakfast establishments in what were once the homes of wealthy Cubans. We walk in Old Havana to admire the magnificent architecture, some restored and some crumbling yet still housing dozens of poor families. We enjoy private performances by world-class music and dance companies: The Youth Symphony Orchestra, the Lizt Alfonso Academy, Habana Compás Dance and a female hip hop duo. We visit the home-studio of Cuban artist Edel Bordon, where I purchase a mysterious photo-montage. It’s a tribute to Cuba’s educational system that such a small country (11 million) can produce such a level of culture.
On politics and the economy, we hear lectures by an urban planner, a diplomat and a management consultant. We meet a group of struggling young entrepreneurs, facing baffling regulations and punitive taxes. The consultant however offers some good news: after over ten years of stalling, the government is finally implementing the promised reform of licensing a broad variety of small and medium businesses.
Throughout we hear from Peter Kornbluh. Co-author of the award-winningBack Channel to Cuba: The Hidden History of Negotiations between Washington and Havana, (2015) he’s been “in the room” of Cuban history starting in 1992. He calls himself our Jewish grandmother. He’s devastated by the decision of our guide, with whom he’s worked for ten years.
Cuba has fascinated me since I wrote my dissertation on inequality many years ago. I argued that, quite apart from morality, inequality of wealth makes an economy less productive. Fidel Castro’s revolutionary government broke up large plantations and gave land to small farmers. That should have had the same effect as land reform in Taiwan in the 1950s: an extraordinary surge in productivity and growth. But not in Cuba. Cuban agriculture remains dismally backward, forcing Cuba to import some 80% of its food, at a cost up to 1 billion dollars a year, mostly wheat, corn, rice, milk and chicken parts. While the US embargo makes things worse, a major culprit is rigid, top-down Cuban policy.
Our trip includes an overnight visit to the World Heritage site of Viñales. This valley is famed for its straight-sided karst hills, or mogotes, which stick up like giant fists. It’s also famed for the fine tobacco that goes into Cuban cigars, a major export. As we watch, a tobacco farmer rolls a cigar and lights it for our tour guide. She puffs with pleasure—ordinary Cubans can’t afford such luxuries. I ask him about taxes. “Ay,” he grunts, “The government takes 90% of my crop and I get 20%.” I’m not sure what to make of his math, but the consequence is obvious: farmers have neither the resources nor the incentive to improve their land and techniques. But they do have a strong incentive to sell into the black market. In response, the government bans private transportation of crops. Yet government trucks seem to “lose” much of their load along the way. (By contrast, Taiwan imposes a fixed rate on the value of a farmer’s land, leaving farmers with 100% above that payment, and no incentive to cheat.)
The morning of our second day in Viñales, the hardier ones among us set off with a local guide to visit a traditional farmer. It’s pleasant, sunny, with a light breeze as we walk single-file along a rutted red dirt path. Mockingbirds sing from the tops of fruit trees—mango, guava, mamey, coconut, banana. Hummingbirds, known locally as zumzum, zip around the flowers. A tethered ox tries to charge us; for hundreds of years, farmers have plowed with ox teams. Fuel is too expensive for tractors. We pass fields of tobacco in flower, with the lower leaves already stripped and drying in barns. Fresh green tendrils of root crops like yams, manioc and yucca poke up through the orange soil. I had wondered why farmers don’t mulch their fields; smoke from roadside fires suggests the reason: without fuel or equipment to mow and chop up crop residues and weeds, farmers clear by burning.
The farmer and his wife live in a typical rural bohio, a thatched two-room hut with concrete floor. Their two children stay with grandparents during the week to go to school. No electricity; water comes from an outdoor tank; nearby there’s a privy: a tiny shed with a hole in the ground. The farmer, a cheerful, tanned 30-something in a straw hat, tells us he wouldn’t want to live any other way. He points with pride to his coffee trees, and shows us how tiny raw beans expand when roasted. Next to the coffee, he points to a row of pineapple plants, with miniature pineapples emerging, one per plant. In the hill above, he keeps beehives; the bees make honey from his coffee and mango trees. He cuts a ten-foot piece of sugar cane and feeds it through a manual roller press, helped by his wife and our guide. Once through, then back again, then fold and twist and fold and twist again, forward and back, until all the juice is out. We each sip a small glass, with an optional splash of rum.
Our local guide, call him Yosi, also owns a small farm, 11 hectares or 27 acres. He’s not so cheerful. “Yesterday I cried when I went to the bodega and there was no cereal for my little son.” He had been a local English teacher, a job he loved. With a family to support, he became a tour guide. “The government tells us ‘Produce, produce, produce.’ My cousin didn’t let his field rest between crops. He planted cabbage. When he brought it to town, there were no trucks to take it to Havana. The government has fuel for the army to arrest people. It has no fuel to take food to market.” We watch a tiny lamb licking up the sweet juice that has dripped from the sugar cane press, happily flicking its tail. “The Cuban people are sheep,” says Yosi. “When you cut the throat, they don’t cry out.” Yosi also plans to escape to the US as soon as he has saved enough to pay a coyote.
Cuba has some state-of-the-art organic farms, which could help fill Cuba’s food gap. I visited one in 2015. The Cuban government has tried leasing land for such farms, but has found few takers given the hardship and red tape. In Viñales we visit two small private organic farms, one for dinner the first night, and another the next day for a leisurely lunch. The second was founded a few years ago by a middle-aged Cuban-American couple. As I gobble a third helping of fresh-picked greens, lightly salted, I think of course this couple can afford the business risk. They can always parachute back to Miami. Perhaps after our guides obtain US residency they too can return. Perhaps, if and when the US ever lifts the embargo, Miami will rush in and buy up Cuba. As our urban planner has warned, that’s a risk for which the Cuban government is ill-prepared.
A final lecture from a medical school professor reminds us that despite the dismal economy, Cuba has had extraordinary success in health care as well as education. Child mortality is lower and longevity is higher than in the US. Cuba developed its own Covid-19 vaccination and over 90% of the population is vaccinated.
Candidate Joe Biden promised to reverse President Trump’s restrictions on Cuba. That hasn’t happened; President Biden needs the support of Cuban-American Senator Bob Menendez of New Jersey. I ask Peter, how can we help? He says, visit Cuba now. Just email Cuba Educational Travel and tell them what you’d like to do.
Meanwhile, read a new beautifully-written, enlightening book, Cuba, An American History. The author, Ada Ferrer, is a Cuban-born professor of Latin American history at New York University. I brought two copies in my luggage for Cuban friends.